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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2001 Chateauneuf du Pape Retrospective, Blind. Post your guesses.

8 years of age is hardly a round number, but I’ll admit it, Rich Stahmer and I were looking for excuses to drink abundant amounts of 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape. 2001 is a good vintage to galvanize the troops, considering it has the ironclad structure to keep the attention of traditional palates, while fleshing out enough fruit flavors for those of the primary persuasion. There have been flashes of evidence that the vintage was beginning to come out of its slumber, followed by bottles that made me feel out of my mind for imagining that was the case. A modest group of about 9 of us took the wines to task, blazing through 18 or so bottles of 2001’s to gauge, wine by wine, just where each domaine was in its lifespan. 2 bottles a pop, single-blind, rendered us doubly blind and drunk by the end of the evening.

I will caveat these impressions by stating that the bottles were not treated w/ homogenous care. Some where judiciously decanted, others were immediately ingested. The tasting did incorporate just about every shape & style that the appellation produces, from the old guard of rough, rugged and raw to the new wave of the prim & polished. As you’ll see, the big boys were in attendance, yet the old standbys currently impressed the most.

The lone white of the evening, an ’01 Vieux Donjon, cleansed our palates w/ its flavors of baked apple, flowers and a coy, creamy coating. It’s always a roll of the dice w/ these intermediately aged white Rhones, but the Donjon was in fine form, w/ its primary fruit unearthing a bit of bottle-aged mineral cut for definition. The flights of three commenced w/ (#1) an exceptionally youthful, almost Syrah-like red. The nose was tight, w/ a burly, gutsy core of ash, damp earth and pepper notes brooding in the background. The flavors were undelineated and a bit chunky, wrapped in a firm grip of powerful tannin. The 2nd was a unilaterally modern spin, w/ exotically toned cola, candied orange peel and nutty dark fruits smoking through the senses. The palate was good, yet not dynamic, composed of flattering fruit wrapped in a modern womb, leaving a bland, vanilla impression. More time in the cellar may inject a bit more energy into this youngster. The flight was closed out w/ a spectacular wine (#3), shaving a smidge of brett seasoning atop its savory blend of fungally afflicted scents. The expansive, powerful entry was awash in sweet cassis and licorice notes, funneling through the palate to an exceptional synthesis of earth & polish. While I’ve had 3 previous bottles of this wine that were almost subversively bretty, this was a shining example & fired on all cylinders.

The 2nd flight, arguably the best of the evening, began w/ a potentially combustible wine (#4). I say this because its ripeness was at such a pitch it verged on tropical, yet it was paradoxically fresh, full of spicy garrigue, cassis, warm berries and earth notes. Full, fat and voluptuous, but a river of almost impossible acidity kept its flames from burning the house down. The following bottle (#5) was a tannic, seemingly Mourvedre-dominated tree of a wine, w/ beefy leather, pepper and licorice snap flavors contracting through a muscular, taut palate. This was one of those ‘monster breathing down your neck’ types of wines, and while I’ve tasted this wine on several occasions, this was the most serious showing to date. The flight ended w/ (#6) what was unanimously agreed upon to be the Janasse Chaupin, a blooming flower of fruit, awash in strawberry, raspberry, cola and anise notes that were as sweet and succulent as a lollipop lick. The wine was deliciously round, generous and sure had ample fruit to burn.

The 3rd flight was sparked by a modern plug (#7), smelling of creamy lactic notes which turned toasty and cassis laden in the mouth. Primary, full-bodied and impressive for its structure, this wine seems to not have budged from the womb. While I imagine this will maintain for several years to come, I wonder if it will ever reward patience w/ true evolution? The sandwich of the flight (#8) was my wine of the night, just an outrageous cornucopia of Kirsch liqueur, distilled in its purest, most potent form. Fabulously layered, tucking away nuance in each nook and buffing its corners w/ a velvety textured shine. Few wines can manage to be so subtlety striking when they are endowed w/ such sheer mass & power. The 9th wine was the evening’s first of two casualties in the form of a corked bottle of Tardieu Laurent VV (though some may have thanked the gods of cork for said incident).

The 10th wine of the evening had to be the only real lightning rod of controversy that I did not expect, and I preface this by stating I’ve had the wine on 2 other occasions and adored it. The nose struck me as blowzy & amorphous, w/ that contemptuous quality of Zinfandel that has been hanging on the vine a bit too long for its own good. While not raisined in its flavors, it struck me as flaccid, trickling out to a shallow, closed finish. I’ve had several Grenache based wines that go through awkward, structure-less phases not dissimilar to this one, but what blew my mind was that half of the table really enjoyed it, with the other half firmly in my camp. Those that enjoyed it thought it was Rayas, which I actually could see, but I couldn’t get past the fact that they wanted to bathe their tongues in such swill. The middle of the flight was another rock star (#11), completely loaded to the gills w/ jaw-dropping layers of cherry liqueur, pepper, cedar and spice rack notes. The entry could be described as one helluva juicy slab of flesh, yet the structure & sinew obviously need a bit more time to unfurl their virtues. The flight was closed out w/ (#12) a very well made, modern styled red that exhibited sweet, red berry fruit, rounded off w/ excellent polish and refinement.

The ripeness in lucky #13 seemed to stick out from the crowd, w/ an almost Priorat-like mélange of fig, caramelized berry and licorice notes. The sweetness of the fruit was held in check by round, yet sturdy tannins. This was followed by one of the evening’s best (#14), a terrifically poised bottle of Chateauneuf, full of aged beef, pepper, spicy cassis and damp earth notes. An enveloping, full-bodied palate, rife w/ power, carried its raw guts on a wave of ethereal ease, challenging for wine of the night. The 15th & 16th wines of the evening provided an interesting contrast, opening w/ 15’s succulent black raspberry & cocoa notes filling out a sharp, yet equally caressing palate. The wine was lovely, exemplifying a sense of ease & grace. The 16th was a backyard bruiser, w/ Gigondas like grip. The tannic torrent of sandalwood, red currant and leather notes spackled the palate. While a bit clunky & pregnant w/ a bellyful of brett, it was appealing for its unadorned honesty & savage, gamey flavors. There was a cry or two from the crowd that this wine was ‘spoofy,’ to which I responded ‘you’re spoofy.’ I felt such conviction w/ my guess for number 15 that I made a wager involving my testicles. Alas, the beauty of being drunk and cocky w/o fear of consequence.

The liver gods must have communicated w/ the TCA gods, rendering the 17th bottle, a Les Cailloux, idle w/ newspaper trimmings & mold spores. Hepatically safe, but a gustatory grimace nonetheless. Suzanne Camhi donated a bottle of ’89 Jurancon, of which I do not recall the producer or its flavor profile. The scents of a quadruple espresso dominated my dessert, as the heady bliss of an evening of Chateauneuf had begun to take its toll.

After much debate, we decided to not unveil any of the wines until the evening was over (to keep things as broad as possible & to prevent the process of removing wines from the mental checklist flight by flight). Now I can say, w/ a fair amount of confidence, that my opinions were not entirely aloof from the group (save for number 10, which was 50/50). Remember that my palate enjoys both ends of the style spectrum, so I will not look at a modernly spun wine w/ any amount of disdain if I find that it is done well. Now it is time to single blind you. I’ll list the wines that were tasted, and let me know which you think is which (you don’t have to guess them all, but if you have any amount of conviction on a wine or two, throw out your opinions). I’m doing this simply to demonstrate how blind tasting changes the sensory game. Instead of seeing the label of a Barroche Pure and looking for Grenache characteristics, we could only ‘look’ for Chateauneuf characteristics (if it were double blind, we could only ‘look’ for wine characteristics). Perhaps removing the labels allowed our senses to process the wines differently? I’m not necessarily sure if it enabled me to taste the wines more clearly, but I am sure it made me dig a bit deeper (so deeply that I got lost?).

Precision in wine tasting can be made into somewhat of a joke, particularly in cases such as a winemaker not recognizing their own wine, but I do wonder if my impressions of certain wines in the tasting would have been different had I known their identity beforehand. I don’t think I would have had apologies for label love, but I do feel my impressions would have been….different, not necessarily better. A geek’s knowledge base & experiential resume can work against him/her, particularly when considering what a particular wine ‘should taste like,’ as opposed to what it ‘does taste like.’ The problem I have w/ this blind or non-blind debate is that I see benefit in both sides, perhaps putting my decision firmly in the ‘both’ camp. That being said, I hope you enjoyed the raw impressions & I look forward to your guesswork.

Blind wines tasted (save for the Cailloux & Tardieu Laurent TCA jobs that I spared you):
Vieux Donjon, Vieux Telegraphe, Pegau, Charvin, Clos des Papes, Beaucastel, Hommage Jacques Perrin, Marcoux, Boisrenard, Vatican Sixtine, Mourre du Tendre, Bois de Boursan Felix, Janasse Chaupin, Bonneau Celestins, Rayas

Wine rating
Vieux Donjon Blanc 90 points
#1 93++ points
#2 90 points
#3 97 points
#4 95 points
#5 95 points
#6 94 points
#7 94 points
#8 98 points
#9 NR
#10 76 points
#11 95 points
#12 93 points
#13 93 points
#14 97 points
#15 92 points
#16 88+ points
#17 NR

*As you can see, the wines performed very well as a whole.

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