One of the greatest finds of this trip was not that difficult to find. Surrounding the Chateau Du Heux of my host are great fields of wine grapes. These vines belong to Domaine Chiroulet – run by Phillipe Fezas and this family. They are the latest of their family who have made wine in the Ténarèze soil for 150 years in six generations. The Fezas are a prototypical Gascon family – joyful, friendly, and generous. They are also incredible winemakers. Phillippe is a fascinating study. He may be the most knowledgeable man I have ever met on oak and its role in wine-making. A consultant for the leading houses in France and widely respected in the field, he has a variety of Russian, French, and American oak barrels at his operation. More on this later. What he also has is a splendid Gascon wine that should find itself in every American wine store.
Phillipe is an agricultural engineer and oenologist who took over the family’s 110 acre vineyard in 1993. Merlot grapes predominate in a blend that Phillipe struggles to get right each year with a mix of both grapes and oaks.
On our first visit, Phillipe took us into the fields behind our Chateau and showed us the terrior; Part of the field has a limestone base while other parts have greater clay deposits – a lucky combination for the wine produced at Domaine Chiroulet. We then did a tasting. We started with the Terres Blanches Chiroulet, which came from the limestone areas. You can pick up the blend’s Sauvignon Blanc and Ugni Blanc with strong floral and citrus notes. The moderate acidity gives it a refreshing quality on warm Gascon evenings. We then turned to La Cote d’Heux from the clay area. We then tried the Soleil D’Autome – a sweeter white wine that was particularly good. We then tried their winter wine from 2007. This wine is picked by hand from the grapes left on the vines in winter. It is served cold and has a strong raison taste. It was lovely.
We also tried the Floc de Gascogne. Like Armagnac, this is a well-known local delight. Much like port, it is a fortified wine using Armagnac (which makes it highly deceptive in its alcohol content). Many a tourist has found themselves unable to walk after a pleasant afternoon enjoying Floc. I do not like the Rose Floc, which is sweet and tastes too much like a wine cooler. However, the Blanc is quite good and retains its wine body and taste more after fortification.
After peppering Phillipe on his use of French versus American oak, he immediately invited us to return to try the same wine directly from the various barrels. It was one of the most delightful and illuminating lessons of my life. Like most French winemakers, Phillipe is an unabashed advocate for French oak and, while recognizing the unique attributes of American oak, tends to discount the value of American oak for a lack of sophistication in the development of wine. American oak is viewed by the French as being extraordinary in terms of the aromatique percue dans les vins. However, it is viewed as too much so – making it better for Merlot or Shiraz. For the Intensite Tannique, they often turn to European or Russian oak. The Chene Francais, however, is viewed as the best in bringing out the fruit of the wine. Some American producers would agree with that view, though others would stress that it becomes on the selection of the oak. Phillipe, however, made an impressive show of the difference of the oaks – using the same red wine. His concern was that some American wines elevate the oak over the grape – where you taste the wood and not the terrior and fruit. The French value the complexity of the wines as it brings out the different fruit (particularly blackberry and cherry fruit) and a moderately long finish. The red Grande Réserve is roughly 60% Merlot and 40% Tannat.
Phillipe blends the various oaks and uses giant casks in addition to the classic barrels to age the wine. The giant casks hold 225 liters or 300 bottles. Like the classic barrels, they are “toasted” or burned on the inside. However, it takes seven hours to toast just one of these giant casks due to their size and shape. Unlike the barrels which are at their prime for 2-3 years, the casks are good for 25 years.
Our first tasting came from the Russian oak from the Caucasus. The oak brought out clear fruits in the wine after one year. The second barrel of older wine in the Russian oak was more structured while still midway in its aging process. You could now pick up stronger blackberry taste. We then turned to the French oak. There is no question that the wines showed more complexity and development. The 2008 in the French oak was drier and more fruity. The best came from the Icon French oak. Phillipe looks for the best oak with the finest grain and other criteria. However, he has worked on the Icone system, which uses technology to identify the very best oak by isolating known elements. Icône Elegance is aimed at high-end wine making. In articles published in places like “American Journal of Enology and Viticulture” (AJEV 61:3:408-413, 2010), the company has isolated the chemical composition of oak that produce the sensory of aging in oak. This process found that such things as furanic compounds tended to increase oak intensity while decreasing fruit intensity. That is enormously valuable research.
You can taste the difference in Phillipe’s Icone barrels. The wine was smooth and complex and elegant. This is the wine for the Grand Reserve of Chiroulet, which is their best and easily competitive with the top wines outside the region. I particularly like the 2003 Grand Reserve. The appellation is vin de pays des cotes de gascone. Tannins have mellowed and a longer finish is brought out in the wine. While many question the true effect or real taste of the terrior in wine, this wine has a strong earthy taste as well as fruit.
The American oak certainly showed its signature aromas and, yes, oakiness. We tried the standard American oak and then an American oak selected through Icon. There was a pronounced difference. I actually like American Icone oak as much as the French. Phillipe noted that Icon “would save American oak.” This is not as parochial as it may at first seem. Phillipe is the most knowledgeable man I have encountered on oak (a personal fascination of mine). He loves the different oaks, including American oak and incorporates them into his operation to build in greater complexity.
I also asked Phillipe about his view on the roaring debate over corks. Again, like many French producers, he believes that the interaction of the cork does continue to improve the wine in the bottle and strongly dislike synthetic corks (which I share). He does have some screw tops but relies mainly on cork. Again, he is a leader on new technology in the industry. He now uses a composite cork in which cork elements are introduced. Using the same process used to remove caffeine from wine, the technology allows winemakers to isolate the elements in the cork that are known to interact with the wine. They do this by exposing cork to very cold carbon-dioxide at very high pressure. The objective is to remove tri-chloroanisole (TCA) or “cork taint” which can give wine that woody taint. Many American producers are turning to the system. The result is a better compressed cork with the full benefits of a pure cork.
Phillipe ships about forty percent of his 400,000 bottles abroad – with Japan as the biggest foreign market. Only about ten percent of the exports goes to the United States. That is a situation that needs remedy. This Cru Gascon would appeal to many Americans, as it does to me. Indeed, Domaine Chiroulet is growing with the success of its wines and I expect that you will see more of it in the states. If you do, buy it and you will get a unique taste of Gascon life.
Here are a few more pictures courtesy of my friend Allison Mabe McBane: