Quirky: Characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits.
There might not be a more appropriate adjective in the dictionary to describe Le Cuvier Winery and its founder John Munch than the word quirky. As a well-seasoned veteran of the wine trade John has now been artfully crafting wine in the Paso Robes sub-region of California's Central Coast for nearly 40 years. After inadvertently finding himself in the wine business John became one of the founding partners in Adelaida Vineyards back in 1981, and in 1983 he established Le Cuvier to serve as an outlet for his own personal creativity. John eventually sold his interests in Adelaida to focus on Le Cuvier full time, and he has since established a cult following for his unique and delicious wines.
John can be described as quirky not just because of his bubbly idiosyncratic demeanor, but also because of the peculiar way he goes about making wine. Self-admittedly Le Cuvier's style has evolved gradually over the years and today their wines are made using methods that many would describe as natural or non-interventionist. When asked to divulge the most important and influential factors that shape the wines of Le Cuvier John is quick to defer credit back to the vineyards. All of the grapes used in the wines of Le Cuvier come from specifically selected vineyard sites on the west side of Paso Robles. These sites are almost all head trained, dry farmed, and organic, many with an average vine age of 20-30 years and extremely low standard yields. Harvest typically takes place at sugar levels between 24-25 brix resulting in potential alcohol levels of around 14%, which is on the low-end for warm sun-drenched Paso Robles.
Once each growing season's fruit is harvested and brought to the winery the winemaking at Le Cuvier becomes defined more by what is avoided than what is actually done. Grapes that arrive at the production facility are first lightly crushed and then placed into uniquely wide and shallow open-top fermenting tanks. Because these tanks allow for greater skin to juice contact the extraction of flavor, color, and phenolics from the skins happens naturally, and only mild punch downs are employed typically about once a day. Fermentation occurs spontaneously using native yeasts and inoculation of any kind is completely avoided. Interestingly Le Cuvier processes both red and white wines exactly the same way and always allows fermentation to occur on the skins; resulting in white wines that often display a rich golden color and unique tannic structure more typically associated with most red wine.
Typically Le Cuvier allows primary alcoholic fermentation to continue in tank until the must (AKA the fermenting grape juice) drops from its original sugar concentration of around 25 brix down to about 15 brix. At this time the Le Cuvier team does something completely unique: they rack all of their wines (both reds and whites) off the skins, out of the tanks, and directly into neutral oak barrels to complete the remainder of fermentation. Most producers would be terrified to take this approach with their reds, and many actively try to eek out as much extraction as possible by leaving juice on the skins for months after fermentation is complete, but John Munch asserts that his wines achieve all of the extraction they need by the time the must weight drops to 15 brix. This decision to pull the wine from tank and allow fermentation to finish in barrel helps the wine acquire additional depth and texture that softens and broadens the mouthfeel.
Once in barrel the fermenting must is allowed to continue to ferment to dryness. Barrels that have completed primary fermentation are topped-up and sealed without being racked off the lees. The wine then ages in barrel for at least 3 years with relatively infrequent top-ups, and is usually only racked one time after a few years when a small dose of sulfur is added to increase aromatics. Malolactic fermentation occurs naturally in barrel and the wines are evaluated and bottled with minimal sulfur added after 3 years - assuming they are deemed ready. The extended time spent aging in barrel results in evaporation taking a toll, and Le Cuvier typically loses about 8% of their total volume of wine in barrel each year to evaporation. Interestingly since water evaporates before alcohol the wines actually increase in alcohol by volume as they age, often jumping from 14% ABV up to around 15.5%. This extra concentration is achieved without desiccation or over-extraction of the fruit, allowing for delicate and complex nuances to be retained in the finished wine while amplifying body and flavor.
We recently had the chance spend some time with John Munch himself inside the gorgeous Le Cuvier library to pick his brain and taste some of his wine. The Le Cuvier library is a unique cellar located underground beneath the Le Cuvier tasting room which contains thousands of bottles of John's wine dating back to the 1980's, making it one of the oldest and most complete wine libraries in all of Paso Robles. John gave us a quick tour of the winemaking facility before guiding us down to the library and it was there during our hours of conversation that we learned about the abundance of reasons why he and his winery are so unique. Le Cuvier not only moves to the beat of their own drum in their winemaking, but their tasting experience is also a tremendous adventure. Each and every tasting here comes with a chef-tailored food pairing crafted especially for each wine, and the food pairings are typically as bold and courageous as the wine itself. We'll be the first to admit our major skepticism towards the majority of tasting room food-related ordeals, but when presented with dishes like lemon & thyme feta on rainbow cauliflower and smoked beluga lentils with crème fraîche & chives that managed to pair spectacularly with the flavorful intensity of the wines we had to admit this experience was the real deal.
All history, presentation, and quirkiness aside the wines of Le Cuvier can stand completely on their own. Le Cuvier sources a wide spectrum of grape varieties ranging from Rhone to Bordeaux grapes and even some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which is presented in a unique and seriously diverse lineup. Their white wines are all exceptional and extremely distinct, largely because of the fermentation on the skins and extended barrel aging, and possess a unique textural richness, softness, aromatic complexity that is hard to compare to anything else out there. The red wines of Le Cuvier are also remarkably interesting, again with distinct softness and textural richness behind captivating high-toned aromatics. While we enjoyed everything we tasted during our visit we were particularly struck by the Rhone-style wines we were poured, most notably a pair of Grenaches. The first, a 2015 current vintage bottling, was bright and unbelievably expressive presenting a cornucopia of red fruit along with intense spiced and earthy notes. The second, a 2011 bottling John pulled for us from the library, was amazingly developed and simply spectacular. It still showed plenty of gorgeous fruit and structure but at this stage was spewing decadent floral, spice, and tertiary notes with amazing generosity and vitality. This wine showed a raw natural edge we couldn't help but appreciate and it was absolutely singing after the additional bottle age it had been allowed to endure. We found the wines of Le Cuvier to be simultaneously complex & contemplative while remaining lovable & delicious - a feat which very few producers are able to successfully accomplish.
While Le Cuvier Winery is making some absolutely remarkable wine unfortunately quantities can be extremely limited. Their annual production of around 4000 cases leaves about enough to provide club members and the tasting room with adequate supply with no wine at all allocated for outside distribution. In fact it is not uncommon for Le Cuvier to run out of wine to pour in the tasting room and have to shut down completely until the next set of releases are ready. Despite their extreme scarcity the wines of Le Cuvier are still quite fairly priced and definitely worth seeking out. These are unconventional, unique, and completely delicious wines that must be experienced to be understood.
Through his endeavors at Le Cuvier John Munch has discovered the line between utter genius and total insanity, and he walks it with tremendous passion and conviction. We are thrilled to have gotten the chance to sit down with him and glimpse into his decades of knowledge while discovering the magic of his whimsical and wonderful wines. We hope you get the chance to experience the mystique of Le Cuvier as we did. It was one of the most educational, though provoking, and downright enjoyable winery visits we can remember.