In all of my 10 years writing about wine and spirits you would think that nothing surprises me anymore. Not the case when I met winemaker John Munch at Le Cuvier Winery. Not only did I learn a bit about some of his unique winemaking techniques, I also was treated to three hours in his cellar to taste library wines, and then time in the tasting room where every wine is paired with a creation by their chef. Going home with the latest releases my mind boggles, do I have now or do I cellar for a decade or more in true Munch Style and enjoy well into retirement. You read, you decide:
Once you drive the windy hill road up to the property and park your car you will be able to take in a tremendous view. Munch greeted us in the parking lot, interrupting us from our gaze and we meandered over to the winery crush pad. I knew I’d be back out there soon enough and could snap photos to my heart’s content. We were about to see where the work that mattered takes place.
Munch had already explained that he was handing over the full time winemaking responsibility to Clay Selkirk, but we knew that Munch’s fingerprint was on everything. Munch had been making wine in Paso for years, beginning with Adelaida Vineyards and then for Estrella. The winery had originally been built by Munch as a spec house, started in 1978 and not completed until 2008. Le Cuvier Winery opened in 1983.
The vineyards are all dry farmed and head pruned, no inoculations or sulfites are used and no fining agents. They harvest premium grapes from limestone and calcareous sources. The current harvest ran from September 4 through the 24th.
Munch paraphrased Harold McGee, from his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, “Wine in the glass did not come from grapes, it’s all yeast and metabolism of the grape.” Munch added that by not using yeast and sulfites he hasn’t experienced a bad vintage. “It has little to do with winemaking so (just) let grapes do what they will.”
On barrels Munch believes that each barrel has the potential to take off in “its own personality.” He loses some to evaporation when in barrel for two years. NO NEW OAK is the mantra at Le Cuvier and has been for a long time, ever since Munch was visited by Jacques Perrin, of Chateau de Beaucastel, and was told to stop using new oak. In one year Munch switched new for old, and now you can “taste the vineyard and not the oak.” Some of the barrels date back to the 1980s and the new wine made in them “still tastes great.”
Munch explained that every bottle produced is sold at the winery, 90% to club members and 10% to walk in guests. They make 12 to 15 different wines per year, and they always hold back a few cases.
I knew that Munch had a cellar of library wines, that much is true, as in our email exchange in making our appointment he wrote, “We have a library containing 7000 plus bottles going back to my first vintage in 1981, so we could taste a few older wines in addition to touring & tasting our current release wines. Please let me know your specific wine interest, & also how much time you want to spend with us.”
I had written back an overly exuberant reply, pretty much stating I would spend as much time as he had and drink whatever he wanted to try. Still not wholly aware I entered his cellar only to find cases of wines lining both sides of a hall, then at the end a room lined with more cases, and a large banquet table set up with cheese, charcuterie, olives, crackers and of course several wine glasses and decanters. Being the gracious host Munch asked about our interests again, and being the appreciative writer I stuck to my answer, whatever he wanted to open…but we do sometimes prefer Bordeaux and Zins… Munch perused his clip board, flipped back and forth, and we began:
Either his notes or his memory served him as Munch said the wine was made from Westside vineyards, again with no sulfites, no fining and it had been fermented on the skins. (Without new oak I gathered that the skin contact would indeed contribute to color.)
The wine was honey-colored with a bouquet of bruised apple, incense, honeysuckle, with just a hint of mown grass and celery, with the same flavors on the mouth. Little to no acid made it very round to me, and the flavors lingered in my mouth, and then in memory. Munch thought there was a bit of cork taint, but I thought that blew off in a few minutes. It would be the wine he and I both returned to later in the tasting. Munch commented, “An old Cabernet and an old Chardonnay have more in common”, which made me think that I definitely want to lay down some Chard, preferably his, in my cellar.
With the color of dark burgundy to espresso, the bouquet included raspberry, pepper, deep, rich fruit and florals, layers of spice, forest floor and earthiness. The taste reminded me of a vintage port, very balanced and nicely spiced. Munch commented, “Picking out raisins is no what Zin is all about.” And I for one was glad those raisins stayed in the mix.
This red wine is made in the Solera method with several different vintages to create the whole. What we knew was that it was bottled in 2011, all wines were close to 15 – 16 years old (vintages ranged from 1998 to 2008) , varietals may have included old to newer Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. And as Munch said, it was a way to get rid of any excess by creating a blend.
A nice purple color with a huge bouquet that included dark, fresh berries and earthy. The flavors were very fresh, reminiscent of a fine cognac, dark fruit and chocolate.
2011 Signature Series
With 90% Malbec and 10% Cabernet from a vineyard that had been dry farmed. The color was a dark purple, I noted aromas of all dark fruit and flavors that included that same dark fruit, balanced with pepper and a lovely long finish.
I was experiencing a bit of palate fatigue here as I hadn’t noticed the pour out bucket, nor was Munch using one so it was my excuse to drink to my pleasure, so my notes on this wine is lacking. I drank quite a bit of water and rested a bit before I went upstairs for the food paired tasting that was on the schedule next. Munch said he was going off for a nap…I was a little jealous, but not for too long…
Wine and Food Paired Tasting
Before leaving us in the tasting room Munch shared this reasoning for why they serve food with their wines, we “create a ‘shadow’ of what they could be” for when you take them home and pair yourself. Recipes for all of the chef’s pairings are also available online.
2014 Chrysos paired with winter squash soup with pepitas.
75% Viognier, 25% Roussanne, skin contact, honey in color and aroma along with rich and ripe fruit: Meyer lemon, peach and kiwi. The pairing mellowed the acid in the wine quite pleasantly.
2014 Grenache (Devil’s Gate Wine Works) paired with duck breast on endive with pomegranate seeds & reduction.
Four years in barrel, I found the wine very aromatic with flavors of tart red cherry as well as dark berry. Again the pairing lowered the acid and also brought out more layers in the wine.
2015 Littoral paired with cheddar, chive and black pepper gougere.
I was told that this wine is normally Cab Franc, however this vintage was 42% Petit Verdot, 30% Cab Franc and the remaining percentages were taken up by Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. When swirling the glass we were asked to note the “stained glass” appearance that was due to dry farming. The wine had spent three years in neutral oak for aging. The color was bright and charming, and the nose held red to black fruit and pepper – all in balance. The flavor proved to be fresh and dark too, again with a nice balance of red and black fruit, followed by a welcome heat. The food pairing softened the acid and opened up the fruit even more.
NV Pentimento paired with mushroom polenta with goat cheese and wine reduction.
The 2018 release of the Pentimento using the Solera style where some of the wines contributing over 21 years of aging. The breakdown is 61% from previous years, 20% of 2015 Petit Verdot and the remaining percentage is 2015 Cab Franc. The name Pentimento is based on Lillian Hellman’s biography of the same name, referencing the past influencing the present. Black cherry titillates your nose while the flavor is very rich and layered, made brighter by the pairing.
2015 Zinfandel paired with candied rosemary mixed nuts.
Again we have a dry farmed grape, that gave aromas of dark fruit, chocolate and a slight dark vegetation. On the mouth we got that same dark fruit and chocolate as well as a hint of a sweet finish.
Stay tuned to Le Cuvier Winery this upcoming February 2019 for a new release, the L’Enfant de Papel, aka The Pope’s child, a GSM blend that is sure to wow like all the others on its own and in a pairing.
Le Cuvier Winery
To see the photo grids from all of our Paso winery visits from this trip click this.
Eve Bushman has a Level Two Intermediate Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), a “certification in first globally-recognized course” as an American Wine Specialist ® from the North American Sommelier Association (NASA), Level 1 Sake Award from WSET, was the subject of a 60-minute Wine Immersion video (over 16k views), authored “Wine Etiquette for Everyone” and has served as a judge for the Long Beach Grand Cru and the Global Wine Awards. You can email Eve@EveWine101.com to ask a question about wine or spirits. You can also seek her marketing advice via Eve@EveBushmanConsulting.com