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 Day 2 of my trip I tasted the 2009s from some big names, and some small—Clos des Papes, Roger Sabon, Moulin-Tacussel and Domaine Giraud, and Day 3 brought me to Domaines de la Solitude, de Cristia, de la Charbonnière, Château de Vaudieu and Clos des Brusquières. Today my big visit was to taste the 2009s of the three labels currently charged by Marc Perrin and his family, including Château de Beaucastel. I also visited Domaine de Marcoux and Domaine de Villeneuve, but I started the day at Château de Montfaucon, where a mighty blend is in the cellar.
Château de Montfaucon is a 16th century castle overlooking the Rhône, surrounded by vineyards. It just happens to be on the other side of the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape however, so it sits in the Lirac appellation. Nonetheless, Rodolphe de Pins—I introduced you to him after my March 2009 trip to the Rhône—is trying to one-up the Southern Rhône's more famous appellation—he's got a wine with 15 varieties in the blend, where as Châteauneuf has just 13.
Since taking over the estate in 1995, de Pins stopped sending the family's 20-hectare production to the co-op and began to add additional vineyards—those with old vines from the more esoteric mélange of Southern Rhône grapes being those that caught his eye.
"I see a block of 60-year-old Carignane that no one wants, so I buy it," he said.
De Pins has since built the estate's total holdings to 45 hectares and feels 50 to 60 would be ideal.
"I don't want to be so big that the pressure to sell outweighs the ability to maintain quality and control," he said.
The winery is housed in the old farmhouse at the base of the château, which towers above the town of Montfaucon (de Pins' parents live in the château, which is not open to the public, but I can assure you the view from the top is impressive).
Wines are made in a minimalist style here, fermented in cement vat (or stainless steel for the whites) and then aged in cement or used oak barrels. Though the vineyards are technically in the Lirac appellation, de Pins bottles them as Côtes du Rhône or Vin de Pays as he felt the Lirac appellation wasn't well-known enough when he started.
"That's changed in recent years though, as more and more vignerons from Châteauneuf come here," said de Pins. "A hectare of good vines here is just 30,000 or 40,000 euro, but 10 times that in Châteauneuf."
The Viognier Vin de Pays d'Oc 2009 is actually from vineyards in the Gard, rather than the Languedoc, and it's made in a crisp, fresh style, as de Pins harvests on the early style to avoid fuller, more tropical flavors. The malo is blocked as well, resulting in a bright peach- and floral-styled wine. The Côtes du Rhône White Comtesse Madeleine 2009 is made from a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Clairette, Picpoul and Bourboulenc and it offers more weight and length, with a broader range of green melon and anise notes as well.
Most of the 2009 reds have not yet been officially assembled as de Pins said he likes to "build" his wines through a selection process that lasts almost the entire élevage. He tastes the various lots blind and ranks them for three red blends, rather than having a pre-ordained vineyard ranking ahead of time.
"I don't have grand cru vineyards," said de Pins. "There are always surprises and disappointments as I taste blind. That's why there are no set rules,"
The other interesting aspect of de Pins wines is his co-fermenting of various varieties, uncommon in the area due to the varied ripening times between say, Syrah and Grenache, which can be a week or more apart.
"With Grenache you have to wait [to pick], though I'm not looking for 16.5 Grenache," said de Pins. "But the other varieties I try to pick earlier, to balance that with freshness and elegance. The idea of co-fermenting is to get that balance naturally in the vat right away, for more integration."
Most of the vats have at least three to five varieties in them, and we start with a vat containing Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault from the 2009 harvest. It's tangy, with loganberry fruit and iron notes and a snappy finish. Another vat with mostly Grenache, along with Carignane, Syrah and Cinsault is rounder, with more black cherry, mesquite and licorice notes. A tank of just Cinsault (he does have a few that aren't blends) was saignéed for the estate's rosé. The remaining juice is soft and round, with a core of cherry pit backed by lacy tannins.
"Cinsault, the berries are big, like this," said de Pins, holding his fingers to make a nearly golf ball-sized circle. "You always have to bleed the Cinsault tanks, or the color is weak and the skin to juice ratio is not ideal."
We move through additional lots. One with Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache shows sweet but refined cherry and apple wood notes; another of mostly Syrah with a mix of other varieties offers sappy blackberry and licorice notes; a Grenache-dominated barrel shows the grape's typical raspberry fruit with fine-beaded acidity.
We then taste approximate blends of the three wines that de Pins "builds," starting with the Vin de Pays du Gard Les Gardettes 2009, which shows light sandalwood, sanguine and dried cherry notes that are stylish but persistent on the finish.
"The idea with Les Gardettes is to make a wine that's lighter in body and easier to drink," said de Pins matter-of-factly.
Though it's technically the lowest in the hierarchy here, the Les Gardettes is in fact the last wine to be bottled, as de Pins chooses the better lots for the other cuvées first, before finalizing this cuvée.
The Côtes du Rhône 2009 is a noticeable step up in depth and richness, with the sanguine streak still there, but more kirsch and lavender notes and a longer finish. Both it and the Côtes du Rhône Baron Louis 2009 are potentially outstanding, with the latter cuvée being the only one with lots that will have been aged in oak. It shows dark spice, raspberry, roasted plum and mesquite notes with very fine-grained tannins stretching out the finish.
"You don't smell the oak, but you feel the élevage on the finish, which is what happens when you don't use new oak," said de Pins.
In addition to the three cuvées that de Pins builds throughout their élevage, the Vin de Pays du Gard Vin de Monsieur Le Baron de Montfaucon is in contrast, de Pins' "one shot wine," as he calls it. It's a blend of 15 varieties, all co-fermented and then aged together, without any additional selection process. The idea came to de Pins when he looked at the two ancient fermenting vats in the old farmhouse and he realized that previous generations didn't ferment lots of varieties or parcels separately, and so in the '07 vintage he gave it a try (the 2007 was reviewed at 91 points on release).
The Vin de Pays du Gard Vin de Monsieur Le Baron de Montfaucon 2009 was bottled in September, and it shows silky tannins with a very floral-led profile of cherry, currant and plum, backed by a long, suave, anise-tinged finish. The wine has the complexity and length, but not the raw power of a Châteauneuf, making it a distinctive bottling.
"Because of the acidic grapes in the blend, both whites and reds like Counoise and Auban, the wine is always very floral. I want to preserve that side, so that's why the élevage is shorter than the other wines."
And if you think managing a wine with 15 grapes is easy, check out this video. While touring some of his vineyards, I gave de Pins a pop quiz to name all 15 grapes in the blend. He got there … eventually.
I headed back over the river to Châteauneuf-du-Pape for my afternoon round of appointments, focusing on a few domaines in the northeastern corner of the appellation. Domaine de Marcoux is a biodynamically farmed estate run by the sisters Sophie Estevenin and Catherine Armenier. It's a shame the winery isn't open to the public, as the recently completely tasting room is very spiffy.
Estevenin is one of those Châteauneuf vignerons who has recently picked up some parcels in Lirac, with 8 hectares of vines that she bought in combination with another grower in 2003, bottling the wine under a different label. Starting in 2010 it will be bottled under the Marcoux label.
The Domaine La Lorentine Lirac 2009 is the last vintage for the joint label and the 6,000-bottle blend of equal parts Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre was fermented and aged in cement vats. It shows supple cherry and red licorice notes, a bright mineral streak and a nice, persistent finish.
Estevenin describes 2009 as a difficult vintage—a great year, yes, but difficult to manage because of the extreme drought and excessive heat in August.
"There were grapes raisining by mid-September," she said. "But in 2010 it was a more classic vintage, with cool nights and rain when we needed it, so we could harvest Grenache at the end of September and Mourvèdre into early October. The balance is there [in 2010] and the tannins are more elegant. They are a little severe in '09."
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 is the estate's typical blend of 80 percent Grenache, with 10 percent Syrah, 7 percent Mourvèdre and 3 percent Cinsault. It sports a hefty 15.5 percent alcohol, but delivers seamless, pure kirsch and floral notes, with racy licorice and spice on the finish. It's very sleek and polished, without the burlier sauvage notes that marked Marcoux's wines prior to 2001, when the estate first started destemming.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes 2009 shows even more poise, elegance and minerality, despite its greater depth, a remarkable balancing act. Estevenin notes there's slightly less rémontage in recent years, adding, "Maintaining freshness is obviously key when you're dealing with Grenache at 15 or 16 [degrees of alcohol]."
The Vieilles Vignes is sourced from its usual old-vine parcels (which for Estevenin means at least 60 years old) in the Gallimardes, Charbonnière and Esquierons lieux-dits. While its expressive and polished personality make it seem forward now, it has a well of structure in reserve and a well-documented track record of putting on weight as it ages. It's clearly among the classic-quality cuvées in 2009.
There was no Vieilles Vignes bottling in 2008, and yields for the estate were so low that there are only 10,000 bottles of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2008 (as opposed to 20,000 bottles of the two cuvées combined in 2009). The blend of 80 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah comes almost half from the Southern Gallimardes lieu-dit, and it offers a juicy, lightly raisined edge to the core of red licorice, fig and spice. It's not nearly as racy as the '09, but is very solidly built for the vintage and should merit an outstanding rating.
Marcoux also produces one of the best white wines you're not drinking. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2009 is a blend of 70 percent Roussanne and the rest Bourboulenc, co-fermented in stainless steel as Estevenin eschewed even the modest 20 percent barrel-fermenting she usually does on the wine, in lieu of the ripeness of the vintage.
"We had Roussanne at 16 degrees at the end of August," she said with a slight roll of her eyes. "So to keep the freshness we didn't use oak and kept the fermentation a little cooler than usual."
There's no malo on the wine either, and the result is a fat but still very fresh wine, loaded with creamy melon and yellow apple notes that sail through the long, detailed finish. Yields on the white were just 18 hectoliters per hectare in 2009, so there is just a scant 2,400 bottles of this beauty to be had.
You'll often hear individual vignerons tell you they only want to grow to a certain size in terms of vineyards. They always have a number in mind that they can handle while still maintaining control over all aspects of the winemaking, without having to get into marketing and sales. That's all well and good. But when you're a family business with brothers, cousins and sons, there's a little more room for growth. The Perrins have done just that, without missing a beat.
Château de Beaucastel is of course their flagship property, but the Perrins now control 1,000 hectares of vines (either owned or leased under long-term contract) in the Southern Rhône, making them arguably the preeminent winemaking family in the region. In addition, the Perrins have made a conscious effort to keep their three brands—Beaucastel, Perrin & Fils and La Vielle Ferme—distinctly separate. I last visited here in March 2009 as well.
"There is no confusion between them, which gives each brand its own power to evolve," said Marc Perrin.
And don't forget they're partners with the Haas family in California's Tablas Creek, which has recently begun to hit its stride.
The La Vieille Ferme brand is now the third-biggest French wine brand in the U.S. (behind Louis Jadot and Georges Duboeuf), and yet it has a minimal marketing budget.
"When you do a lot of advertising, it can help a brand, but it can hurt too," said Perrin. "Consumers can get bored."
There's nothing to be bored with here though, even with the La Vielle Ferme wines, despite the hefty 7 million-bottle production. The Cotes de Ventoux White 2009 is made from a blend of Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Vermentino, Viognier and Roussanne and it delivers clean, fresh melon rind and peach notes with a breezy finish. The Cotes de Ventoux 2009, made from the typical mélange of Southern Rhône grapes, delivers fresh cherry and Damson plum fruit, with a dusting of garrigue on the finish. Under screw cap, they give a consistent, infallible performance from bottle to bottle. What's not to like at $8 a bottle?
None of the following 2009 Perrin & Fils reds are bottled yet, though the final blends have been made and the wines are sitting in foudres. The Perrin & Fils Vinsobres Les Cornuds 2009 is half Syrah and half Grenache, offering its telltale super racy graphite and violet notes with a pure beam of black cherry.
"Now that I make wines in the north," said Perrin, who has teamed with Nicolas Jaboulet to create Jaboulet-Perrin, a small négoce in the Northern Rhône, "I really see what Vinsobres is about. It's fresh, floral, racy, but it has flesh too. It combines the best of the north and south. It's really in between."
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne 2009 (a 50/30/20 blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) now comes entirely from the Perrins' 14 hectares of estate vines. It shows a mix of racy blue and red fruit laced with stylish spice and a lingering floral note. The Rasteau 2009 (95/5 Grenache and Syrah) is sourced from the Perrins' smallest estate, totaling just 3 hectares. The wine is fleshier, with denser black and purple fruit and more density on the finish. The Vacqueyras Les Christins 2009 (75/25 Grenache and Syrah) is rich and round, with mouthfilling blueberry, fig paste and crushed plum notes and well-integrated toast driving the finish.
"That's the signature of the vintage," said Perrin. "It's big but it's balanced. You know the tannins are there but they are not out of place." (See the accompanying video with Perrin talking about the style of the 2009 Southern Rhône reds.)
The Perrins continue t0 up their stake in Gigondas, believing it is potentially the next great terroir in the region, after Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Gigondas La Gille 2009 is very fresh, with black fruit enlivened with a floral note that lends a perfumed edge to the finish. It's a lovely combination of power and finesse and is clearly potentially outstanding. The Gigondas Vieilles Vignes 2009, made entirely from Grenache, may be the last vintage for the wine (it debuted in 2005), as the Perrins don't want too many cuvées from the appellation, and they have their recent purchase in Tourelles that may provide a separate cuvée. The wine delivers an unadulterated, pure, distilled essence of plum, with stunning length and mouthfeel and great buried minerality. It sees minimal release in the marketplace, as there are only 1,000 bottles made and Perrin admits he hates to sell it. It is a thoroughly gorgeous wine that flirts with classic quality. The Vinsobres Les Hauts de Julien 2009 rivals it in terms of length and density, though the Syrah half of the wine adds a different mouthfeel, with lightly firm graphite and roasted apple wood notes showing through.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Sinards 2009 includes young vines from Beaucastel as well as vines within the clos of the Châteauneuf itself, and Perrin feels they are almost at the point where they have the terroirs they want to make it a complete wine.
"We still don't have vines in La Crau but hopefully that will come, and when it does it will be a nice patchwork for Les Sinards, to make it a wine that really represents the whole of Châteauneuf."
The wine shows bright pepper, tobacco and warm stone notes backed by a solid core of kirsch and plum.
"I still drink the '98 and '00 which are very nice now. It's a faster evolution than Beaucastel of course, but it is a wine that can age," said Perrin of the ageability for the Les Sinards bottling. "It's not a winemaker's decision to make a wine that ages or not, though—terroir always wins."
From the Château de Beaucastel, the Côtes du Rhône Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2009 is very pure and expressive now, with supple plum and licorice notes and a hint of Turkish coffee brewing in the background. There's serious grip but it's integrated nicely and this could be one of the longer-lived vintages for this wine, which has a track record for aging well (at a modest price).
The vintage's ample but suave tannins are on full display in the young Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009, which is about 70 percent done, according to Perrin. The sample we taste has gorgeous mouthfeel despite its weight, carrying layers of plum, blackberry, mesquite and iron that stretch out on the very long finish.
"Hydric stress showed up at the beginning of September, and then the good rain came in the middle of the month, so there are two wines in Châteauneuf in '09—those that can be tough, from before the rains, and those that really benefited from the rain, and have more suppleness. It's the opposite of vintages in the past, when if you got rain on Sept. 15, the weather would break down for good and you'd get rot, etc. Now the weather has changed [in the region] and we can get rain in mid-September but then we get more sun and mistral and ripening starts again," said Perrin.
The blend for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Hommage à Jacques Perrin Grande Cuvée 2009 is still being worked out as it must wait for the final blending decision on the Beaucastel cuvée. At this early stage the approximate blend displays a deep well of blackberry and cassis fruit aromas and flavors, with lush pastis and fruitcake notes. It's very primal, with just flashes of mesquite and iron buried deep, and a massive tannic back end that should take a full decade to resolve, before it really hits its stride. It could rival the stunning 2007 version.
We finished with the whites (which always provides a nice cleanser after many reds), which in 2009 had exceptionally long fermentations and are being released even later than usual. The Côtes du Rhône White Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2009, made from a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Clairette and Bourboulenc, was bottled three weeks ago; it's round, friendly and open, with creamed melon, heather and honeysuckle notes and an open, almost breezy finish. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2009 (an 80/15/5 blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and the remaining white varieties) was just bottled but shows no shock, with flattering creamed melon, brioche, macadamia nut and young ginger notes that are seamless and lush. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Vieilles Vignes 2009 (all Roussanne, as usual) was literally bottled days ago, but it too is still open and expressive, with super suave mango, peach, macadamia nut and green plum notes that weave in and out through the super lengthy, sweetened butter-tinged finish.
Perrin noted that the 2007 white has yet to close down, a phase that was common for previous vintages of the wine.
"It will shut down, it's in the genetics of the grape [Roussanne]. But since we stopped letting the malo go through in '07, we think the wine will close down for a shorter period of time," said Perrin.
In addition to the ample wine portfolio, the Perrins have also recently taken over the Restaurant L'Oustalet in Gigondas, bringing the former cellar of Châteauneuf's La Mère Germaine with them, to form a formidable spot for wine and food lovers (note: it is closed now until mid-January, when it will re-open with a seasonal truffle menu). The Perrins also plan to renovate the houses of the Les Tourelles estate they bought a few years ago, aiming perhaps to provide a few rooms and a tasting salon. They will surely only add to the charm of Gigondas, one of the prettiest Southern Rhône villages.
"We want to become the specialist of Southern Rhône wines, like our friends in the north," said Perrin, alluding to the houses of E. Guigal and M. Chapoutier. Whether they realize it or not, the Perrins are already at that level, and I doubt they will rest on their laurels anytime soon.
I finished the day with a stop at Domaine de Villeneuve, a small domaine where the young Stanislas Wallut, 35, took over in the 2005 vintage.
The domaine totals just 8.5 hectares in Châteauneuf-du-Pape with an additional 4 hectares in Côtes du Rhône. Initially purchased by Wallut's father in 1991, it was run by a family friend until Stanislas came on board full-time. He checked in at the estate from time to time, but spent a few years bouncing around, "discovering all the things I didn't want to do," he said.
He eventually realized he wanted to make wine, working vintages at Petaluma in Australia and Domaine de Courcel in Burgundy before settling down at Villeneuve, where he now farms biodynamically.
Wallut reminds me a little of Matthieu Barret of Domaine du Coulet in Cornas—stocky build with a bushy beard, Wallut needs little prompting or questioning as he opens up easily when talking about his wines or the estate in general. Both have small, biodynamic domaines. And he's got a dry wit too, switching to perfect English at the end of our visit after "testing me" in French. Not my first vigneron-styled initiation.
Wallut is also tough on himself (like Barret), and he produced no 2008 bottling. There are just single red Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône bottlings here, with the wines fermented in cement vat, given a delicate pigéage and modest use of stems depending on their ripeness. The Côtes du Rhône sees 12 months of élevage, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape twice that. There are just 25,000 bottles produced here annually and Wallut's vines average 60 to 65 years old.
Wallut ferments not by specific parcel or variety, but by pass through the vineyards, co-fermenting some varieties as they ripen together—late-ripening Mourvèdre and Clairette, for example, depending on the parcel.
The Côtes du Rhône 2009, made from a 60/20/20 blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, is still in vat. It's a big wine in the making, drinking almost like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with mouthfilling plum, licorice and blueberry fruit and a dense, grippy finish.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Vieilles Vignes 2009 is also not yet bottled. The blend is typically 70/16/8/4/2 Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault and Clairette. We first sample a vat that has the young-vine Grenache, harvested during the first pass through the vineyards. It's powerful yet racy, like the wines from Domaine de Cristia or Domaine de Marcoux, with super sleek tannins carrying the bright raspberry fruit. The second vat, which contains the fruit from the second pass through the vineyards, contains old-vine Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. It offers very grippy, dense currant paste and kirsch notes. The last tank, containing the last pass through the vineyards (which can be as much as two weeks after the first pass) contains just Mourvèdre and the white Clairette.
"This is for the structure," said Wallut, and it shows. The wine is black, with melted licorice, blueberry paste and tongue-coating tannins, yet a razor of acidity buried deep on the finish.
And yet despite the seemingly heady profile of the wines here, they are not 16-degree alcohol whoppers. Wallut manages to keep the wine around 14.5, as the earlier harvested fruit along with the dash of white Clairette in the blend keep things on an even keel.
Wallut is in the midst of constructing a new cellar, which he hopes will be finished in time for the next harvest. The ramshackle spread of construction equipment around the place belies that prediction.
This is a small, artisan-styled estate worth seeking out as Wallut gets his feet on the ground. The wines have a unique profile and quality is high. It will take some effort to find the wines in the marketplace though.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — November 19, 2010 5:35pm ET
Mustafa Akyurek — Shrewsbury, MA — November 19, 2010 7:25pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 20, 2010 7:15am ET
Bill Andreotti — Aurora, IL USA — November 20, 2010 7:58am ET
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James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 24, 2010 9:44am ET
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