Morlet Family Vineyards from Champagne to Napa Valley
By Kerry Winslow
Luc Morlet’s star is rising, and after setting the world a light while the head winemaker at Peter Michael he is proving to be one of Napa’s elite stylists of artisan wines. Morlet comes from more than four generations of Champagne making and growing heritage and in which he started young, before his 6th birthday working the vineyards in Ay, a Grand Cru site in the region. Luc began humbly, as he was put to use as a compost spreader, making sure there was equal parts, horse manure, cow manure and chicken droppings and over the years worked his way up to crafting the family bubbly. Always eager to learn and innovate Morlet took his organic and natural concepts with him, but was always ready to adapt to the vintages needs, a less dogmatic approach, but one that has served him well, and it shows in each of his wines. He married his wife Jodie, an American from Sacramento, and has made his home in Napa Valley, leaving Champagne and his family wines behind him, striking out on his own path. For a Frenchman, this must have been a huge weight to bare, but one he has managed in spectacular fashion, as he is now world renown for his California wines, which he makes in very limited quantities and which sell out with weeks of release.
Luc studied in Rheims, earning a viticulture degree at the Ecole Viticole de Champagne, a Masters graduate in Enology, then an MBA in Business from Dijon Business School in Burgundy. Morlet explains that while the winemaking degree was important, he knew to make his life better and to be a success in the wine industry he had to focus on the business side with equal energy. All the while, during his years of study, he interned at as many wineries as he could, both in Burgundy and in Bordeaux. In Bordeaux at the ripe age of 22, Luc got cast as the head winemaker at a Chateau, when the owner though a change was needed and let the former master of wine for the property go before harvest, and Luc not only pulled it off, he thrived and the owner has since told him that he thinks that the best wine the Chateau has ever produced came under young Morlet’s direction. But Luc’s big chance to star came when he took over at Peter Michael in California, and with the world watching his every move and drop of wine, he raised the game there and produced some of the famed winery’s most successful wines. He just seems to have a special touch, and a few tricks to make what he calls seamless wines of great depth, but of greater pleasure as well.
With his own label, Morlet has taken his style, “naturalist” winemaking to even greater heights with a line up of Chardonnay and Cabernet that rival the worlds top wines, plus a wonderful Semillon and Sauvignon blend that has almost cult like status, as well as a selection of fantastic Pinot Noirs. Tasting through the Morlet Family Vineyards wines was a moment to be cherished; as each one offers massive amounts of hedonistic joy and Luc’s personal touch that is part terroir and part passion. His wines showcase his no compromise mentality and dedication to his craft, he has a deft touch and while his wines are very lush, plump and giving they also show how skilled in allowing the vineyards to shine through and for allowing complex and delicate flavors to shine on the palate without losing any of the richness and smooth texture that are hallmarks of his wines.
Luc tries to let the wine do its own thing from the beginning, and promotes natural yeasts and with very gentle handling of the grapes from the vines to the bottle. Most of his wines see no filtration or fining at all and he picks his lots of fruit at night to ensure maximum freshness, in small bins and put directly on cooled transport. Morlet also believes air flow in the vineyard and in fermentations are one of the most important factors, often overlooked, in winemaking and goes to great length to ensure that the grapes and the wine itself have it all right, and that they breath in just the right amount at key moments along the way to the finished product. He credits Helen Turley as the one of the first people to relate this to him and focus his attention to every detail of how air can make a difference. Morlet know owns his own vineyards in Knights Valley, near to Peter Michael’s Estate and he is making sure his land has just the right air flow to produce the kind of wines that he has in mind. While Luc has left Peter Michael as head winemakers, he has still remained close and has in fact turned over the winemaking control there over to his brother Nicholas Morlet, so the style there has not changed from his own in any great way and you can see the great similarities in both sets of wines.
Like Helen Turley and Marc Aubert before him, Luc, after leaving Peter Michael has succeeded in making handcrafted masterpieces for which the wine world can’t seem to get enough of! Morlet recently showed of his line up of 2008 vintage Chardonnay, of which came and sold out in days and the as of yet unreleased Cabernet Sauvignons, as well as the mentioned Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc (with some Muscadelle) blend called “La Proportion Doree” all of which were mind-blowingly awesome. Luc at first seems quiet, a bit shy even, but when he gets talking his intensity of passion lets loose and he bursts out of his shell with vigor and an enthusiastic glow, it is hard not to enjoy his company and even harder not to fall in love with his wines. Almost every top wine critic has given their stamp of glorious respect and endorsement, from Tanzer, Wine Enthusiast to Wine Spectator to the king of all wine critics Robert Parker, all have been captivated by Morlet’s wines, and I admit I am a huge fan now as well.
The Morlet whites, the “La Proportion Doree”a Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle cuvee, Sonoma County ( 93 Points, grapelive $60) and Chardonnay’s “Ma Douce” Sonoma Coast (95 Points, grapelive $75) , and “Ma Princesse” Russian River Valley (97 Points, grapelive $85) that I tried from the 2008 vintage were all remarkable wines that had that something special that all great wines seem to have, a dimension beyond that words can’t do justice. These Chardonnay’s are made with old Wente clone, meaning they are from older cuttings and that the berries are tiny, giving more intensity and concentration of flavors. While all the wines have distinct California fullness they also capture the soul of their historical inspiration, with the “La Proportion Doree” having reference to and relation to a fabulous Graves Blanc, like Haut-Brion and the Chardonnay’s as well give many of the same pleasures as the great Grand Cru White Burgundies of which I likened to Batard-Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne personally, as I had enough experience to make that comparison, though in the case of “Ma Princesse” I think might even better than any of the Grand Cru. These wines show class and elegance that put them in an elite group, and unfortunately the price does too, as they are not as easy on the wallet as they are on the palate, and while Luc wants all his wine to be drunk and enjoyed as purely wine, they have also been bought up by those that want to show off their cellars and by those that primarily purchase wine for investment, for which we might think would be a shame, but given the cost, it is understandable.
Then there was the 2008 samples of the future release of Cabernet Sauvignon, three very different versions that will again show the talent of Luc and his family’s team and of the quality of the vineyards used. Again the pricing is extreme, though when compared to like priced top wines from Napa and or Bordeaux they fit nicely and don’t seem out of place, it is just that I wish I could afford them myself, so it there is any sour grapes on the cost, it is from my only, and because I am envious of those for which these wines must seem like a value or bargain! Which, I am sure they are, no question. The vintage 2008 is still not getting much press attention and may not garner the same praise as the 2007 has, but I think it is a mistake to make a real judgment on the year as I have found across the board that the wines have taken a bit longer than normal to develop and from what I’ve tasted there is promise of a great future to come. I find them extremely young and closed, but when given time to open there is enough to tell you that with a bit more age there is magic to be had. I found this especially true in Pinot Noir, where some critics had almost written over the vintage as light and simple, I have found lately the wines filling out and offering much great depth and detail that the highly praised 2007’s. Anyone that has had Pinots from Brewer-Clifton or anything from the Gary’s Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands can tell you with a doubt are much better now than the 2007 vintage and getting better all the time, and I think we’ll see much the same thing with the 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon’s over the next couple of years. Now, whether the original critics are willing to be honest later is another thing to be considered, but I am willing to bet 2008 will not be anything but a superb vintage to have and cellar mid to long term. This view was put to Luc Morlet, and he had a twinkle in his eyes, and wholeheartedly made it know that was how he felt too and after tasting his early bottle samples I am even more convinced as they were as good as any 2007 wine, with a few exceptions, that I’m tried from top Napa estates.
Morlet’s Cabernet(s), the “Coeur de Vallee” (93-95 Points, grapelive $175) from grapes that came exclusively from Beckstoffers To-Kalon Vineyard, the “Mon Chevalier” (95-96 Points, grapelive $155) from Knight’s Valley (Like Peter Michael’s Les Pavots) and his “Passionement” (94-96 Points, grapelive $225) a best barrel selection from the cellar all are stars in their own right, though I found at this stage still need a some time to show off the best that is in hiding now, that said, I loved them all and see amazing potential in all of them. I did personally favor the “Mon Chevalier” from vineyard sites in Knight’s Valley, as it was showing the most at this time and had softened enough to show layers of massive black fruits and smoother tannins, and I was thinking it had a wonderful Chateau Margaux likeness and style.
Morlet also does a tiny amount of Syrah, that was inspired by his experience of trying a Chapoutier Emitage, a Northern Rhone 100% Syrah, though I have not had a chance to try yet, it is called “Bouquet Garni” and is available through his mailing list and a few wine merchants. Also, Luc in the 2009 vintage was able to produce a Chateau D’Yquem style sweet wine from late harvested Semillon, of which I did try and found again sublime and it will be release at a later date to his mailing list clients. One thing he will never do is make sparkling wine outside of Champagne, that is the big promise he made to his family when left France, and one he feels he must keep, even though he has been tempted I’m sure. Luc is rooted in tradition and honors the nature of a place, something he picked up from his father and grandfather, but not locked into and single way of doing things. I think from reading this, you can get a sense that rust never sleeps with Morlet around and that he is a hard working guy that has to be doing something all the time, and his attention to detail is beyond doubt. He is also a man that follows his heart, but also a man that is open to a better way and not overly opinionated or set in his ways, always allowing for new ideas or able to change paths when the vines or vintage shows a more promising signal. Morlet has his feet on the ground though he considers himself an iconoclast, and from my limited time around him, had me believing him a winemaker in total pursuit of perfection, but intelligent enough to enjoy everything that nature ends up giving, and I think his wine reflect all of the qualities and more.
A Special Thank you to 750 Wines, in St. Helena for inviting me to this tasting with Luc Morlet