It’s not often a wine made in California strikes me as “profound.” Don’t get me wrong, the Golden State makes delicious wines. The usually reliable climate in most of California’s winemaking regions leads to steady ripening and big, full-bodied, fruit forward wines. Some are capable of maturing into beauties.
But for a young California wine to remind me of experiences I’ve occasionally had with old Barolo or mature white Burgundy? Those rare moments of awe when you sit in silence with a wine, sensing secrets and mysteries embedded there along with the sublime pleasure one is experiencing. That, for me, is an encounter with something profound.
And that’s what I experienced sampling wines from a new producer whose first releases are made from grapes grown in the west Sonoma Coast as well as Napa’s Diamond Mountain.
“Chamboulé” is the past participle of “chambouler,” an obscure French verb meaning variously to shatter, shake, turn upside down or upset. In other words, “disrupted.” That’s the intriguing name chosen by the philosophical French Canadian winemaker who co-creates these wines in partnership with an American winemaker who grew up in Sonoma.
Both winemakers–François Morissette and Matt Taylor–trained in Burgundy. That’s where they learned ancient winemaking techniques and practices they employ in their project today.
That includes long macerations and extended contact between the wine, expended yeast cells and grape skin debris. In whatever vessel–neutral barrel, demi-muid, steel tank or concrete egg–the wine matures, it is left undisturbed on these lees until being racked right before bottling. Another old technique they employ is preserving and kegging those fine lees after racking, introducing them to wine from a subsequent vintage to “educate” the new wine. They explain this can help “fill out” the new wine when it appears to have “holes.”
Another advantage of the extended lees contact is that it helps protect the developing wine from oxidation. François has been heavily influenced by the natural wine movement ever since he was a sommelier years ago at Montreal’s Laloux Bistro, one of Canada’s first wine bars to feature low sulfur and biodynamic wines. As a winemaker at his Domaine Pearl Morisette in Ontario’s Niagra region, François has long made wines with the least and latest possible sulfur addition.
He explains they want some “turbidity” in the young wine from the skin debris because particles in the lees form molecules that link to free terminations that would otherwise be susceptible to linking with oxygen in the absence of added sulfur. The yeast cells themselves absorb dissolved oxygen, withdrawing it from oxidation reactions, while particular amino compounds that develop, such as glutathione and cysteine, also help protect the wine from oxidation. It can be a nerve wracking process, though, to be relying on these natural alternatives to sulfur addition, and has to be constantly monitored.
François Morissette spent eight years in Burgundy, working with Frédéric Mugnier in Chambolle-Musigny and Jean-Marc Roulot in Meursault, and spending hours chatting with the Gouges family in Nuits-St. Georges. He learned biodynamic viticulture there, as did Matt Taylor, who interned at Domaine Dujac after completing his viticulture and oenology degree at Fresno State. They apply a lot of biodynamic principles. Their major focus in farming, though, is the quality of those grape skins.
François explains he doesn’t have to worry about sugar content in California. He characterizes this ripeness as “horizontal fatness,” and says the challenge is to achieve a “vertical” dimension as well. The cool sites they draw from ripen while preserving good acidity. He claims they get that extra complexity from the grape skins, which therefore have to be optimal. François says they regularly chew on the skins to determine when that point is reached.
Another aspect of wine important to François is what the French call “qualité des amers.” This roughly translates as “noble bitterness,” and François describes it as a sensation that “grabs at the bottom of the throat.” It can be achieved through extended maceration, but is a tricky quality to get just right, as it can’t readily be fixed once it’s gone too far.
In addition to his Burgundian background, Matt brings to the collaboration years of experience as both winemaker and vineyard manager at Araujo, and as winemaker for Reuling Vineyard in Russian River. He also made small amounts of wine for his own label for several years.
A large, balding, bear of a man, with a ready smile and sunny disposition, Matt initially seems an unlikely partner for the relatively compact, long haired, intense and mystically oriented François. Nonetheless, the image that comes to my mind as I taste through with them is that they could have been monk winemaking colleagues from centuries back, bringing out the best in each other and from the vineyards of Burgundy that were once the near exclusive province of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders.
That mental image suddenly makes even more sense when François himself describes their current winemaking facility as a “monastery.” A two-story, wooden structure located down a quiet, dusty road in the outskirts of Forestville, it was built in the 1920’s to house apple orchard harvests and converted to a winery in the 1940s. He contrasts it with the “shopping mall” vibe of Sonoma’s Custom Crush, where the project started.
The Buddhist inscriptions and rich, Tibetan monastery-like orange and red colors with which they’ve decorated their portion of the building, whose other tenants are a boutique marijuana grower and coffee bean roaster, add to the sense this is a place for contemplation and spiritual introspection alongside the practice of winemaking.
I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised then that their wines speak to me so profoundly.
François and Matt’s initial releases, from the 2014 vintage, are a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. The grape sources aren’t mentioned on the labels, but they all hail from pedigreed vineyards. The Chardonnay was sourced from the great Charles Heintz Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, the Pinot from Spring Hill in the Petaluma Gap, and the Cab Franc from Napa’s Caldwell Vineyard.
Instead of vineyard designations they have derived acronyms for each bottling based on either the growing season or the process of that particular wine’s evolution. The 2014 Chardonnay, for example, is designated “Y.T.E.”–“Your Torment is Endless”–to honor the wine’s long, torturous fermentation and evolution in tank:
The 2014 Pinot is designated S.E.E.D., for “Simple Expression Evoking Dimension.” The acronym for the ’14 Cab Franc, N.A.C.R.E., has a double meaning. “Nacre” is the word for mother of pearl, so it’s a nod to Matt’s love of diving for abalone and enjoying oysters. An iridescent blue, representing the ocean and mother of pearl, is used for the Chamboulé logo on the Cab Franc label. The acronym they generated from “nacre” stands for “Nature Aspires to Continue Refining Everything.”
My full tasting notes on these wines, sampled initially at the winery and again, some weeks later, over a two-day period at home, appear below. Suffice it to say, these are incredibly impressive debut wines. The Chardonnay has rich texture and complexity, due at least in part, I think, to the extended maceration and 22 months aging on primary lees in neutral large format barrels and concrete. The intensely savory, velvety textured Pinot Noir included 60% whole cluster, and was likewise aged on primary lees for 18 months in neutral large format oak, as was the Cabernet Franc, with 70% whole cluster. In 2015 and 2016, they raised that to 100% whole cluster for the red wines.
I adore Cab Franc, and the inaugural Chamboulé version–with its complexity, textural richness and long finish–is simply one of the best Cabernet Francs I’ve ever tasted. I rate it 95+ points. My rating on the Pinot Noir is 94 points, and it will reward at least two or three years aging. The Chardonnay is a beauty too, scoring 93+ points for me, and quite unlike any Cali Chardonnay I can think of except perhaps the esteemed Kongsgaard, with its exceptional richness, long finish and good balancing acidity. This wine, and many of the others, also have an appetizing salinity to them, which François attributes to the long lees contact.
I also had the opportunity to taste a dozen barrel samples at the winery–four from the 2015 vintage and eight 2016s. These young wines, which include a Cabernet Sauvignon from Diamond Mountain and an estate Pinot Noir, made me even more excited about the future of this project.
My tasting notes for the delicious 2015 barrel samples–which were blended only two weeks before my visit–appear below, along with my notes for the 2014s. I did not take detailed notes on the 2016s, since they are at an earlier stage of development, but the wonderful texture and complexity is present in these too, along with exceptional fruit and a sense of freshness, owing to the minimal use of sulfur.
I was particularly impressed with 2016 barrel samples from the estate vineyard, Taylor Lane, which is planted to suitcase clones of Pinot that have proven to do well in the west Sonoma Coast.
François began looking in 2011 for virgin vineyard sites, areas that had never been planted to vines or agriculture. With the backing of his Pearl Morissette partner, Toronto-based real estate developer Mel Pearl, the team acquired two vineyards in the Sonoma Coast near the town of Occidental–Taylor Lane and Coleman Valley Road.
I visited Taylor Lane with François and Matt. The vineyard is surrounded by redwoods and literally teaming with life. Soil expert Jacques Petit who advised the team reported he had never seen such pristine soil in over 40 years of digging around the planet. The six vineyard acres there are planted to three different suitcase Pinot Noir clones, designated “R,” “S” and “T.” 2016 is the first vintage from this vineyard.
Not far away is Chamboulé’s second vineyard, on Coleman Valley Road. Six and a half acres of that 20-acre site are now planted with rootstock. Like Taylor Lane, the vines are planted to fairly high density, with four foot by three foot spacing. They aim to get to dry farming there within two years.
The team also recently purchased a site on Napa’s Mt. Veeder. They started a small “mother block” for planting this site, sourcing some of Napa Valley’s oldest and greatest Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc clones.
The production of this well planned and financed effort is tiny at present: only 500 cases for 2014. There will be about 900 cases of the 2015, and they expect to slowly build to an annual maximum of 5,000 cases.
I asked how they established the price of their first offering–which is $80 for each wine on the website. They explain they simply amortized the land and other costs, before profits, over 25 years, much like Opus One did.
I also asked Matt and François how they negotiate the winemaking process between them, given both are accomplished winemakers who also have experience in all aspects of farming. Matt is in charge of day-to-day activities in the vineyard and winery, of course, since he lives in the area full time, whereas François visits for about a week each month. Their ultimate answer is, “Whoever has the best argument wins.”
Below are my tasting notes and ratings on these exceptional wines. Since they are offering a significant portion of the production to select high end restaurants, I expect what’s available through the website to run out quickly. The drawback of the intense effort and focus required to make profound wines is, of course, that they can only be created in small quantities. I feel privileged to have had a chance to sample these wines at such an early stage of the project, and I look forward to following Chamboulé for many years to come.
2014 Chamboulé Chardonnay Y.T.E.Sonoma Coast
Light medium lemon yellow; aromatic, chamomile, almond, buttered rum, pear nectar, safflower oil nose; delicious, complex, creamy textured, ripe lemon, chamomile, honey, light beeswax, safflower oil, mineral palate with lively balancing acidity; medium-plus finish (13.3% alcohol; 60% in neutral barrels, 25% in concrete, 15% in stainless steel) 93+ points
2014 Chamboulé Pinot Noir S.E.E.D. Sonoma Coast
Dark ruby color with slight haziness; very aromatic, fresh, savory, roses, forest floor, black cherry, hibiscus, beets, light caraway seed nose; tightly coiled, velvety textured, complex, tart cherry, forest floor, cranberry, mineral, hibiscus, saline palate with appetizing near medium acidity; could use 2+ years; medium-plus finish (13.1% alcohol; 60% whole cluster) 94 points
2014 Chamboulé Cabernet Franc N.A.C.R.E. Napa Valley
Saturated, nearly opaque, purple red violet color; aromatic, savory, graphite, toast, mocha, ripe red currant, green olive, dried seaweed nose; delicious, tight, savory, graphite, raspberry, ripe red currant, toast, green olive, iron, saline palate with refined tannins and good balancing acidity; needs 2-3 years; long finish (14.1% alcohol; 70% whole cluster) 95+ points
2015 Chamboulé Chardonnay N.T.E. Sonoma Coast
Cloudy, medium lemon yellow color; savory, sesame seed oil, safflower oil nose; lemon honey, lemon balm, lemon marmalade, sesame seed oil palate with good balancing acidity; long finish (50% in barrel, 50% in concrete) 92-95 points
2015 Chamboulé Pinot Noir S.E.D.E. Sonoma Coast
Dark red violet color; fresh, very savory, forest floor, toast, roasted beets nose; savory, tart roasted red fruit, roasted beets palate with velvety tannins and medium acidity; could use 4-5 years; medium-plus finish (100% whole cluster) 93-95 points
2015 Chamboulé Cabernet Franc S.A.C.R.E. Napa Valley
Very dark red violet color; lifted, aromatic, savory, tart red currant, black cherry, black raspberry, toast nose; bright, savory, tart red currant, black cherry, black raspberry, toast, green olive palate with near medium acidity; long finish (100% whole cluster; 100% neutral oak, 600 liter barrels) 93-96 points
2015 Chamboulé Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain, Napa Valley
Very dark red violet color; savory, tart red currant, roasted red fruit, iron, seaweed, graphite nose; tight, black cherry, red currant, toast, graphite palate with firm tannins and good balancing acidity; long finish (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc; co-fermented; 100% whole cluster) 93-96 points