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. Yesterday I went to Château de Beacastel, among others. Today: Domaines du Pégaü, St.-Préfert, Pontifical and Beaurenard.
To start the day, I caught up with the good old boys, Daniel and Frédéric Coulon of Domaine de Beaurenard. I visit with the Coulon brothers on a regular basis, so for more technical background on the domaine you can reference my blog entries from previous visits. The affable duo is nearly finished devatting their 2010s, as they took a little longer to ferment than usual. As for the 2009s, "We're very happy with the results for '09, since the vintage was so hot in August, but the wines have turned out with a good freshness," said Daniel.
"The clay soils really did well in '09. After the rain came the second week of September, the soil absorbed it first, rather than the vines. The ripening kicked back in and the second half of the month was perfect," said Frédéric.
The brothers had their estate certified biodynamic in 2007. It's an impressive undertaking though, since the estate totals 32 hectares in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and 25 hectares in the village of Rasteau. They don't advertise it much, looking at it as a philosophy of how to work the vineyard rather than a marketing tool. But they will happily discuss it.
"Biodynamics is not a guarantee of quality, not at all," said Frédéric. "It's a philosophy of how to be observant in the vineyard, rather than just react to things."
"I just can't imagine using herbicides all the time," said Daniel, with a look of pain on his face.
The late-release Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Boisrenard 2008 (old Clairette and Roussanne mostly, with Bourboulenc, Picpoul and Picardin) is fermented all in oak in an equal mix of new, second-, third- and fourth-year barrels. It has the fresh, lively floral and star fruit edge of the vintage, along with delicious fennel, green apple and chamomile notes. It's bright now, but the bass line is there in reserve and this should fatten up a touch, taking on a white truffle edge as it ages. This is one of the few whites in the appellation with a good track record for cellaring.
The Côtes du Rhône 2009 is aged entirely in foudre, which lets the wine's bouncy black and blue fruit pick up a fresh, stony edge that lends a lightly grippy feel on the finish, without being oaky or overbearing. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau 2009 has been blended but not bottled yet. It has a broader range of red, black and blue fruit, with a fresh, pebbly spine that extends through the finish, which fleshes out nicely as it airs. This should develop nicely over five to seven years of cellaring.
As we taste, the Coulons debate the élevage for their Rasteau cuvées with Vincent Delubac, a fellow vigneron from Cairanne who's joined us for the tasting. (I'll report on Delubac as well in an ensuing blog as I visit some additional domaines in that village). The wine sits on lees for the first 12 months in wooden vat, then is taken off its lees for two to three months before bottling, so that the wine can settle naturally and be bottled without filtration. The opposite would be to leave it on its lees all the way through the aging process, but then filter right before bottling.
"The lees help add fat and minerality, while protecting the wine from oxygen as well. Our father probably filtered right before the bottling," said Frédéric. "But we prefer not to filter."
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau Les Argiles Bleues 2009 sees a longer élevage, including 12 months in barrel before being racked to foudre. Then it's taken off its lees for two months prior to bottling just as with the regular Rasteau bottling. It's mouthfilling, with gorgeous blueberry and blackberry fruit, fig bread and spice, backed by grippy licorice snap and sweet earth notes. This potentially outstanding wine should merit eight to 10 years of cellaring after bottling.
Even on a raw, gray day, the Châteauneuf commands respect.
Always one of the solid bottlings in the appellation, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 sees all forms of aging during the élevage—vat, foudre and barrel—before being assembled. This is the final blend, but not bottled yet. There are only 60,000 bottles due to the low yields (there are usually 80,000 to 100,000 bottles).
"The last time we did 100,000 bottles was 2000," said Daniel. "That seems like a long time ago," he added, laughing. "But still, low yields may not be the best for the economic side of the domaine, but they are certainly good for the quality."
The wine is chock full of currant, fig and blueberry fruit, laced with spice and graphite, and delivers a well-embedded, grippy finish that should slowly unwind with a decade or so of cellaring. Usually retailing for under $50, it's one of the more modest buys in the appellation (which has seen some dramatic price increases in recent years) while delivering consistently outstanding quality.
The Coulon's top cuvée, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Boisrenard 2009 is still in barrel, and it's showing a little tight today, with the grip of the vintage holding the upper hand. But the core of dense blueberry, blackberry and raspberry fruit is there, along with extra layers of roasted apple wood and fruitcake that should move to the fore as it ages over a 20-year track. The is always one of the more flamboyant wines in the appellation, and the '09 seems poised to burst out when it's finished with its élevage.
Looking down the road, I also had a few sneak peaks at the Coulons' 2010 vintage, tasting two samples from barrel of Grenache and Syrah from Châteauneuf-du-Pape that had finished their malo, both of which showed loads of fruit and grip. They take the style of 2009 up a level, with denser but seemingly riper tannins. It's a very, very impressive vintage in the making at chez Coulon and elsewhere. As I taste around the appellation, I'd give the early edge to 2010 over 2009 …
… but I'm getting ahead of myself. While 2010 is tantalizing to talk about, the focus of this trip is primarily on the '09s, and I did just that at Domaine St.-Préfert.
The domaine is located out in the southwestern corner of the appellation, amidst a field of old Grenache and Mourvèdre vines. As with most of the domaines I am visiting on this trip, I last visited here in March 2009. Owner Isabel Ferrando has had a stunning rise to success since her debut 2003s and she's slowly added holdings at the rate of 1 hectare per year to her dual domaines—St.-Préfert now totals 17 hectares of vines; Domaine Ferrando 3.5 hectares.
She's also completed construction on her new winery, done proudly in a Bauhaus style that reflects her modernity. She joked though, that the locals kept asking her when she was going to put the roof on the structure.
Locals want to know, where's the roof?
There has been one recent concession to traditionalism here though: Starting in 2009, Ferrando began fermenting whole cluster, eschewing the destemming that she used in her first several vintages. It was a philosophical departure for her and the consultant Philippe Cambie; they remain friends but no longer work together on the wines. So, after such success, why make such a drastic change?
"For freshness," she said. "After '07, I thought some of the wines were too much. The stems absorb some alcohol and add minerality and freshness."
It's always fun when a domain you have high expectations for, meets those expectations. It's another thing when they exceed those expectations. This tasting turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. It's also another of my regular stops, so for background you can reference blog entries from previous visits.
Bottled in September, there are 10,000 bottles of the St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009, made from 85 percent Grenache with 5 percent each of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The wine is sourced from the young vines, both in the recently purchased parcels as well as those that Ferrando has replanted herself as she's replaced dead vines and rejuvenated the vineyards that she bought when she founded the domaine (see the accompanying video as we look at old and young vines in the same parcel). The wine is a textbook introduction to the St.-Préfert style; silky, with lots of raspberry, spice and shiso leaf notes and a long, minerally finish.
After adding Mourvèdre to the blend in 2008, the St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Auguste Favier Réserve 2009 is back to its normal blend of 85 percent Grenache with the rest Cinsault. There are 17,000 bottles of the wine, which is dark and inviting, with gorgeous mouthfeel to the layers of dark plum, graphite, black tea and mineral, with a long, racy finish and lots of latent grip. Despite the use of stems, there's not a hint of graininess in the wine, just a velvety feel and potentially classic quality. If I hadn't known, I never would've guessed that stems had been included.
"You see," said Ferrando proudly. "If the stems are really ripe and you keep the extraction gentle, the wine is still silky, but much fresher."
The Domaine Ferrando Châteauneuf-du-Pape Colombis 2009, made entirely from Grenache, now includes some vines from the Cristia parcel, which Ferrando bought in '07. It too is super silky and refined, but with more primal red currant and raspberry fruit and a fatter finish that pumps out tobacco and bittersweet ganache notes that do hint at the use of stems. It's an impressive wine, with more raw power than the Auguste Favier, and could also flirt with classic in quality.
Topping them all though, is the stunning St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Collection Charles Giraud 2009, which returns after missing the cut in the short-cropped and difficult '08 vintage. There are now 8,000 bottles of the wine—the most ever—made from its typical blend of 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent Mourvèdre, sourced from Ferrando's oldest vines. Turkish coffee, braised fig, melted licorice snap, bittersweet ganache, Linzer, Maduro tobacco, sage and lavender course through the wine, with a wall of tannins in reserve yet a completely harmonious, silky mouthfeel that belies the wine's obvious weight and power. It could wind up topping the awesome '05/'07 duo and be the best wine that Ferrando has produced to date, so get in line now.
Yields at Ferrando were an ample 28 hectoliters per hectare, more than many estates in '09.
"That's big for me, but with the replanting now coming on line, new parcels added and all the work after several years with the old vines, I guess the vineyards are happy," said Ferrando. With her charming smile, how could they not be happy?
Whites are far from an afterthought here. I reviewed the St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2009 previously—the outstanding, creamy Clairette and Roussanne blend is also already one of the top whites in the appellation. But now Ferrando has another ace up her sleeve. The St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Cuvée Speciale Vieille Clairette 2009 will make its debut. Sourced from the pink variety of Clairette, the wine was fermented entirely in oak and spent 18 months split between one demi-muid and one barrel—that equals a scant 8 hectoliters of wine, or enough for 88 cases. Make that 44 cases as Ferrando is thinking of bottling it only in magnum format. It's one of the most unique and stunning young whites I've had, with mouthcoating, creamy textured Cavaillon melon, white peach, persimmon and candied pink grapefruit notes backed by a flash of powdered ginger. And just when you think it will be too round and lush, the acidity kicks in on the finish, powering the wine to impressive length.
Since ending a career as a banker and starting a new life as a vigneron, Isabel Ferrando has had a dream ride, capturing the essence of the appellation with superb quality and marrying it to a distinctive style all her own. Thankfully, that ride seems set to continue.
Ferrando has taken tradition and updated it. At Domaine Pontifical, François Laget has taken tradition and maintained it. The two vignerons have contrasting styles but are good friends, and Laget winks at me when I tell him Ferrando sends a "hello."
He also can't help chuckling at her new, seemingly roofless winery building. Then when I tell him I'm seeing both queens of Châteauneuf today, with a visit at Laurence Féraud at Pégaü next, he chuckles even more.
"Now that's a day," he said, with a good-natured laugh.
I wasn't crazy about the 2003 here, but this old school domaine has been rock-solid since (I didn't review the wines prior to 2003). Laget, now 51, lucked out right from the start, as his first vintage was the classic '78 vintage.
"Pas mal," he said with a wry grin, and he's piloted the 18-hectare estate ever since.
With white hair and a jovial smile, Laget could probably do a good stand-in if Châteauneuf-du-Pape ever has a secret Santa party. And what's ironic is, while little has changed here over time, the one thing that has changed is the opposite of what has changed at chez Ferrando—Laget has begun destemming (up to 80 percent normally, and totally in 2008) since the '06 vintage.
"But that's the only big change here over the years," he said. "And only because in the dry vintages, the stems are too dry."
It's funny how in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the old school have given in a bit to destemming, while the modernists have started to try a little whole-bunch fermentation. Perhaps they'll meet in the middle?
This domaine has actually been bottling its wine for a few generations—Laget's grandfather was ahead of his time, selling wine to customers in Paris in the late 1920s and '30s. Laget shows me the old heavy-duty stapler, used for sealing the wooden cases the wine was shipped in. It's your classic ramshackle cellar, with tools, labels and old photographs scattered about, and large cement vats that drop down into the floor below, where the aging cave is a mold-covered archeological exploration. There are old foudres for aging, only one cuvée (though there is an exception) and a wine style that delivers crunchy acidity, firm tannins and tangy red and black fruit flavors.
"New oak is for those guys in the north, with Syrah," said Laget.
We taste three foudres that will eventually make up the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009. The first is crisp and tight, with currant, cherry pit and mineral notes and a touch of CO2. The second is a blend of two lots, as Laget has begun to assemble the '09 blend. It's more intense, marrying the cherry pit profile with more spice, as well as lots of racy cut on the finish. The last sample is the same lot, just a different foudre, with similar racy red currant fruit and floral notes. It's a wine of acidity and minerality, as opposed to flesh and fruit.
It's old school at Pontifical—just one cuvée, aged entirely in old foudres.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2008 is bottled and Laget laments the difficulty the vintage has had being received in the market. Consumers take too broad a look at vintage reports he thinks—if they hear 'bad' they skip the vintage, which then means inventory backs up at a small, family-run estate, even when the wine bucks the trend of the vintage. Here, the '08 has crunchy acidity, with lots of pepper, garrigue and black cherry fruit, showing a flash of game on the medium-weight finish. It flirts with outstanding and should flesh out a touch with modest cellaring of three to five years or so.
As noted, there is now an exception to the one estate/one wine philosophy at Pontifical—Laget is now another old school vigneron taking a chance on producing a small, luxury bottling. There are just 1,000 bottles of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes d'Albert Réserve 2007, named for Laget's grandfather. It's 90 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah, sourced from the Colombis lieu-dit, and it won't be bottled again until perhaps the 2010 vintage. It has the grippy, rustic house style, with darker roasted chestnut, espresso, licorice root and plum sauce notes allied to a fleshy, muscular frame, all backed by racy acidity that drives through the finish.
Located on the road out of town heading west, just past Le Vieux Donjon and Clos du Mont-Olivet, the domaine has a charming tasting room, dimly lit and housed in an old ecurie with bric-a-brac about that delivers the old school charm and flavor that this town will never give up entirely.
From Pontifical, it's a quick two-minute drive to the other side of town, where Laurence Féraud holds court at Domaine du Pégaü. As always, it's a bit of organized chaos here—her father, Paul, is hammering away, trying to fix a piece of farm equipment. Labeling and other cellar activity has a few people scurrying to and fro. And the construction of the new buildings on the property seems to be in a constant state of arrested development.
"Yes, it's taking some time. There were some leaks," said Laurence, with a wave of her hand and a sigh.
Yet somehow, amidst all the hurry up and wait that seems to go on here, Féraud manages to crank out some of the most consistently distinctive and sought-after wines in the appellation. While '09 is a strong vintage in the making here, she already seems to want to jump ahead to the 2010, as we start first with the white, and then move quickly to the foudre that houses the nascent da Capo cuvée.
The entire production (1,800 bottles) of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Cuvée Réservée 2010 sits in stainless steel tank and Féraud loves its brisk, fresh quality, as it delivers kiwi, green almond and mineral notes. It should flesh out a bit with time before bottling, and then be a ready-to-consume styled white with outstanding quality.
The foudre for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée da Capo 2010 has already been chosen.
"I am in love with '10 already," said Laurence with her usual enthusiasm. "'09 is very good, like '05, but for me a bit tannic so it's not for da Capo. Da Capo is explosive, it always has that something."
The wine is pure and rounded already, with primal but inviting raspberry and red currant fruit and super sleek tannins. The only question for Féraud is if she will have enough juice in this low-yield vintage to make enough Cuvée Réservée and still be able to keep the da Capo separate.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée 2009 shows the house style already as it sits in foudre. It's loaded with chestnut, roasted plum and fig, tobacco and tar notes, with a wild edge that Féraud acknowledged.
"2009 was a drier year, with less acidity than '08. It has some wild aromas. It's an old-style Châteauneuf," she said, before launching into a discourse on vintages in general.
"It's more and more difficult to talk about vintages in Châteauneuf though, because we vignerons are more and more different. To use stems or not. Different picking times. Sometimes I talk to a vigneron and they have rain when I don't. It's no longer consistent all around."
From there we tasted the bottled Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée 2008, a juicy, fresh, acid-driven wine with a good core of red and black fruits, and lots of pepper, roasted plum, anise and mesquite. It's clearly outstanding and represents a great buy, as Féraud notes she's already seeing it 'dumped' at retail in the U.S for under $40.
"They charge $110 for the '07 and $38 for the '08. I don't understand it," she said.
There will be a Cuvée Laurence in '08, typically a foudre of the Cuvée Réservée that receives a longer élevage in wood.
"Oh sure," said Laurence about the choice. "With the acidity, it will be just as good as the '06. The wines are very straight and will be nice to age."
We retaste the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée 2007 (officially reviewed from bottle previously) which shows the ripe, powerful fruit of the vintage, with lush fig and plum sauce notes laced with braised beef and apple wood. It's long and fleshy; a classic Pégaü. A half-step ahead is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée da Capo 2007 (also previously reviewed), which is now a dense core of fig and currant paste, but not heavy, with rounded edges and a long licorice-filled finish. It's also a purer, fresher da Capo than the wild '00 and '03 wines, a point that Féraud explained. "The '07 fermented dry, which previous vintages of the wine did not do," said Féraud who seems particularly enamored with it because of that. "You feel the fatness of the wine, but it's not heavy," she said. "For me that is exceptional. Balance is key. In '03 we added acidity but still it wasn't enough and the wine is over 3 grams of residual sugar. In '07 the yeast did their work and so the balance is natural. Looking back at the past I would prefer things to work like they did in '07."
I remind Féraud that she always seemed to love the big, albeit slightly sweet style of wines she made in the earlier half of the decade, and her new philosophy seems to represent a shift.
"Yes, I remember I said I liked a big, Porty style of wine in the earlier vintages. But now that I've seen it is possible to make that style of wine without residual sugar and with natural balance, it is really, really interesting," she said.
In '05 and '06 there are Cuvée Laurence bottlings; as they typically account for 6,000 to 8,000 bottles of the production, the same as da Capo, the two upper cuvées are never produced in the same vintage, as it would leave the basic Cuvée Réservée without enough production.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Laurence 2005 (released in April 2009, though not officially reviewed) is super focused, with lots of dark charcoal, mesquite, tar and black currant notes and a dense, tannic finish that will take some time to unwind. Nonetheless, it's still on the softer side for the vintage, whose wines are completely shutdown now.
"It is softer than the Réservée," said Féraud, agreeing. "The extra élevage has tamed it a little."
In contrast, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Laurence 2006 (released February 2010 and not officially reviewed yet) is racier in style, with more of a red fruit profile, along with hints of leather, cedar and hot stones. It's not aggressive or firm at all though, with garrigue hints and polished tannins cruising through the finish. Both it and the '05 flirt with classic quality, despite their very different profiles—but that's what makes wine fun.
Alas, it was time to head elsewhere. I am sad to leave Châteauneuf of course, but not its aggressive gendarmerie, who have seemingly set up shop on the road from Sourgues to Châteauneuf and seem to be in a constant state of handing out speeding tickets. Luckily I was spared this time.
After a rainy day in Châteauneuf, the mistral was slated to kick up in the morning, just in time for me to make the drive up into the hills of Gigondas. Don't tell anyone I said it, but I think Gigondas is actually a prettier village than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The wines are improving too, thanks to people like Louis Barruol at Château de St.-Cosme, who are driving the appellation forward—I'll be visiting him and a few others over the next two days, so stay tuned.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
William Keene — North Carolina — November 22, 2010 7:43pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 22, 2010 7:51pm ET
David Allen — Lufkin, Texas — November 23, 2010 11:27am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 23, 2010 11:37am ET
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