Situated between Pomerol and Saint Emilion on the second-highest point along the Gironde estuary, Chateau Le Puy is a Bordeaux estate rooted in sensibilities more commonly found in Burgundy. The wines' finesse, dead-serious focus, and drinkability are worlds apart from the stylistic norm.
These vines have been farmed free of chemicals since 1610, and today full biodynamic practices are employed, with work done by horse. The estate's plantings include 85% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, and small percentages of Malbec and Carménère on an amalgamation of red clay, silex, and limestone soils.
In addition to working the vines organically and biodynamically, their fermentation and élevage methods are considered uncommon. Infusion and semi-carbonic methods limit the extraction of hard tannins and retain more primary fruit traits, providing soft texture with bright, open-knit fruit out of the gate. And aging in large foudre preserves all of that verve carried into bottle.
If you’re going to explore alpine red wines, then you must have the Savoie's most popular native variety called Mondeuse. One of the best examples we’ve encountered this year comes from a younger vigneron: Nicolas Ferrand’s 2018 Coteau de la Mort.
In Wines of the French Alps (2019), Wink Lorch describes Ferrand’s Coteau de la Mort as “a devout and serious wine,” comparing its taut youthfulness to that of meditative monks. The sultry yet playful wine label may suggest that this is a natural wine—and it is, given Ferrand’s biodynamic farming practices and minimal-intervention winemaking. For Coteau de la Mort, he does a semi-carbonic fermentation without any piegeage (pressing down of the skins), fining or filtering, a minimal amount of sulfur, and aging in larger format barrels. This wine has a stature comparable to Northern Rhône Syrah, with high-toned black cherry, black pepper, and pressed rose petals, but today, this 2018 Mondeuse bottling is also juicy and sleek.
Coteau de la Mort, or hill of death, was one of many ancient hill vineyards re-planted during Savoie’s renaissance in the 1990s, thanks to early champions, like Michel Grisard of Prieuré St-Christophe. In 2013, it became a part of the 1.5 hectares that Nicolas Ferrand purchased when starting Domaine des Côtes Rousses. Based in Saint Jean de la Porte, one of Savoie’s top crus for Mondeuse, this sub-appellation has distinct red clay soils (the inspiration behind the domaine’s name) in addition to limestone and moraine. Ferrand has farmed organically from the beginning, and utilizes horses and sheep in partnership with his neighbors. Ferrand is native to the area, but his family previously farmed cattle, making him a first-generation vigneron.
In the last decade, Domaine des Côtes Rousses has steadily grown to six hectares and so has the buzz. Lorch concludes her review saying, “Nicolas’s wines should become a staple in every Savoie wine lover’s cellar,” if only he can keep his minimal-intervention winemaking in check. Ferrand has our attention with this current release. The 2018 Coteau de la Mort is a refreshing take on this sliver of Savoie history.
Descending into the cellar with Dominique at Comte Lafon, it became clear I was about to begin a comprehensive masterclass on White Burgundy. While Lafon's reds may still be the most under-appreciated Pinot Noirs of the Côte de Beaune, his whites from an array of parcels in Meursault and the Macon are a gold standard.
The Macon wines see the same organic and biodynamic viticulture approach as his Meursault vines. The distinction between the two in the cellar comes down to aging, with Macon's more luscious fruit finding the tension they need through aging in larger formats giving less oxygen exchange. Bottling also takes place well before the Meursault cuvées, again to preserve the snap and precision that works so well in this warmer, more southern appellation.
Le Monsard was a "wow" moment for me, even after tasting Lafon's excellent Meursaults. Likely the highest-altitude vineyard in Maconnais, this site sees warmer temperatures and a more fruit-forward profile than the Côte de Beaune, with another level of detail and mineral backbone.
Lafon's entire lineup from the Macon is terrific and well worth your attention, but the 2019 Viré-Clessé is in a league of its own. The wine embodies Macon's ability to turn out razor-precise Chardonnay, still founded upon the same regal structure that makes Lafon's Meursault so enviable. Of course, with much more palatable pricing!
Two weeks ago, I wrote about my visit to Domaine des Roches Neuves, highlighting their top, old-vine Cabernet Franc named Les Mémoires. I'm circling back since the Chenin Blancs deserve their own spotlight. A protégé of Clos Rougeard's Charly Foucault, Thierry Germain has been practicing Biodynamics for over two decades and is now a benchmark for the Loire.
Germain's Chenins are marked by rich concentration and mouth-watering acidity—so much so that we tasted them after the Cabernet Francs. Clos Romans is considerably young, as it was re-planted in 2007, but don’t let that fool you. This 0.3-hectare parcel produces Germain’s most promising and coveted cuvée. Some enthusiasts have gone as far as to compare its grandeur to Burgundy’s Corton-Charlemagne. At this site, the dense limestone soils pulverized into a chalk-like form express a salty minerality in the wine. This insider cuvée continues to creep up in price, but Germain's son, Louis, argues that the 2020 vintage is one of the best renditions they’ve produced. If that price tag is still too steep, the Clos du Moulin is a great alternative, as it comes from a neighboring parcel.
Across the board, these Chenins and Cabernet Francs walk a fine balance of ripeness, freshness, and underlying tension to drive it all home—to be enjoyed now or years down the road. With time in bottle, the wines have transformational aging capabilities like the best of Burgundy. There are many great producers throughout the Loire, but Germain remains one of the very best.
Last week, I wrote about Les Mémoires, Thierry Germain’s soulful, old-vine Cabernet Franc. I’m switching gears today and heading to the French Alps. If you enjoy white wines from the Jura but haven’t dipped into Savoie, you're missing out. One of the most important names to know is Michel Grisard.
This vigneron started Prieuré Saint-Christophe in the late 1970s, after running his family's domaine for a decade. His new sole intention was to produce high-quality, ageable Mondeuse, a powerfully deep red grape variety native to the area. Grisard succeeded but didn’t stop there: He was the Savoie’s first vigneron to adopt Biodynamics, played a key role in the local movement to revive the region’s many abandoned vineyards, by replanting them with indigenous varieties, and he also founded Domaine des Ardoisières.
Grisard devoted his career to championing Savoie, and the wine region is as popular as ever, largely thanks to his pioneering work. He retired after the 2014 vintage and gave his vineyards to the Giachino brothers (Currently, my favorite producer in the Savoie). They have carried on Grisard's legacy and continue to produce wines from his former estate under the Prieuré Saint-Christophe label.
In addition to Mondeuse, Grisard also planted 1.4 hectares of Altesse—the finest indigenous white grape variety of Savoie, according to Wink Lorch, author of Wines of the French Alps. (If you don’t know about Lorch, she is a leading expert on this alpine region). Comparable to Burgundy’s Aligoté or Italy’s Trebbiano, Altesse offers an intriguing concentration of fruit with floral and nutty tones.
From the foothills of the Massif des Bauges, on clay and limestone soils, this estate produces one of the most linear examples of Altesse we’ve encountered. It interplays succulent pear with striking minerality, and a slight texture of fresh almond—a pleasing combination that’s compelling and delicious. The wine spontaneously ferments and ages in large oak casks to avoid any oak flavors.