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Friday, February 13, 2009

'03 Chateauneuf blind w/ the region's stars Philippe Cambie & Vincent Maurel

Tour de Rocket Fuel

Before I delve into some tidbits of the evening, I have a declaration of guilt to make. The backlash of A-Rod’s confession has brought one of my deep, dark secrets to a head. For the record, I would like to state that I tested positive for tasting enhancing drugs during the 2007 vintage. I am not going to cop out and say it was to compensate for a sinus infection, but I’d also like to clear the air and let it be known that it was during ’07 and ’07 only. I apologize to my friends, family and fans for all of the anguish that this may bring upon you but rest assured, the only juice I’m taking these days is of the fermented variety.

Boy that feels good to get off my chest. Phew, onwards and upwards.

I put together a mélange of tasters from the Rhone persuasion, some that were fond of 2003, and others that abhorred it. In totality, there were probably too many damn people at the dinner table- so much for my theory of ‘its 2003, expect at least a 50% attrition rate.’ In spite of the veritable mosh-pit of bodies and bottles of booze, I couldn’t have been happier w/ the eclectic group of guys that ended up swilling the hot sauce w/ me for the day after my birthday. Josh Raynolds, of Steve Tanzer’s IWC fame, mentioned that he had a couple ‘special guests’ that were interested in attending. I figured hell, why not? With a few dozen bottles of wine on tap we could sure use the help of a couple more palates. Little did I know that the guests were active participants in the vintage themselves, as renowned enologist Philippe Cambie & Clos St. Jean’s Vincent Maurel were those very guests.

I consider the two to be inextricably linked. Looking at all of Philippe’s success, the transformation at Clos St. Jean has been the most dramatic. Before Vincent recruited Cambie in ’02, the wines were austere, dry and attenuated, receiving little fanfare or recognition. After the breakthrough ’03 vintage, the resurrection year for the estate, Clos St. Jean exploded onto the scene in blockbuster style & hasn’t looked back sense. This domaine is arguably one where Cambie’s involvement has made the most dramatic impact & it is a consultancy where he wields an enormous amount of influence on the viticulture as well as the winemaking.

Although my French is appalling, I made sure it was clearly spoken to Philippe that I found his breadth of work to be the most impressive aspect of his resume. While flying winemakers tend to be painted w/ a globalized brush, Philippe’s projects span from the most traditional of wines (Vieux Donjon), to the most progressive (Domaine St. Prefert & Olivier Hillaire). The range in his palate is really astonishing, and when I asked what types of wines he liked to drink, he seemed to list just about every appellation under the sun. Exactly as I thought, a guy that likes good wine, in all shapes and sizes, and that is exactly the types of wines he likes to make.

I had the good fortune of meeting Vincent in Chateauneuf and it was great to see him again. Thanks again to Josh for arranging things as such that their visit would coincide w/ our evening of overindulgence. It was a genuine pleasure to share the evening w/ both of them.

As for the ‘03s, all were served single blind, w/ the token ringer or two thrown in for good measure. We began w/ an anomaly; a ’99 rose from Francois Cotat, which demonstrated brilliant freshness in its delineated profile of strawberry preserve, flowers and crushed limestone notes. Sharp, mouthwatering and tantalizingly pure, the wine seemed to scream of site, punctuating w/ its liquefied minerality. If a wine like this doesn’t change preconceived notions about how a fine rose can age, none will. Josh’s take on why there is such life in a ten year old rose was simply that ‘it comes from Pinot Noir.’ Fair enough. The first flight was not exactly a profound beginning, as the first wine demonstrated an overt nose of sur maturite, w/ candied watermelon, over-ripe strawberry, cola and grilled herb notes. The sweet entry turned compressed and came off w/ a bitter disposition, as the tannins seemed under-ripe in spite of the wine’s obvious alcohol. This Clos des Papes was nowhere near the caliber wine that I had tasted w/ Rich Stahmer at Tribeca Grill, and I purposely asked Rich to bring the bottle (his last one was singing, though it did have a bit more air time). The second bottle was a step up, showing a good fleshy core of plum sauce, tapenade and spicy garrigue notes that were wrapped around a savory spine. There is a layer of unresolved toast that the Cote de L’Ange Vieilles Vignes needs to shake, but the key ingredients are all there.

We could call the 3rd bottle ‘ringer number one,’ as it wasn’t technically a Chateauneuf, but its wild, almost burly characteristics of salted pork, green peppercorn and black currant sauce still screamed Rhone as loudly as any wine could. Unfortunately its intrigue was met w/ true grit in the palate, as the taut, unyielding wave of austere, almost leathery tannins left me wishing the Santa Duc Gigondas had at least a hair of the suppleness exhibited by the rest of the bunch. The Marcoux that followed provided a view into the other end of the spectrum, w/ its knockout nose of framboise, raspberry preserve and sweet rose petals. The liqueur-driven attack unfurls a delicious wave of flavor through the full-bodied, slightly one dimensional palate, finishing w/ slightly drying tannins. Three or four more years of cellaring should really help this ’03 blossom into form. As for the fifth bottle of the evening, I confess that I suggested this as a ringer, yet I still felt somewhat accomplished in being able to discern it from the rest of the bunch. The ’04 Turley Ueberroth Vineyard Zinfandel was about as flaccid and cloying as Zinfandel gets, lacking any sense of verve or definition that even the soft ’03 Chateauneuf du Papes possessed. What a clunker. On to the sweaty, yet supple Chateau de la Gardine Cuvee des Generations, which stood out from the Turley, yet not much else. While there is a decent core of crushed dark fruit, chocolate and café crème flavors, the wine was plagued by its one dimensional, banal character.

You ever get that feeling when you taste a wine blindly & know it is your wine but wish it wasn’t? Well, my bottle of Mas de Boislauzon Quet was definitely not on point during our evening, in spite of its provocative nose of cocoa dust, seaweed, cassis and dusty herb notes. The flavors were plagued by a streak of warm alcohol, starting fast and ending abruptly on the clipped finish that packed quite the bite. For the record, the importer of this wine, John Junguenet (who was sitting next to me) agreed w/ me that this was not a representative showing. Next was an outstanding, yet undistinguishable Chateauneuf that sprinkled its freshly brewed coffee, warm ganache and cassis flavors along its suave, sexy spine w/ good persistence and generous texture. While this is an outstanding vintage for Vatican’s Sixtine, it tastes like a wine that could have come from just about anywhere.

The flight of the night began w/ a wine that screamed Janasse Vieilles Vignes so loudly that it was almost too easy to guess. An absolutely dynamite 2003 from start to finish, w/ drop dead gorgeous flavors of kirsch liqueur, fruit cake and freshly cut flowers that fill an immensely constituted, layered body that retains exquisite balance, staying light on its feet through the wispy finish. Even though it is a real classic, I don’t think it would crack the top 3 vintages for this cuvee. The bookend to this flight was a great little find, a Clos des Pontifes fashioned by none other than Cambie himself (a man that really understood how to handle ’03…patiently). A fleshy, juicy torrent of sweet cassis, melted licorice and toasted nuts flavors glide over an almost seamless palate to a long, plush finish. This property was purchased by Chapoutier and I believe that the ’03 was the final vintage.

Now the next wine parted the table a la Moses & understandably so, as Vieux Donjon is a traditional stalwart of the appellation that has a fairly consistent profile from vintage to vintage. The aromas were almost bubbling out of the glass, w/ freshly ground pepper, saline, crème de cassis and crushed raspberry fruit all making an appearance. There is immediacy to the flavors in the mouth, which were atypically approachable and hedonistic for such a young Vieux Donjon, but I found it to be unquestionably delicious and complete from head to toe. The Chateau des Tours Vacqueyras was mildly marred by a TCA streak so we finished things up w/ the always reliable Domaine du Pegau Cuvee Reservee. I’ve had this wine over a dozen times and have come to the conclusion that it is beginning to firm up, as you can sense that everything is there until it practically caves in on the finish. I’d recommend sitting on these for at least another 3 years before dipping back into your stash.

Now the rest of the evening was a double-blind free for all. Bring whatever you feel like drinking and let it rip, w/ the first bottle of the bunch making a huge impression on just about all of us. The nose was pure Cote Rotie, with that exotic hint of the sauvage luring your nose to the glass for another sniff. Beautifully symmetrical and fresh in the mouth, w/ a spry, almost ethereal texture caressing the smoky flavors of raw beef and blackberry sauce. I wasn’t completely shocked to see it was a Lignier Morey Saint Denis Vieilles Vignes ’93, so color me pleasantly surprised. An ’00 Monpertuis followed suit in outstanding fashion, w/ an exceptionally lush profile of crushed berry and grilled herbs that tickled the palate through the silky smooth finish. This is a definite sleeper pick of the ’00 vintage that is worth seeking out.

Jim Gallagher, in typical fashion, brought a knife to the gunfight w/ his ’95 Lenz Merlot that more than held its own at our version of the O.K. Corall as it was a dead ringer for a right bank Bordeaux (I actually thought it reminded me of Viader too), w/ that classic claret combination of silky Merlot and spicy Cabernet Franc fruit sending notes of violet, menthol and sweet plum from the glass. Sexy, round and fully mature, this bottle is certain to turn a head or two & make people think twice about the North Fork’s potential. The ’97 Guigal La Mouline was not nearly as electric as one would hope for as it seemed more like a modern Rhone wannabe than the real deal. While full of sweet cassis, spice box and cocoa notes, it had an obvious glycerin induced, youthful superficiality about itself and lacked the depth, class and persistence that I’d expect from this bottling (counterfeit bottle?). The ’98 Chante Perdrix is now fully mature, w/ berry compote, roast beef and underbrush notes flowing through an abundantly sweet, soft profile. Paul Jaouen allowed me to nail another wine, simply because he ALWAYS brings a Chateau Musar to a blind tasting! The vintage is always a tricky proposition though, considering how slowly they appear to evolve. The ’91 sports an herb, cold steel and sour cherry inflicted nose that turns sappy in the palate, w/ firm, crunchy acids carrying a bed of warm red fruits to the resolved finish. Another disappointing showing came from the ’96 Phelps Insignia, which perhaps could have used a bit more airtime, as I had guessed it was the base Cabernet from Phelps w/ its sweet vanilla bean, black currant and toast notes. Ripe, round and a bit soft, with its gravely under toe creeping in on the straight forward finish.

We moved on to the most modern of Chateauneuf du Papes, Boisrenard, which turned in a fairly stout performance for ’04, with its big, layered mouthful of dark fig, licorice, melted chocolate and toast flavors that unfolded in the opulent finish. The fresh acidity was just enough to keep all its exuberance in check, which the vintage seemed to deliver in spades. The next two wines were unique older gems, starting w/ the ’88 Rocca di Montegrossi Chianti Classico Riserva showing little signs of age, maintaining its fresh zingy acidity that carries along its tangy red fruits to an easy finish. With 6 more years under its belt, the ’82 Cayran Cahors turned out to be an exceptionally elegant, linear Malbec expression that opened our eyes to the longevity of the unheralded wines in the Southwest of France.

I suppose I threw in the Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova ’01 just to see if it would stick out in the crowd like a Brunello, or simply dissolve into the dump bucket as another innocuous modern interpretation. Well, the latter seems to be a bit more accurate, as the dark, almost inky colored robe paved the way for an over-riding sense of ripeness, w/ nebulous licorice and black currant flavors masking any sense of origin. I found it to be a delicious drink, yet not exactly one that evoked images of sun-drenched Tuscan soils. By the time we were pouring Santa Cosme’s Gigondas into our glasses, I noticed that my handwriting slipped somewhere into the unknown- so hopefully a generous soul will enlighten me to the vintage. Whatever the year, it was a class act showing of sweet cherry, bramble, pepper and spice box flavors that demonstrated great poise, freshness and balance. As for the ’89 Les Cailloux, in a word, WOW. While I love 1990 today, I adore 1989 tomorrow- and I often go back and forth between the two- but this was a spectacular showing in its textbook balance and claret-like regality. I think we popped another Gardine Generations w/ dessert and I believe it was a ’98. To say I can recall its characteristics would be more foolish than A-Rod’s trips to GNC, yet I did give it a score (which I wouldn’t put the most stock in).

All in all, ’03 Chateauneuf had some studs and its fair share of duds. The obviousness of the fruit is a trait that won’t appeal to all, but my problem w/ the vintage lies w/ the wines that had high alcohols and under-ripe tannins, leaving them w/ hollow mid-palates and clipped finishes. That said, it probably hasn’t been sense last year’s Super Bowl that I got that blitzed on a Sunday evening. I needed the nightcap w/ Josh & Ben like I needed a hole in the head. With that I bid you a fondue- peace.

Wine Score
Cotat Rose ’99 89 points
Clos des Papes ’03 84 points?
Cote de L’Ange ’03 91+ points
Santa Duc Gigondas ’03 87 points
Marcoux ’03 91+ points
Turley Ueberroth Zin ’04 78 points
La Gardine Generations ’03 87 points
Boislauzon Quet ’03 87 points?
Vatican Sixtine ’03 92 points
Janasse Vieilles Vignes ’03 95 points
Clos des Pontifes ’03 93 points
Vieux Donjon ’03 94 points
Chateau des Tours ’03 ?
Pegau ’03 94+ points
Lignier Morey St. Denis ’93 93 points
Monpertuis ’00 91 points
Lenz Merlot ’95 90 points
Guigal La Mouline ’97 89 points?
Chante Perdrix ’98 87 points
Chateau Musar ’91 89 points
Phelps Insignia ’96 90+ points
Boisrenard ’04 93+ points
Rocca ’88 86 points
Cayran Cahors ’82 88 points
Casanova di Neri TN ’01 90+ points
Saint Cosme Gigondas 90 points
Les Cailloux ’89 94 points
Garine Generations ’98 89 points

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