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Published:  23 July, 2008

Michel Chapoutier talks to Neil Beckett about AOC, Hermitage, biodynamics, terroir and quantum physics, while tricking him into eating huge quantities of pig fat

Fac et spera (Act and hope') is an appropriate family motto for Michel Chapoutier, seventh generation head of Maison M Chapoutier, based in Tain l'Hermitage, capital of the Northern Rhne. As dynamic as the viticulture he practises and preaches, he has added new lustre to one of the great names of the Rhne since taking over the winemaking in 1990, and is now not only the biggest holder in Hermitage itself (with about a quarter of the 135 hectares [ha]), but the largest biodynamic producer in France. Still only 38 years old, Chapoutier has the boyish charm and chuckle of somebody half his age, and the sagacity of somebody twice as old. A complex character, he's artistic and creative, impulsive and reflective, with a quirky sense of humour. A man to prove all things if he can, but who doesn't worry if he can't. Somebody who has great respect for tradition when it stands the test of time, but who's quick to challenge received ways. He completely disregards, for example, the cardinal AOC rule of usages loyaux, locaux et constants (local traditions), by producing Hermitage - or Ermitage, to use the antique spelling he prefers - from different climats, rather than a blend of all of them. Similarly, he produces Cte-Rtie which is 100% Syrah (no fashionable Viognier) and Chteauneuf-du-Pape which is 100% Grenache. He likes both to please and to shock - whether it's the guest at his table who's told that the moreish pt he's tucking into is nothing more than pig fat reduced to a fifth of its original volume, or the California Chardonnay producers who are told that tasting their woody wines is like giving Pinocchio a blow job'. He's an acute observer, even something of a visionary. But he's also somebody who believes the sine qua non of great wine to be bacteria which can't be seen with the naked eye, and who's associated with those who can't see at all. The Monier de la Sizeranne, whose bequest of 8ha made Chapoutier the largest holder in Hermitage, was blind, having had a gun explode on him, while it was a request from Blues legend Ray Charles at a dinner in 1995 which resulted in the Braille on Chapoutier labels. Among the greatest of Chapoutier's many passions is terroir and its translation in wine, a passion fired by his holdings on the great hill of Hermitage. As well as blends from different parcels, he produces a few hundred cases each of Marsanne and Syrah from individual climats and very old vines (50-80 years old) - white L'Ermite, Le Mal and De l'Ore (from lieu-dit Les Murets), and red L'Ermite, Le Mal and Le Pavillon. While the other great producers of Hermitage, such as Chave and Jaboulet, produce superb wines which are blends from different climats, Chapoutier believes that the wines from the different lieux-dits are both complete enough and distinctive enough to be bottled separately. And tasting through the range, it's difficult to disagree. Instead of producing two of the finest wines in the world, one red and one white, he produces several. Among the whites, De l'Ore is perhaps the first among equals; among the reds, Le Pavillon. But all six are highly individual, thrilling wines, the whites among the most unfairly neglected great wines of the world. The desire to translate terroir as accurately as possible, Chapoutier says, led him to adopt biodynamic viticulture, which he claims to practise on a greater scale than any other producer in France. Styling himself on his business card as Vinegrower', among other things, he believes that too many organic producers are obsessed with producing a healthy product rather than a good product'. Bacteria, he says, with all the enthusiasm of a delirious dung beetle, are crucial. Our choice is based on bacterial aspects, which are more reflective of the soil. And biodynamic soil has one million times more bacteria than other soils. Bacteria facilitate the adoption by the plant of minerals in the soil. Bacteria are the mother of the vine. No bacteria equals no soil signature, and AOC becomes nothing more than a marketing gimmick.' Yeasts, too, are central to Chapoutier's notion of AOC and terroir. It's difficult to speak of AOC if you don't use naturally occurring yeasts. Naturally occurring yeasts are part of terroir; cultivated yeasts are not. Grapes from different regions may often have the same taste. Some soils are higher in calcium, some higher in iron, but nobody can taste the difference made by a few milligrams of calcium or iron. During fermentation, though, each yeast contributes its own aroma, its own flavour.' He claims that Ren Renou, the head of INAO, is sympathetic to his views on yeasts, but concedes that there are other battles to be won first. One of the biggest is the attempt to tighten up the agrment, which is, says Chapoutier, often far too lax. The agrment is all too often a social agreement. Ren Renou is right that it must be awarded parcel by parcel.' Chapoutier regrets that there is not greater unity among biodynamicists. His own estates are certified by Ecocert, but there are also at least two other competing organisations, Biodivin and Demeter. The former was set up, he says, because the latter wanted animals to be part of the picture (not something that would worry him, with chickens, geese and pigs roaming wild on his farm). He hopes that Biodivin's new president will be more aggressive, as too many are pretending to be biodynamic when they aren't'.

Vegetables can't run' Chapoutier also believes that members of biodynamic organisations should be given greater encouragement to undertake research. He says that biodynamics still doesn't have the credibility it deserves, because it appears to lack modern scientific validation. He claims that INRA and other research organisations don't attach a higher priority to it because there's no money in it. Biodynamics is more about ideas than about products. It's cheap and easy to make our own preparations.' At the same time, Chapoutier is not too worried when there is no generally accepted scientific basis for certain biodynamic practices, insisting, like most other devotees, that if they work, that's good enough for him. Science had to fight for years against superstition. Now, when we don't understand something, we say it's superstition. If you do 1,000 experiments and 999 times you get the same result, it's valid, even if you can't explain it.' He does, however, draw attention to certain general principles. When an animal is faced with aggression, the best defence is to run away. A vegetable can't run. It needs to be clever enough to create another defence. Ninety per cent of the problems in nature can be solved by nature itself.' And he's readier than most to suggest where answers may be found in the future: We're coming to a new age in science. We're discovering how, in chemistry and in physics, people stopped at the level of the atom. They didn't want to know about quarks and so on.' And he believes quarks (hypothetical elementary particles at sub-atomic level) may explain why dynamising' biodynamic preparations (stirring the solution in one direction, then the other) works. Dynamising splits clusters of water molecules, energising them. The vortex plays on the quark's position.' In contrast to biodynamic preparations and treatments, man-made fertilisers, Chapoutier says, have been, and still are, the source of many problems. Delighting in the play on words, he suggests that fertilisers were discovered in the nineteenth century by a Dr KNAP (K the symbol for potassium, N for nitrogen, A for argon and P for phosphorus). They might well, he says, have been a footnote in history', had it not been discovered that these elements could also be used in explosives. The best way for a nation to be strong was to have explosives in time of war, and another product in peacetime.' The agricultural problem with fertilisers, he contends, is that they encourage the growth of all organisms, including bacteria and fungi. And if they can't be absorbed by the soil, they climb onto the plant, with damaging results. It's a mistake to say that botrytis, oidium, et cetera, are diseases. They are good fungi in the wrong place. The problem is not the fungus, but the overpopulation of the fungus. Those who then destroy the fungus on the vine destroy the fungus in the soil, causing erosion and other problems. Erosion has been a problem only since the second half of the nineteenth century.' Chapoutier himself is still as hands-on as a winemaker as when he first assumed the role 12 years ago. For all his belief in the soil, he accepts that there is (in Professor Warren Moran's phrase) a human element' to terroir, and that it can be destroyed in the winery as well as in the vineyard. After cultivated yeasts, his next bugbear is cold fermentation temperatures. Having experimented extensively with temperatures ranging from 16-23C for whites, he found that cooler temperatures gave wines which were big on aroma but short on flavour and length, and that higher temperatures gave wines which were the other way round - a much better result, in his view. Instead of aromas, you need flavours and textures. Taste and aftertaste are much more important.' He likens many winemakers to doctors who don't know their patients well enough to take risks. Too many winemakers don't know the winemaking side well enough, so are scared by high temperatures.' Extraction of quality tannins is another related subject on which he has strong views. The first tannins to be extracted are bitter, unstable, vegetal, at their strongest after about five to eight days in vat. But you can lose these tannins. After about 12 to 14 days, or when the alcoholic fermentation is finished, many of the unstable tannins, sensitive to osmosis, are absorbed back into the skins.' Accordingly, his top Ermitage wines are often given five to six weeks. He says that common extractive techniques such as dlestage (rack and return') and flash dtente (a form of thermo-extraction) are far too harsh. They shouldn't be allowed for AOC wines. The winemaker is killing the winegrower, the grapes, the AOC. Over-extraction is stupid. You only extract the biggest, most unstable tannins, which are like armour to protect the plant. The best are the deepest, smallest, most stable tannins,' which are also, he says, one of the advantages of fruit from old vines. Another disadvantage of over-extraction is that it necessitates heavier fining and filtration. And this, he says whimsically, is like making love using a condom. For the sake of security, the pleasure is reduced'. While he accepts such clarification techniques as a commercial necessity with some of his higher-volume wines, the top wines are neither fined nor filtered. A final red rag to Chapoutier is the dominance of the new French oak barrique, one of the worst things to have happened in the Rhne', he protests. He admits that he himself used too much new wood in the past, but says he has learnt from the fact that the greatest old Rhne Syrahs - Chave Hermitage or Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle', like the legendary 1961 - had no new oak at all. Even for the top wines, the proportion of new oak now seldom exceeds 50%.

True to his roots The above principles are those which he applies to his top wines, but also, as far as possible, to the others in his range of 50 wines. Whether he is making a Cte-Rtie or a Ctes du Rhne, he believes that the wines should reflect their origins rather than a house style. As Chapoutier puts it, many of the greatest masterpieces don't have the artist's signature'. Although it's easier to practise biodynamic or at least organic viticulture in his own vineyards (of which he now has 300ha in the Rhne and the south of France), he is also encouraging his contract growers and suppliers to convert, offering them higher prices. Although Chapoutier's roots are deeply embedded in the Northern Rhne, they now spread into the Southern Rhne and the south of France as well, with new wines like Bila-Haut and Bila-Haut Occultem Lapidem, from the Ctes du Roussillon-Villages. Further afield, Chapoutier is now pursuing the same preoccupations in South Australia. And such is his belief in terroir that he is outraged by the idea that Scotch whisky may be made from barley which has not been grown in Scotland, so he is keen to make a single-field single malt some day. As well as being hands-on in the vineyard and winery, Chapoutier has grown his company to its present size and shape: 120 employees, annual case sales of 250,000, and an annual turnover of e20 million. The company culture is passionate but relaxed, and Chapoutier has surrounded himself with bright young staff in whom he places great trust. The director of finance is only 24 years old, and has been mistaken for a sommelier. All of the staff eat well in the company canteen, where everybody helps themselves and everybody, especially Chapoutier, mixes with ease. While completely committed to his company, Chapoutier also sees the bigger picture. He offers to arrange appointments with his closest rivals - Chave and Jaboulet - and helps promising smaller producers such as Ferraton, in which he now has a commercial stake. He has been acting over the last year as president of the Inter-Rhne PR campaign and will continue to champion the cause of white Hermitage. A great believer in the marriage of food and wine, he goes as far as to say, We defend the soil, but are, above all, servants of gastronomy'. And this passion, together with his enthusiasm for new talent, led him to establish the Grand Prix Michel Chapoutier for the Meilleur Elve Sommelier en Vins et Spiritueux de France, contested by students from all over the country, and supported by both the Minister for Education and the Union de la Sommellerie Franaise. In this, its tenth anniversary year, he introduced another prize, for the Meilleur Elve Sommelier en Vins et Spiritueux Internationaux. The two trophies are as artistic, and eccentric, as the man himself. And at this year's competition he announced, with apparent spontaneity, that he was so impressed by the finalists that he would fly not only the two winners, but all six of them, to Australia. A brilliant, committed, highly idiosyncratic vinegrower, winemaker and wine-lover' (as per his business card); an able businessman and charismatic leader; a one-man mistral which never stops blowing, but whose effect is altogether more benign than that of the chilly wind from the north; the only clich to which he conforms is that of a small man with a big ego, a bigger heart and still bigger ideas.