"It's like the smell of a blackboard," says Michel Chapoutier, rubbing his fingers together and smiling. "Do you remember at school? Just after the teacher had finished dusting?" he asks, holding a glass of golden white wine. "That smell of chalk?" He's right, the wine in question does smell of chalk but there is also a little lemon. However absurd they may seem to a novice, to the experienced wine taster these aromas point to one variety and region: Riesling and Alsace—which is precisely what we are drinking.
It has been more than four years since winemaker and negociant Mr. Chapoutier traveled north from his native Hermitage, the most famous appellation in France's Rhône Valley, to Alsace where, he recalls, over many bottles of wine, he thrashed out a deal to buy a share in the 4.8-hectare Domaine Schieferkopf in Bernardvillé. While its 2009 Riesling has the distinct whiff of chalk, the wine is an age away in terms of taste and grape variety from the thrilling reds made from Syrah that for more than 200 years sold around the world, helping shape the family business: M. Chapoutier. But in terms of philosophy and style, the Schieferkopf Riesling is very much at home in the Chapoutier stable, a portfolio that now stretches out of the Rhône Valley, to include Alsace, Australia and the Roussillon.
This is a wine that doesn't seek to overwhelm, to scream "Look at me!" Rather, it pairs well with food, expresses purity, floral characteristics and, of course, the mineral aspect of the soil. In short, it is Old World, expressing the nature of the vineyard. As Mr. Chapoutier puts it: "It's more Baroque than disco."
Since taking over from his father, Max, in 1990, Mr. Chapoutier has stamped his unequivocal personality and imprint on the wines and the business.
A ball of energy, time in his company is peppered with humor, snippets of his own philosophy, entertaining and unlikely revelations ("That was the time when I was drinking four bottles of Champagne a day") and controversial, outspoken opinions. For Mr. Chapoutier, climate change will see an increase in rainfall, which in turn could dilute and divert the Gulf Stream. If this happens, he says, many regions in France, which have the same latitude as Montreal, could become considerably cooler; and it may, in his words, "end winegrowing
Then there is Bordeaux, a region that, in the 2009 and 2010 vintages, increased its prices substantially, after two exceptional, high-quality years. Some would say it was reaping the benefits of its global appeal. Not Mr. Chapoutier. "The mistake of Bordeaux," he says, "was to think only of China. In the wine industry there are people who love wine and there are people who love money more than wine. Of course, the goal of everyone is to earn a little more. But when you see a region giving huge allocations to a new market [to the detriment of old markets like Northern Europe and the U.K.] you are seeing the passion for money, not the wine."
Consumers, he argues, are looking elsewhere and growing tired of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, two grapes he admits are great to work with. His Les Granits is a case in point. Made from the Marsanne grape variety, it is a white wine with low acidity that has a herbal, nutty character. "I am not obsessed by acidity in white wine," he says, between sips. The overall feel is of a soft white wine that is delightfully easy to drink. He explains it isn't the acidity that enables it to develop and age but the dry extract, the phenolics and minerals, the quantity of which, he says, is the key to white-wine making. That and every other French winemaker's obsession, of course: terroir, by which he means the climate (which includes the microclimate and vintage) and the soil (slope and aspect of the site). Of course, the human touch is equally important, he smiles. "The importance of tradition and know-how." And with that he stabs at his BlackBerry, transmitting another set of winemaking orders back to the cellar.— Email Will Lyons at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @Will_Lyons.