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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A rollercoaster ride through the best of ’98 Chateauneuf du Pape

Executive Wine Seminars put together a staggering lineup of the top dogs from the heralded ’98 vintage to evaluate how they’ve taken to a decade of aging. As my title suggests, there were some mouth frothing highs and some knee in the nuts lows that transcend the cliché ‘peaks and valleys.’ While one expects a bit of the good old ‘up and down’ in tasting through flights of wine (especially when blinded), but the 90 degree inversion that occurred in the last two flights of the evening make the steep slopes of the Mosel look like the plains of Kansas.
A couple brief conclusions from the evening (all of which are frank, yet profoundly strike you in events such as these):
  • Tired but true, bottle variation is not a myth, especially in Chateauneuf du Pape. Whether it has to do w/ transit issues, a late vs. early release situation or simply a separate lot number, it is legit and can lead to significant consequences. Clos des Papes 2003 anyone?
  • One of the best deals in Chateauneuf is Vieux Donjon, w/ Charvin close behind. It truly is enjoyable to watch these humble producers slay hyper priced luxury cuvees in events such as these. Year in, year out they consistently make exquisite wines for fair prices w/ minimal fanfare or boisterous ego (no cults necessary).
  • Chapoutier rocks.

‘Nuff said. Bring on the bacon:

First flight, a stumble & a stench that brought the crowd to their feet:

Wine 1:
A jam packed porty mess that showed notes of oxidation and cooked fruit notes in the nose that were monstrous, yet utterly unyielding in the palate and could only demonstrate force w/o the flesh. As it turns out, Janasse Vieilles Vignes was not a right bottle, but neither was the other bottle that was poured. I can personally attest to this wine performing in outstanding fashion a couple months back and this example brought no recollection of that greatness back to my mind, NR.

Wine 2:
Much prettier in its perfume than the former, as kirsch, lilac and blue fruits emerge from the glass in pleasant, endearing fashion. The wine is opulent, tannic and chewy in the mouth, yet withdrawn and lacking in substance to sustain the finish as the wine dries out in a bit of a whimper. An experience I liken to biting into the skin of the cherry, without enjoying the sweet juices that normally follow. A rare agreement w/in the crowd, this Cailloux Cuvee Centenaire had seen better days (although wasn’t a bad drink), 89 points.

Wine 3:
Here lies the necessary slap in the face as the aromatics of number three remind me why this region charges up my batteries. A gorgeous vision of a wine, w/ oodles of black truffles, cedar, graphite, crème de cassis, raspberry ganache and forest floor notes that left a tactile, engrossing impression on me immediately. The mouthfeel is explosive and striking, with a gorgeous sense of vibrancy and multidimensional texture that renders me pleasured and clamoring for another sip. Who needs multiple cuvees? Vieux Donjon was indeed the bargain of the vintage, 98 points.

Wine 4:
The Moses of the flight parted the ruby red seas into a dichotomy of the stank-ophiles and the stank-ophobes. Immediately identifiable scents of reduction and brett envelope the nose w/ a sort of a gamey, sweaty leather strap sense of sauvage charm that endeared most, yet repulsed others. In spite of the controversial aromas, the wine is delectable in the palate, as round, layered and polished sensations of grilled herbs, spicy plum, tobacco and pepper almost soothe the senses. This is undoubtedly an unabated expression of Chateauneuf (which old school fans believed was not only the holy grail, but what the region ‘is supposed to be’), but Bois de Boursan Cuvee des Felix was also a wine of great purity ’98, 95 points.

Wine 5:
The first of the two more modernly constructed cuvees of the evening showed quite well at age ten. A lavish tapestry of crème de cassis, mocha, melted licorice and the essence of kirsch liqueur seduced me immediately through the nose, almost beckoning the taster to sip. In the mouth, the wine is dapper, with suave liqueur like fruit that glides along polished tannins and permeate through to the finish. This is the most suave, deepest Chateau La Nerthe ‘Cuvee des Cadettes’ that I’ve yet to experience, 96 points.

Flight 2, a vile and wretched root canal of an experience:

Wine 6:
Apparently there was a ‘good bottle’ of number 6, and my tasting experience w/ the good bottle was a fleeting one (Posner chugged and slurped away my opportunity at greatness) so all I was left w/ was the clumsily massive, disjointed mess of hot Amarone garbage that I might as well have used to degrease the engine of my car. It’s a shame too, as I’d imagine only the devilish of characters could allow a Pegau Da Capo to be cooked to this degree. Well hey, the body was nice, just wasn’t quite the ride I’d hoped for, NR.

Wine 7:
The best wine of the flight was Mr. Modern number two, but a bit less seamless in comparison to the Cadettes. Still quite toasty at this stage, with rich cedar, loam, black currant, spice box and blackberry sauce accompanying the warm barrique notes in a suave fashion, yet not one that is easily discernable as anything from the Southern Rhone. Typicity aside, this vintage of Mordoree’s Reine des Bois was extremely textured, layered and channeled its power as beautifully as one could hope for, 92+ points.

Wine 8:
The most boring, pedestrian wine of the evening wasn’t necessarily flawed, it just lacked any excitable characteristic I’d hope for in Chateauneuf. Aromatics evolved to reveal wild flowers, pine resin and fig as they unfolded in the palate to a moderately mouthfilling, jammy persona that turned a touch gritty and unpleasant towards the finish. Again, I’ve had this vintage of Beaucastel over 6 times and this is nothing like any of my prior experiences. A gentleman in the audience had mentioned his entire case showed just as these wines had. Perhaps it’s time for a ‘what’s your Beaucastel ’98 lot number’ thread, 84 points.

Wine 9:
Out of the two bottles, one was corked, and the other was worse. What truly frightens me is that the bottle I am about to comment on may have not been an off bottle. Had I closed my eyes, sniffed, swirled and spit, I would have come to the conclusion that I was drinking a Vin Santo, which, in its own right, wouldn’t have been a bad thing. The problem w/ that conclusion is that this was a DRY RED WINE from Chateauneuf! Classic Santo notes of toffee, caramel and syrup crusted coffee cake transition to a compact, steamy bath of awkward belligerence. For whatever reason, drinking this Marcoux Vieilles Vignes reminded me of a dream where I accidentally walked in on my parents having sex…thank goodness it was just a dream. Pass the biscotti please, 57 points.

The flight that saved the night…and then some:

Wine 10:
Welcome back to earth, how good it feels to be home! An absolutely gorgeous performance, laced w/ tobacco, pepper, tilled earth, sweet spice, strawberry pie, plum sauce and coffee notes that just won’t quit. In the mouth, the wine is beautifully on point, with plush layers of sumptuous fruit that pay homage to the purity and essence of Grenache. Usseglio’s Mon Aieul in top vintages is surely an experience that all Southern Rhone lovers need to experience on multiple occasions, 97 points.

Wine 11:
At first I was convinced this was the Capo, and then I teetered w/ the notion of it being the Mon Aieul. I came to the conclusion that I was a moron for trying to peg it (the answers revealed that the word soothsayer isn’t exactly a part of my resume either) and I just allowed my palate to soak up what I consider hedonistic Chateauneuf to be all about. There was an exotic tone to the scents, as they seemed to be at a higher pitch, showcasing a dazzling array of brandy soaked figs, raspberry glaze, iron, duck fat and subtle undertones of garrigue. The wine is outrageously concentrated and expansive in the mouth, almost plumping the palate out to complete rupture, but doing in a delicious, silky fashion that ramps up my pleasure points into overdrive. What a friggin’ awesome wine, and to think that I had pegged the Bonneau Celestins as one of the ‘unstable, porty messes’ from before! Mea culpa Henri, I won’t do it again, 100 points.

Wine 12:
Finally, a wine I have had on multiple occasions and can say my notes yesterday evening were as consistent as any. While initially subdued, as the wine sat in the glass it evolved to express such an array of wonderful, subtle complexity. Notes of lavender, caramel coated earth, gravel, grilled herbs, cherries and raspberry ganache became livelier and sappier with every next sip. Charvin really sets itself apart when it matures to reveal such pretty nuances, along its gorgeous beam of mineral character. Hitting that stride in a marathon can feel so good, 95 points.

Wine 13:
Well well, I thought the 11 was the Capo until I stuck my nose in this elixir and uttered ‘holy shit!’ No, not because of brett, but boy was this an utterly effusive, flamboyant and heady concoction for Bacchus or what?! An absolutely mammoth constitution of overt complexity that dazzles form all angles, as each earthy element was perfectly paired w/ decadent fruit, coated in just the right amount of a seemingly hypnotic spice. You could just sense the dense layers of this wine, ready to explode, so tightly assembled until they cascaded through the palate like an avalanche toppling from a mountain of baklava. Wines of this nature tend to defy traditional note taking and no amount of waxing is adequate as they beg the question, what can I say about this wine? While there were some complete duds and absolute gems this evening, Chapoutier’s Barbe Rac was a singular animal all its own, and it was perfect, 100 points.

*I had just tasted this wine a few months back w/ Jeff Leve and we both thought it was going to get better, but I had never imagined it would reach these particular heights. Hey, it could be bottle variation, but even if Chapoutier was only able to conjure this one magical bottle, it just further adds to his mystique and it is an experience that I won’t soon forget.


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