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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.

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