A Date With Derenoncourt

by Chuck Hayward

A Date With Derenoncourt

Post by Chuck Hayward | October 27th, 2010

It was just a year ago when I left my previous job to join the staff at JJ Buckley, and I knew from the outset that I would get a quick introduction to the world of Bordeaux. I knew the basics: the blends, the properties, the appellations. And I knew the names of the major and minor players. But, did I really? One of the names frequently dropped by my JJB teammates was Stephane Derenoncourt, who I discovered was one of the top consulting winemakers in Bordeaux.

The JJ Buckley team in Bordeaux

JJ Buckley's recent trip there to taste the 2009s in barrel was a revelation for me. Besides providing a great opportunity to learn about the vintage at an intimate level, I was also able to discern the imprint of many of the consultants who work in Bordeaux. It became clear that Michel Rolland's wines have a certain style, wines of great power and body with luscious and full weight. When trying the wines from the properties owned by Gerard Perse, I noticed strong tannins with substantial texture. Stephane Derenoncourt's wines stood out, particularly for the harmony of fruit and tannin. They showed an exquisite balance even in the young 09's.

It has become fashionable to heap criticism on the concept of the consulting winemaker. The farmer-winemaker working his small plot of wines that expresses the terroir of his site is a powerful image. Those consultants who maintain a large and varied client list obviously cannot completely nurture a wine from vine to bottle. However, they can make wines that express a viewpoint or interpret a site and by so doing, they make just as valid a winemaking statement. Derenoncourt's style can be seen across the wines he works with, whether that be Bordeaux, Virginia or Cyprus. Yet the wines always speak of their origin, an important foundation to his winemaking philosophy.

Derenoncourt wines at the table

With Stephane's skills so evident, it was very exciting to get an invitation to meet with him and taste the new vintages of wines made under his name in California. Instead of going to the private dining room of a restaraunt or a windowless conference room at a hotel, we walked through a back door at a rather divey bar near Fisherman's Wharf to enter a beautiful art studio with an attached open kitchen where a chef was preparing tasty nibbles. The lively crowd was an unconventional assortment of winemakers, consumers and a few of us in the trade. Which would make sense, because if Derenoncourt is anything, it is unconventional.

Before us was an array of the 2007 wines to be released in the next few months and they were outstanding. Sourced from a variety of appellations in Napa and Lake Counties, they expressed Derenoncourt's hallmark style: a pure fruit expression, intensity of flavor with an effortless sense of weightlessness supported with his trademark ultrafine tannins. All the wines proved exciting, however it was the 2007 Merlot from Napa's Stagecoach Vineyard and his 2007 Cabernet Franc from the Caldwell Vineyard in Coombsville that were super-stars amid a lineup of very excellent wines.

Stephane Derenoncourt & Chuck

Stephane arrived to the tasting directly from France and was off to Napa to get his first look at the 2010s. Visiting six times a year to work on the blends and monitor the development of his wines, this trip was a quick 48 hours that which fate was destined to interrupt with a major rain storm. Looking a bit jet-lagged, and possibly concerned about how the weekend's weather would impact harvest, I withheld from taxing his patience with a barrage of questions. Instead, we agreed that an event early next year was in order where our customers could experience his wines first hand. And so I am saving my burning questions for our next encounter. Until then!