Two Young Guns from the Old World
From the outside looking in, it seems the face of the appellation has changed dramatically over the past couple decades, considering the proliferation of new producers that have decided to domaine bottle their own wines that had long been sold off to negociants. While that paradigm shift is obviously in full swing, talking to the people of Chateauneuf made me question whether or not any change at all has happened. There is a steadfast pulse about the region that belies all of its newfound excitement and success, and if you stop anybody on the street and ask them what this place was like 20 years ago, they’ll say simply, ‘the same as it is now.’ Perhaps my American curiosity got the best of me, but I think I found out why the old adage ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same,’ works for Chateauneuf du Pape, and I think it is personified by the new regime. While Alexandre Favier and Julien Barrot have their differences, their similarities seem to strike me most. They are both younger than me (and much more accomplished than me too, but we’ll leave the self deprecation for another day!) and both seem to represent the face of the ‘new’ appellation. They carry much more experience on their resumes than their youth suggests, and most importantly, they respect tradition and share the same zeal for the concept that wines are made in the vineyard, not in the cellar. With all their youthful energies comes a quiet modesty about themselves and a pride in their land. Superstar glitz and glamour doesn’t seem to be on the radarscreen for them at all, and for that matter, I don't imagine the humble village of Chateauneuf du Pape lusting after fame either. As the harsh Mistral wind blows from the north, the vines dry out, the shudders of homes close and a refreshing sense of humility prevails.
Chante Cigale has one of the largest holdings of Chateauneuf du Pape, owning a total of 46 hectares of vineyards under the A.O.C.(of 35 different parcels!), w/ an additional 3 hectares of Cotes du Rhone. Christian Favier bequeathed most of the winemaking duties to his son, Alexandre, in 1999. Alexandre, now in his mid twenties, has close to ten vintages under his belt and in spite of his youth, is as traditional as they come. There is a gritty, blue collar workman like spirit in his demeanor and it is unfathomable how he handles such massive vineyard holdings (spread throughout the appellation) w/ relatively little help at all. When I asked him where his staff was, he replied w/ a smile ‘you’re looking at it.’ Half-joking, but also half-serious, my friend Harry Karis had mentioned to me that Alex was perhaps ‘burning the candle at both ends’ and I begun to see where he was coming from.
As I begun to taste through the wines of Chante Cigale, the uncanny diligence of Alexandre and the exceptional quality of his vineyards became more and more evident in the glass. The wines show vivid terroir character and precocious fruit that cover their iron clad structures exceptionally well. They are traditionally vinified and aged in mostly cement and foudre, w/ a small portion of the Vieilles Vignes (from vines older than 65 years of age) cuvee seeing some small barrels for the elevage. A relatively large volume of white Chateauneuf is also made at Chante Cigale, coming from 5 hectares of equal parts Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulence and Grenache Blanc. The white varieties average 45 years of age and are cleanly fermented in stainless steel tanks to showcase their uncomplicated, fresh character.
Pegau fans should have this producer on their radar as Alex seems to have a touch with his Chateauneuf that reminds me a bit of the style of Laurence Feraud. I brought a bottle of ’98 Chante Cigale to the Feraud’s home because of the similarities I saw in their vision.
To this point, this Domaine remains well under the radar and is still very reasonably priced, considering the quality of their wines. The Vieilles Vignes cuvees made in 2003, 2005 and the 2007 barrel sample are potential classics and shouldn’t be passed up.
Domaine Barroche covers roughly 12.5 hectares in Chateauneuf, mostly in the Northeastern sectors (with soils composed mostly of sand and red clay), with the prime jewel of the holdings being their 100 plus year old Grenache vines (which equal one third of the domaine’s vineyard land). There are also several southern parcels w/ a greater composition of galets roules and gravel. Because soils and exposures vary greatly and three separate cuvees were introduced to showcase these differences and are called: Reserve, Fiancee and Pure (I will delve into those wines in the tasting notes segment).
The amount of manual labor in the vineyards is nothing short of fanatical. All of the vines are treated biodynamically, with back-breaking attention to detail that essentially involves handheld care of every single vine and all the soil surrounding it. The winery at Barroche utilizes gravity flow, with fermentation in concrete tanks and a strict adherence to the lunar calendar. Cold soaks and gentle extraction techniques are used for most varieties and the Mourvedre is typically aged in small barrels to combat its reductive tendencies.
Julien Barrot joined Domaine Barroche in 2002 after learning from top producers in Bordeaux, the Languedoc and Australia. He’s as selfless as they come; imbued w/ a sense of hospitality that American southerners only wish they had. While he’s chock full of exuberant youth and a bit of impatient feistiness, he has an internal drive and passion for the vineyard that is second to none. Before tasting his wines, he made a point to show me each selected parcel that they come from, describing the soils, vine age and pruning techniques involved w/ the same enthusiasm I had as a child during Christmas time. Once I crawled through the trap door to the cellar and began tasting (complete w/ a picture of Julien and Russell Crowe taped to one of the massive foudres), I honestly was thinking about the vineyards we had just seen and every painstaking element it took to get the grapes in the glass. He may be young, but he definitely knows what he’s doing.
At 27 years of age, what he’s been able to produce in his first couple vintages is almost frighteningly good. All of his wines have glorious perfumes, uncanny depth and a seamless polish to their textures that makes them utterly seductive (even the barrel samples were refined...aren’t they supposed to be rough and rugged?!). Although he hopes that all his cuvees are looked at similarly, his Pure is truly in a class by itself. It is no small feat to be mentioned in the same breath of wines like Usseglios’s Mon Aieul, Janasse’s Chaupin and Vieille Julienne by your second vintage! Although he’ll be quick to remind me that it has nothing to do with him and it has everything to do w/ his ancient vineyards, his vision, finesse and dedication aren't things I’m not willing to overlook when praising his wines. His modesty extends to pricing as well, with the understanding that a cluster or two of grapes per vine isn’t exactly the most logical way to run this business, but he thinks everyone should be able to at least buy a bottle or two of his liquid treasure, and I do too.