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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Character Lines from Old Vines

Another aspect of my conversation w/ Rene involved a bit of debate regarding the age of his vines and its relative importance to a wine’s quality. Rene takes the stance that vine age is essentially a non-factor and considers the ‘old vine quality’ to be a myth. Hearing this perspective almost seemed like blasphemy after spending close to ten days in Chateauneuf, a land where century year old vines are more prized than gold, but his argument is not without merit. One of the most sought after wines in the world, the single vineyard Cote Rotie La Turque, from Guigal, come from vines barely in their adolescence (the vineyard was planted in 1981). You simply can’t attribute the spectacular heights that La Turque achieves to old vines.

I don’t think the discussion of vine age can occur in a vacuum. An appellation like Cote Rotie seems to belie a vineyard’s maturity due to its geology, angle extremity and the overall severities of terroir that naturally decrease yield, intensify flavors and retain acidity. Is the age of a vine in North Fork, Barossa Valley or Chateauneuf du Pape a negligible factor? Although viticultural practices such as green harvesting, trellis system management and leaf-pulling can combat the youthful vigor of immature vines, can they replicate the depth character that is often only associated w/ ancient vines? The answer is decidedly maybe, sometimes.

While one could make a sound case for both camps, I have to associate part of my affection for fine Grenache from Chateauneuf w/ its gnarly, old vines that have evolved and adapted over the past century. Not only do they produce less fruit, they have deeper penetrating roots that dig well into the earth for nourishment, giving them an intense layer of minerality that is highly associated w/ elder vineyards. In addition, some vines like Grenache are highly mutable and adapt to their environment over the years, learning to survive and thrive in their respective terroirs. Do they grow ‘character lines’ with age, like an old man whose wrinkles tell a story about what he’s done and where he’s been? I am not sure, but fans of Chateau Rayas are quick to cite the vast re-planting done at the vineyard when discussing the domaine’s less than stellar performances in top vintages like ’98, ’00 and ’01 (in addition to the changing of the guard that occurred when Jacques Reynaud passed in ’96 and Emanuel took over).

Obviously old vines are not everything, but I consider it to be a foolish statement to deny their importance all together. It seems that certain terroirs can shine so brightly that a vine’s age may barely play a supporting role, but when looking at the bigger picture of all the various wine growing regions that this enological world has to offer, I have to consider old vines to be an invaluable asset to any vintner’s repertoire, and one of which that many of the Old World’s best wines are certain to have.

Our evening at the Beau Rivage was capped off w/ a glorious dinner and a couple gems from two of the regions finest producers, Yves Cuilleron and Michel Ogier.

Cuilleron Condrieu Le Petit Cote, 2006
While most of the oak averse locals in Condrieu find a bit more pleasure from Francois Villard, I happen to adore just about everything Cuilleron has a hand in (including his reds in 2005). The ’06 Petit Cote is absolutely outstanding, jam packed w/ an effusive nose, evocative of beeswax, lanolin, crushed flowers, poached pears and honey-dipped quince notes. The intensity in perfume almost knocked me out of my seat, like a summer breeze on a tropical island, whisking you away to all its ambrosia-like delights. While creamy, plump and low in acid, the body of the wine has a fantastic, bracing minerality, keeping the opulent layers of flavors in check, as the chiseled finish that lets a jagged edge of quartz sing, 93 points.

Ogier Cote Rotie, 1999
The Beau Rivage wine list was anything but inexpensive, but an Ogier ’99 for 70 some odd euros was a deal I could not pass up. Out of my two weeks in the Rhone, this gets my vote for top three in terms of aromatic firepower, shot-gunning a series of smoky, savage and spicy scents that hit the nostrils w/ a thunderclap of intensity. Notions of road tar, blackberry sauce, lead pencil shavings, charcoal singed beef and cigar smoke simply made our jaws drop to the floor. In the mouth, the wine tastes like the essence of beef juices dripped over dark fruit, carried along w/ an almost piercing freshness, laser-like focus and blockbuster finish. In spite of the concentration in flavor, the wine is seemingly weightless a la Chateau Lafite, leaving you w/ a wonderfully elegant impression as its flavors glide on for well over a minute after the wine leaves the palate. Ogier’s 99 Cote Rotie is as ethereal as Syrah gets and was one, fantastic tasting experience, 96 points.


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