The Search for Great Terroir: Insight into California with Stéphane Derenoncourt
September 16, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi
There are few names in our industry that carry as much respect as that of Stéphane Derenoncourt and with good reason—with almost 30 years experience from literally the ground up, he is one of the great growers and winemakers of our time. Although he is modest and soft-spoken and consequently does not seek media attention, the wine world cannot help but take notice of his achievements in the vineyard and in the cellar.
At the heart of all this success is a genuine and passionate person, driven by his goal always “to make wines I love; elegant, balanced, respectful of the fruit.” The wines Stéphane loves are terroir-driven showing typicity specific to their place of growth. Stéphane strives for the ideal balance between the land and the wine which assures harmonious development of the vine and its capacity to mature the healthiest possible fruit.
It is this passion for finding and cultivating great terroir that led Stéphane to California. The allure was irresistible with our Golden State’s diverse, rich soils and exposures that have the potential to create world-class wine. But it was the opportunity and freedom to seek out just the right properties and make wines true to his vision that inspired him the most. From this vision, the Derenoncourt California project—a partnership with Montesquieu Winery—was born.
Stéphane’s quest for great terroir resulted in carefully-chosen, tiny parcels with cool microclimates and high elevations that yield a long, even growing season. These conditions ensure marvelous depth to the wines, which exhibit sensuality and richness as well as the elegance and purity that Stéphane strives for, allowing each wine’s distinctive character to shine.
A beautiful example of this character—and a prime example of what Northern California terroir can do—is our Damaru California Cabernet, a blend of Stéphane’s favorite high-elevation properties in Napa and a special volcanic parcel he is particularly enamored with in Lake County’s Red Hills region. The intensely rocky soil, full of dark obsidian rock, with its mountainous landscape, cool spring conditions and dry, hot summers, form the magical combination of site, soil and climate that Stéphane immediately fell in love with.
The inaugural vintage of Damaru, the 2008 released last October, was an instant sensation—it sold out in a matter of hours. So naturally, the 2009 Damaru has been one of the most anticipated wines of the year. The 2009 is similar to the 2008 in depth and style, yet exhibits an elevated sense of balance and elegance due to the fantastic and steady conditions of the vintage. Both vintages reflect the sensuality that is a result of Stéphane’s gift of site-selection and his sensitive, non-interventionist winemaking techniques.
Stéphane’s roots are in Bordeaux, his philosophy is deeply intertwined with Burgundy, and his heart is swept up in the spirit of adventure here in California and around the world! His mentor and hero, Henri Jayer of Vosne-Romanée fame, is known for saying, “A great wine is crafted in the vineyard, not in the cellar.” Stéphane’s approach embodies this philosophy: before he makes any wine, before he embarks on any new venture, he visits the land, walks the vineyard and observes the terroir. Quietly, thoroughly and intimately.
Stéphane and Hélène Mingot spent countless hours searching vineyard after vineyard for just the right sites that would bring singular and distinctive character to our wines, allowing nature to shine through. They then spend even more time in the vineyard getting to know each parcel and its vines intimately.
Few in the wine world have such a genuine “of the earth” experience. Stéphane may not have been born into the wine world, but he sure was born for it! We at Montesquieu Wines consider it an honor to be able to spend time with him and to share his insight and the passion that goes into his wines with fellow wine lovers around the country.