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Sunday, April 20, 2008

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…

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