Friday, 4 March 2011

Questions for Michel Chapoutier

How would you describe your winemaking philosophy? How important is the notion of ‘terroir’?
Firstly, we should explain the notion of terroir. The OIV (International Wine Body) has created a definition for terroir: this is the conjunction of soils, climate (can be a microclimate), a vintage and a man /woman with his/her historical traditions.

The Chapoutier philosophy is to have a respectful approach to the terroir. Producing an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) wine does not simply consist of extracting the aromatic flavours of grapes, it is much more than that.

It is also very important to talk about yeasts in relation to the terroir – during the alcoholic fermentation, yeasts will transform sugar into alcohol. Several types of yeasts exist and give the wine an aromatic signature. The wine is like a symphony and yeasts are musical instruments. At M. Chapoutier, our philosophy consists of choosing indigenous yeasts naturally present on the grape skin. Mineral elements extracted from the soil by the roots will select certain indigenous yeasts versus others during the fermentation. There is therefore a real link between yeasts and terroir and this is the reason why we can talk about terroir only for fermented products – for example, you cannot distinguish a granitic or a calcareous soil if you eat only the grapes. Each yeast, selected by a specific oligo-element will bring its aromatic signature.

The fermentation starts at a low temperature – temperature will progressively increase and some yeast will appear at certain times and will bring complexity to the wine. We are looking for complexity and not strength. The control of temperature is important for that reason. A cold temperature will produce very fruity wines which are “Marketing wines”. The “terroir wines” we produce will show complexity, texture and length.

I usually say: “fruit is for the wine what speech is for the music.” Therefore we leave the temperature at a moderately high level to harness complexity.

As France’s largest biodynamic producer – can you explain what ‘biodynamic’ means and how it affects your wines?
Traditional farming is phytosanitary and curative – “if I have a headache, I take some aspirin.” What we do is actually treating the symptoms.

Organic farming also treats symptoms but replaces all chemicals by plants. Biodynamics, however, treats the origin of the headache. This is a preventive approach and not a curative one. With biodynamics, we work with the plants to nurture the power of life and not the power of death. With the use of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, the notion of death is everywhere.

This is the reason why during pruning we use cow manure and bentonite to protect the vine as they are very rich in bacteria: by boosting the presence of bacteria, diseases cannot settle.

What are you views on climate change and what effects does it have on wine production and in the future?
When we talk about climate change, this is not only about global warming but also about the increase of certain gas like carbonic gas in the atmosphere.

With photosynthesis, the plant will transform the gas into sugar. The more carbonic gas the plant absorbs, the more it produces sugar. Therefore, the increase in sugar in the grapes and hence the increase of alcohol degrees in the wine is not only linked with global warming but also with the increase in carbonic gas.

Global Warming will have an influence on the evapotranspiration of the plant. Global Warming can be considered a good thing for the wine industry as it will require the winemakers to work with traditional methods. In the old days, our ancestors did not irrigate and were used to natural yields of 30 to 40 hl/ha (and not 100hl/ha as we can see sometimes today). Our ancestors planted 10,000 vines per hectare - the shadow of a vine protected the vine next to it. This avoided the process of evapotranspiration and vines needed less water. 

In the Rhone Valley, the temperature can be very high; with a large density of vines, we produce a humid environment which has a lower temperature. Grafting also has an influence. Our ancestors used to first plant the rootstock and after 2 or 3 years cut it and graft it on to the vine. This resulted in very deep roots, capable of extracting humidity. This explains why you have old vines in Banyuls or in the Roussillon where it does not rain much. Nowadays, vinegrowers mostly graft in the nursery as it is quicker. We need to adjust our farming and respect the wisdom of our ancestors.

The question is, can we accept to have wines with abv of 15/15.5 ? Some winemakers would like to take out sugar or alcohol from the wine but these processes ruin the balance of the wine.

The wine industry will need to think about the following: could we add the 3 / 4% water lost by evapotranspiration? The difficulty will be to control the abuses.

The Rhone 2009 campaign is well underway  - what’s your view of the vintage?
2009 is a very solar vintage, aromatic, rich, pleasant, courteous. The only inconvenient feature is that the signature of the vintage is predominant compared to the signature of the terroir. 2010 will be a completely different vintage but as interesting as 2009 – with a lot of minerality. 

What vintages from the Rhone Valley are you drinking right now? What else are you currently drinking from your cellar?
I do not drink my wines very often. I try to be an example as the major risk in the wine industry is chauvinism. The wine should carry the notions of conviviality, sharing...I often says: “Give the power to the winemakers and you will avoid wars.”

Chauvinism is totally the contrary of these ideas of generosity. I love looking for new regions with interesting terroirs, for example, there are beautiful granitic terroirs in the Masif Central area.
I regularly taste many wines from foreign countries, from other regions in France or from other winemakers in the Rhone.

Last week, we tasted with my family two Hermitage wines from 1991 vintage (which is my daughter’s year of birth): one from Chave and Le Pavillon from M. Chapoutier. We will do the same next week with 1992 vintage which is my son’s year of birth.

Apparently you considered becoming a chef before becoming a winemaker – how similar do you think the two jobs are?
It is essential that the winemaker is passionate about food and respects cuisine.

We live in a world of masculism, rarely asking the women what they want. Complementing one another is something very important for a couple. I have seen so many wines produced by other winemakers, very rich and concentrated which could not match any dish as they were overpowering the food.

You have a growing range of wine projects outside of the Rhône – where’s next for Chapoutier?
It will be on an outstanding terroir, but this is still confidential.

What’s the best thing about being Michel Chapoutier?
Drinking Champagne every day

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