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Sunday, April 27, 2008

An Alsatian Pairing with some Legendary Bottles

Harlan Bernstein and his lovely wife were in town, doing up New York City w/ their Portland charm and cosmopolitan sensibilities. It seems they hit just about every gustatory sweet spot that a New York foodie could desire, including a spectacular lunch at Gotham Grill, half off wine night at Compass and they dove into all the Italian culinary dreams that Il Mulino provides as well. Considering how quickly stacked their vacation resume became, I chose to direct them a bit off the beaten path to the Upper East side’s Café d’Alsace, a haven for New York’s cassoulet and charcuterie aficionados. Between the multiple courses of sausage, bone marrow and duck dishes, close to six bottles of wine were consumed, mostly by us 3 thirsty hedonists (and a little help from our New York friends in the adjacent tables).

Harlan is uncompromising in terms of his altruism. He and his wife were such a fun and friendly couple to share an evening w/ that I didn’t even notice it was almost 2 am until I turned around to see the once boisterous restaurant was completely empty. Once I find my way out west, I’d love to have an encore presentation of this event, assuming my liver can muscle its way through another marathon evening. Debauchery over dinner doesn’t get any more enjoyable than this!

Chapoutier Hermitage Blanc Chante Aloutte, 2005
I couldn’t help but bring some of this golden colored elixir back to the States. Chapoutier’s collective line-up of whites, to me, are the most complex, rich and terroir driven white wines in the entire Rhone region. The Chante Aloutte cuvee used to encompass the entire white Hermitage blend before Michel took over the Domaine in ’89 and fragmented the wines into their particular terroirs. A riveting, idiosyncratic white, full of bee pollen, lanolin, honey glazed hazelnuts, smoked figs, lime candy and floral lychee notes permeate the aromatic profile of this uncanny wine. This monster is oily and thick in the mouth, w/ unctuous flavors that are beautifully reeled in by a stony sense of liquid minerality on the finish. While this is technically the lowest end of the price/quality spectrum from Chapoutier’s white Hermitage line-up, it is a stunning example of the potential depth and complexities of the Marsanne grape from the granite soils on the hill, 95 points.

Troplong Mondot, 2000
While I just had a quick taste of this beauty, thanks to the generosity of our neighbors, it was certainly enough to leave an impression. The nose suggests a touch of evolution, w/ layers of crème de cassis, grilled mushrooms, fresh cedar and crushed lilacs singing from the glass. The palate, on the other hand, is a virile, tannic and feral laced youngster, that is quite full bodied and in need of another 3-4 years until it hits a prime drinking window, 94+ points.

Chave Hermitage, 1989
This classic, traditionally styled ’89 completely sang from the bottle aromatically w/ a flutter of charcoal grilled pancetta, sweet tobacco, blackberry sauce and tons of pencil shavings. A bit austere on the entry, but true completely true to the Chave style, w/ a brilliantly defined full body of pure truffle flavors that pump along some seriously muscular structure and linger effortlessly on the finish. This is just a beautiful synthesis of the structure of the vintage and the class of Chave, 95 points.

Clos des Papes, 1990
Here’s some food for thought regarding the ’90 Clos des Papes. Harlan was shocked that it held its own versus the extremely stiff competition (I, being the Chateauneuf addict that I am, was surprised it wasn’t the wine of the night). The original price tag of some 20 odd dollars was still attached from when Harlan bought this in ’94. Couple that with my excitement to have found a magnum of ’90 Clos des Papes for 200 plus euros w/ the recent ‘wine of the year price hike’ phenomenon, and this ‘expensive cheapie’ was just the oxymoron we needed to get the pot boiling. At almost 20 years of age, this beautiful vintage of Clos des Papes is exhibiting a wonderful marriage of power and finesse. The scents of licorice, truffle oil, dark fig, graphite and rich cassis ooze from the glass in pure Provencal delight. In the mouth, notions of an herbal garden, pepper and high toned spice lurk underneath a gorgeous palate of fresh fruit w/ outstanding purity, flawless texture and terrific acidity. I imagine this classic will provide prime drinking for the next 5-10 years handily, 96 points.

Leoville Las Cases, 1990
Even though the Clos des Papes is a spectacular representation of the watershed 1990 vintage, the tribute to Bordeaux nobility put forth by Leoville Las Cases takes the cake for best in class on this particular occasion. She’s still tightly wound, but there is such an underlying intensity of cassis, black currant, cigar humidor, pencil shavings, aged tobacco and warm chocolate ganache notes that give the aromas an almost brooding demeanor. In the mouth, the wine is absolutely tantalizing in terms of its textbook purity, class and symmetry. There is a wonderful depth of flavor, judicious acidity and nary a rough edge to be found in this nearly flawless claret, demonstrating how brilliant St. Julien can be at its apex, 98 points.

Almaviva, 2003
I served this blind to see if it would tickle Harlan’s Bordeaux sensibility while still retaining a sense of Chilean roots. He had it pegged as a Pauillac, which is generally what it reminds me of vintage in and vintage out (save for the black color and ashy Chilean loam, I imagine this could fool most any Bordeaux nut). While not quite as expressive as it has showed in the past, but just as constituted, with sinewy notes of cigar smoke, wild truffles, iron, currant and dark figs. The palate is rock solid, with a refined sense of strength, not unlike the definition one must acquire as a bodybuilder. Another 3-4 years should put the Almaviva in high gear, where I can’t imagine it not maintaining for another 15 plus year, 95 points.

Many thanks again go out to Harlan and his charming wife for a rare evening that the wines almost matched the pleasure of the company.

The wines of Domaine Barroche

The Reserve label is a blend of 60% Grenache from the 100 year old Palestor parcel, 23% Mourvedre from the La Mascarone parcel, 9% Cinsault from the 60 year old Pierrefeu parcel and the remaining blend comes from the Syrah planted in the Parc parcel. This cuvee is a touch more traditional and provides the Barroche perspective of the appellation.

The Fiancee is a much more modern interpretation that I’m certain will have plenty of backlash from the reactionaries. A 50/50 blend of Grenache (from, you guessed it, a 100 year old early maturing parcel called Terres Blanches) and Syrah. While it is a fabulous wine (one of which I personally raved over), the enormous percentage of Syrah (a grape that is universally loathed for creating insipid wines in the appellation) and the 18 month period of French Oak aging are perfect fodder for the ‘modern stigma’ based debate.

The Pure cuvee has quickly become the Domaine’s flagship wine. The wine is 100 percent Grenache and comes from a parcel planted in 1901 called Grand Pierre, full of sandy soils and is a stone’s throw from the famed Chateau Rayas vineyard.
Barroche, Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve 2004
There is a marked difference in terms of quality from the 2005 vintage on from Domaine Barroche. The Reserve cuvee is tightly knit, sporting modest scents of crushed rocks, brick dust, cardamom, licorice and black cherry in the nose. Tight and extremely mineral in the mouth, as crunchy acidity carries along the berry driven palate to a lithe finish. While a bit of air did flesh out the wine and tack on some chocolaty richness, this wine lacks the power and excitement of younger Barroche expressions, 88+ points.

Barroche Pure, 2004
Much like the Reserve, the Pure is somewhat closed aromatically and showed a much more compact, undelineated profile in the mouth. Modest amounts of black cherry liqueur, anise and garrigue are present in this medium bodied, dense, yet elegant ’04 that could use a bit more cellaring to coax out its best qualities, 91+ points.

Barroche, Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve 2005
This is another Barroche that begins a bit taut and reserved aromatically, with graphite characteristics dominating the nose for now, but paving the way for a dark, tannic powerhouse in the mouth. Deep, gutsy flavors of blackberry sauce, melted licorice, Maplewood smoked bacon and a mélange of other dark fruits bring more stature than the ’06, but a bit less polish texturally. After a couple more years of settling down, this should really cruise in the cellar, 94 points.

Barroche, Fiancee 2005
In relationship to the Reserve, this is lusty, aromatic and extremely suave, pumping out melted chocolate, date bread, pencil shavings and warm ganache notes along a silky, rich frame. As the wine sits in the glass, nuances of grilled herbs appear and the wine fleshes out a bit more on the top notch finish, 95 points.

Barroche, Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve 2006
While the Reserve was initially closed, a bit of coaxing brought out some vivid scents of linzer torte, boysenberry and raspberry pudding that actually made my knees buckle a bit. In the mouth, the wine is crammed w/ layers of glycerin that coat the deliciously round textures from head to toe. Although the profile is a tad exotic and markedly ripe, once the wine stretches its legs on the finish some underbrush and garrigue checks in, suggesting at what’s bound to blossom in the cellar, 93+ points.

Barroche, Fiancee 2006
Even though this blend may be a lightning rod for controversy, it’s an outstanding wine and as seductive as can be. Brooding, yet sweet aromatically, there’s a firework display of kirsch liqueur, chocolaty cedar, blackberry sauce and violets that strike an inviting balance between the two grape varietals. The palate is a showcase of massive and primal structure, but it’s oh so plush and tantalizing to taste, thanks to the piles of decadent flavors which woo you along the way to the sensual finish, 93 points.

Barroche, Pure 2006
While she may be a bit shy and tempting on the nose, don’t let those whispers fool you, there’s a blockbuster lurking underneath. Scents of strawberries ‘n cream, cocoa powder, kirsch and clove gets the fire started, but the explosion that follows in the mouth is a sheer tour de force in old vine Grenache. The palate is crammed w/ monstrous layers of ultra sappy, decadent, liqueur-like fruits that cascade over a bed of atypically powerful tannins which frame this indulgence remarkably. While it’s as primal as a barrel sample, all the elements are there to create an authentic masterpiece, 96+ points.

Barroche 2007
We tasted through various lots of Julien’s luxurious, ’07 fruit. His Syrah barrels (likely headed to the Fiancee cuvee) showed a great deal of promise, w/ dark, tar-laced fruits and firm backbones. While the Mourvedre was tougher to gauge (it had just been put in smaller barrels and was obscured by toast), the Grenache in tank was hands down, the most riveting young fruit that I tasted during my trip. The samples were so explosive, w/ palate numbing levels of extract and decadent layers of uncannily ripe, liqueur-toned fruits. I’d never experienced such blockbuster, hedonistic barrel infant wine before, and I can’t imagine I will again anytime soon. The pure Grenache lots all merited 98-100 point ratings, easily.

Served blind, Barroche 1980
Julien and I share a birth year, so I suppose popping his family’s ’80 was in order. While a bit past its prime and not exactly a product of the most memorable weather conditions, this 1980 stood firm w/ sweet balsamic, crushed flower, sandalwood and green olive notes. The palate was still holding on to some dried plum fruit, but the bright acidity began to hold center court, weaving in shades of volatile acidity along the wine’s attenuated frame, 74 points.

There is a very fruity, straight forward white Chateauneuf made at Barroche as well. Perfect as an aperitif, the white shows crisp golden delicious, ginger and melon rind flavors in an uncomplicated yet well balanced package. It is a solid, mid to high 80’s point wine and I am uncertain if this bottling is imported to the United States.

Julien also toys w/ some late harvest Clairette and, to my palate, has been extremely successful w/ it. To this point, the production is a miniscule 450 half bottles or so per year and I don’t believe he has the intention of selling them (he enjoys drinking them too much!). Considering that they were my first interaction w/ a dessert wine of their type, I figured my impressions would provide a bit of intrigue.

The bouquet as is esoteric as they come, full of jellied quince, lanolin, golden raisin and wild flower notes that seem to remind me a bit of a junior Quarts de Chaume. The mouthfeel paints w/ an exotic brush, weaving in flavors of pure honeycomb and pine resin that are well defined and full of lip-smacking acidity, giving it great drive and verve, 92 points.

Surprisingly, the older vintage seemed much more austere and shy aromatically, only hinting at bee pollen, candle wax, lilac and lemon zest scents. Upon entry though, the wine absolutely comes alive as if it were a sleeping giant, erupting with fantastic richness, wondrous depth and exquisite length. While the ’05 is certainly a showier, more powerful wine, and I imagine it will really stretch its legs in the cellar, it does share a commonality w/ the ’06 in terms of character and profile. Great job Julien, 93+ points!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Wines of Chante Cigale

Cuvee de la Genestiere
This red table wine from the Domaine is composed of 6 different grape varieties and undergoes 50% of the elevage in tank and the other half in foudre. The nose is full of Provencal essences such as cedar, sweet tobacco, truffle and plum characteristics. The mouthfeel is a touch lean and gamey, but has enough fresh acidity to stand up to earthy bistro fare, 82 points.

Cotes du Rhone, 2006
The Cotes du Rhone blend is much more frankly ripe, with intense aromatic notes such as dark fig, blackberry, smoke and bitter chocolate. The palate is sinewy, w/ some heavy duty tannins on display, cut by bright acidity and fine depth, letting the grassy, earthy notes shine through on the finish, 87+ points.

2007 Chateauneuf du Pape, barrel sample
Starting the tasting off with such an exceptional wine just isn’t fair, and boy was this barrel sample a fully loaded weapon! Packed w/ outstanding fruit, notes of flowers, kirsch liqueur, spice box and espresso roast jump from the glass. There is terrific opulence, depth and an uncanny sense of hedonism that gave me such a thrill I literally felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Yet another ’07 that is exciting and full of promise, 94-96 points.

2005 Chateauneuf du Pape
This classy, traditional showpiece of Chateauneuf du Pape captures the vintage’s structure in a much more poised package. The nose is full of fresh cut cedar, tobacco leaf, grilled beef, spice rub and melted licorice notes that are full of savory red fruits on the attack, and backed by a firm skeleton & refreshing minerality, 92 points.

2005 Chateauneuf du Pape, Vieilles Vignes
The 80 year old vines give this cuvee a much deeper, headier disposition than that of the base cuvee. Titillating perfumes of charred steak, hoisin sauce, black currant, hearty plum and freshly paved road tar present themselves in a brooding, serious personality. There is striking depth and powerful concentration in the mouth, but the wine retains a sense of purity that most ‘05s lack at this stage, as this Vieilles Vignes cuvee sets itself apart w/ its symmetry, 94 points.

2004 Chateauneuf du Pape
No Vieilles Vignes cuvee was made in 2004 as all the old vines were put into the base cuvee. The aromas were effusive, and had a mossy overlay to the notes of loam, dark fig, cocoa and tar. In the mouth, this was the least impressive showing during the tasting as it lacked the weight, depth and profundity of the top vintages. Medium bodied and inoffensive, this sound Chateauneuf should be drunk up w/ in the first decade of its life, 88 points.

2003 Chateauneuf du Pape
One of the more idiosyncratic wines from Chante Cigale, this example of ’03 doesn’t show the heat of the vintage, but certainly strikes a few interesting chords along the way. The nose demonstrates notes of salty sea breezes, bitter chocolate, cappuccino, black currant sauce and braised chestnuts. There is a confluence of earthy and decadent elements in the mouth, as the wine shows excellent concentration and ample acidity to pump its beam of fascinating flavors to a fine finish, 91+ points.

2003 Chateauneuf du Pape, Vieilles Vignes
Well, needless to say, Chante Cigale hit it right in ’03! This big monster of a wine had all the elements of dried port, showing baked fig, grilled game, Turkish coffee and a slew of other heavenly delights in the nose. The mouthfeel is tremendously opulent, w/ tiers of rich, liqueur driven fruits that are all kept at bay by a chiseling sense of mineral definition. For some reason I thought of Charvin’s ’03, as yet another atypical, but very successful interpretation of the vintage…back up the truck, 95 points.

1998 Chateauneuf du Pape
I believe this was the vintage before Alex jumped on board. Tasting this blind I would have certainly pegged it as a ’99 as it is drinking gorgeously and certainly not for the brett-averse. New saddle leather, dried porcini and loamy tobacco dominate the nose in a come hither, drink me please type of fashion. In the mouth, this ’98 is really hitting its stride w/ savory notes of bright plum and cassis that open the floodgates for garrigue to penetrate the spine of this medium bodied, dapper wine, 92 points.

A couple additional notes:
The soils of Chante Cigale’s varied parcels tend to be mostly stony and during the winemaking process, remontage (pumping over) is applied twice daily and pigeage is almost never practiced. For whatever reason, all of these wines show remarkably well via pop ‘n pour, almost jumping right out of the bottle. Irrespective of vintage, decanting does not seem to be necessary.

2007 Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc
Chante Cigale has a relatively large production of white Chateauneuf and generally utilizes 25% of Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Roussanne and the remaining cepages allowed in the appellation. After a few hours of skin maceration, the grapes undergo a stainless steel fermentation, blocked malolactic and are bottled relatively quickly to harness their fresh flavors. The ’07 is full of crisp, lively kiwi, tangerine and peach skin notes that are round and melon driven in the mouth. There is an electric acidity that pumps out fresh, floral flavors to a solid finish, 87 points.

2007 Extrait Cuvee Blanc
This is an isolated blend of pure Roussanne that Alex was toying w/ and as of yet, wasn’t sure whether or not to bottle it as a separate cuvee. Like the Chateauneuf blanc, this undergoes no malolactic fermentation and is remarkably crisp for a Roussanne. The palate is full of chamomile, lemon zest, peach and melon flavors that are round in the mouth, but accompanied by an unexpected razor sharp edge that keeps the texture relatively modest for a Roussanne. Personally, I think this would be better incorporated into the blend, as it doesn’t quite separate itself enough to stand alone as a unique cuvee, 88 points.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Now THIS is what I call a vertical! Clos des Papes 1969-2005

As I'm sitting here attempting to disseminate some 14 odd vintages of one of the finest producers in Chateauneuf du Pape, I realize that my head is completely on fire. This could be the most head-throbbing my noggin has seen since the days of beer funneling on Spring Break. Needless to say, last night was good times! The dump bucket was used sparingly and, by the end of the evening, nary a drop was found from the countless bottles that were strewn across the table. I will attempt to piece together the wines in as dutiful a fashion as possible…there were a couple vintages that offered up true ‘wine experiences,’ and a surprising vintage or two that the entire group collectively gasped over (wine-searcher probably got a dozen feverish hits last night as we all stumbled home in true, geeky fashion).

Meeting up with a few new faces (John Osgood, great to finally connect!) and some old familiar sots always puts me in a great mood, especially when gathering for a Grenache-based cause (even though Sherwin thinks Cabernet is a better grape). A special thanks goes out to John Junguenet, the importer of Clos des Papes and the unofficial technical guru of the evening (I tried to lay off on the ‘what percentage of the Bourboulenc is fermented in tank’ questions, but it’s hard to resists, being a dweeb and all). When I emailed him and asked him if he wanted to come along, I felt a bit cheesy considering it’s a wine he is likely to be inundated with, but was thrilled to see him excited about the idea (he actually tasted a vintage or two that his father, Alain, may have never even drank!). If I saw things through a Buddhist lens, I’d certainly pray for a reincarnation that comes in the form of John’s profession (quite a bummer, he’s off to France, again, in the next couple days). For now, vicariously living through his stories w/ an awesome group of guys will have to suffice.

I was unable to connect w/ the Avrils at Clos des Papes during my trip, as Vincent was visiting a few of the 30 plus countries that his wines now have a strong presence in. While it is a bit disheartening to see a favorite producer’s price steadily rise past our financial comfort zone, I take solace in the fact that one of the finest, traditional Chateauneuf du Papes is not only getting the recognition it so duly deserves, but that its reach has spanned the globe to such an extent. The wine drinking world needs to experience what haunting beauties lie within the pure expressions of old vine, tiny yielding Southern Rhone soils…and I’d be hard pressed to think of a finer global representative of the appellation than Clos des Papes.

The wine service at Tribeca Grill was nothing short of outstanding. Between their cellar, the stemware and their top notch sommelier, Ryan, the flow of the evening was flawless. A special thanks to wine director David Gordon, who took a chance purchasing some bottles of the ’69 at auction, a seemingly ancient Chateauneuf, that provided this vertical w/ a sense of character that challenged our perceptions of the younger vintages.

1998 Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc
Vincent is a staunch advocate of waiting ten years to drink his white Chateauneuf. While I rarely possess the patience of waiting ten months to drink any Clos des Papes wine, this ’98 makes a terrific case for a decade of cellaring. The nose is subtle, as elegant notes of elder flower, crushed stone, grilled hazelnuts and candied lemon verbena weave in and out. In the mouth, the wine has the razor sharp, piercing qualities of a fine Puligny Montrachet (minus the oxidation), presenting a delicate, yet rich frame that is the stuff White Burgundy dreams are made of, 92 points.

-There really aren’t any other whites like Clos des Papes. They tend to utilize an equal portion of all the white varieties allowed in the appellation, are fermented in steel as well as neutral barrels, and personify a sense of finesse that most Roussanne dominated blends could never attain. Although these whites have begun to receive some serious critical press, I still find them to be overlooked, poorly understood and generally under-appreciated vis a vis their absolute quality.

1969 Chateauneuf du Pape
After Ryan poured a bit of this nearly 40 year old Chateauneuf in my glass and I stuck my nose into it, I felt a bit paralyzed and could only mutter a faint ‘it’s not corked,’ from my lips (reminding me of my pre-puberty days in 4th grade, stumbling over to a cute girl’s locker and choking on my own words). The transparent, orange/brick colored ’69 has a truly beguiling nose of wild flowers, black truffles, cured pastrami, dried porcini mushrooms and oodles of graphite character, perhaps the essence of earth is an apt description. There is a gorgeous attack of pepper, sweet cherries and herbal perfume, firmly reminding me of this wine’s origins, and beautiful acidity whispers its way to an elegant, revitalizing finish. Bottles such as these are truly ‘wine experiences,’ and do demonstrate a weakness in the point scale (I can’t alter my grading criteria, so I encourage you to pay more attention to the notes). We kept a bit of the ’69 in a glass or two to watch it evolve. While the perfumes seemed pretty steadfast at first, after a half hour or so they took on a toffee, madierized character, and an hour or so later it became purely citric, growing older right before our eyes. For some reason it made me think of those films that involve time capsules where you view someone age right in front of you (2001 A Space Odyssey comes to mind), 88 points.

1993 and 1997, sadly, were corked (but hey, if you are going to break a couple eggs to make a Clos des Papes omelette, those are certainly on the ‘more expendable’ side).

1994 Chateauneuf du Pape
A vintage for Chateauneuf, not unlike Bordeaux, that seems to be in an ‘as good as it gets’ point in its life. Although I have very little experience with this year, just about every bottle has fit that statement like a glove, and this was no different. A pungent nose, full of smoked shitake mushrooms, melted asphalt, crushed berries and iron notes that prove to be more interesting than the palate. While the wine is symmetrical, full of sappy dark cherry fruit and of medium constitution in the mouth, it is extremely short and lacks the excitement of top vintages of this wine. Solid and in the zone, but not an outstanding representation of this domaine, 86 points.

1999 Chateauneuf du Pape, from magnum
Surprisingly, this wine took quite a bit of coaxing to really strut its stuff (it exhibits a bit more restraint than most wines I’ve tasted from this vintage). Initially the nose comes off as very loamy, with exotic Asian spices, braised game, chestnut and dark fig fruit all making an appearance. The wine progressively builds in the palate, with a seductive silky texture pumping out garrigue and rose petals notes on the finish. This really fleshed out and packed on fat in the glass and perhaps is a more ‘serious’ ’99 in that regard, 92+ points.

1995 Chateauneuf du Pape
Although the wine was certainly a bit warm in its serving temperature, the quality of this vintage is beginning to really come through. Initially taut, but darker and denser than any vintage we’d tasted thus far, the nose shows excellent purity, revealing notions of dark plum, forest floor, fig cake and cardamom spices. The wine is thick and layered in the mouth, demonstrating a great beam of minerality and hints of the spectacular virtures that this vintage has yet to reveal, 94+ points. This should prove to be a great wine for the cellar and contrasted very well to the ’89.

1990 Chateauneuf du Pape

Here’s some food for thought regarding the ’90 Clos des Papes. Harlan was shocked that it held its own versus the extremely stiff competition (I, being the Chateauneuf addict that I am, was surprised it wasn’t the wine of the night). The original price tag of some 20 odd dollars was still attached from when Harlan bought this in ’94. Couple that with my excitement to have found a magnum of ’90 Clos des Papes for 200 plus euros w/ the recent ‘wine of the year price hike’ phenomenon, and this ‘expensive cheapie’ was just the oxymoron we needed to get the pot boiling. At almost 20 years of age, this beautiful vintage of Clos des Papes is exhibiting a wonderful marriage of power and finesse. The scents of licorice, truffle oil, dark fig, graphite and rich cassis ooze from the glass in pure Provencal delight. In the mouth, notions of an herbal garden, pepper and high toned spice lurk underneath a gorgeous palate of fresh fruit w/ outstanding purity, flawless texture and terrific acidity. I imagine this classic will provide prime drinking for the next 5-10 years handily, 96 points.

1989 Chateauneuf du Pape
At almost 20 years of age, this has not lost a bit of its color (much like the Barbe Rac I drank at Beaugraviere a couple weeks back) and it seems to have not budged a bit from its youthful, primary character. While a bit reticent and shy aromatically, this vintage completely erupts in the mouth w/ gorgeous raspberry ganache, black tea, lavender and flat out kirsch bomb flavors that are lush, layered and crammed w/ depth for the long haul. While frankly structured, this vintage is loaded w/ pure fruit and is an absolute knockout vintage for Clos des Papes, 95 points. Tasting vintages like ’89 and ’95 side by side strike a curious chord w/ regards to how some of the more structured ’05 will evolve.

1998 Chateauneuf du Pape
This was an absolute wow vintage! What a hedonistic tour de force, exploding from the glass with café au lait, kirsch liqueur, black forest cake, caramel coated strawberries and warm ganache flavors. Absolutely thrilling in the mouth, with terrific opulence, succulent fruit and flat out sexy levels of glycerin. I probably wrote the word ‘wow’ five times during my atypical note taking for this wine, which took me by surprise and totally compelled me, 96 points.

2000 Chateauneuf du Pape
Tastsing the ’98 alongside the ’00 proved to be a useful tool, as I had pegged the ’00 as drinking beautifully before, but the ’98 seemed to reveal that the ’00 is missing a piece of its puzzle and certainly has room to fill out from a couple more years of cellaring. The perfumes are even headier and more decadent in this vintage, and there is no shortage of super sappy cherry liqueur, brown sugar, cloves, cinnamon, herbs de Provence and pure raspberry fruit in the bouquet. The palate is svelte, suave and full of purity, coated in a cashmere frame that is all in finesse, but could use a bit more time to delineate all its character, 95+ points.

2003 Chateauneuf du Pape
My first comment was ‘this is a different wine, end of story.’ I didn’t have Ken Birman’s ’03, but I did have a bottle of Paul Jaouen’s and while I didn’t find it to be a terrible wine, it was not even a shadow of this performance! The wine had such a sensual nose, loaded with sweet spices like cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, wrapped around chai tea and pure kirsch scents that tempted and tantalized the taster into drinking it. The palate is full of exhilarating levels of extract, extremely full bodied and remarkably rich, but the ironclad structure is barely noticeable thanks to the remarkable fruit and almost weightless sense of poise it demonstrates. The shame with this wine is that it is already scarred by the variation in bottles (whether it be related to lot numbers, transit or the erratic nature of the vintage) and even though it is a potentially legendary Clos des Papes, I don’t know if it will ever overcome the polarizing stigma associated with it, 98+ points.

2005 Chateauneuf du Pape
After Clos des Papes was essentially snubbed in the wine of the year race in back to back years, it was just a matter of time until the trophy became hers. While this was definitely not the best of the bunch, it is still a terrific demonstration of the vintage in that its structure, while massive and evident, is channeled in a much more graceful fashion than some of this year’s abrasive behemoths. 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. Although this is a wine that demands a patient consumer, it is certain to reward down the road, 95+ points.

2001 Chateauneuf du Pape
A vintage that is still showing very irregularly, but glimpses of wines coming out of their shells seem to be more and more evident w/ each passing day. This ’01 began in a timid, almost withdrawn fashion, but is completely extraverted in the mouth, with turbo-charged, luxurious flavors. Notes of fig pudding, fruit cake, rose water and grilled beef tap dance the line of the savory spectrum, while flirting w/ the pure natures enjoyed in freshly crushed fruit. Glossy yet explosive, this vintage of Clos des Papes reveals its pedigree initially, but builds classical momentum in short time. Provencal elements lurk in the hauntingly pure finish, leaving me salivating, 96 points.

2004 Chateauneuf du Pape
Leonard and I agreed that this showing for 2004 was not nearly as impressive as it was last year, where it showed depth as well as nuance, but the wine’s performance was still far from the slouch category. Atypically large scaled and stacked for the vintage, demonstrating primal flavors of ultra-ripe kirsch and black currants that are expansive, yet plush and charming all the same. It was a bit more flat and monolithic than I’d hoped for, but I still believe this is one of the superstars of the vintage and I chalk up its performance to the transient nature of young Grenache, 94+ points.

There were, of course, dessert wines...a Baumard graciously brought by Leonard and an awesome Peter Micheal Chardonnay (dry, but we slated her for fromage all the same) brought by Rich Stahmer, that I neglected to take notes on....we'll say I was...distracted

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The wines of Charvin:

The first of the two screw-caps, the Cotes du Rhone Rose ’07:
An inviting blind of Grenache and Bourboulenc, Charvin’s ’07 rose is a bracincg effort full of fresh, crisp fruits. Characteristics of citrus blossoms and bright strawberry flavors emerge amidst the wine’s moderately dense, focused and finely textured rendition of Cotes du Rhone rose, 86 points.

Vine de Pays
This ‘Sideways Southern Rhone’ bottling demonstrates how Laurent Charvin can make very good wine, even if he decides to not take himself entirely seriously. A 50/50 blend of Grenache and Merlot (yes, Merlot) is a bit of an whimsical wine, using such a lofty proportion of a grape variety which Laurent doesn’t care for, but delivers a bit more than expected. There is a sound harmony between the chocolate coated plum flavors from the Merlot that marry well, if atypically, w/ the briary laced berry tones of the Grenache fruit. Not entirely provocative, but well balanced and delicious, 85 points.

Cotes du Rhone, 2006
The secret seems to be out amongst die hard Charvin fans that his Cotes du Rhone bottlings are not only consistent, but excellent values that provide a glimpse into the Provencal beauties the Domaine fashions from Chateauneuf. Textbook in its array of rugged, yet silky textured blackberry, graphite and plum fruit flavors that glide along to the nicely linger finish, thanks the wine’s crunchy acidity that reels in the focus, 87+ points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2005
My third taste of this wine confirms my initial impressions that it’s a step up from the ’04, but lags a bit behind in quality compared to the outstanding ’03 and ’01 (much less how gorgeous the ’06 and ’07 appear to be). An effusive perfume of dark fig, forest floor, strawberry sauce and licorice notes emerge from the glass in classic, Burgundian fashion. The wine demonstrates terrific elegance in the mouth, with svelte, silky tannins that pump out bright red fruit flavors, with an imbedded minerality checking in on the finish, 93 points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2006
This vintage seems to have played right into the hands of Laurent’s Northern, sandy soil terroir and looks to trump the ’05 in terms of vibrancy, freshness and its spectacular length. While still in barrel (I believe this is slated to be bottled very shortly), there is no denying the purity of fruit and I plan to purchase this in volume (which isn’t something I’ve felt regularly w/ this vintage), 93-95 points.

Chateauneuf du pape, 2007
It has become a bit of a broken record, but this barrel sample was absolutely out of this world! This was simply seethed in terms of its complexity, power and uncanny depth that gush from the glass. Yet another tour de force of the vintage that offers tremendous opulence, providing the bass to its ’06 sibling’s tenor, delivering hedonism in spades, 95-97 points.

*Another barrel sample that showed fabulously was the ’07 Cotes du Rhone Grenache. It’s currently isolated in tank and Laurent is contemplating whether or not he should bottle it as a pure Grenache or blend it. I’m rooting for the former…

Honestly Speaking, Domaine Charvin

As I tasted through the line-up of Clos Saint Jean w/ Vincent Maurel, the build-up for my appointment with Laurent Charvin, scheduled the next day, was steadily building. Vincent had just undergone a fairly dramatic facelift at Clos Saint Jean in 2003, overhauling the cellars, vineyards and fine-tuning just about all enological practices with the help of renowned consultant Philippe Cambie, and one of the changes the Domaine had made seemed to vex Laurent Charvin more than any other. What was the particular thorn in Laurent’s side you ask? Well, it all seemed to be a matter of grape stems, or, to put it more correctly, their lack of existence in Vincent’s new wines. Laurent would implore Vincent to not de-stem his grapes, singing the praises of their character & structure so loudly that the Pope could have heard him all the way from 14th century Avignon. Vincent defended his decision to me, tooth and nail, explaining that Clos Saint Jean’s wines were already imbued w/ skyscraper-like mass from their rocky, rugged terroir and it was his job to try to inject as much finesse in the wines as possible, w/ de-stemming being a necessary step in that process. Charvin’s sandy soils seemed a bit more tailor made for stem inclusion to Vincent, but the distinction in geology didn’t dissuade Laruent’s ‘stem crusading’ debate in the slightest.

What kind of man would this be? With the luxurious taste of a ’04 Combe des Fous still on my lips, I began to wonder how my meeting w/ Laurent would go. I immediately began envisioning a passionate, yet somewhat turbulent man, wielding a bit of a unilateral ‘terroir axe’ and evoking a sense of deliberate confidence. I expected a show in the form of a Broadway performer, perhaps as belligerently stubborn as Orson Wells’ Charlie Kane and with a demeanor as poetically brash as Aime Guibert in Mondovino? Would he convince me to season my lamb chops w/ grape stems and dismiss my New World palate? Well…my whimsical words are about as close to the truth of who Laurent Charvin actually is as the New York Jets are to winning the Super Bowl (to you non-football fans, I was a bit off the mark with my set of preconceived notions).

The next morning, as I walk down Charvin’s sloping Cotes du Rhone vineyards, I am greeted by perhaps one of the most loveable Chateauneuf du Pape dogs of them all (or at least a close second to Laurence Feraud’s three musketeers…it isn’t a Chateauneuf domaine without un jolie chien watching over it). Laurent greeted us with an air of suspicion about him, making hurried steps to and fro with a bit of anxious excitement traveling in all directions (particularly towards the ground, as he hurled a rock or twenty across the soil like an exuberant boy at the beach who learned how to skip stones for the first time). After some lighthearted teasing about our attire (I was drastically under-dressed in short sleeves, whereas he was layered in one of the puffiest coats I’d seen on that side of the Rhone), he convinced me to put down my can of soda and hop to it w/ a more appropriate tasting stem…and off to the cellar we went.

As we chatted about wine, movies and culture, I began to realize he (and his wines, for that matter) was not a caricature of blind passion, but one of blatant honesty. When speaking of hypothetical scenarios, such as what he would do if his wines were not critically acclaimed ‘for what they were,’ he had the courage to say he simply didn’t know. He seems genuinely content that his passion and direction has been received w/ welcome press and general success, but showed brilliant candor by stating he not only doesn’t have all the answers, but is not always right. I’ve found quite a few passionate people lack the ability to see situations w/ open eyes and adapt, as if they were blinded by their energies, but found Laurent to be one that faces challenges w/ integrity, instead of insecurity.

Two of his less distinguished wines, a VDP and Cotes du Rhone, sparked particular interest during the tasting. In case you didn’t know, Laurent is known as a staunch traditionalist (he even labels himself as more old fashioned than his own father!), and his VDP is not only packing a whopping 50% Merlot in the blend, it is topped off w/ a screw-cap closure! He said that making this wine provides him w/ an almost necessary opportunity to work with a grape variety that he doesn’t particularly like very much and in doing so, it tends to open his eyes a bit. The CDR concept, bottling a pure Grenache, is also a bit of a walk on the wild side for a man that abhors the notion of multiple cuvees, but he seems pretty motivated to for two reasons:

1). The Grenache in 2007 is, quite simply, that good. He tends to toy with the pure Grenache concept in his mind quite often, but has chosen not to do it up to this point because the blend always appears to be superior, or the same, to his palate (and he won’t do it unless the end result is a superlative wine).

2). The A.O.C. has recently mandated that your Cotes du Rhone vineyards must be planted to at least 15% Syrah, a directive that he is not fond of to say the least. Although it isn’t likely to change anything w/ the committee, making a pure Grenache from Cotes du Rhone vineyards would be a bit of a statement wine for him (the French are certainly capable of ‘sticking it to the man’ just like us Yanks!).

In addition, Laurent was, quite simply, a lot of fun. Although my wife tried to thwart nearly all my attempts, I absolutely loved making him go off on tangents! Between hearing how much he loved the movie, Sideways, and discussing how much he loathed the film, Mondovino, a bit of spunk began to reveal itself from his personality. Any man of passion that also possesses the ability to be self-deprecating is a man that I can admire as well as relate to. Laurent said “I guess it’s a bit silly how old fashioned I am sometimes,” as we were tasting through a tank of his pure Grenache (perhaps the, gasp, Cotes du Rhone 2007 cuvee!). Not to worry Laurent, we like you just the way you are, stems and all.

Tasting notes to come…

Friday, April 18, 2008

Vieille Julienne
Location, Location, Location...

I have been hooked on the wines of Vieille Julienne ever sense tasting through their superlative 2000 line-up, as the wines were not only my favorite of the vintage, but some of the most impressive Chateauneuf du Pape wines my palate has ever come in contact with. There is an air of perfection and effortlessness in their wines that I’ve had a difficult time pin-pointing until I visited w/ Andreas Becker, whom takes care of just about everything at Vieille Julienne other than the winemaking. My visit helped illuminate why their wines are so special, bringing the old adage of ‘great cuisine comes from stellar ingredients, prepared simply,’ to mind.

It all starts with some of the oldest vineyards in Chateauneuf, located in the Northern sector of the appellation adjacent to the holdings of Laurent Charvin. The varied geology and prime exposures of the vines provide Vieille Julienne w/ some of the finest terroirs in all of the Southern Rhone. Their vineyards are farmed biodynamically, without the use of any pesticides, fungicides or herbicides, but by fostering healthier soils via compost preparations and organic materials, with an uncompromising adherence to the calendar of the moon. The results are healthier soils, deeper root penetration and a minuscule yield of roughly 20 hl/hectare, all of which contribute to producing intoxicatingly pure fruit.

Now that’s all well and good, but I believe what really distinguishes the wines of Viellie Julienne is what happens once the grapes reach the winery. What happens, you ask? Well, nothing much! There is no punching down, pumping over, sulfur dioxide, new oak, fining or filtration (so why does Andreas seem so busy?). The old cliché of the French winemaker referring to himself as the ‘steward,’ or ‘caretaker’ certainly has credence in an operation like this. The wines are completely naked expressions of the vintage, soils and their terroir, with a purity that is as palpable as a heart beat once you dip these elixirs into your mouth.

Based on my familiarity with 21st century vintages, having attended large scaled tastings that showcased the best of the best for every marquis vintage from ’98 on, Vieille Julienne’s performances have been either at or close to the top of the heap for just about every year. The best examples showcase their purity up front, with vivid cassis, violet and boysenberry fruit flavors, backed by cashmere textures and a piercing mineral definition. Their Cotes du Rhone vineyards, like Charvin, are located just outside of the perimeter of the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation and offer exceptional value year in, year out.

The Vieilles Vignes Cuvee was only made from 98-01, and now is incorporated into the base Chateauneuf du Pape wine. Their Reservee is a specific parcel, not a ‘best barrels’ cuvee, and generally ripens earlier than the rest of the plots. This wine is only made in years that provide ideal conditions and is perhaps the most riveting expression of old vine Grenache in the world. The wines have been made by Jean Paul Daumen for the past decade.

Vieille Julienne Chateauneuf du Pape, 2005
Andreas feels like this is the best base cuvee that the winery has made, and I’m in no position to argue w/ that statement. The nose is decadently ripe, with a brooding intensity to the barbeque smoked wood, black currant, crème de cassis, gravel and hickiory chared steak notes. In the mouth, the wine paints vividly ripe flavors over a silky tapestry that easily conceals the wine’s tannin. This baby is loaded w/ glycerin and fat that should keep its drinking window in the driver’s seat as I don’t imagine it will shut down during its lifespan, 94+ points.

Vieille Julienne Chateauneuf du Pape, 2006
The 2006 vintage seems to be a seamless one for Vieille Julienne, as the 2006 harvest rains occurred after their fruit was already in during the 2nd half of September. The Chateauneuf du Pape was just bottled 2 weeks ago and showing some signs of post bottling awkwardness in the mouth, but a sweet bouquet of melted licorice, warm chocolate ganache, blackberry sauce and purple flower notes demonstrated shimmering signs of promise. Although the bottle shock caused the wine to dry up a bit in the mouth, the austerity gave way to a long, sweet finish of pure fruit that suggests she’s another winner for Julienne, 92-94 points.

Vieille Julienne Reservee, 2006
The flagship wine from Julienne comes from an ancient plot of Grenache vines that are over 100 years of age and planted in sandy, clay soils that contribute to the wine’s luxurious perfumes of mulberry, café au lait, warm ganache and exotic scents of crushed boysenberries that made my knees buckle. The Reservee was showing beautifully in the mouth, w/ stunningly pure beams of crushed blue fruits, backed by ultra silky tannins, terrific elegance and surreal finesse. Easily the most seductive wine of the vintage, 96-98 points.

Vieille Julienne Reservee, 2005
The ’05 is a stark contrast stylistically to the ’06 as its structure took center stage during the tasting. Exotic notions of fig, kirsch liqueur, licorice, pine resin and sweet loam pave the way for a monstrously backward palate, personified by the tannic power of a young Hermitage. While stacked and impressively proportioned in the mouth, the structure is as formidable I’ve ever experienced in a young Grenache based wine. This certainly has the stuffing to go the distance, and may rival some of the longest lived Chateauneuf du Papes on record, but the wine demands at least a decade of your patience before it begins to truly reveal its greatness, 97-99 points.

Vieille Julienne Cotes du Rhone, La Bosse 2005
A once in a lifetime hommage to the domaine, this 480 bottle cuvee comes from gnarly Grenache vines planted in pure sandy soils, located just outside the boundaries of Chateauneuf (yet another reason to seek out their Cotes du Rhone, line-up). The wine was made to honor the domaine's 100th anniversary and will never be made again (many thanks to Jeff Leve for the solid favor, coaxing Andreas to pop it for us!). It was the essence of old vine grenache, liquified in the glass, with a myriad of cinnamon, clove, black raspberry sauce, molten chocolate cake and crushed rock notes that forced me to swallow (Andreas did not spit either), at 11 am to boot! The wine permeates each cavity of the palate w/ supreme focus, really picking up some tremendous mineral definition on the effusive finish. Throw any preconceived notions of the humble Cotes du Rhone appellation out the window when it comes to this magical gout de terroir...a truly memorable tasting experience, 98 points.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Curiously Speaking.... When is a Pricey Consultant Required?

Vieux Donjon has been bottling their own wines for quite some time, by Chateauneuf du Pape standards, as Marcel Michel put together his first vintage in 1966. In 1979, Marcel’s son Lucien, and his wife, Marie Jose, have manned the fort at the domaine. Their vineyard holdings include 13 hectares for red varieties, and one hectare for the whites. The reds are generally composed of three quarters Grenache, ten percent Syrah, ten percent Mourvedre and the remainder of the blend is rounded out w/ Cinsault. The elevage for the red generally involves 6 months in cement, followed by a year in foudre. Neither the red nor white receive any new oak.

An interesting wrinkle in the flying wine maker debate has to be Vieux Donjon’s decision to retain the services of the famed consultant Philippe Cambie. Don’t get me wrong, I admire what Cambie does immensely and I adore Donjon’s wines in the before and after Cambie consulting periods. I just generally associate the use of wine consultants w/ domaines that are under-performing, looking to change their style, new to the scene or looking to inject some newfound energy to their winemaking (the bulk of Chateauneuf producers that have sought out his services fit that profile). When I look at the Domaine’s wines prior to hiring Cambie vs. post, I see little evidence that there has been much of a face lift in terms of the wine’s profile, quality or house style (they were great traditional wines then and are great in a similar vein now!). With the exception of the wines becoming a tad cleaner, all I can think of is that they wanted a second opinion when it comes to blending…but isn’t Cambie a tad highbrow for a mere second opinion? The answer to that question will undoubtedly be mixed, depending on who’s responding, but I am certainly not alone in finding a mix of confusion as well as intrigue when it comes to this relationship.

Consultant speculation aside, the one house, one cuvee approach continues to pay dividends for this domaine as their performances in ’05 and ’06 are, for me, as impressive as anything they’ve made in the 21st century. Their 1998 continues to be one of the finest wines of the vintage and held its own last month during a blind line-up at Executive Wine Seminars that included great performances from: Henri Bonneau’s Celestsins, Chapoutier’s Barbe Rac, Usseglio’s Mon Aieul, Charvin and Bois de Boursan’s Cuvee Felix. Next to Charvin, the Vieux Donjon was by far the most modestly priced and a sense of relative humility has carried forward to their current pricing today.

The Michel’s soft spoken daughter, Claire, lead us through a couple wines at the domaine. She has just wrapped up a United States educational tour which includes university schooling in Michigan and some on the job training w/ top California producers, most notably at the storied Harlan Estate. She was energetic and open minded about carrying the torch of tradition for Vieux Donjon and vinifying the domaine’s Chateauneuf du Pape in years to come.

Vieux Donjon Blanc 2007
The ’07 white cuvee is a fifty-fifty blend of Roussanne and Clairette that fits the house style to a t, unadulterated and pure. Fresh and aromatic, w/ a lively profile of honey dew, straw, mango and citrus peel notes. Well proportioned in the mouth and cuts a fine, linear swatch across the palate to a lithe finish. This 2007 is rock solid, but lacks just a bit of the excitement that I found in their superior ’06, 89 points.

Vieux Donjon Rouge 2006
This is my third time tasting this wine and unfortunately the least showy as it had just been bottled a matter of days ago (anyone that doesn’t believe in bottle shock needs to compare a barrel tasting with a wine that had just been bottled, then report back to me!). While still showy and immediately complex in the nose, exuding smoky notes of graphite, garrigue, savory plum sauce and braised chestnut notes, it becomes undelineated, flat and closed in the palate. In spite of its awkward showing, the craftsmanship and quality of fruit is undeniably classic (I previously rated this at 95 points and consider it to be one of the best successes of the vintage).

Vieux Donjon Rouge 1999
Every 1999 I had on my trip was showing gorgeously, as it seems most all wines from this early maturing vintage jump from the glass and command a place at the dinner table. This vintage was composed of 75% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah and a mélange of the other allowed varieties made their way into the cuvee. Flamboyantly perfumey, if a tad bretty (sound familiar ’99 fans?), as graphite, sweet tobacco, dried hay, grilled game, black currant, savory herb and iron flood the nose in an immediate, earthy allure. In the mouth, the wine is fresh, medium to full bodied and still backed by sinewy grip, with hints of mesquite chiming in on the long finish. A gem of a ’99, packed w/ complexity and should continue to drink well over the next 5 to 10 years, 93 points.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Wines of Janasse, Batting a Thousand in ‘06

Since Aime Sabon founded Domaine Janasse in 1973, the family’s vineyard holdings have increased from 15 hectares to a formidable 55 hectares, with roughly a quarter of the vines residing within Chateauneuf du Pape. His son, Christophe took over vinification duties in ’91 and was joined by his charming sister Isabelle in 2001. The Janasse Domaine is now run by the entire Sabon family and they have put together an impressive portfolio from top to bottom.

Janasse arguably has the most expansive line-up of whites amongst Chateauneuf producers, two of which feature an exotic kick from Viognier (with clones that come from Condrieu’s top dog, Yves Cuilleron) that really set them apart stylistically from their peers. Their VDP blanc, CDR blanc and Chateauneuf blanc all offer exceptional quality for their respective prices, and the Domaine has been experimenting w/ a pure Roussanne cuvee in the past decade that is lavishly oaked, unctuous and appears to be establishing a bit of a track record for aging quite well (according to Isabelle).

In addition to their impressive spectrum of whites, their CDR Villages were some of the best examples of their breed that I tasted during my trip. With vineyards located just outside the boundaries of Chateauneuf du Pape (and adjacent to the Coudoulet plot from Beaucastel), the ‘les Garrigues’ and ‘Terre d’Argile’ cuvees are full of intensity, richness and depth that I seldom find in wines from the nebulous Cotes du Rhone appellation.

Of course, their Chateauneuf du Pape cuvees aren’t too shabby either ;) On to their terrific ‘06s (and some early release 07s)!

Janasse Cotes du Rhone Blanc, 2007
This is a perennial favorite value for me when it comes to white Rhones. The wine is handled in a no-frills fashion as it receives no oak and does not undergo malolactic fermentation. Much like the ’06 version of this cuvee, the wine is exceptionally fragrant, with no shortage of spring flower, honeysuckle, granny smith apple and candle wax notes. Although it is neither immense nor powerful in the mouth, there is a gorgeous sappy texture that pumps along a freshly defined frame that offers up an immediate charm that I find difficult to resist, 89 points.

Janasse VDP White
VDP wines from France are not vintage labeled but I believe the bulk of the fruit came from 2007. This pure Viognier (from Cuilleron’s Condrieu cuttings) goes through full malolactic fermentation and reveals generous notes of peach blossoms, honeyed citrus and apricot custard in the nose. The palate is fat and creamy, with ample acidity to pump along its tropical flavors to a fine finish, 90 points.

Janasse Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, 2007
The domaine’s white Chateauneuf is composed of 60% Grenache Blanc, with one quarter Roussanne that spends 6 months in barrel. This is a wine I could almost blindly buy irrespective of the vintage and the ’07 has a beautifully poised profile of lush fruit flavors that are kissed w/ judicious toast, fine symmetry and a deep finish of pure crushed stone. While generous in nature, there is a bit more finesse in this wine than you tend to find in white Chateauneuf, 91 points.

Janasse Prestige Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, 2006
A perfect counterpoint to the base cuvee is the Prestige, a Roussanne blend that is a pedal to the medal, full bodied expression that spends 18 months in French oak barrels. The wine is crammed w/ opulent flavors of citrus oil, shaved vanilla bean, pineapple, nutmeg and warm brioche. Thick, powerful and authoritatively deep in the mouth, there is quite a bit of toast and baby fat that some will find extremely attractive and others will likely scowl at. Isabelle says that the ’98 is drinking beautifully and finds the cuvee loaded w/ cellaring potential (which is always a bit of a dodgy proposition w/ Roussanne, but can be extremely rewarding), 93+ points.

Janasse Cotes du Rhone Rouge, 2007
The ’07 CDR underwent a quick elevage in foudre and is made in a straight-forward, immediately drinkable style. Notes of sweet cherry liqueur, sandalwood, spice box, pepper and gravelly earth present themselves in the glass. The wine is medium bodied, tannic but possesses suave enough texture to be drunk young or cellared for a few years. Not the most complex of reds, but it doesn’t proclaim to be anything but deliciously balanced, 86 points.

Janasse VDP Rouge
A 2006 cuvee that emulates a hybrid of Crozes-Hermitage synthesized w/ a modest St. Emilion, blending 40% Syrah, 40% Merlot from 50 year old vines and the balance of the blend comes from Cabernet Franc. The scents take me to the Right Bank, as notions of cedar, graphite, aged tobacco and red currants fill the air, but shift to a more tarry, dark plum profile in the palate that reminds me of a Northern Rhone. Janasse trademark polish, suave tannins caress the wine to a juicy finish. The VDP wines at Janasse aspire to be more than pleasant, and I believe they represent terrific value, 89 points.

Janasse Cotes du Rhone Villages, Terre d’Argile 2006
This blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre comes from clay soils located next to the Coudoulet wines produced at Beaucastel and is a terrific expression of CDR. As aromatic as they come, gushing notes of crushed rocks, blackberry liqueur, black cherries, smoke and bittersweet cocoa powder are almost startling, as if they take you by surprise. The palate is dense and packed w/ meaty black raspberries that pump along a taut frame to gorgeously long finish, 91+ points.

Janasse Cotes du Rhone ‘Les Garrigues,’ 2006
A pure Grenache Cotes du Rhone? Absolutely, and a fabulous one at that! The nose reveals a strong perfume of rose petals, kirsch, gingerbread and black cherries. Plush, plump and well defined in the palate, pumping out sweet licorice laced fruits to a long, heady finish. One of the best wines from the Rhone that money can buy, 92+ points.

Janasse Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge, 2006
The base Chateauneuf du Pape is perhaps a touch less showy and impressive than their Cotes du Rhone (did I just say that?), but is a rock solid performer in 2006 nonetheless. Panoplies of scents emerge from the bouquet in the form of loam, lead pencil, seaweed and meaty cherries. The wine is juicy and defined in the palate, w/ good acidity and a moderate finish, 91 points.

Janasse Cuvee Chaupin, Chateauneuf du Pape 2006
This admirably consistent, pure Grenache cuvee from cool soils showed a bit closed during my tasting, but was extremely promising. A heady perfume of violets, melted licorice, pine, spice box and dark fruits rose from the glass like fields of ambrosia. Unfortunately, the tightly knit palate was firm and unyielding, although it alluded to a wondrous mineral tone and intensity of fruit to come, 93+ points.

Janasse Chateauneuf du Pape, Vieilles Vignes 2006
This cuvee from Janasse is composed of 80% Grenache, w/ Syrah and Mourvedre picking up the slack and it is traditionally a more sinewy, powerful wine than the Chaupin, due not only to the blend, but the warmer, rockier soils it comes from. This 2006 is nothing short of fantastic, greeting the taster w/ blockbuster perfumes of savory spice, wild blueberries, grilled steak, sweet kirsch and underbrush notes that have an underlying severity that really beckons you to the glass. The wine is massively layered in the mouth and, perhaps most impressively, exhibits tiers of subtlety. The glimpses of earth, minerality and meaty spices evoke the vivid imagery of a Provencal barbeque. The ’06 Vieilles Vignes from Janasse is an excellent showcase of terroir, strength of purity and offers a sense of profundity that almost belies the vintage, 96+ points.

Monday, April 14, 2008

More than Getting by, with a Little Help From my Friends
Clos St. Jean

Tasting the wines of Clos St. Jean w/ proprietor Vincent Maurel was truly an exhilarating experience. My travels in Chateauneuf du Pape allowed me to become a bit more acquainted w/ the house style of the domaine prior to hiring consulting enologist Philippe Cambie and the distinction between the then and the now could not be any more stark. Under the talented Cambie’s supervision, the elevage of the wines has been significantly reduced, the yields lowered, stems completely removed (much to Laurent Charvin’s chagrin) and small barrels have begun to be utilized for the upbringing of the Syrah and Mourvedre.

Previously, from the few vintages I tasted in town (the ’01 is included at the conclusion of my notes), the wines showed more distinct gamey character, green tannins and harder textures. I didn’t think they were particularly poor, but they bear zero resemblance to the thrilling examples of today that I cannot exalt enough.

Vincent is a politically charged, forward thinking man that is beginning to experience some of the pitfalls of his recent success. The 100 point rating he received for his Deus Ex Machina cuvee in 2005 set off a whirlwind of phone calls, emails and frantic knocks to the door that he had no idea how to handle. He has a soft spot for trying to please everyone and has diligently tried to eradicate the seas of ‘gray market’ sales of his wines by revamping his labeling system. He has branched out to the emerging markets in Korea, China, Russia and beyond and appears to be at the forefront of spreading the joys of this wondrous appellation to the new world of wine consumers.

A bit of juicy bits are in order…

Clos St. Jean Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, 2006
An impressive white bottling is also made by Clos St. Jean, with a third of Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Roussanne finding their way into the blend. Richly perfumed, w/ warm brioche, demi-glazed citrus blossoms and poached pear characteristics filling out the bouquet. This white has tremendous body and ample, crunch acidity to carry along its fat beautifully to a solid finish, 91 points.

Clos St. Jean, Cuvee Classique 2006
This base cuvee is made specifically for the European market, with the Vieilles Vignes (comparable in quality) being the designated wine for the United States. While the ’06 was just bottled (which may have deterred the wine’s focus and exuberance a bit), it demonstrated the classic profile of the vintage. Sweet notes of pure cherry fruit, rhubarb pie and hints of wild blueberries dance from the glass. In the mouth, the wine demonstrates a forward, lush profile that is full of low acid, precocious fruit, 92 points.

Clos St. Jean, Combe de Fous, 2006
While there is roughly 60% Grenache in each top cuvee for Clos St. Jean, the two wines differ in that the Combe de Fous is filled out w/ 20% Syrah, 10% Vaccarese and 10% Cinsault (whereas the Deus Ex Machina is turbo-charged w/ 40% Mourvedre). Vincent Maurel said that he owns the oldest Vaccarese vines in all of Chateauneuf and includes such a high proportion of the variety in the cuvee in somewhat of a memorial fashion. This vintage of Combe des Fous is off the charts in terms of sheer depth and richness. Loaded w/ hedonistic sensations of raspberry ganache, black cherry liqueur, forest floor and ground cardamom flavors that shudder through the nostrils. The wine cuts a broad swath through the palate, building and gaining force in the mouth, but maintaining a keen sense of purity along the way. This performance by St. Jean is easily a superstar of the vintage and perhaps my favorite rendition of this cuvee to date, 97 points.

Clos St. Jean, Deus Ex Machina, 2006
While the Combe de Fous tends to be a prettier showpiece of a wine, the Machina never fails to deliver the muscle, and these textbook profiles are well represented in ’06. Smoky, brash aromas of graphite, sage, cured beef, fig, tar and sweet tobacco turn dark and massive on the palate. Brooding in the mouth and a bit backward, this cuvee will likely take a bit more time to come around and reel in its blockbuster girth, but has all the raw materials to put on a show in the years to come, 95+ points.

Clos St. Jean Chateauneuf du Pape, 2004
I was shocked at how well the appellation cuvee from ’04 showed and it could certainly give the ’05 Vieilles Vignes a run for its money. Fabulously effusive, decadent scents of baker’s chocolate, black raspberry, kirsch and cassis notes ooze from the glass. The mouthfeel is as sensual and flamboyant as one could hope for, showcasing tiers of liqueur-like fruit, with hints of port reduction checking in on the finish. Yowza! 93 points.

Clos St. Jean, Combe des Fous, 2004
I have a feeling we caught this wine at just the right time as it completely exploded from the bottle in no way I’d ever experienced from any 2004 previously. A sheer display of aromatic fireworks catalyzed the tasting experience w/ outrageously intense notions of date bread, fig preserve, linzer torte and white flowers. The palate manages to cram in layer upon of flawlessly extracted fruit with the type of polish and plush texture that is practically surreal. I would have never pegged this as a 2004 if it were served to me blind, 95 points.

2004 Clos St. Jean, Deus Ex Machina
I’ve tasted this wine on a half dozen occasions and it has never failed to impress me. A heady, hugely endowed wine that brings notes of melted asphalt, warm chocolate ganache, meat juices and crème de cassis to the table in more than ample proportions. The Machina is tremendously structured and powerful in the mouth, w/ sweet tannins and suavely wrapped layers of black fruit cascading their way to an authoritative finish. Although it is still quite showy at this stage, I get the sense that there may actually be a bit more in store for this ’04 during the next couple of years, 96+ points.

Just to see what a difference a man makes, we tasted the 2001 Clos St. Jean after finishing off the tremendous line-up of ‘04s and ‘06s. Philippe Cambie’s affect on this domaine cannot be understated, and the proof was indeed in the bottle.

2001 was a spectacular vintage and Clos St. Jean is privy to one of the finest terroirs in the region (120+ acres, with 60% of their vineyard holdings coming from the famed La Crau sector), , but the synthesis of those two elements did not create a profound wine during that vintage. Hardly recognizable in relation to the previous wines, this ’01 was distinctively beefy, with cooked plum, mushroom, spiced game and vegetal notes that were a tad off-putting, yet not completely unattractive. In the mouth, the wine shows a bit more of its brawny side, flexing some sturdy, yet drying tannins that clip the wine and call out for a bit of cassoulet to calm them down, 82 points.

It is evident that the structure and character of the wine is solid, it is just simply austere and lacks the polish and symmetry of the new garde at Clos St. Jean. Again, I don’t think the wine is necessarily bad, but Vincent and Philippe knew that it didn’t exploit the terroir nearly as profoundly as it could, and they strived to make wines that were memorable, not merely palatable. Changes in the upbringing, vineyard and selection had to be made, and in my opinion, the wines, and the appellation are benefiting from this breed of evolution.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Pegau Tale...

Visiting Laurence Feraud was one of those magical moments that brought me in contact w/ someone that I truly admire, and the interaction only heightened the esteem I have for her life’s work. She is candid, extremely generous and one of the most modest individuals I’ve had the pleasure to come across in this industry. We discussed everything from her newfound affinity for Californian Petite Sirah to her plans to think ‘inside the box’ and fashion a formidable boxed wine w/ her familiar tools: Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and company. She’s a wonderfully talented individual who is finally receiving the recognition she deserves for her uncompromising, powerful and vividly spicy expressions of traditional Chateauneuf du Pape.

We tasted through her self-proclaimed ‘simple’ white, her most recent Reservees, a pure Syrah from a plot we looked at earlier in the day, as well as the two upper echelon cuvees of the Domaine; Laurence and Capo. I felt a touch privileged knowing that I would be the first person to taste the ’04 Laurence that had just been bottled that day…and I felt even more privileged after I tasted it.

2007 Pegau Blanc
The typical white blend for Pegau, consisting mostly Grenache Blanc (60%) and Clairette (20%) underwent no malolactic fermentation and was fermented in their only stainless steel tank. This vintage brought a touch more depth and richness than that of the ’06 (which I found to be more streamlined and mineral driven), with fresh honeydew, green apple and a touch of honey notes leading the way. While the profile is far from challenging, it is pure, bright and tailor made for an aperitif, 89 points.
I was surprised to learn that Laurence only bottles a small proportion of the white, simply due to the fact that she has only one stainless steel tank (the rest of the press wine goes into the Reservee). She has brought the fermentation and elevage for the white to the most simplistic of methods as past experimentation w/ more aggressive methods has yielded erratic results, namely a previous vintage where skin maceration was employed & the wines prematurely oxidized. I think most people have been disappointed w/ her whites largely due to the expectation that it will somewhat resemble her massive, explosive reds, but I find the Pegau blanc to be a perfect counterpoint. Its modesty in whispers offers a bit of treble to the bass provided by le grande rouge and I think they tend to reflect Laurence’s humilty beautifully.
  1. 2006 Reservee (barrel sample)This is already a showy, mouthfilling Reservee, w/ oodles of red currant, braised chestnut, pepper and spice box notes filling out the wines tannic, yet forward personality. It doesn’t appear to be an incredible effort, but its all there and looks like it could be a bit more approachable at a younger age than most vintages of this wine, 92-94 points.
  2. Syrah, 2007 Barrel sample: Tasting component parts of the cuvee separately makes the learning process all the more fascinating, and it also illuminates the genius of the blender. The ’07 Syrah fruit is already demonstrating a tarry personality w/ blackberry sauce and a piercing violet note that glides along the medium bodied, chewy personality of the fruit. Although most producers in Chateauneuf don’t find much to love about their Syrah (because it isn’t Cote Rotie or Hermitage), I imagine this barrel will provide some fascinating complexity in the upcoming ’07 blend.
2005 Reservee
Big and brawny, just as advertised, with no shortage of puncturing tannins amongst the notes of sea salt, braised beef, grilled herb and black currant notes. So raw it seemed like a barrel sample, and Laurence’s decision to release this as late as possible is certainly prudent. While there is a classy Pegau display underneath its sheath of connective tissue, it will take quite a while for it to all come together and I don’t imagine it will ever possess the charm of top vintages, 91-92 points.
2004 Laurence
Along w/ the ’98, I believe this ’04 Laurence is a cuvee that manages to outshine its Reservee sibling. An absolute knockout body, w/ tiers of gorgeous fig, tar, flank steak, spicy tobacco, bramble and garrigue notes that pump out alongside a hauntingly silky, polished texture. The wine is distinctive not only texturally, but for its savory profile that is riddled with pepper and a myriad of Pegau’s telltale Indian spices that always tend to distinguish this estate in blind tastings. This is a dynamite synthesis of power, intensity and suave equilibrium, bravo Laurence, 96 points!

2007 Cuvee de Capo
Yeah, I was giddy…yeah, the sample was full of lees and sediment (it had only been racked once), but it was, to say the least, a treat to taste. The wine is a mammoth, authoritative tour de force through the palate, crammed w/ blue and black fruits in a pull no punches, reverberating fashion. This brooding behemoth of a wine is an example of the best fruit from specific parcels composed of sand, clay and rocky soils and is sure to wow all Chateauneuf-loving palates across the globe that have missed it greatly during the 4 year sabbatical this cuvee has taken from the market place. Another potential classic Capo is in the making.

Laurence graciously invited me and my wife, Ejehan, over to her home for a peek into her Provencal kitchen windows, showcasing a savory leg of lamb w/ an assortment of home-made sauces, potatoes and tender asparagus. To be a guest in her home was a once in a lifetime event that I relished every moment of, including the company of her adorable two children, three loveable dogs and her husband, Mark. Mark handles a hefty portion of the business at Pegau w/ British wit, American ideals and a French palate (he is a self-proclaimed Burgundy nut). Talking wine, culture and industry with him was a lot of fun and I was especially pleased to hear of his love for the Tribeca Grill, New York’s answer to Mondragon’s Beaugraviere (in terms of wine), with a lethal list that parades vintage after vintage of Chateuneuf du Pape. I brought over a bottle of ’98 Chante Cigale, a producer that all Pegau fans should have on their radar screen. Chante Cigale really caught fire w/ the ’03, ’05 and ’07 vintages, due at least in part to their talented, Mr. do everything winemaker that I believe is the youngest of the region.

We had some great food, a few laughs and of course, fermented grapes. I have been sworn to secrecy on the first couple whites that we tasted but I will happily divulge a few details on the stars of the evening. The recently bottled ’07 Blanc paired beautifully w/ the spicy appetizers and the ’04 Laurence was a total bombshell (as recently mentioned). When Laurence started parading bottles from the kitchen incognito, I knew we were in for it…and being duped had never been this much fun!

1988 Reservee (served blind during dinner)
The fabulous shocker of the evening had to be the 2 decade old Cuvee Reservee. An absolutely fabulous showing, extremely youthful and showy in its perfume of cured meats, assorted Asian spices, brandy soaked figs and charred black fruits filled the air with vigor. The palate showed excellent freshness, vibrancy and the focus of a wine at least ten years younger (exactly where I had it pegged) and offered up gorgeous textured, stout frame that finished in a lithe, mineral-driven conclusion, 94 points.
According to Laurence, ‘if you want to know Pegau, you have to try older vintages.’ 1988 was a tough one for the Ferauds, as the winery didn’t have a de-stemmer at the time and the 1988 vintage produced incredibly green, astringent tannins in the grape stems. I remember her saying how difficult it was to shovel out the dense must of the barrels and how hard, closed and pleasure-less the vintage had showed in its youth (now it’s tough to imagine Pegau having any difficulty selling wine, but that was certainly the case during the time). Apparently this night was its best showing yet and proved to be a fascinating caveat to the rule, ‘wines that show poorly in their youth will never blossom into mature beauties.’
1996 SQN Syrah (cuvee?)
Time for dessert….the second we stuck our noses into the glass we knew we had taken a trip across the Atlantic to the New World, and a wildly expressive trip at that. A singular, exotic bouquet of barbeque spices, grilled bacon fat, melted licorice, blackberry liqueur and cassis catapulted from the glass, revealing a bit more age in the mouth, as it was less exuberant than the nose suggested. Medium bodied and impeccably textured, as waves of satin coated fruit glided across the mouth like a surfer at high tide. The flawless texture told me Sine Qua Non and the aromas told me Cayuse. I guessed ’96, which happens to be a favorite vintage of Laurence, 94 points. I guess every dog has its day, does this make up for missing the boat on the Reservee by 10 years?

More to come...