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Thursday, November 12, 2009

1999 Chateauneuf du Pape, A Decade in the Books

I’ve recently gone through a couple dozen ‘99s & wanted to put some broad strokes to the canvas of the vintage. The accessibility and early maturation of 1999 has made it food friendly for years, but a handful of top wines could still use a bit more cellaring to round into form. Though ’98 was the first blockbuster vintage to emerge in Chateauneuf du Pape after 1990, ’99 has been a safer bet for me of late from a consistency standpoint (particularly in light of some bizarrely poor showings by Marcoux, Marcoux VV, Bonneau, Centenaire, Vieille Julienne). 1999 tends to mentioned alongside 2004 and 2006 from a qualitative/stylistic perspective, and I generally agree that each of those vintages share a forward, fairly homogenous mix of very good to outstanding wines. ’04 and ’06 do have a leg up on 1999 from a sanitary standpoint (’99 is not for the brett averse) and the number of quality oriented producers has increased substantially (and continues to increase) over the last 10 years, beefing up the resumes of ’04 and ’06 in relation. Whether or not ’04 & ’06 will mature as quickly as ’99, or maintain the same accessibility throughout their lives, remains to be seen. That being said, the raw materials appear to have enough commonality to breathe life into the comparison & keep the debate alive.

With regards to consistency, 1999 is a superior vintage than 2003. I don’t know if that is a widely accepted notion in the wine community, but for my palate there is no debate. To my way of thinking, a vintage can only be considered outstanding if there is some uniformity to its quality, and ’03 is far too irregular to be considered as such. You can’t let a few great ones blind you to the flaccidity that follows beneath the best. Moreover, far too many ‘03s teeter on the edge of what I consider to be balanced, compelling wines. In relationship to ’00, ’01, ’05 and ’07, ’99 certainly lacks the punch, flesh and structure to compete, but again, I find these comparisons enlightening in that they remind me of how varied each good to great year in Chateauneuf has been over the past decade. The style of ’99, while not suited to everyone’s taste, offers a great window into the virtues of mature Chateauneuf du Pape. The wines share wildly pungent scents, fresh fruit and are beginning to gain a sense of mineral traction that is all too rare in Grenache-based wines. I adore the vibrancy and explosive nature of the top vintages in Chateauneuf, but ’99 reminds me that a little bit of rusticity goes a long way. In fact, rusticity is just the feature that attracted me to the Rhone in the first place.

In terms of back-filling, many of these wines still offer terrific value relative to the tags they are currently fetching. For example, you can grab anywhere from 3 to 6 bottles of the ’99 Vieille Julienne Reserve (a watershed year for the cuvee) for the price of one, neonatal bottle of the ’06. Instead of paying a premium for ‘99s at their peak, the downward pricing pressure of the more highly touted, neighboring vintages have kept the ‘99s affordable. Such is the luxury of the sandwich vintage. Here’s to hoping that ’04 and ’06 can surpass their ’99 comparators in terms of quality, yet follow suit in terms of price.

I’ve culled out a few wines from the pack that I thought best typified the year. I hope you enjoy my impressions.

The top tier of my sampling includes (mid 90’s):

Vieille Julienne Reserve (in my opinion, their first great wine)
Beaucastel Hommage Jacques Perrin (what else is new?)
Chateau Beaucastel
Henri Bonneau Reserve des Celestins
Marcoux Vieilles Vignes

The second tier (low 90’s):
Clos des Papes
Vieux Donjon

The others…(mid to high 80’s)

Select notes, in order of qualitative preference:

Vieille Julienne Reserve, '99
Trademark creme de cassis nose of Vieille Julienne pops from the glass, w/ an exotic flicker of blueberry, violet and high class tobacco making an appearance in the bouquet. The palate is effortless & super-suave, seamlessly gliding along an uber-refined bed of tannins (which are surprisingly powerful for the vintage). As the wine sits in the glass, a river of mouth-watering acidity lets alluring bittersweet cocoa & garrigue notes chime in on the finish. This is a pristine performance that is in its prime, yet should provide plenty of sex appeal for the next decade, 95 points. Come to think of it, this vintage really began the almost un-interrupted run of quality for the domaine (the '98 was solid, but lagged behind the best of the vintage) and is easily one of the best wines of the vintage.

Henri Bonneau Reserve des Celestins, 1999
Bonneau bucks the quick to mature ’99 trend, as his Celestins hides behind a compact, coiled facade. Tight as a drum, subtly hinting at Asian spice, nutmeg, smoked meats and candied orange peel notes. The attack suggests supremely sweet fruit, yet the structure still holds sway, pinning down the belly of the wine from bursting. This is a rare ’99 that demands cellaring, but is sure to reward patience, 94+ points.

Marcoux Vieilles Vignes, 1999
While I’ve had far too many bottles of insipid ’98 soil my opinion of this domaine, the ’99 wipes the slate clean with a heady, liqueur driven profile of vivid kirsch, black raspberry, rose petal and graphite notes. This has all the characteristics of a top vintage Celestins, w/ round, mouth-filling textures, exuberant fruit and a grounded, almost chalky minerality framing the body head to toe. Tasting this reminded me of my favorite Robert Parker analogy to a Henri Bonneau wine, “These wines often taste as if someone took one of the old Grenache vines, threw it in a Cuisinart, liquified it, added a bit of brandy, and then bottled it.” For those that say Grenache isn’t transparent, I’d like to know of one other place on this planet that can produce a wine like this, 94 points.

Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 1999
Up w/ Bonneau, this has to be one of the more structured, tightly wound efforts of the vintage. A deep crimson red, with primal, savory scents of dried Angus steak, cumin, curry powder, new saddle leather and gravely undertones. In the mouth, the attack is bright, beefy and layered in spicy sheets. A core of juicy red fruit pumps over a bed of garrigue, fanning out to a long, peppery finish. This effort easily has the structure to improve over the couple years, and perhaps end up as one of the longest lived Chateauneufs of the vintage, 93+ points.

Charvin '99
Believe it or not, this is a much better effort than I thought it would be. This squeaky clean '99 (oxymoron) is adorned in a sweet bouquet of incense, cassis, pepper, black tea and anise. High toned and full of fresh, mouth-watering acidity in the palate, w/ a juicy, medium to full bodied frame that leaves a lip-smacking, complex impression. A complete package from A to Z, 93 points.

Clos des Papes ‘99
I recently bought a 6 pack of this 10 year old beauty at a third of Clos des Papes current release price. The transparent ruby shade belies the intensity of the wine, with its effusive nose of sandalwood, fresh garrigue, melted licorice, dark plum, macerated cherry and lead pencil shaving notes. A beautifully complex, resolved performance, w/ all the silky texture and invigorating acidity one could hope for from a fine ‘99. The shapely tannins reinforce the structure harmoniously, turning the corner on a peppery finish. As the wine sits in the glass, a wave of mesquite & iron flicker through the flavor profile, 93 points.

Vieux Donjon Rouge 1999
Yet another ’99 that commands a place at the dinner table. This vintage was composed of 75% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah and a mélange of the other allowed varieties made their way into the cuvee. An extraverted perfume, if a tad bretty (sound familiar ’99 fans?), as graphite, sweet tobacco, dried hay, grilled game, black currant, savory herb and iron flood the nose in an immediate, earthy allure. In the mouth, the wine is fresh, medium to full bodied and still backed by sinewy grip, with hints of mesquite chiming in on the long finish. A gem of a ’99, packed w/ complexity and should continue to drink well over the next 5 to 10 years, 92 points.

Clos du Mont Olivet 1999
This is yet another classic example of the quick to mature vintage and is arguably showing at its apex, w/ a complex of array of licorice root, beef juices, fig and braised game notes. Again, this will definitely not be one for the brettophobes, but it’s important to note that the layers of sauvage elements are interwoven w/ fruit in an easy harmony, echoing along the sappy finish for close to 30 seconds, 91 points.

*On a tangential note, neighboring Gigondas stalwart’s Yves Gras also made a terrific prestige cuvee in ’99. The wine has impressed me so much so that I’ve drank half a dozen bottles over the past year at restaurant mark-ups (and I still find it to be a top value!).

Santa Duc Gigondas Prestige des Hautes Garrigues 1999
Along w/ the ’04,’99 is my favorite vintage of this supreme expression of Gigondas and I find it vastly superior to the more touted ’00 vintage (which, for me, is quite the statement). The nose is nothing short of supreme, serving up charcoal-grilled beef, dried truffles, hot stone, black currant paste, pepper and hints of mesquite spices on a platter fit for a king. Contrary to the uber-extracted versions of this cuvee, the ’99 is dazzling display of elegance, as the mouth-feel doesn’t skip a beat, without a rough edge or a hiccup to be found. A showpiece for its polish, yet remains a bloody, spice-rack speckled beast at its core, 94 points.

A couple examples of ‘the rest,’ formidable, yet far from fantastic:
(Also includes Senechaux, Barrot, Usseglio, Autard, Ferard Brunel, Grand Veneur, Janasse, La Nethe, Pegau, Rayas, Mon Aieul)

Cuvee du Vatican, Reserve Sixtine ‘99
Tasting this vintage provided me with a positive window to the evolutionary potential of the currently awkward ’06 Vatican wines, as this ’99 had integrated quite nicely. Notes of coffee, mint, sweet cherries and fresh berry fruit fill out this sappy, medium bodied effort that is squeaky clean and very well rounded. While this is an undoubtedly solid wine, it lacks the excitement and punch of what I consider to be outstanding, 88 points.

Mas de Boislauzon, ‘99
Ahhh the dirty vintage rears its head yet again, but I have to note that the brett in Mas de Boislauzon was definitely at a level where I consider it to be an attribute, sans Breeder’s Cup imagery. The scents were right up a Burghound’s alley, w/ a fascinating array of iron, tobacco, damp meadow, graphite, cherries and red currants seething from the glass. The mouthfeel was ethereal, w/ completely resolved tannin and bright acids pumping things along at just the right clip, 87 points.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

I Continue to Kick Myself for not Drinking More of This

Allow me to put on my Matt Kramer hat on for a second while I wax on a true ‘gout de terroir,’ Jean Foillard’s ’07 Morgon Cote de Py.

It is no secret that the price of village level Burgundy fetches you the crème de la cru of Beaujolais, but when it comes to making a selection I’m faced w/ a familiar dilemma. Which one should I buy? 30 dollar Beaujolais is the type of investment that few are comfortable making, and I include myself into that mix. As luck shall have it, an opportunity arose to taste the one of the big boys for myself. In my palate I trust.

The first thing that stuck me about this Morgon was its sense of authenticity and breed. What immediate irony we have here. While its aromas speak more of the earth and imagined origin than any mere fruit descriptors, there was a bright red fruit component more in line w/ a pomegranate than any customary Pinot Noir cherry. The vivid entry turned over to a spicy core of black pepper, rocky soils & chalk dust, buttressed by an indescribable hearty component that beefed up the spine. While hardly stout in terms of its body, the minerality swelled in jagged edges, providing raw presence over power. The 2 or 3 opportunities I’ve had to taste fine bottle aged Beaujolais have given me enough faith that a few more years in the cellar will unlock another door or two, 92 points.

Now, allow me to quickly justify my stupidity for not drinking wines like this more often. Let’s talk superficial judgments.

Its price isn’t the only element stacked against it. The fancy schmancy label reeks of real Burgundy envy, topped off with a red tipped wax capsule of ‘cult-like’ pretension. The back of the bottle doesn’t get any better, unless you can think of a positive connotation to associate w/ Kermit Lynch importing the stuff. Just another way to dress up the ugly baby…the harder you try to prop up the pricy plonk, the more pathetic it seems. Of course, re-inventing the Beaujolais wheel can’t without commercial growing pains. Good thing I’m not in Foillard’s marketing department, as all I’ve got to offer is scathing commentary, sans constructive alternatives.

All that said, the superficial bias of this bottle isn’t nearly as difficult a mountain to climb as the ignoble label of its appellation (much less its dearly departed variety, exiled from the hallowed soils of the north). The one compliment I’ve got to give the packaging is that the dreaded ‘B word’ is nowhere to be found on the label, and that praise is more directed towards the French A.O.C. than team Foillard. So great, it isn’t labeled as Beaujolais, but what the hell is a Morgon Cote du Py? Maybe the Burgundy guys buy this stuff and are as versed in Beaujolais terroir as they are in the Cote de Nuits. Perhaps it’s much ado about nothing…maybe the premium Beaujolais business is booming. Marketing snafus aside, if pricy Beaujolais consistently delivers these types of goods, shame on me for buying cheap imitations of a more noble kind.

*Photo courtesy of

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Great Wine, and the Progression of Emotions & Questions Attached to it.

Sometimes I’m in a more George Thorogood frame of mind, not to say that drinking alone is a healthy habit to form, but there’s a time & a place for everything. My good pal Buddy Weiser...

The wife is out of town, the Yankees just won the World Series…screw it, pop something ridiculous. No guilt, all glut. While scavenging the wine fridge, I searched for a bottle that could spin my inner monologue dial….something I’d otherwise be ravenous about. Perhaps a rumble w/ the wife over the last sip type of bottle…or a wine that drives me rabid, damning even my closest of friends for stealing precious glasses away from my gullet.

Well, how about a wine I’ve never tasted? Sure, as a somewhat contemplative mood was sure to swirl through my mind…at least once the sports bravado wore off. Considering I’d just sprinted through a half dozen bottles of the ’07 Kongsgaard Chardonnay, why not ante up for the top dog? No one’s looking, just rip the sucker open and cope w/ the culpability later. It’s only wine…too much mental back & forth was begninning to erode my spontaneity, so I finally shut up & popped that bad boy.

Mind frame: initially visceral, incoherent.

First tangible experience: dude, even the cork smells great.

Then…philosophy takes over, poor excuse poetry:

The bouquet was one blast off after another, with an overwhelming intensity that struck me as paradoxically obvious and profound all at once. Its thick legs dripped down the stem like melted ice, giving way to a clear base of golden color. 14..1% alcohol my ass. The explosive nature of the fruit could be initially construed as hyperbolic & caricature-like, but further investigation unveiled something singular. In the mouth, the Judge struck me as one of the most texturally dynamic American Chardonnays that I’ve ever tasted. It was gossamer and gigantic all at once; rippling a striking mineral chord through its pools of fleshy plumpness. The size & breadth could likely be replicated by other producers privy to warm Californian sites, yet its dimension, depth and indescribable authenticity put this wine in a rarified New World air. Talk about bucking the simplistic rationale that super cuvees defining traits lay w/in their size alone.

Finally, a curt mood of summation dashes in, peppering bullet points a la Reader’s Digest:
  • There’s no way I’ve ever had a more minerally injected New World wine.
  • There’s no way I’ve had a more enormously proportioned, yet mineral-driven wine.
  • There's no need for fruit descriptors w/ a wine like this.
  • How come there is such a variance in minerality from Kongsgaard’s entry level Chardonnay & the Judge? The Napa Chardonnay has comparatively zero mineral tone vs. the Judge (at least at this phase in the game).
  • It’s far too expensive a wine to conduct experiments w/, but Old World fans (who may still hate this wine) need to know that the minerality in this wine is legit, far from one of those taster created ‘I think that may be a pebble’ types of New World minerality. This is an avalanche at a quarry after a seismic event.
  • No clue how it will evolve, but based on how it reacted to prolonged air exposure, I can only imagine that the best case scenario would synthesize a Chave white Hermitage-like density w/ Montrachet texture.
  • I wish I was financially loaded enough to explore said bullet point…or, patience not withstanding, well off enough to have another quiet evening alone w/ another bottle.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Chateau Palmer Vertical

I can count my experiences w/ this estate on one hand (save for multiple samplings of the great ’99 vintage), so I drew upon a familiar M.O., vertical immersion, to get the ball rolling with Chateau Palmer. Perhaps one of the reasons that I haven’t given Palmer much play has been due to its price. Well, that and its siren of a neighbor, Chateau Margaux’s sea-sized shadow, trimming my view of the appellation to tunnel vision. My few experiences w/ Palmer have been fine, but hardly remarkable enough to keep me searching. So our Bordeaux clique gave it a shooter’s chance at Allegretti see if there are, in fact, points awarded for second place.

A duo of Fevre Chablis lit the candle, w/ the lightly oaked ’04 Preuses impressing me w/ its precision and clarity of flavor. Its nutmeg tinged green fruit glided over a refined, stony frame. Chiseled yet fleshy, the Preuses is already in a sweet spot & primed to drink well over the next half-dozen or so years. The ’02 Valmur, on the other hand, was caught in a funky phase. Its nose reminded me of an old Savennieres, w/ creamy hazelnut, quince and ginger scents hitting at disjointed angles, leaving a dull and flat impression on the palate. It’s debatable whether or not this has fallen to premature oxidation or has crept away to an awkward corner of its lifespan. The always affable NV Duval Leroy cleansed our palates afterwards, with its slightly evolved notes of coffee, grilled nuts and honeysuckle. She’s bright & fresh, w/ a refined bead of bubbles framing its finish w/ class.

The single blinded flights of 3 commenced w/ the sweet perfume of the ’95, a simply beautiful nose of pure black currant, truffle oil & morning earth. Closed and a bit lean in the mouth, while obviously ripe it was just too taut to yield its inner virtue. This vintage continues to be overshadowed by ’96 in side by side tastings (at least from a left bank perspective), and I begin to wonder if their snail’s pace towards fleshing out will be eclipsed by their proclivity to dry out. The latter two vintages of the flight couldn’t have been more transparent. The first, obviously the 2000, revealed the power & raw density of the vintage, w/ broad, yet sweet tannins coating the smoky graphite, dark chocolate and blackberry flavors. Primal and still a touch too young to start playing with, the wine’s shield of sinew is sure to Sheppard its full belly of fruit well into its 40s. The final member of the flight, obviously the ’99, seduced with its sensual, up-front sweetness, bringing an almost cherry cordial-like note to the bouquet. Its suave, velvety roundness spread sweet licorice & graphite flavors over the palate like melted butter to bread, offering up the pure pleasure of its primary coat. The only problem w/ our group’s brilliant take on the vintages is that we flip-flopped them, mislabeling the ’99 as the titan and the ’00 as the vixen. Whoops?! I don’t think there’s any question left to what the wine of the vintage was in 1999.

The second flight was yet another moment where our group’s bravado outweighed the situation’s tangible reality. The first vintage, clearly the great ’83, had an absolutely gorgeous, tertiary bouquet, full of mint, basil leaf, porcini mushrooms & lead pencil shaving, leaving me weak in the knees. The savory entry left the palate awash in sweet cassis and ripe cherry fruit, driving its full bodied band of flavor over a rock solid backbone. The apex of the mountain is a remarkable experience with great wine, and this was just that point in time that all its beauty has touched the summit, for if it were to fly any closer to the sun it would surely leave your lips in flames. Its pinnacle was followed by the stern, struggling youth of what must have been the ’90, w/ grippy, black tea-like tannins squeezing the core of uber-fruit to the point of strangulation. Spicy notions of licorice snap & black currant fanned a bit of opulence, but there was simply too much beefed up tannin dialing back the high notes. Finally, the lone contamination of the evening brought up the rear of the flight, and I seem to have lost its origin through the TCA haze (the ’89?). Well, smart minds think alike, and our genius was showing yet again. The ’90 was the ’83 and the ’83 was the ’90. The ‘bizarro Palmer world’ continues to trudge on, leaving us w/ the impression that the ’83 is over-rated & under-evolved, and the ’90 was under-rated and over-evolved. In spite of the rapid progression of this particular bottle of the ’90, the fact remains that it performed impeccably. That being said, if this bottle was at all representative of its true lifespan, I’d drink up whatever stash I had over the next 5 years….before lightning leaves the bottle.

The final flight rendered me so idle that I forgot to jot down the correct vintages of each. Thankfully, Kravitz paid more attention than I & we’ve since connected the dots. The first was fresh, with a lip-smacking, mouth-watering disposition that gave its dusty cherry core nice drive and focus. There’s a good deal of substance remaining in the ‘85, especially on the finish, which fans out an attractive array of cedar and spice notes. The second, the ’75, had demonstrated considerable decay, with its fading colors and watered down character turning greener & greener w/ each subsequent sniff. The soil tones were too dirty to be pleasant & the surrounding cherry and tea flavors were too modest to keep the wine afloat. We capped off the night w/ the modern, big-dollar youth of the 2002. The unattractive high char-nose was obvious, w/ splintery elements funneling over a mixture of dark fruits & rubbing alcohol. I considered this an unmasked, almost vulnerable showing, w/ a midpalate pummeled by extraction & shallow fruit, ending on an abrupt note. Far from an outstanding wine, yet in all fairness its phase appears to be an unforgiving one. Don’t touch.

All told, the ’90, ’99 and ’00, for me, were the most singular expressions of Palmer during the vertical. While distinct, they all synthesized elegant, full frames w/ terrific perfume. The ’83 and ’95 had outstanding elements, yet I’m concerned that their stubbornness may get the best of them. I would have liked to see what Palmer did w/ the raw materials of ’89 (especially as a contrast to the rapidly evolved showing of the ’90), as well as ’96 (juxtaposed to the showy, yet hard ’95). In terms of older vintages, if anyone has had experience w/ some of the more heralded vintages (ie: ’61), please chime in. I’m curious to see what Palmer’s perception is, particularly to Margaux buffs. My sample size is far too small to have formed an opinion of any validity, but the top performers of this tasting have piqued my curiosity to dig a bit deeper.

Wine Rating
Fevre Preuses '04 93
Fevre Valmur '02 78?
Duval Leroy NV 90
'95 91
'99 96+
'00 95
'90 97
'83 92
'89 ?
'85 89
'75 71
'02 79?

*For fair balance, I believe Rich was the only source of dissension in correctly identifying the ’99 and ’00. His reasoning was that ‘I always like the 2000’s best, and it is a slutty vintage.’ Well played Mr. Stahmer.