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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


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