Has Chapoutier lost its way?

I have been drinking @M_Chapoutier wines for a long time, and have had some splendid tastings when visiting there in the past. The commitment of such a large company to biodynamics speaks to a concern for quality. The tasting room in the old headquarters in Tain l’Hermitage is always thronged with visitors, who seem to appreciate the wines.

ChapoutierI have always admired the series of bottlings from the individual lieu-dits of Hermitage. I have found Chapoutier’s top vineyard in St. Joseph, Les Granits, to produce reds and whites that often rival or exceed Hermitage. Admittedly, it is scarcely reasonable to expect generic wines to reach these heights, but I look for some sense of typicity when tasting a series from, say, Cornas, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, and Hermitage.

Until five years ago, I got that sense of typicity. Then on a visit to Chapoutier, the wines seemed to show less character, and the single vineyard releases seemed to have less conviction. So I revisited last week, this time going incognito to the tasting room to see what sort of experience a consumer would get.

Michel Chapoutier is known as an advocate for Marsanne. “The structure is the bitterness,” he says. “Marsanne is the only grape variety that can live a long time without much acidity.” So Chapoutier makes monovarietal Marsanne from several appellations.

I often have a problem with the bitter phenolic finish of Marsanne, but this was certainly not the case with Chapoutier’s current vintages of St. Péray or St. Joseph, rather the reverse, where the bitterness has been so tamed that the wines seem to lack typicity. I was concerned that there seems to be a certain sameness to all the whites, even including the Condrieu (which is 100% Viogner), in an emphasis on soft, attractive aromatics without much sense of anything behind.

I have a similar reaction to the current reds. The house style has become forward, fruity, approachable, with tannins really tamed. The Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage (an assemblage from several lieu-dits) has never matched the single vineyard bottlings, but seems to have become lighter and even, dare one say it, a touch more rustic. Certainly it’s a notch up from Crozes-Hermitage or St. Joseph, but I really look for more in Hermitage.

I’m leaving Chapoutier’s cuvées from the southern Rhône out of this account, because I’ve never been so persuaded by them as those from the northern Rhône. (And indeed, I have the same reaction to southern Rhône wines from other negociants in the north.)

I left Chapoutier for the second time feeling slightly confused as to why I felt they might have lost their way.  Whereas previously I found many wines to be interesting, now they seem more to be going through the motions. So far as I can pin down the issue, I expected to see more distinctive differences among the whites, and greater precision and tautness in the reds. Perhaps an attempt to please the market by rounding off the edges has backfired.

Some tasting notes:

Crozes-Hermitage, Les Meysonniers 2017. This comes mostly from the granite villages. Faintly buttery nose. Soft and attrative, nicely rounded on palate, a little nutty, perhaps a touch too nutty on finish. Crowd pleasing rather than profound.   88 Drink now-2023.

Condrieu, Invitare 2017. Faint sense of asperity to nose. Quite stylish and refined, aromatics coming back on finish. Very pleasant.     89 Drink now-2021.

St. Péray, 2017. Soft, a little aromatic, not much stuffing,     88 Drink now-2021.

Cornas, Les Arènes, 2016. Very smooth and silky, very much a modern Cornas, really plays to fruity character. Attractive and pleasant, but is this the soul of Cornas?     88 Drink now-2023.

St. Joseph, Les Granilites, 2016. Soft, pleasing and only a little aromatic. Some aromatics come back on finish, but general impression is somewhat. Elegant rather than powerful. 89 Drink now-2022.

Hermitage, (Monier de la Sizeranne) 2014. Some mature impressions, very approachable, attractive, more stuffing than Crozes-Hermitage or Cornas, but seems awfully approachable for young Hermitage.    90 Drink now-2025.

Here for comparison are notes on the Monier de la Sizeranne tasted on previous visits to Chapoutier:

 2010 (tasted April 2013). Warm red fruits, slightly nutty and tarry, turning to a touch of ffreshness. In fact, the freshness picks up on the palate, givving almost the same quasi-sour impression as the Cote Rotie. Seems a little on the thin side for Hermitage: tannins are light in the background.   14.0% 88 Drink now-2019.

2000 (tasted July 2003). The color is a medium/deep purple/pink with a narrow pink/purple rim. The nose shows black peppers, green olives, and a hint of barnyard. The wine is supple on the palate, well rounded, with the long finish marked by dry tannins. There is a good body and balanced acidity. Hints of blackcurrants develop. There is an interesting combination of power and elegance.

1989 (tasted October 2008). Still quite dark in color. Typical nose of Syrah from the northern Rhône: dense black fruits, but cut by some faint barnyard notes. Following through to the palate there are black plums, cherries, blackcurrants, again all cut by a faintly astringent barnyard quality and slight rasp to the finish that brings real complexity. Now at its peak but there is no rush to drink.   91 Drink now-2016.

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