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Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Chateauneuf du Pape Shangri-La!

Yet another fantastic, Chateauneuf du Pape based tasting was orchestrated by wine director David Gordon yesterday evening, and this time he pulled out all the stops. Celebrated importer Alain Junguenet, alongside his son, John, brought their fabulous wines and some of their most renowned producers w/ them to New York City’s bastion for all things Rhone, the Tribeca Grill. The spontaneous, energetic Olivier Hillaire provided the crowd with a performance that transcended the language barrier, while the charming Christine of Mas de Boislauzon was on hand to showcase her luxury cuvee called Quet (as well as a new wine, the 2006 Tintot, a 100 percent Mourvedre bottling from 70 year old vines). I had the good fortune to sit next to the modest Pascal Lafond of Domaine J.P. Lafond, and not only did I get to practice my nearly non-existent French with him, I also got to pick his brain a bit!

Fourteen barrel samples were poured from the soon to be released 2006 vintage and if these wines forecast what’s in store for the rest of the producers in ’06, Rhone fans are in for yet another excellent year from Chateauneuf du Pape. Most of the wines I tasted are already showcasing fresh, pure fruit flavors in a bit more effusive fashion than their ’05 counterparts, while they seem to be a bit more structure than most of the 2004 bunch that I have sampled. Some of the rare, but gorgeous white Rhones produced in 2006 beg to be discovered, and I can’t think of a better time than now for the uninitiated to begin their exploration of varieties like Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Clairette.

I’d be remiss to not mention how spectacular the menu was. Executive Chef Stephen Lewandowski conjured some of the most decadently flavored, flawless pairings I’ve yet to experience in fine dining, and his skill continues to be under-rated amongst New York foodies.

These are my impressions of the evening’s samplings. I hope you enjoy.

The whites:

Chateau Fortia, Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc 2006
From a producer that I’ve never truly acquainted myself with, Fortia produced a very bright and racy ’06 Blanc. This blend of 60% Clairette, 30% Roussanne and 10% Grenache Blanc emits scents of crisp green apple peel, ginger snap, cinnamon and quince. The flavors fan out on the palate nicely amidst an ever present crunchy acidity. A nice effort, 86 points.

Moulin Tacussel, Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc 2007
I believe this will be an early release white from the Moulin family, providing us with a sneak peak into the 2007 vintage for the whites. A blend that relies more on Roussanne (45%) and Grenache Blanc (30%), this is an exotic vixen of a white, w/ alluring notions of mandarin orange, white flowers, hints of honey and white peach leading the way. Perfumey, round and coats the palate much like a rich Soave Classico from the Garganega grape, 90 points.
Lafond Lirac Blanc, 2006
Generally a Grenache blanc dominated blend but strikes a unique aromatic chord due to the Viognier content (usually 20% or so), this value-driven white is loaded w/ tropical, floral nuances that titillate the senses. Peach, guava and baked apple scents are kept honest by a flutter of crushed stones, which frames the body in finesse alongside a racy acidity, 89 points.

Boisson Cairanne Blanc, 2006
A very odd interpretation of white Cotes du Rhone which smelled slightly madeirized and demonstrated a progressed, golden color (was much darker than all of the other whites in the flight). The wine was flaccid, overtly nutty and lacked charm and freshness. I don’t know if this is an intentional house-style, or if the bottle was simply poorly cared for, but I barely touched my glass, 65 points.

Vieux Donjon Blanc, 2006
The house of Vieux Donjon can downplay their white wine all they like as they’d have you believe they essentially ‘fashion it on a whim’ and it ‘usually turns out ok,’ but this 2006 demonstrates a sense of care and precision that I’d never associate with such haphazard descriptors. The scents are subtle, but lure you in w/ a quiet attraction that is undeniable. Scents of macadamia nut, white flowers, ginger and freshly cut melon turn mouth-coating and succulent on the palate, in a quiet explosion of fruit. Juicy, but lithe to the finish, in a symmetry that belies the producer’s winemaking commentary, 91 points.

Clos des Papes Blanc, 2006
Perhaps the queen of white Chateauneuf, with Beaucastel being the king, good vintages of Clos des Papes blanc can seduce w/ some of the most hauntingly complex, yet understated profiles that you’ll find in the Rhone. Their 2006 reminds me a bit of a fine, slow to mature Chenin Blanc, as provocative notions of lemon zest, sea shells, fig, chamomile tea and dried honey fill the air. There is such a pure, elegant core of potential complexity that begs to be cellared to reveal this young white’s inner beauty. Paul Avril says to wait 8 years before enjoying his whites, and when it comes to the 2006, I can’t help but agree w/ him, 93+ points.

Vin Rouge:

Domaine Boisson, Clos de la Brussere 2006
The vineyards of this Cotes du Rhone Villages are said to be a stone’s throw away from Rayas’ Fonsalette, and perhaps the proximity equates to quality, at least in the case of this 2006. Initially an earthy streak of iron, grilled chestnut, leather and fried lard emerge from this wine, but it’s filled w/ a pure, vibrant core of silky raspberry fruit wrapped in pepper that really win you over in terms of pleasure, as well as the provocative. More complex and textured than most any Cotes du Rhone you’ll have, 91 points.

Olivier Hillaire Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee Classique 2006
This is a Grenache dominated (80%) cuvee that seduces like a Pinot Noir, but injects a bit of sinew into the blend, thanks to a generous portion of Syrah (15%) in the cepage. Sweet and pure, with strawberry preserve, cocoa, violet and blueberry fruit leading the way to a supple textured, sexy and immediately gratifying young Chateauneuf. Should be extremely approachable young and provide pleasure for close to a decade, 91+ points.

Olivier Hillaire, Chateauneuf du Pape Les Petits Pieds d’Armand 2006
This is a single vineyard selection from Olivier and perhaps the most outrageously ‘New World’ Chateauneuf of the evening (and not because of oak or de-stemming!). A jammy, almost gushing interpretation of Grenache that pushes ripeness to the max, pumping out creamy, dark fruits over a bed of finely grained, sweet tannin. With all of the wine’s apparent excess, it is kept honest by an iron clad constitution & a plush, nearly seamless sense of grace, 93 points.

Olivier Hillaire, Les Petits Pieds d’Armand 2005
More sinewy and provocative than the gushing ’06, the 2005 has a bit firmer, more backward personality and greater potential complexity. There are touches of sea salt, anise, raspberry preserve, crème de cassis and fresh rosemary notes to be found churning against some brawny, formidable tannins. I believe this is currently a caged animal and will lash out, more intensely and profoundly as it ages in the bottle, 94+ points.

Mas de Boislauzon Chateauneuf du Pape, Cuvee du Quet 2006
A hearty, but gorgeous vintage for Quet, flexing its Mourvedre muscles, but keeps things frankly enshrouded in Grenache fruit throughout the tasting experience. There’s a sense of seriousness to the kirsch, garrigue, grilled meat and olive paste flavors that is undeniable and entirely formidable. A wine that is loaded w/ depth, tannins and blockbuster potential, 94 points.

Mas de Boislauzon, Quet 2000
I’ll be the first to admit that I have yet to find a 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape that was ‘disagreeable,’ and the cuvee Quet was no different. Currently, this wine is approaching a plateau of maturity and drinking wonderfully, with sultry hints of lilacs, sweet tobacco, dark cherry sauce and tapenade flavors that swim their way down the palate w/ complete ease. The medium bodied Quet is still juicy and rich, w/ a fine gush of mountain herbs pulsating through the suave, round and seamless finish, 92 points.

Mas de Boislauzon, 1999
What is it about 1999 Chateauneuf and brett?! I suppose John Junguenet’s description of the year as a ‘dirty vintage’ will have to suffice for today, but I have to note that the brett in Mas de Boislauzon was definitely at a level where I consider it to be an attribute, not one of which evokes notions of the Preakness. The scents were right up a Burghound’s alley, w/ a fascinating array of iron, tobacco, damp meadow, graphite, cherries and red currants seething from the glass. The mouthfeel was ethereal, w/ completely resolved tannin and bright acids pumping things along at just the right clip, 88 points.

Cuvee du Vatican, Chateauneuf du Pape Tradition 2006
Don’t get me wrong, I am not taking a stance on the modern, vs. progressive vs. traditional debate, as I believe there are excellent examples in all categories. Having said that, this estate has impressed me less and less w/ each subsequent vintage, and 2006 seems to have bottomed out my hope for the quality at the Vatican. A nose of dusty cedar foreshadows a tannic, austere and drying façade of a palate which completely buries its modest core of red fruit. Not very fun to taste, and those that wish to claim this wine is ‘closed’ better cross their fingers a bit tighter than I do mine, 82 points.

Cuvee du Vatican, Reserve Sixtine 2006
Controversial as always, with 1 and 2 year old oak being the aging vessel of choice for the Sixtine cuvee (as well as a 30% chunk of Syrah), this cuvee is a smokier, more brooding effort than the base cuvee and is as backward as any wine of the vintage that I’ve tasted (alongside the Cuvee Mon Aieul). Plump and severely tannic in the mouth, with an oak mask currently cloaking the slightly disjointed fruit. Tasting the ’99 vintage of this wine tonight gives me a bit of hope for this cuvee resolving its structure, but I doubt this vintage will ever possess that type of charm, 87 points.

Cuvee du Vatican, Reserve Sixtine 1999
Tasting this vintage provided me with a positive window to the evolutionary potential of the currently awkward ’06 Vatican wines, as this ’99 had integrated quite nicely. Notes of coffee, mint, sweet cherries and fresh berry fruit present themselves in this sappy, medium bodied effort that is squeaky clean and very well rounded. While this is an undoubtedly solid wine, it lacks the excitement and punch of what I consider to be outstanding Chateauneuf du Pape, 89 points.

Pierre Usseglio Cuvee Tradition, Chateauneuf du Pape 2006
The base cuvee of Usseglio offers up a pleasant and unique saline minerality note in the nose that I did not detect in any other ’06, alongside a rock solid palate of black cherries, underbrush and mouth watering acidity. The freshness and perfume reminds me of ’04 immediately, and the fine length suggests some positive evolution ahead, 90 points.

Usseglio Cuvee de Mon Aieul, 2006
Perhaps the staple wine for Usseglio, w/ 95% Grenache and 5% Syrah aged half in cement and the other half in foudre, and this could be the flagship wine of the vintage. The wine was frighteningly closed when I tasted it, but hinted at knee-buckling aromatics of damp earth, liqueur cordial, peat moss and succulent raspberry fruit. The intensity, depth and power of this vintage of Mon Aieul are undeniable, but I believe it will take at least 5 years for this elixir to grow into its lofty, structured robe. I’m always a sucker for tributes to old vine Grenache, 96+ points.

Usseglio Cuvee de Mon Aieul, 1999
Yikes, could this be the most under-rated wine of the vintage? What a drop dead gorgeous performance this 95% Grenache cuvee put forth last night! Strikingly pure, Elysium-esque scents of heavenly black forest cake, fig paste, black cherry liqueur and warm gingerbread caress the senses w/ the grace of a siren and the tender care of a nursing mother. The body of the wine is picture perfect in a sensually ethereal fashion, as intoxicating, plush layers of elixir cascade down the palate like a graceful Olympian. Although it really tastes nothing like it, I immediately remembered my experience tasting the 2005 La Conseillante at the UGC as this wine shares a similar visceral experience, 95 points (and I believe it is still reasonably priced in today’s market).

Chateau Fortia Reserve Speciale, 2006
I truly enjoyed speaking to the proprietor, Bruno Le Roy, at length about his separate cuvees, especially the controversial ‘Reserve Speciale’ that utilizes a whopping 85% Syrah in the blend! Bruno believes one of the beauties of Chateauneuf du Pape is the flexibility in blend, and with 13 different varieties at his disposal he plans on exploiting all their individual, as well as collective, potential in his particular terroir. While this is by no means a traditional Chateauneuf du Pape, it also is no traditional Syrah (there was nothing Northern Rhone about this). Full of heady, Chateauneuf ripeness, but backed w/ a more sinewy, taut structure than most wines of the region. There are ink, olive and framboise notes to be found, but currently the wine is a bit too unevolved to truly dig into. Bruno joked that the wine will likely have more aging potential than he does, and that is just another way of weighing in on the positives of variety flexibility that the region offers him, 87+ points.

Chateau Fortia Cuvee du Baron, 2006
2006 produced a muscular Baron, but one that already has developed nicely w/ a myriad of complexities like tobacco, grilled herbs, figs and kirsch liqueur emerging in the wine’s bouquet. Interestingly enough, the taut, sinewy structure did remind me a bit of the Speciale, but its traditional profile was very distinct. This should age more along the lines of a ’95 than a traditional ’06, 88+ points.

Chateau Fortia Cuvee Tradition, 2003
Fortia happens to be another producer that I believe got 2003 right, albeit in a bit of a superficially attractive fashion. A chewy but sweet palate is full of blackberry reduction, dark cherries, lavender and cedar notes that churn along a bed of sweet, but firm tannins to a medium, but pleasant finish. In the difficult 2003 vintage, this precocious, delicious young Fortia has to be considered a success, 89 points.

Vieux Donjon 2005
When the scents of heaven are paved w/ a gush of underground garrigue (which echoes relentlessly, I might add) and its textures coated in satin, it must be a Vieux Donjon. The 2005 is as pure and as voluptuous as any top notch Chateauneuf aspires to be. Notes of currant, game, dark fig cake and oodles of wild herbs make themselves noticeable from the get go. Donjon has been accessible sense release, and I imagine its flesh will continue to conceal its underlying tannin as she evolves. Donjon fans, you aint’ seen nothing yet, watch out for the 2006, 94 points.

Vieux Donjon 2006
To me, this baby Donjon was ridiculously accessible and already offering up an immense level of complexity, richness and nuance (this had to be the most impressive showing of all the 2006’s I tasted). A hypnotic, riveting nose of tree bark, graphite, plum sauce, black currant and fresh Provencal herbs erupt from the glass as if they were shot out of a cannon. The palate is purely a synthesis of restrained power with admirable grace and it is absolutely mind boggling to me how well this is showing at such a young age. This may rival the ’98 and I believe it should surpass the ’05 in overall quality, 95+ points.

Domaine Lafond, La Ferme Romaine Lirac 2004
I can’t say enough about the value of the Tavel based Lafond portfolio as it’s as competitive as any Rhone producer and is one of the few perennial case purchases that I could almost blindly recommend to any Rhone lover. Not the richest of wines, but the ’04 Lirac wins you over w/ its elegant nose of Bordeaux-esque asphalt, hot tar, graphite, grilled herb and peppered blackberries that are finely fashioned, well delineated and beautifully integrated throughout the palate. The geology, climate and overall potential of Lirac could possibly compete w/ top notch efforts from Chateauneuf, but it lacks the cache, rapid expansion/exploration and (most importantly) price of its more robust sibling. Hats off to Lafond for their investment in such a fabulous terroir, as well as their continued dedication to providing value (in the face of a declining dollar), 88+ points.

Lafond Chateauneuf du Pape 2001
This was the Lafond’s first vintage of Chateauneuf du Pape, from their classic blend of 80% Grenach, 10% Mourvedre and 10% Syrah. The wine is simply lovely, w/ seductive perfumes of pure raspberry, cherry and touches of thyme. The palate is personified by an easy going, pure, sensual personality w/ nary a rough edge to be found and concludes w/ a sweet finish that ties things together nicely, 89 points.

Boisson Cairanne L’Exigence 2003
A stark contrast to their blowzy white, this ’03 Cotes du Rhone is off the charts! From the turbo-charged 2003 vintage, this super-ripe Grenache based red was the richest wine of the flight (including a couple Chateauneuf du Papes)! Amped up notes of fig pudding, kirsch and molasses kissed loamy soil thunder through the nose to the palate w/o skipping a beat. While this is not exactly loaded w/ depth, it is outwardly delicious and sports some excellent fruit. In my opinion, this is a textbook case where ’03 brought levels of ripeness to neglected, less prestigious regions which allowed a producer like Boisson to crank out an outstanding wine from a relatively modest terroir, 92 points!

Bosquet des Papes, Cuvee Chante Le Merle, 2005
A primal, electrically infused style w/ charged notes of lavender, blackberry, creamy cassis and pepper that range from spicy to supple w/ each sip. The wine is rich, powerful and crammed w/ fruit that really stretches its legs out on the finish. I found this style to be a bit more progressive, but I think it really has show-stopping potential and still remains a bit under the radar as far as the super cuvees are concerned, 94+ points.

Clos des Papes 2005
Grandiose wine of the year accolades and all, this is unarguably an excellent vintage for Clos des Papes, but I think savvy fans of the estate should look to the 2004 (as I imagine it will go toe to toe w/ the ’05 in terms of quality and evolution). There is a beautiful intensity to the attack, w/ a powerful torrent of kirsch, underbrush, grilled herbs, espresso roast, licorice and wild flowers in a package of restrained exuberance. Amidst all its tension and depth, you can sense a fine, pulsating charge of minerality that pumps through the body of the wine to the finish. There really is not a weak spot to be found through the profile of this venerable producer’s effort, but oddly enough, I said the same thing about the ’04, 96 points.

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