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Wine: Michael Shaps, a Virginia-Burgundy blend

Michael Shaps, in his Charlottesville vineyard. (Margaret Thomas for The Washington Post)

Fans of Virginia wine know Michael Shaps is one of the state’s leading winemakers. His custom-crush facility, Virginia Wineworks, is where he makes wines under his own label as well as a relatively inexpensive line of Wineworks wines. He also consults for nearly two dozen fledgling wineries that make their wines at his facility, as well as several more established wineries in the Charlottesville area.

Oh, and he makes wine in France.

Most "flying winemakers" split their efforts between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, so harvests are six months apart. Shaps works simultaneously in Virginia and Burgundy, with the help of a cellphone and a team of budding young winemakers he recruited for Wineworks from the famous Lycée Viticole de Beaune, where he studied in the early 1990s.

And that's his French connection. While studying in Beaune, Shaps became close friends with Michel Roucher-Sarrazin, a member of the winemaking team at Domaine Chartron et Trebuchet, a well-regarded but now defunct estate. A few years ago, they formed Maison Shaps et Roucher-Sarrazin, a boutique wine label specializing in fine chardonnays from Meursault and pinot noir from various Burgundy appellations.

Most years, Shaps will take advantage of a break during harvest, while the cabernet sauvignon slowly ripens, to hop a flight to France and participate in harvest along the Cote d'Or. This year, Virginia's early harvest and a rush of new clients kept him at home in Charlottesville.

He's a big fish in a small pond in Virginia, and a minnow in the ocean in Burgundy. But Shaps relishes the challenges of making wine in both places.

Burgundy has centuries of tradition that Shaps and Roucher-Sarrazin want to respect, whereas Virginia is more like a free-wheeling frontier: The only rules are those nature itself imposes on the grapes. In Virginia, Shaps is helping to establish standards for the state's wine industry. He adjusts his approach accordingly.

“In Burgundy, the objective is to be true to the appellation and bring out the unique nuances of each site,” Shaps says. In Virginia, on the other hand, “the objective is to create a wine that offers mature fruit, concentration, good tannic extraction, and enough oak to help the wine develop and age.”

Shaps buys his Virginia Chardonnay from Wild Meadow Vineyard in Loudoun County, where the grapes achieve exceptional concentration. He vinifies it the same way he does premier cru white Burgundy from Meursault -- with about 50 percent of the wine fermented and aged in new oak barrels. While the Burgundy is more age-worthy, sometimes taking five years to unwind and develop its character, the Virginia Chardonnay typically integrates with the oak within two years, Shaps says.

The Michael Shaps Chardonnay may not age as well as his Shaps et Roucher-Sarrazin Meursault, but it can definitely resemble its French role model. Last year, at The Food section's "Judgment of D.C." blind tasting of French and American wines, professional tasters from retail stores and restaurants mistook the Michael Shaps Chardonnay for a top-flight Puligny Montrachet.

The wines also complement each other in marketing. "People in Virginia who know me for my Virginia wines are often willing to try the Burgundies,” Shaps says, “while in other markets such as New York, they may know my Burgundies, and that gives an intro for the Virginia wines.”

The current releases of the Maison Shaps et Roucher-Sarrazin wines feature an effusive, brambly Pinot Noir de Bourgogne 2008 ($19) that should fly off retail shelves and be prominent on by-the-glass wine lists. Their Chardonnay de Bourgogne ($19), sourced from the Macon and vineyards around Puligny, is crisp and minerally.

Among the whites, the Meursault 2007 ($52), made with hillside fruit grown at the highest point in the village, is minerally, vibrant and structured; the 2006 Meursault Premier Cru Les Cras ($75) is fatter and richer, with prominent oak. it was quite lively, changing by the minute in the glass.

The reds include a delicate Cote de Nuit Villages 2007 ($27) and an earthy, mushroomy Gevrey-Chambertin Les Crais 2006 ($58), as well as a velvety Volnay 2006 Premier Cru Les Santenot ($62).

Michael Shaps is scheduled to pour some of his Virginia wines and his Burgundies on Saturday, from 1-5 p.m., at Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits.

-- Dave McIntyre
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By Dave McIntyre  | October 14, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags:  Wine  
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