After several years of regular trips to the Rhône, French rental cars never cease to surprise me. I've had a range, from tin-can Citroens that can barely get up a hill to sporty BMWs and Mercedes. But there's always something that catches me off guard. There was the time I couldn't find the parking brake release in one car (it was on the top of the dashboard, took me half a day to figure it out). Or another one when the car wouldn't start if you didn't have the brake pedal depressed all the way-that was a fun 20 minutes figuring out how to get out of the rental-car parking lot. But today's car might have taken the cake.
Leaving the Avignon TGV station I hit my first red light—and the engine cut off. Thinking the car had died, I put it in park and was about to turn the ignition again when it starts up automatically. It proceeds to cut off every time the car sits idling for more than a few seconds. Finally, after running through the manual, I learned that this particular model has an "eco" setting, which shuts the engine rather than letting it idle—the engine starts up again as soon as you take your foot off the brake, though it's not the smoothest transition. It's going to be a fun two weeks waiting at red lights ...
After dropping my bags at my hotel and grabbing a quick lunch I had enough time for one visit. Taking the route de Sourgues into Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the searing memory of an expensive speed trap now causes me to slow down. But it proves to not be enough. What had been a 50 kmph zone is now down to 30 kmph, and the road is now freshly decorated with pylons and snakelike islands that force everyone to crawl along. I now have to factor an extra five to 10 minutes into my drive times. Ah, France.
At Domaine Tour St.-Michel, Mirielle Porte, 44 is now in charge, following in the big footsteps of her father, Adrien Fabre, who passed away in 2007 after working 50 vintages at the domaine. Fabre, a contemporary and good friend of Henri Bonneau, was also an avid racecar driver and he left the multi-car garage alongside the winery stocked with several vintage racecars in mint condition.
As for the wines, they have drive too, showcasing bright, juicy black and purple fruit flavors with strong briar and spice undertows and lots of vibrant acidity. They remind me a little of Olivier Hillaire's wines, with their intense but pure fruit.
The domaine has been around since 1930, founded by Porte's grandfather with a scant 5 hectares of vines. Since then, it has quietly become one of the larger domaines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with 35 hectares of vines in the appellation and another 5 hectares in Côtes du Rhône and elsewhere.
The wines at Domaine Tour St.-Michel have drive, perhaps thanks in part to the multi-bay garage stocked with vintage racecars.
Production stands at around 50,000 bottles annually and the wines only started coming to the U.S. market in the 2007 vintage. The estate has all of its vines in the southern area of the appellation (the cellar itself is just off the main road into town, next to Domaine Chante-Perdrix), with holdings In the Gallimardes lieu-dit, as well as Les Serre, Grand Coulet and others which feature predominantly clay and rolled stone terroir.
There's a modern bent to the wines here, as Porte now produces three cuvées, based on vine age, as opposed to the more traditional one estate/one wine mantra espoused by the likes of Clos des Papes and Le Vieux Donjon.
"It's a function of the domaine," said Porte in regard to her decision to begin producing different cuvées. "As the domaine has gotten larger and the vines have gotten older, we can produce a good amount of different cuvées that show the terroir and respect the age of the vines."
The reds are now vinified in stainless steel tanks, which were installed in 2001, replacing the more traditional cement vat and the grapes have been destemmed entirely since 2000.
As for the 2010s, the bright-eyed Porte seems to prefer them to the the '09s, an equally good but different-styled vintage.
"The concentration is about the same in both '09 and '10, but the '10s have a little more freshness. It was just a little cooler at night and they show it in the wines," she said.
The tower of Tour St.-Michel stands amidst the fall colors of the vineyards in the gloaming.
The youngest vines (averaging 30 years of age) go into the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée des Deux Soeurs, which combines 90 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah. After vinifying, it's aged in cement vat only, which results in a bright, unadorned beam of raspberry and blackberry fruit laced with a nice stony edge that helps define the finish. It's open and inviting, but has the cut and freshness to cellar for a few years in bottle. There was an ample 20,000 bottles made.
There were 18,000 bottles produced of the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée du Lion, sourced from vines averaging 50 years of age and made from a blend of 75 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah and the rest a combination of Cinsault and Mourvèdre. It's aged in a touch of oak—20 percent—though no new barrels. The result is a wine with added depth and richness, along with darker spice tones and more mouthwatering anise, blackberry and fig fruit, all backed by a delicious pebbly edge on the finish. It drips with modern fruit, but has a mouthfeel more reminiscent of a Vieux Télégraphe, which makes for a dynamic combination.
The top cuvée is the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Feminessance, of which there were only 5,000 bottles made. Sourced from 60-year-old vines and up, it features 65 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah, and it is aged entirely in barrel, half new, half second fill (all Nadalie cooperage, medium toast). It's the darkest of the three, with the most noticeable grip as well, sporting crushed plum, anise and blackberry notes backed by lots of briar and spice and mouthwatering acidity.
All three 2010s are easily outstanding, with the Feminessance at the upper range of the outstanding category.
There's a delicious white produced here as well, and the 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White mirrors the appellation, accounting for just 5 percent of the production at the domaine. Made from equal parts Grenache Blanc and Clairette, it's vinified in stainless steel tank and the malolactic is then blocked, resulting in a crunchy, peach pit, blanched almond and stony version that relies more on cut and vibrancy than weight.
Domaine Tour St.-Michel offers a distinctive house style, with commensurate steps up in quality, depth and complexity as you move up through the red cuvées. Mireille Porte has helped put her domaine amidst the outstanding producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, while adding to an already diverse appellation. If you can't track the wines down in the U.S. market, stop by the tasting room—it's one of the few in town open to the public several days a week.
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.
Stewart Lancaster — beaver,pa — November 1, 2011 2:48pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 1, 2011 3:46pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — November 1, 2011 8:30pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — November 1, 2011 9:07pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 2, 2011 3:39am ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — November 2, 2011 8:43am ET
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