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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Hospice du Rhone Installment 4: Chateauneuf du Pape

After the dust settled from the whipping mane of Charles Smith, the tone & texture of Hopsice du Rhone began to soften. I’m uncertain whether or not the stridence of Smith’s exposition submarined the Chateauneuf seminar, but I will offer that it was my least favorite of the exquisitely run events at the 2010 Hospice. Heretical words from a bleeder of Grenache blood I know, resembling a rough equivalent to a closet confession from ESPN’s Dick Vitale- sobbing his preference of NBA to the NCAA. 10 Hail Mary’s, 4 Our Fathers. Please submit to the court some self-damning evidence: I’ve had all these wines on numerous other occasions, the translation of our esteemed French guests was staticy, Charles Smith got me drunk on Grower Champagne at 9 am…but I digress.

Michel Tardieu (the namesake ‘Tardieu Laurent’), Vincent Maurel (Clos St. Jean) & Philippe Cambie paneled the ‘Incredible Cambie-nation,’ aptly named when one considers the expanse of Philippe’s resume. Cambie consults to a nation of Chateaueneuf producers, a who’s who in globally great Grenache. Zealots that cast Rolland-size stones towards Cambie’s houses should reconsider, when looking up & down Cambie’s ladder from Clos St. Jean to Vieux Donjon we objectively see that these houses are in fact, not all alike. In fact, they are about as polarizing in terms of style, approach & execution as wines get in Chateauneuf. The one commonality they all seem to share: critics love them. If you’re a start-up domaine in the region and are looking to craft a ‘Cambie-ized wine,’ I suggest the following approach. Draw from ancient vineyard, bio-dynamically grown Grenache, planted to sandy, stony, alluvial soils. Make one cuvee, scratch that, multiple cuvees…make both. Take a traditionally modern approach, incorporate cement tanks, foudres, small barrels, de-stem, don’t de-stem. Vinify ripe fruit w/ native yeasts, stir, wash, rinse. Aim for fruity, earthy wines. Spicy, subtle, explosive- geared for the masses and the artisanal consumer. A little dab will do yah, coated completely.

There’s your Cambie-ized wine. A simple, complex approach. Thank goodness Philippe Cambie doesn’t paint with the grossly generalized, erroneous brush that’s blotching up the blogosphere, otherwise the Chateauneuf faithful would be draped in cloaks, dogmatic and clanking, a spewed rhetoric. If you ask me, his palate & his wines are emblematic of the acute heterogeneity I noticed sitting next to, behind & in front of me, from palate to palate. If all the estates he’d been working with had crafted similar wines, I’d think our collective passions would be all the less…passionate.

That said, Clos Saint Jean really is Cambie’s wine. Out of all the domaines he consults for, Clos Saint Jean is one of which he comes closest to ‘making’ on his own accord. The style of this particular domaine is of the darkest and most brooding the region’s ever seen. From this stylistic perspective, it makes wines grouped w/ Clos St. Jean show feebly by comparison, as if they were a welterweight competing out of class. Michel Tardieu’s wines, to my palate, suffered that fate to a degree- but I’ll also posit that Tardieu’s wines simply aren’t as objectively impressive, even in isolation. This was a Clos St. Jean pow-wow, with Tardieu’s tickle tangling in the afterburners.

Clos St. Jean CDP Blanc, ‘07
The weakest of the group for Clos St. Jean remains their white offering, which resembles a workman like affair of modest melon, pineapple & honeyed toast notes. The entry has an immediate lushness, yet fans out to a bit of a foursquare body, teasing out a finish of green apple peel bite, 87 points.

Michel Tardieu CDP Blanc, ‘07
The one area where Tardieu’s wines eclipse Clos St. Jean was its white, a Grenache Blanc dominated blend that adds a drip of Roussanne to the mix. The color is a deeper, more saturate gold than the CSJ, with a creamy, rich nose of nutmeg & tapioca pudding notes filling out the bouquet. As if on a swivel, the palate turns a bright shade, with its sharp, exacting focus giving light to the baked apple and honeysuckle flavors that linger nicely on the long, alluring finish, 92 points.

Michel Tardieu CDP Grenache, La Crau ‘07
A nice offering from Tardieu, with a dark core of baking spices, roast coffee, black raspberrry & kirsch notes dominating the profile in very 2007 fashion. As it airs the bouquet soars into plumes, through still reserved in the palate, taut yet supple, awash with crushed berry notes. Pushed by a generous thrust of acidity, the finish tugs at the cheeks with a snap of dark pepper. This wine really seemed to augment & strut with exposure to air, boding well for the near-term future, 92+ points.

Clos St. Jean Deus Ex Machina, ‘07
A bit early to be sampling the big kahuna (much less a neonatal version of said kahuna), yet one never turns down a chance to dance with this Colossus. 60% Grenache & 40% Mourvedre, 100% beast…an immobile titan of a wine, carved of stone, with a deep, impenetrably closed façade that showcases as much raw power & density as one could imagine a performance enhanced Chateauneuf could achieve. The palate is jammed with mouth-coating tannin, towers of raw extract & enough glycerine to choke a horse, barely delineating its pitch black flavors that bite like heady espresso. Too young to taste, too palpable not to marvel, 96+ points.

Michel Tardieu CDP Grenache, La Crau ‘06
This was not an impressive 2006, as it was plagued by a blowzy aimlessness from nose to palate. The risks of stand alone Grenache cuvees are numerous, with one consequence being its propensity to develop dried fruit notes that teeter-todder one’s personal levels of acceptability, what I like to call the subjective debate of ‘when does a fig become a raisin.’ This wine was pricked by such a defect, alongside its salty, seaweed like characteristics that just didn’t mesh with its turbulent structure. Is it crawling into an awkward phase or simply awkward? Let’s hope this showing was an intermittent one, for buyer’s sake, 76 points.

Clos St. Jean Deus Ex Machina, ‘06
Surprise, surprise; guess which domaine found unexpected opulence in 2006? Alongside Clos des Papes, CSJ crafted wines of uncanny power in this vintage, yet the Deus is noteworthy for the clarity that’s found in its muscle. The dark fruited, profound tactile experience is brought into focus with an airbrush, as the tannins are impossibly fine for a wine of such raw youth & mass. Don’t confuse this with drinkability, as I’d recommend owners of this wine keep it under lock & key for at least 5 more years, 95+ points.

Michel Tardieu Grenache, La Crau ‘05
The stony, sea-salt theme found in the 2006 is also evident in this vintage, yet it’s wrapped in a much more classic, well-proportioned frame. The spice cake, sweet date & damp earth notes zip through the firm, surprisingly brisk palate with nice follow-through & length, 91+ points.

Clos St. Jean VV, ‘05
In case you were wondering, the domaine has been vacated of all ’05 uber-cuvees. Their stay in the cellars of Clos St. Jean was a mere weigh station, leaving their storage blocks immediately dusty, in abject vacancy. However, one of the most impressive deals in the Southern Rhone, the ‘entry level’ CSJ cuvee, cannot be overlooked. Just a big, fat WOW was my tasting note for the first few sips & slurps. Entry level my ass. Blot the spittle, elbows off the table, stop staring, compose thyself. She’s just a gorgeous, brilliant young wine, full of an energetic rush in the shape of dark fig, espresso roast, bittersweet cocoa & hot stone notes. Full, long & awash in vibrancy, as the crackle & smoke of the finish stays with you long after the juice leaves your lips, 94 points.

Michel Tardieu Grenache, La Crau ‘04
This ’04 was the only red wine of the tasting that was ready to be not only tasted, but drunk. A fresh, red-fruited wine, with a nose of cherry, dusty plum and cedar notes. Its spry entry was buffered by deceptive structure, funneling the mid-weight frame to a long, tangy finish resonate of garrigue, 91 points.

Clos St. Jean Combe des Fous, ‘04
The only sampling of the Combe des Fous came from the 2004 vintage, with its singular character coming from its seasoning of old vine Vacarrese & Cinsault. A distinctively floral note forms the trademark, buffered by scents of dark olive, sweet earth & kirsch liqueur. Again, the wine has an almost sinfully mouth-filling presence that reaches the point of surfeit, yet this particular cuvee demonstrates threads of finesse that make it unique & almost beguiling. As the mass begins to shed, watch out, there’s something undeniably sensual here, 95+ points.

For the next installment I’ll put together a Cliffs Notes rendition of the dozens of wines sampled during the mosh-pit style tastings at Hospice du Rhone. There were several new faces (and appellations) to be found amongst the legions that comprise our familiar Rhone folklore, and I’ll try to give the upstart producers a bit more attention in my commentary.


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