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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.


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