In the south eastern corner of France there is a river called the Rhone, and following it will lead you to the promised land
if your promised land includes lots of incredible wine and food, that is.The Rhone Valley is known for producing incredible wines, both single varietals and blends, most notably reds like Syrah and whites that include Viognier, Roussane, and Marsanne.
If you’ve ever poured a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and enjoyed the smoke-tinged fruity deliciousness that comes with a sip of that deeply colored liquid, you know that there is magic in the Rhone. Perhaps one of the biggest magicians in the entire area is Michel Chapoutier.
A Brief History of the House of Chapoutier
The Chapoutier family settled in Tain l’Hermitage way back in 1808, but it wasn’t until 1879 that Polydor Chapoutier bought his very first vineyard, taking the first step in what was to become a 135-year-long (and counting) family tradition. The business was passed down until Max Chapoutier took the helm in the mid-1900s. Max retired in 1977, making room for sons Michel and Marc to step up.
Michel took his position as future impresario quite seriously; he took the time to study oenology at a premiere winemaking school in France, then followed up his education with internships in California before returning to France in 1987. His homecoming was bittersweet, as he found that his family’s winery was in a steady decline.
Faced with a cache of wine that wasn’t selling and with the possibility of bankruptcy casting a long, dark shadow, the Chapoutier family received help from a surprising source. Anthony Terlato, head of the heavily influential Terlato Wines International, was tipped off to the Chapoutier’s plight by a mutual friend, who begged him to visit the winery. The conversation sparked off a distant memory of tasting Maison M. Chapoutier wines decades before, and Terlato was inspired. He visited with Michel, and in his own words, “met a winemaker who [he] thought was an absolute genius.” Terlato believed in Michel’s vision so much, he agreed to pay for the entirety of the 1989 in advance, pouring enough capital into the vineyard to bankroll much-needed improvements to the property and production line and allow Michel to take full control of operations.
Fac et Spera – Do and Hope
Maison M. Chapoutier’s family motto sums up, in three short words, the years of hard work, sacrifice, patience, and dedication that go into producing wines that generations both past and future can be proud of.
There is magic in winemaking, yes, and quite a bit of luck goes into the mix as well, but mostly there is skill and trial and error and a strong investment in the belief that no matter how difficult the road is at the moment, just over the hill lies a palate-pleasing prize.
When Michel Chapoutier assumed control in 1990 – at the tender age of 26 – the family wines were all done in a fairly traditional local style. Michel himself has said, “When I bought the winery from my grandfather, I was young, a dreamer, not very reasonable.” He eschewed the idea of blended wines that produced a product that was definitely quaffable but, in his mind, not respectful of the varied terroir in the Rhone. Instead, he believed that “we have to give the chance to the terroir… year after year, vintage after vintage, the style – because of the climate – will be different, and we will be happy to have this difference of style.” It was perhaps a risky move, given how tied consumers can become to an expectation of a certain flavor profile, but it was one Chapoutier believed in strongly.
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As the new head of Maison M. Chapoutier, Michel began to focus on single vineyard offerings instead of blending across the plots. He converted to biodynamic farming and swore off inorganic fertilizers and chemical sprays. He altered the vinification process as well, opting to pick grapes by hand and use only natural yeasts and leaving wines unfiltered, and reduced vineyard sizes, thereby also reducing overall yields.
What must have seemed like a bold business plan at the time paid off. Michel’s enthusiasm and passion for the art of making wine has helped his family’s century old business become synonymous with quality Rhone wine.
The Braille Connection
Legend has it that the idea of a Braille label was born after Michel Chapoutier saw French musician Gilbert Montagne, a personal friend, give an interview explaining that, due to being blind, he had to take someone with him when he went to purchase wine because he couldn’t read the bottles. M. Chapoutier marketed their first wine featuring a Braille label in 1994, when they released the Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage. The decision to begin the Braille labeling with that release was not an accidental one – Maurice de La Sizeranne’s family originally owned the Monier de la Sizeranne vineyard. De La Sizeranne was the founder and President of the French Association for the Blind and is also credited with developing the first abbreviated version of Braille. By 1996, every wine bottled and sold by M. Chapoutier included a full Braille label listing the M. Chapoutier name, the appellation, the name of the wine, the vintage, and the wine’s color.
M. Chapoutier holds the impressive distinction of being the only producer to own vineyards in each of the major Rhone appellations, but the house’s umbrella doesn’t end there. Chapoutier also owns vineyards in Rousillon, Alsace, Portugal, and Australia. Michel’s remodeling of the Chapoutier empire wasn’t without cost; bucking tradition in the very traditional world of French winemaking isn’t for the weak or meek, and there was plenty of family strife and nay-saying colleagues along the way, but with success comes respect, and Chapoutier has found plenty of success.
Today the portfolio produces about 500,000 cases per year, delivering to consumers wines that do a beautiful job of expressing the unique conditions they were created from. That sense of place is evident in each bottle, just as Michel Chapoutier dreamed it would be, and many consider both the red and white offerings benchmarks for wine in the Rhone.
“Ours is not a work of obligation, says Michel. “It’s a work of passion.” And when you’re producing wines at the level of Maison M. Chapoutier, that passion is richly, deliciously, elegantly evident.