Dunne on Wine

A venerable French family makes superb wine the old-fashioned way - sustainably and organically

Jean Pierre Amoreau alongside one of his Chateau le Puy wines, this one from 1926.
Jean Pierre Amoreau alongside one of his Chateau le Puy wines, this one from 1926.

If the caricature of a French winemaker is smug, stodgy and sullen, the model clearly isn’t Jean Pierre Amoreau.

Here he is now – white-haired, cherubic, affable, even playful. He’s bustling about the heart of the chic San Francisco restaurant Quince, preparing to oversee a 90-year retrospective tasting of his family’s Bordeaux wines.

Asked to pose for a photo, he kneels behind the bottles arranged in two stately rows on a white tablecloth, as if to convey the message that he is subservient to the wines. Then he bounces up, chuckling and saying, “Remember, when you get back to Sacramento and take someone’s picture, say, ‘One, two, puy (pronounced pwee).”

The inside joke is that his estate is Chateau le Puy, at Saint-Cibard, just northeast of Saint-Emilion in the far eastern reaches of Bordeaux, an area the Amoreaus call “the hill of wonders,” which is as haughty as the family gets. (“Le Puy” itself translates roughly as “summit” in Old French, given that the property at 107 meters above sea level occupies one of the higher plateaus in Bordeaux.)

Jean Pierre Amoreau’s ancestors have been tending the site since 1610 – coopering barrels, blacksmithing and weaving as well as growing grapes. He took over the chateau from his father in 1992. Today, his son Pascal oversees winemaking, while a grandson, Adrien, is poised to represent the 15th generation to continue the estate’s heritage of innovation, rebellion and pride.

Today, Chateau le Puy spreads across about 250 acres, a little more than half in vineyard, the rest largely wild. The vineyard is planted to traditional black Bordeaux grape varieties and just one green grape, semillon. The soils run to red clay over limestone.

The wines of Chateau le Puy may not be as dear or as well known as others of Bordeaux, but the family’s story of independence and invention is likely unmatched. As early as 1868, Jean Pierre Amoreau’s great-great-grandfather, Barthelemy, challenged the common practice of using sulphur dioxide as an antioxidant to help preserve wine, and to this day Chateau le Puy uses little or none in its wines.

The family stopped using chemical additives (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) in 1924, another principle that endures in the estate’s intensifying dedication to organic, biodynamic and permaculture farming. In 2009, they reinstated the practice of plowing with horses in the belief that their lighter-than-a-tractor footprint rejuvenates the soil while encouraging the growth of healthy microbes, worms and roots. And in 2011, they began a long, complex and continuing legal battle with French wine authorities to establish their own appellation, or monopole – “Le Puy” – to recognize formally what even officials acknowledge - the chateau’s wines stand apart in expression from their neighbors.

And what are those differences? Let’s get back to that table lined up with 18 vintages of Chateau le Puy’s flagship wine, Emilien, stretching from 1926 to 2016. (The chateau traditionally names its wines after family members; Emilien oversaw the estate in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.)

As a group, the wines were relatively light in color, their fragrance and flavor running to cherries and berries, with occasional threads of plums, olives, brambles and mushrooms. Their builds were lean, their acidity sharp, their vigor remarkable even for older vintages.

Afterwards, in looking over comprehensive and detailed grape-growing and winemaking records for each wine I discovered that I mostly favored releases with lower alcohol, 12 to 13 percent. Compared with other Bordeaux wines, the bottles of Chateau le Puy stood out for their accessibility even in their youth, their equilibrium regardless of age, and their enduring freshness and spunk.

In older wines, bottle bouquet was more whiff than dominant trait. Vintage variations were evident more by nuance than drama, despite assorted challenges during the growing year, which in Bordeaux can be wildly extreme.

One of my favorites, the 1984, was classically Bordeaux in its balance, buoyancy, layering and longevity, its expression billowing and persisting, despite a year with 170 days of precipitation, including 35 days with hail. From all the weather tracking that the family has done, has Jean Pierre Amoreau, who was born on the estate 80 years ago, put his finger on any one element that mostly determines the quality of a vintage?

“It’s always different. It can rain all year, and everything could look desperate, but in September we can get some beautiful weather, and no more worries,” he said.

He had his favorite in the lineup, the still solidly built and highly perfumed 1961. His wife Francois had her own favorites, her selections based in part on what she would eat with them – fish or scallops in a light wine sauce with the lyrical 1984, squab, pheasant or some other game with the taut yet rich 1970.

The Emilien currently in circulation, the 2015, is powerfully fragrant, juicy with suggestions of cherries, berries and plums, and built to last in its tension and harmony ($52). Some vintages had intriguing back stories. The 1944, outstanding for its fresh and blooming bouquet and zesty acidity, was made by Jean Pierre Amoreau’s mother Paule because the chateau’s men were at war. (Until 1964, the Amoreaus sold their wines in barrels to negociants, but with that vintage they began to bottle them under their own brand; wines at the tasting prior to 1964 were bottles they had put up for themselves.)

The 2003 wasn’t in the tasting, but its backstory is telling: That’s the Chateau le Puy wine highlighted in a television series based on the poplar Japanese manga (comic book) “The Drops of God,” a tale of jealousy and treachery in which two brothers of a famed wine critic – one estranged, one adopted – vie to identify and describe correctly 13 cherished wines. At stake is their inheritance. No spoiler here on how it all came out, but the popularity of the comic and the television show accounted for a surge in sales of the mentioned wines.

This didn’t sit well with Jean Pierre Amoreau, one of whose aspirations is to keep his wines financially accessible to all wine enthusiasts. Therefore, to prevent affluent collectors from hoarding the 2003 and inflating its price, he suspended sales of the wine in Japan. He told a French radio station at the time that he stopped sales to “avoid speculation because we wanted this wine … to remain within reach of everyone,” reported The Drinks Business.

Similarly, Jean Pierre Amoreau eschews the common Bordeaux custom of selling wines “en primeur,” or while they still are in barrel, before they are bottled.

“I don’t want to take money from people when the wine is unfinished,” he explains.

Not all wines in the Chateau le Puy portfolio are as modestly priced as Emilien. Over lunch, he poured six vintages of the Barthelemy, including the current release, the expansive and elegant 2011, a deeper and more concentrated expression of the estate than Emilien. At $187 the bottle, it’s also substantially more pricey.

Emilien customarily is a blend of 85 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent each malbec and carmenere harvested from throughout the vineyard, while Barthelemy is a blend of 85 percent merlot and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon harvested from a single plot called “Les Rocs” for its rocky terrain.

The Amoreaus spared little expense in staging the retrospective for 20 wine writers, retaining the Michelin three-star owner and chef of Quince, Michael Tusk, to prepare a lunch that included grilled Maine lobster with chanterelle mushrooms, duck lasagna with a foie-gras sauce and lamb with black truffles and “freshly dug potato,” each course paired adroitly with Chateau le Puy wines.

Why bother, especially considering that the wines of Chateau le Puy quickly sell out each vintage and have limited distribution in northern California? Harold Langlais, a partner and associate winemaker of Chateau le Puy, and a member of the delegation to San Francisco, said the impetus for the presentation was fourfold: To show that there is more than one way to make exquisite wine and to secure a sustainable business in Bordeaux; to demonstrate that wines made with ancient, non-conventional techniques can age well; to persuade younger Bordeaux winemakers to adopt organic and biodynamic methods as a means to establish their own identity; and to convince consumers that Bordeaux wine can be both good and affordable, “like Bordeaux used to be.”

Sacramentans will need to make an effort to get their hands on Chateau le Puy wines. At this time, none is distributed in the Sacramento market, notes Ted Talley, founder of Terra Firma Wine Company in Oakland, which distributes Chateau le Puy wines in northern California. However, several outlets in the Bay Area stock the wines, including Solano Cellars in Berkeley, and Paul Marcus Wines, Oakland Yard and Bay Grape, all in Oakland. As usual, however, call a shop to confirm that a particular wine is in stock before making the trek.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.