Since its founding, the motto of the M. Chapoutier winery has always been the ancient Latin proverb, fac et spera, “create and hope.” In many ways, these words of wisdom are good advice for the winemaker in general: work hard and hope for the best. But in Michel’s case, they mean much more. A fervent believer in “minimal intervention” in the winemaking process, Michel feels that wine expresses its terroir not by manipulation in the cellar but rather profound respect for nature in the vineyard. In other words, says Michel, “we grow the right grapes in the right vineyards, make the wine as honestly as possible, and let Mother Nature do her work.” This is not empty hope, he tells you, but rather a desire to let the grape’s characteristics and the Rhône Valley’s famed vineyard sites express themselves naturally and purely, through great attention to detail in the vineyard and integrity and respect for the terroir in the cellar.
When Michel came of age in the 1980s, he set out to see the different wine-producing regions of the world, traveling literally across the globe to learn and to taste the different terroirs of the New and Old Worlds. This period was extremely important for Michel: he began to understand the importance of terroir expression and most importantly he started to grasp the immense power of the northern Rhône terroirs, where the ancient soil — some of the oldest in France — can create red and white wines with remarkable longevity.
When he returned to Tain l’Hermitage, Michel began buying stock in the family’s company and continued until he had obtained managerial control. Michel then set about launching the biodynamic conversion of the estate — an unprecedented move, considered risky by many. But the overwhelming success of the vintages that followed proved his detractors to be wrong. One of the most significant innovations was the elimination of filtration — a radical departure by the standards of the day. Now, wine experts and connoisseurs point to this change as the turning point that lead to the winery’s current status as one of the top producers in the region.
But so much more lies behind the powerful expression of Michel’s wines. He is the first to point out that wine is not the product of humankind but rather a miracle bestowed upon us by Mother Nature. “Wine is the combination of two forces,” says Michel, “the magnetic force of the earth and the cosmic force of the sun.” In a sense, he explains, the winemaker is not an artisan but rather a servent of those forces. “The winemaker’s art,” he says, “consists of encouraging the accumulation of these two energies with the grape up to the point of harvest.” It is through the balance of those forces that he is able to create structured, long-lived wines that express the land, the grape, the people, and the place — all the things that make up the unique terroir of Tain l’Hermitage.
“The great cycles that all men of the land must respect,” says Michel, “are those of our celestial environment: those of the moon, of the sun, of slumber and of awaking. The vine is sensitive to these cosmic rhythms that we endeavor to respect. We endeavor to respect this in our daily work, from the dormant period to harvest.”
The seventh generation of Chapoutiers to make wine the Rhône, Michel lives with his wife Corinne and their two children, whose names both start with the letter M. He and his wife chose their names so that the eighth generation will still be able to call the winery “M. Chapoutier.”
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