Wines of the Month
It is the bell of truth that in the United States, July is the celebratory month of independence; and on the 4th day, the carillon of freedom rings. But, it’s also true that many other countries celebrate their day of freedom in July as well. Proud peoples, nations big and small, from Argentina and Belgium to Burundi and the Solomon Islands, have declared their collective self-reliance on a chosen, if not random day in the warmest month in the northern hemisphere.
And of course, let’s not forget France. For it is Bastille Day, le 14 Juillet, 1789, that marked the greatest turning point in the country’s revolution, and in turn, stamped a permanent impression upon one of our nation’s greatest authors of autonomy, Thomas Jefferson. He was the American in Paris on that very day, serving then as the Minister to France. His five year tenure in Paris would help influence our own nation in ways never imagined.
Now, it’s well documented how much Jefferson revered wine, especially French Burgundy (home to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir); and in many ways, he’s regarded as America’s first wine connoisseur. He frequently visited vineyards throughout France and often wrote in great detail of those experiences. Upon returning home to Monticello, he planted vines, and grew grapes. And despite having very little success, he always kept great hope of growing the classic varietals here at home. He also maintained quite a large cellar, comprised mostly of French bottlings, and other European selections. Clearly though, it was his French wine that he most cherished.
So, to honor the independent spirit of July’s two most notable National Holidays, and the individuals whose self-forged paths helped shape the bigger world, I devote this month’s column to the wines of two producers who are uniquely linked, an American who makes wines in Burgundy and a Frenchman who makes wines in California.
Michael Shaps is a native New Yorker and a 1986 graduate of Skidmore College. With a degree in economics and business, he headed to Boston to manage a restaurant that also had a wine program. Little did he know that his growing wine curiosity was about to become his life’s work. Realizing he found his calling, Michael moved to Burgundy, France in 1990 to attend the prestigious Lycée Viticole de Beaune, where he earned a diploma in enology and viticulture.
The next 12 years would include two apprenticeships in Burgundy, a return to the states to work at a small winery in Massachusetts, a move to Virginia for a winemaker/GM job at Jefferson Vineyards (go figure), and an eventual, if not inevitable opening of his own eponymous label. Over the years, Michael’s Virginia wines have earned him dozens of Governor’s Cup awards, and his reputation as an outstanding winemaker precedes him.
But, the wine work he has done in France since 2004, when he co-founded Maison Shaps & Roucher-Serrazin, is where his talents shine brightest on the international stage. Michael took over ownership in 2012, changed the name to Maison Shaps, and focused on producing high-end Burgundian wine, in some of the most historic appellations and vineyard sites in the world…and for these wines, it’s all about location!
If you love old-world Chardonnay like I do, I can’t say enough about Maison Shaps Meursault 2014. Meursault is a tiny commune in central Burgundy and was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite place. It is home to some of the finest Chardonnay in the world, and Michael’s 2014 fits right in. This particular wine is grown at two different “Lieux Dites” (vineyard sites) named Les Meix Chavaux and Le Lemozin, in the village of Meursault. It is barrel fermented in 25% new oak and aged for 15 months “sur-lies.” The balance between creamy texture and fresh acidity is what really stands out, with each site contributing very unique nuances. It’s classic Meursault in both viscosity and minerality, with delicious almond and apple notes. The oak is subtle and adds to the wine’s finish and aging capability. A wine-lover’s wine, it’s priced around $65 and worth every penny.
Then there’s Burgundy’s king, Pinot Noir, and Maison Shaps Pommard 2014. Located on the slopes above the village of Pommard, Les Vaumuriens Bas is a site that faces east-southeast, benefitting from great sun exposure, good air and water drainage. The wine is produced with 15% whole cluster fruit included, which adds texture and depth. This particular site in Pommard tends to be more elegant than some of the other slopes in the appellation, and is characterized by lovely spice, red fruit notes and a softer tannic structure. It’s graceful yet complex, a classic expression of a timeless site. Also priced around $65, it heeds the call of a classic Burgundian Pinot Noir.
Maison Michael Shaps produces an array of additional wines in small, prestigious villages throughout Burgundy, including two great Cremants (sparkling wines), and I encourage you to try them all.
From one man’s independent journey to another…
Burgundy born Claude Koeberle, together with partner Donald Plumley, started Soliste Cellars in 2005, with the first release of a Sonatera Vineyard Pinot Noir. The name Soliste comes from a Burgundian tradition in that a barrel of each harvest is reserved for family and friends only. Claude’s passion for the wines of his homeland is matched only by his extraordinary culinary accomplishments — 3 Star Michelin Chef in Paris at age 24, Chef at Ma Maison and L’Orangerie in Los Angeles, and a James Beard Award winner as a Master Chef. But being a chef extraordinaire in California was really just the beginning for Claude.
There are a great number of wonderful Burgundy-style wine producers in California, no doubt; but, what makes Soliste so unique and magical is its dedication to Monoclone pinot noir production, a disciplined approach that began in 2009. Its mission is straightforward…a single clone of a single varietal, grown in a single vineyard and aged in a single cooperage, all with the intent “to craft extraordinary wine that exemplifies their identity and a sense of place.” This is the La Philosophie du Soliste, and a time honored method of old world wine production, certainly in Burgundy.
As for his white wines, the Sauvignon Blancs are considered every bit as special as the single-site reds. And to that point, the St Andelain Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is a wine for the ages. An homage to the late great Didier Dagueneau, one of the greatest SB producers ever, St Andelain is born from a single organic vineyard, and possesses a very unique richness and depth. It is barrel fermented and aged for 16 months in Didier’s creation, the Cigar Barrel, preserving acidity, verve and length. The look, nose and taste are all unlike anything you’ve ever had…combined elements of tart green apple, flinty stone, lime zest accents, white flowers and marine oyster shell. The long finish is razor sharp and endlessly refreshing. St Andelain is a true expression of Soliste wines and one of the best Sauvignon Blancs in all of California. Priced around $60, it’s world-class.
Of Claude’s numerous and outstanding Monoclone Pinot Noirs, my true favorite is the Soliste Pinot Noir Nouveau Monde 2013. Considered one of the best vintages for Pinot Noir, the 2013 NM delivers in a way that would even make Pommard proud. Its Sonoma Coast single-site fruit is incredibly aromatic, exotic, and elegant. It shows the purest of ruby clarity in the glass, “dancing like gemstones in the light,” says Claude. There is a superb concentration of red fruits, layered with rose petals, vanilla and exotic spices on the nose, and the palate transfers seamlessly, with tart red cherries and ripe raspberry compote, vanilla and floral tones, with accented mulling spices. It’s incredibly balanced, with very modest alcohol levels. This wine is about silk and synergy between crystalline acidity and refined, elegant tannins. A true California jewel, it’s priced for the perfect, special occasion at around $90.
I’ve had both the privilege and joy of sharing these wines with their respective producers. And as a lover of both California and Burgundy wines, my admiration for these two independent forces in the winemaking world knows no bounds. I hope you experience these wines, and the free spirit that they embody. If you have any questions about these wines and where to find them, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy Vino’ing!