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Michel Laroche with Michel Laroche

by Tom Cannavn, 07/01

Michael Laroche is a the fifth generation of a family that has been making Chablis since 1850.

At the helm since 1967, he is a handsome, craggy, chisel-featured man with an air of intelligence and confidence, particularly about his own wines. Though his family has been in the business for 150 years, he is the first generation to make a living exclusively from producing and selling wine.

Having studied Oenology at the University of Dijon, he has gradually increased the company's premium vineyard holdings from six hectares in the late 1960's, to over 130 hectares today. His Burgundy HQ, the sixteenth century monastery of l'Obédiencerie (after whom his top Chablis is named) is thought to be the birthplace of Chablis, where monks first made the wine.
 

Though Chablis remains his spiritual and actual home, he is not afraid to expand the company's horizons and indeed, has recently turned his attention to the south of France, where a range of "Michel Laroche" branded Vins de Pays d'Oc wines is produced from his Mas La Chevalière estate - not just Chardonnay, but Syrah, Merlot and a Bordeauxish blend called La Croix. He has also just released the first vintage of a joint venture with the Rutherford Hill winery in the Napa Valley, a micro-production Chardonnay. When I met him to chat and taste his wines in June 2001, he hinted that a joint venture with a southern hemisphere partner was on the cards, and a few days later the company announced the formation of a new partnership with Jorge Coderch of Valdivieso in Chile. They will release their first bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in spring 2002.

Michel obviously gets quite a kick out of being a red wine maker now (the "King of Chablis" making red wines?) and impishly reached straight for a glass of red to pose for the photo above. His crowning glories are still, of course the top Crus from Chablis, in particular his Grands Crus from Les Clos, Blanchots and Bouguerots. The Chablis Réserve de l'Obédience he describes as "the ultimate Grand Cru with nothing spared", made from a selection of the ripest fruit and best barrels from the Grand Cru Les Blanchots, and aged in slightly more new oak with a higher toast level.

Michel's use of new oak (anathema for some Chablis purists) is handled carefully: rarely more than 25% of a wine sees oak, and of that, only one third is new oak. I asked if his use of oak caused friction amongst the Union des Grands Crus (an association of top Chablis producers), but Michel says no; that each has his own philosophy and each respects the others' reasons and beliefs. We took time to wander and taste our way around the UdGC tasting at the London Wine Trade Fair together, and the warm welcome he received from his peers plus their informal camaraderie, certainly bore this out.

Bibendum are UK agents for the wines of Domaine Laroche, and the www.domainelaroche.com web site gives details of distributors in other areas. Where prices are shown the supplier is Bibendum, and prices are given in pounds sterling (approximately £10=$15US).

White Wines

Chablis 1999 - £7.99
Fine minerality on the nose, with a crisp, lemony style and sense of purity. On the palate more fine apple fruit and quite a creamy-textured wine, with again a mineral/stony core that is hallmark Chablis. Very good.

Chablis St Martin 1999 - £9.20
Pure, zesty citrus fruit on the nose with a stony core. Richer texture on the palate, more concentrated but still a swathe of pure, fresh citrus fruit pushes through into a long finish. Well-balanced and plenty of power. Very good indeed.

Chablis 1er Cru Les Vaudevey 1999
About 15% of this wine is barrel fermented, the rest is made in stainless steel. A nicely nutty, toasty note is added to limpid apple and lemon fruit. Lovely richness on the palate (seems to be a trait of Laroche's Chablis) with a silky texture and good fruit. The steely core gives a bit of structure into a long finish. Very good indeed.

Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 1999 - £31.80
Laroche's Les Clos sees 30% oak barrel fermentation, and the vines are very old. This has a certain spiciness on the nose and an unctuous peach and apricot ripeness. Terrifically concentrated, the palate is flooded with pear and apple fruit that is silky and ripe with fine length. Balanced by a creamy texture and good acidity, this is very long and is excellent.

Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots 1999
Sweeter, slightly toffeed nose suggesting oak with notes of spiced apple and marmalade orange. The palate is rich, but has firm, lengthening acidity of lemons and minerals running through. A little vanilla and cream fattens the finish and adds a savoury depth. Excellent.

Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots Réserve de l'Obédience 1999 - £45.00
Described by Michel as his "ultimate Grand Cru with nothing spared" this is fermented in Vosges and Allier oak barrel for about 20 days, and left to mature in the cool cellars of the Obédiencerie for 10 months on its lees. It is then bottled without filtration or cold stabilisation. Only a few hundred cases are produced. It has a huge core of minerality, but layered beneath by a pillow of creamy, buttery depth, toffee and ripe apple and pear fruit. The palate also shows those spicy hints of nutmeg and clove, but an expansive quality of orchard fruit, citrus and a honeyed nuance dominates. The grippy minerality asserts itself and extends into a long, rounded finish. Excellent.

Michel Laroche Chardonnay VdP d'Oc 2000 - £4.99
Bright, focused, slightly confected quality of fruit (though possibly just a product of being juxtaposed against the previous wines). There is a lovely quality of fruit though, with notes of ripe apple, peach, and crisp citrus. On the palate there are hints of a mango tropicality, and a nice purity. Balanced and very nice.

Red Wines

Michel Laroche Syrah VdP d'Oc 2000 - £4.99
This has a slightly baked quality to the fruit , which is a little muted but savoury with a leathery, black fruit character. The palate has nice flavours of blackcurrant and cherry and a chewy texture. Good.

Michel Laroche La Croix Chevalière VdP d'Oc 1999
Laroche's top southern red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, which spends eighteen months in barrel with six months lees-stirring. It has very attractive, punchy, glossy and deep black fruit on the nose, quite a chocolaty depth with vivid berry fruit. The palate is rich and full with masses of blue/black berry fruit and again those bittersweet chocolate notes bolstered by silky tannins. Long and well-balanced, this is modern-styled classy red. Very good indeed.

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