Wine: Natural Progression

<< Back to Robb Report, December 2003
  • Jordan MacKay

From the winery at Peter Michael, a road wends its way along a stream toward the mounting hillsides of Knights Valley in Sonoma, California. Les Pavots, the famous vineyard and source of the eponymous red blend, looms lush in the foreground. High above, the white soils of Chardonnay vineyards La Carrière and Ma Belle-Fille climb steeply to the sheer rock face of Mount St. Helena. Luc Morlet, winemaker at Peter Michael, insists that this ruggedly beautiful, severe, and austere landscape deserves all accolades for the winery’s mineral, deeply concentrated reds and whites. But after just two years under Morlet’s deft yet delicate hand, Peter Michael has achieved the improbable: improving upon its already acclaimed wines.
Founded in 1982, Peter Michael sells its wines exclusively through restaurants and by mailing list. The winery debuted its first vintage in 1989 and, under the guidance of winemakers Helen Turley and Mark Aubert, soon rose to the upper echelon of California estates.

Morlet became winemaker in 2001 and has since ushered Peter Michael in a radically progressive direction. "I believe foremost in harmony," explains the native of Champagne, France, "that things are true to their terroir, true to what they are." Following lessons learned during stints in Burgundy and Bordeaux, Morlet favors methods tending more toward subtraction than addition. Though not advertised as such, Peter Michael vineyards are completely organic. (The practice is important, Morlet half-jokes, "because you know who drinks the most Peter Michael wine out of anyone in a year? Me. And so I want them to be clean.") Gone are fertilizers and pesticides. Gone also are cultured yeasts. And though the native yeasts Morlet uses may take more than 50 days to ferment a wine, the results, he maintains, are more complex wines that eloquently express their place of origin.
Morlet’s first vintage, 2001, offers ample validation of his techniques. The La Carrière Chardonnay breathes lemon and lime with mineral that suggests Puligny-Montrachet; its gorgeous finish of sweet white flower petals lingers for ages on the tongue. Tasted from the barrel, the 2001 Les Pavots Estate Cabernet—a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot—displays amazing complexity at such a young age, with deep flavors of coffee, chocolate, and dark black fruit. Round and ripe tannins provide a stout finish that will see this wine through many years in the cellar. "These wines speak for the vineyards," says Morlet. "I only help them along."

The only wine in which Morlet acknowledges his influence is the Point Rouge Chardonnay, a small-batch blend of the vineyards’ finest barrels. It eschews the raw power one frequently finds in a tête de cuvée for an ethereal presence in the mouth. "I don’t try to be powerful," the winemaker explains. "I want to be complex." And while Morlet often redirects onto the vineyards praise meant for him, he admits that "Point Rouge is the expression of the art of blending; it goes beyond terroir." He is, however, quick to add: "Well, it is the expression of each of the vineyards and me, working together."

Peter Michael Winery, 800.354.4459, www.petermichaelwinery.com

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