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?)
Henri Bonneau Reserve des Celestins
Marcoux Vieilles Vignes
The second tier (low 90’s):
Clos des Papes
The others…(mid to high 80’s)
Select notes, in order of qualitative preference:
Vieille Julienne Reserve, '99
Henri Bonneau Reserve des Celestins, 1999
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.
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
Clos du Mont Olivet 1999
*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
Mas de Boislauzon, ‘99