I'm back in France's Rhône Valley to taste the potentially stellar 2009 vintage, concentrating on the Southern Rhône domaines this time (I last visited with Northern Rhône vignerons in March, tasting the 2008 and 2009 vintages). On my first day back I tasted the 2009s from Vieux Télégraphe, F. & D. Brunier, Les Pallières and La Roquète with Daniel Brunier, then spent the afternoon at Domaine Font de Michelle. Today's agenda includes Clos des Papes, Moulin-Tacussel, Domaine Giraud and Roger Sabon.
There's good news and bad news from Clos des Papes. I guess you want the bad news first …
Yields have been ridiculously low here in recent vintages—just 17 hectoliters per hectare in 2008, followed by 19 hl/ha in '09 and 18 hl/ha in '10. That means not much wine to go around.
The good news? Quality remains high as Vincent Avril (with whom I last visited in March 2009) continues to represent, arguably, the best of the appellation.
Still, when Avril showed me his newest petit foudre I feared the worst. Yields that low I thought? Yes, but it's used just for his Vin de Table, not the grand vin. Nonetheless, Avril did demonstrate just how little wine he has. Walking along the row of giant foudres in his cellar, he knocked on each of them. Four rang hollow.
"We've lost the equivalent of one full vintage during the last three," said Avril.
Tasting the young wine here is always an education. You're sampled on individual foudres that contain primarily Grenache and varying amounts of Syrah and Mourvèdre, before you get to taste an approximation of the final blend. We tasted through five foudres this time, the first primarily Grenache and Mourvèdre that shows signs of reduction. Avril shrugged it off.
"It's not a concern for me. It's the opposite of oxidation so I know the wine is protected," he said.
With a few minutes of vigorous swirling in the glass, it unwinds to show a grippy, kirsch-filled core and a hot stone-filled finish that has lots of grip.
"2009 is like a cross between '07, for the fruit, and '05, for the structure," said Avril, echoing a refrain that is quickly becoming common as I work my way through the appellation.
The second foudre is even more reduced, but it's also blacker, with coffee, plum and fig notes. Moving to the third, with Grenache and Syrah this time, you see the lusher side of the vintage, with silky tannins and perfumy plum and anise notes with a violet-tinged finish. Foudre number four is very racy, with black cherry and blackberry fruit enlivened with a hint of CO2, another item that Avril shrugged off.
"It will help keep the freshness," he said. "You see why things are apart first, and then together?"
The fifth foudre returned to Mourvèdre and Grenache and it's the densest of them all, with almost tarry grip, loads of sinew and muscle and deep black and blue fruit.
Production has dropped at Clos des Papes, but not quite this much: a petit foudre used for the vin de table.
From there we taste a foudre that has equal parts of all five of the samples we tasted, and as always, the final blend for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 just comes together seamlessly, opening with a massive core of kirsch and anise, loads of seamless grip and gorgeous black tea, lavender and iron filling in the background. It's a perfect cross of '05 and '07, just as Avril described it.
"You see the complexity, versus the individual foudres," said Avril. "That's why there's always just one wine," he added, alluding to his preference for one wine, rather than a portfolio of smaller, single-vineyard cuvées.
Avril's Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2009 is nearly as compelling as the red; a stony, pure and precise wine made from equal parts Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Picpoul, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Picardin. We tasted the current '09 (initially reviewed in the Oct. 31 issue), which shows its mouthwatering green plum, chamomile, melon rind and mineral notes. It's an impressive one-two punch at this flagship estate.
Clos des Papes is famous (and rightfully so). Moulin-Tacussel is at the opposite end of the popularity spectrum, for no fault of its own. This small, 7-hectare estate was founded in 1976 by Robert Moulin and his wife, who brought her Tacussel family holdings, vines based primarily on the galets (rolled stones) terroir of the appellation, in the Charbonnière sector. Moulin lived in Paris and then Marseille, working on other business, until 1990 when he moved to Châteauneuf and decided to make the winery his main focus.
The small Moulin-Tacussel winery is in the center of town, making it an easy stop for a tasting.
Moulin, now 82, tends to watch more than do (his three daughters have gotten more involved with the estate in recent years as well). The day-to-day work is handled by Didier Latour, 44, who joined in 2003 after working at a co-op in Laudun. The wines here are throwbacks—there is no destemming, and fermentation is in cement vat, resulting in ruggedly framed, muscular wines that offer lots of pepper and garrigue notes.
The cave and tasting room are in the center of town, near the post office, making it an easy stop for those who want to walk around and take in the sights. Though the U.S. is the estate's prime export market, a stop in the tasting room may be the best way to find the wines, as just 10,000 bottles are produced annually. The cellar is the equivalent of a one-room schoolhouse, with a single row of used barrels aging the current vintage, and little to no stocks of older vintages available.
"I rotate the barrels quickly to avoid any brett," said the athletic-looking Latour. "I don't keep any one barrel more than six years."
A sample of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 is drawn half from barrel and half from demi-muid to approximate the final blend; it will be bottled in February. There are about 8,000 bottles of the wine, made from a blend of primarily Grenache, along with Syrah, Mourvèdre and an ample 8 percent Counoise. It's grippy, with pepper and stone notes, a reticent core of red currant and a very pebbly finish.
Despite the small production here to begin with, there is a luxury cuvée. Typically just 2,000 bottles are made of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Hommage à Henry Tacussel 2009, which debuted in the 2006 vintage. Named for Moulin's great-grandfather-in-law, the wine is made from the estate's oldest Grenache vines in the Charbonnière lieu-dit, including some planted in 1904. It's lush, but still very focused, with red currant fruit laced with Maduro tobacco and ample grip taking over on the finish. It should rival the excellent '07 (rated 93 points).
A sad site for locals and tourists alike: the closed doors of La Mère Germaine.
As at many estates here, there's a woefully overlooked white. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2009 is made form co-fermented Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc. It's fermented in wood vat but at a cold temperature to maintain freshness. Bottled in February, it shows the soft, creamy edges of the oak, but stays bright with banana peel, stone fruit and floral notes that ripple through the finish.
The crunchy, grippy, acid-driven wines at Moulin-Tacussel are enough to get my taste buds charged up for lunch, and as I head outside, the reality of more bad news finally hits. La Mère Germaine, the bistro that was the heart and soul of Châteauneuf at lunchtime, is no more. Shuttered over a rental dispute, it now sits forlorn in the center of town, leaving me to wonder where I can get a good bistro meal when in the midst of a day's appointments. When I bring the topic up with every vigneron I meet, they shake their head and just say "catastrophe." A shame that the town built on wine, now lacks a central, convivial, wine-centric restaurant (in the meantime, I'll look for new options and report back).
From the small, old-school Moulin-Tacussel, I then moved to the small, new-wave Domaine Giraud (you can read background on this estate from my previous visits). The brother-and-sister team of François and Marie Giraud have teamed with consultant Philippe Cambie to quickly produce some of the purest, most compelling fruit-driven examples of Châteauneuf in the appellation. Yet don't make the mistake of assuming the wines are just hedonistic fruit-bombs—they are laced with minerality and racy acidity as well.
Dealing with small yields is a common occurrence in Châteauneuf these days, and it poses problems for young, emerging domaines.
"With three small vintages in a row it's difficult. Not to operate internally—that's easy, to manage a small crop. But it is difficult to develop a domaine, and to make investments," said Giraud.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Les Gallimardes 2009, combines barrel-fermented Roussanne with stainless steel-fermented Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Clairette to produce a very lush, flattering wine loaded with creamed peach, chamomile and sweetened butter notes that still manage to stay pure and racy on the finish.
For the reds, Giraud seems to have an early preference for 2010, noting, "There was more hydric stress in '09 as opposed to '10 when we had to wait an extra week to harvest, because of cooler nights and a later rainfall. To compare, we started harvesting whites in '09 on Aug. 25, but the same parcels didn't come in until Sept. 13 in 2010."
As in '08, there is no Grenaches de Pierre bottlings, due to the low yields. What juice there was (6 hectoliters) will go into the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition 2009.
"If we add the Grenaches de Pierre to the Gallimardes, it changes the Gallimardes too much, so we add it to the Tradition," said Giraud.
The wine is slated to be bottled in February. It shows stunning fruit cake, fig, plum sauce and dark Valrhona chocolate notes with a long fig- and spice-filled finish.
"Fig. That's the sign of '09," chimed Cambie.
The parcel selection Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Gallimardes 2009 is a strapping young wine, with anise, plum sauce and graphite and a superlong finish that's loaded with grip, but still comes off as velvety and lush. It's sourced from 90 percent Grenache and the rest Syrah in the La Crau and Pignan lieux-dits, and has quietly become one of the top wines in the appellation.
François Giraud bounces with youthful exuberance, and we've barely finished tasting the '09 when he starts to talk of the just-harvested 2010.
"It's as rich as '09 or even '07," said Giraud. "But it's fresher too, because the nights were cool and so the wines are really pure. They're not too heavy like some wines in '07, nor as tannic as '05."
As he leaves the room to draw some samples, Cambie showed his affinity for the domaine, whispering, "He is working so hard, he and Marie. They are doing great things."
On the other side of town and up the road sits Roger Sabon & Fils, where change has been slowly occurring. Didier Negron, married to Jean-Jacques Sabon's daughter, has been at the estate since 2001 but has pretty much taken over control in the last few vintages. He's also tweaked the vinification just a touch, lengthening the maceration.
"I want more concentration but more suppleness at the same time," he said.
Having spent some time at Château La Nerthe before coming to Roger Sabon, there's a flash of that style creeping into the wines—dark, spice-filled fruit—but it's not nearly as toasty as La Nerthe's wines, as new oak is still kept to a minimum here, with the wines retaining a very silky, perfumy profile. I've said it before and will say it again: This is one of the most overlooked yet consistently outstanding domaines in the appellation. I often see these wines priced at near-closeout prices in the U.S. market whenever there's a backup of vintages. If you see that, pounce.
Easily potentially outstanding is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Olivets 2009, made from 80 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah and Cinsault. It's super fresh, with lots of violet and graphite notes and gorgeous perfume. A step up is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve 2009, which includes Mourvèdre in the blend. It shows in the licorice note that adds dimension to the racy floral and raspberry aromas and flavors.
"2009 has more minerality and better balance than '07, said Negron. "2010 has more color and structure, but we'll have to see after the malos. It could be fresher than '09 because there is so much malic acidity."
I'm not the first to take this photo, but you can see why it's so popular on a clear day.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Prestige 2009 adds Counoise and Vaccarèse to the blend, and takes on an even darker profile, with mouthwatering licorice snap, blackberry and plum notes and lots of grip that manages to stay velvety and flattering—it should flirt with classic in quality as it often does in great vintages. The hen's teeth bottling here is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Secret des Sabon 2009, which Jean-Jacques Sabon literally swore me to secrecy on one day when he showed me where the parcel was. Aged entirely in demi-muid and sourced from the estate's oldest vines, it offers stunningly pure cassis fruit and is still very primal, with seamless red licorice and graphite notes and a long, long finish.
Vignerons never really retire, but I will miss Jean-Jacques Sabon, one of the kindest and most affable men I've met in Châteauneuf. No worries though, Negron has this domaine operating at just as high a level, adding his own imprint while keeping the house style intact.
I actually finished a little ahead of schedule, which gave me time to walk around town a bit. I stopped in at Vinadea, a wine shop with a solid selection. In true French fashion, the salesgirl sighed a bit as I paid for a 15.90-euro bottle with a 20-euro bill … the agony of having to make change! A visit to the top of the hill was next, to enjoy a view looking up at the Châteauneuf standing proudly against a perfectly clear blue backdrop.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel — Wine World — November 16, 2010 4:41pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 17, 2010 2:43am ET
Hospice Du Rhone — San Luis Obispo, CA USA — November 18, 2010 12:00am ET
Ashley Potter — LA, — November 30, 2010 2:42am ET
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