I'm back in France's Rhône Valley. After flying overnight, landing before sunrise and then catching the three-and-a-half-hour TGV down to Avignon, one might be a little tired. No excuses for me though: I had to go meet with a vigneron who'd just run the ING New York City Marathon. (Thanks for making us look bad, Daniel!) And after that, it was off to Domaine Font de Michelle; I last visited all of these estates in June 2008.
Daniel Brunier has overseen production at Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe since 1981, along with his brother Frédéric. In addition to his 26.2-mile jaunt (he missed finishing in under four hours by one second), Brunier also had a busy multi-city tour in the U.S., including a stop at the New World Wine Experience in Las Vegas to present his 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Crau in our annual Top 10 tasting, the second time in three vintages the wine has earned that honor. It's a fitting recognition when you consider the two-decade process of change and growth that Brunier has piloted at Vieux Télé.
When Brunier started at Vieux Télé, the winery produced only about 1,000 cases of wine, as nearly 90 percent of the production was sold to négociants.
"My father was really focused on the vines. He built the vineyard, which was much easier to do in the '60s and '70s than it is today," said Brunier.
Brunier himself has added 20 hectares of vineyards during his tenure to the 50 hectares of vines his father assembled, while steadily shifting to bottle the estate's entire production, adding a second wine (first labeled Vieux Mas de Pape in 1989; Télégramme since 2002) to maintain the quality of the top bottling, which now totals around 17,000 cases annually.
The F. & D. Brunier Vin de Pays de Vaucluse Le Pigeoulet en Provence Red 2009, bottled in July and just released, is a blend of 80 percent Grenache with Syrah, Cinsault and Carignane. It's a peppery, tobacco-filled red with open-knit cherry fruit that lingers on the finish, offering textbook garrigue notes. Production of this cuvée will increase in 2011 as well, as Brunier has purchased an additional 2 hectares of Grenache and Syrah vines in the Ventoux. This is always an excellent value.
In Gigondas, the wine from Brunier's Gigondas estate of Domaine Les Pallières has been separated into two cuvées since the 2007 vintage. The Gigondas Terrasse du Diable 2009 is still in foudre, but the final blend has been made. Sourced from the higher elevation terraces on the estate, up to 350 meters in elevation, that ripen a full week later than the lower elevation parcels, these 40-year-old vines produced a wine with a racy, tight-grained beam of red cherry, anise and plum backed by a pure, mouthwatering minerality that should rival the 2007 in quality. The final wine is 85 percent Grenache, 10 percent Mourvèdre and 5 percent Clairette.
"30 to 40 years is when Grenache vines start to become interesting," said Brunier, noting that the vines on the estate were 30 years old when he bought Les Pallières in 1998.
It was admittedly a struggle for Brunier to decide to break the estate's production into two cuvées, as he has always espoused the one estate/one wine theory at his main Châteauneuf estate.
"It took us some time to make the decision [to separate] because the vine age and vinification were exactly the same. But there was a clear difference in the maturity and style between the two sections, so we had to eventually make the change," said Brunier.
The Gigondas Les Racines 2009, also still in foudre, is sourced from soils with more clay, located at lower altitudes from the Terrasse du Diable. The wine (85 percent Grenache, with 5 percent each Syrah, Cinsault and Clairette, all co-fermented with the Grenache) is darker in profile, with rounder, more mouthfilling grip and long Damson plum, cassis and tobacco flavors that pump through the finish. It too should rival the '07. Yields at Domaine Les Pallières in 2009 were just 16 hectoliters per hectare, down from a normal of 25 to 28 hl/ha.
The vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are spent from another vintage, and autumnal colors have swept the area.
For the various 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape cuvées, the final blends have been made, but nothing has been bottled. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Télégramme 2009 combines young vines from the parcels in La Crau as well as those on the sandy soils from Brunier's Domaine La Roquète estate. The wine shows very bright, sappy kirsch and blackberry fruit, with racy acidity. Since 2008, this cuvée is 100 percent Grenache, as the Mourvèdre vines have been elevated into the La Crau bottling. There's also a hint of reduction here and Brunier notes it's ready for a racking, as it's been sitting in wood since July.
The Domaine La Roquète Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 is sleek and pure, with mouthwatering Bing cherry, sage and shiso leaf notes that are remarkably defined already. The blend remains the same: 70 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah and 10 percent Mourvèdre, and the quality here is potentially in the range of the stellar '05/'07 duo. The parcel selection Châteauneuf-du-Pape L'Accent 2009 combines 90 percent Grenache and 10 percent Mourvèdre from 70-year-old vines in the Pialons and Pignan lieux-dits. It's dark and very pure, with a gorgeous beam of fig, graphite and mulled spice backed by a latent, tarry finish that has impressive drive already.
"The tannins are integrated in '09, but they are very strong. They don't dry the mouth, but they are hard. The next year of aging [before bottling] will be really good for them," said Brunier. "2009 is like '07 in terms of richness, but the tannins stand out. It's not a heavy vintage though, as it stays clear and fresh on the finish."
The Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Crau 2009 is a young, powerful wine in the making, loaded with red and black currant fruit, fig paste, tar and the wine's typically gravelly grip. The blend (a 60/15/15/5/5 blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault and Clairette) is potentially classic in quality and looks to be an almost carbon copy of the powerful, authoritative 2005. Despite the extra grip of the vintage, Brunier made no changes during the vinification, keeping 40 percent of the stems and practicing a long fermentation.
"When you have fast, high extraction of tannins, I like to extend the maceration, up to 40 days. That helps to educate the tannins a little more," said Brunier.
Not to be overlooked here are the two white Châteauneuf-du-Papes, both bottled in July. Vinified in all oak (half demi-muid, half barrique) the blend of Clairette, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc for the Domaine La Roquète Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Clos 2009 shows gorgeous purity, with melon, anise and star fruit notes and a long, rounded, salted butter finish. In contrast, the Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape White La Crau 2009 (made from 40/30/15/15 Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc) is vinified half in foudre, the rest in demi-muid and barrique. It shows a much stonier profile, with peach pit, star fruit and mineral notes and a long, super-refined finish.
"It's always dominated by the Clairette," said Brunier of the Vieux Télégraphe White. "The grape is so important, for its freshness and acidity, to balance the ripeness and fruit of the Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. And white food—scallops, lobster, crab, rabbit, asparagus—the white is so much easier to make a match."
One business item: Since August, all the Brunier wines are now handled by U.S. importer Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, providing one-stop shopping for those looking for the wines, which had previously been split between Kermit Lynch and Diageo.
Next door, at Domaine Font de Michelle, the young generation of Guillaume Gonnet is now pretty much in charge of the day-to-day, though his father Michel keeps a close eye on things.
"We're converting more and more to organic, so that's more work. And yet the last three years we've had 18, 19 and then 20 hl/ha, so not much wine to sell," said Gonnet. "So every new thing I want to do, my dad sees the inventory and checks the numbers, and he asked 'Are you sure? That's going to cost money.' But we do it anyway."
Among the changes are the removal of some older foudres being replaced by new open-top wood fermenting vats. Gonnet is also thinking about adding some concrete vats as well, "for variation."
Vinifications here are very gentle—only one pump-over per day, with macerations lasting 20 days or less. It shows in the wines, which are very graceful in profile, despite coming from the powerful La Crau terroir. Gonnet prefers to make wines in a perfumy, acid-driven style that features more elegance and minerality, interesting considering he is still young, when many vignerons aim for more powerful wines before often mellowing their style over the years, Gonnet also seems more enthused with the recently harvested 2010 as opposed to the more powerful 2009.
"We are really happy with '10. The wines are so fresh. We got great ripeness, but at 15 [alcohol] instead of 16, like in '09, or '07, where some of the wines are too much for me," said Gonnet, who said he prefers the 2006 and 2008 vintages for their freshness.
The Domaine Font de Michelle Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2009, made from Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne and Bourboulenc, is a creamy, lush mouthful of pure melon and heather flavors, with a long, flattering finish. There's an additional cuvée in 2009, a 100 percent Roussanne Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Cuvée Etienne Gonnet 2009 (the last vintage for the cuvée was 2003). There are only 2,000 bottles of the wine, which was fermented in seven second-fill barrels. It's super-round and flattering, but persistent, with a salty streak running through the buttered brioche and Cavaillon melon notes. It shows its oak for now but should integrate with some short cellaring (it was bottled last month).
The Côtes du Rhône bottlings are from Gonnet's second estate, La Font du Vent. Slated to be bottled at the end of the year, the Côtes du Rhône Les Promesses 2009, sourced from young-vine Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, offers a captivating beam of black cherry and anise, backed by sweet tobacco and a silky finish. There was no Confidentia cuvée in 2008 and 2009 because the yields on the Syrah were so low. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Signargues Notre Passion is normally 50/50 Grenache and Syrah, but Grenache makes up 65 percent of the blend in '09. It's very dark and inviting, with crushed plum, tar and tobacco notes, but the texture stays silky and fine-grained.
The Domaine Font de Michelle Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 is a "rough blend," and Gonnet feels he made a mistake.
"I bought some new demi-muids, but I bought them before the vintage, which was not smart, because the yields turned out to be so low. But I didn't want to lose them by leaving them empty, so I filled them, and perhaps my '09 will show a bit more oak than usual. This is what happens when you don't get enough sleep from the baby. But I better have gotten it right—'09 is the year of my daughter's birth," said Gonnet, whose wife, Kelly, is from Australia.
The wine does show darker, toasty notes that aren't as perfumy as usual, but the stuffing is there, with dark plum, fig bread and graphite notes. A dash of incense checks in on the finish and this should stretch out as it finishes it élevage. There are only 45,000 bottles, as opposed to the usual 80,000 bottles.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Etienne Gonnet 2009, sourced from the estate's oldest vines in the La Crau sector, did not see any new oak (unlike like the basic cuvée), but it does have less Mourvèdre (only 5 percent) and more Syrah (35 percent), with the balance Grenache.
"This should make it fresher, more alive," said Gonnet.
The wine shows the perfumy, sandalwood and black tea notes it usually has, but there's more violet, plum and anise, along with racier acidity. In contrast, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Elegance de Jeanne 2009 is sourced from old-vine parcels in La Crau as well, which have historically been vinified separately but are based mainly on Grenache, along with some Counoise and Vaccarèse. It's more stylish in profile than the Etienne Gonnet, with very silky tannins and suave black cherry, currant and plum fruit that sails through the mineral- and lavender-filled finish.
Gonnet also has a small négociant operation. The Gonnet Rhône Sélection features four new reds in the 2009 vintage; the first three have been bottled already and are set for release soon. There are 15,000 bottles each of the first three cuvées, starting with the Côtes du Rhône 2009, made primarily from Grenache with a dash of Syrah, sourced from around the Coudoulet area. It has a lightly tarry edge to the black cherry core of fruit, with a fresh, floral finish. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2009 is sourced from vines in Visan and is also primarily Grenache with a drop of Syrah. It's floral and elegant, with red currant and tangy iron notes. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne 2009 shows the refined, racy profile of this top-quality village, with lovely blackberry and licorice notes and a long, mesquite-tinged finish. There are just 8,000 bottles of the Gigondas 2009, which is tight (the only négoce cuvée here not yet bottled, and the only cuvée sourced from purchased juice as opposed to grapes), showing sandalwood, toast and spice up front, followed by grippy cherry pit and currant paste notes that will need to flesh out a bit more. All the négoce wines are very much in the Gonnet style and should provide additional value for Rhône fans, just don't expect the line to grow too much.
"I want to keep it small, just to have something else to do in addition to Châteauneuf," said Gonnet. "It's really just for fun."
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Sean Kozey — Toronto, Ontario — November 11, 2010 11:20pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 12, 2010 2:16am ET
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