When I arrived in the Rhône almost two weeks ago, it was just before the Toussaint, a major religious holiday in France that fell on a Tuesday this year, giving France a long weekend through the Monday before. That meant more than a few vignerons weren't available for visits. So after working in the outer-lying appellations for the past few days, I circled back today, finishing up in Châteauneuf-du-Pape at two major estates, Domaine de Beaurenard and Domaine St.-Préfert.
No tour through the Southern Rhône is complete without a stop at the Coulons' Domaine de Beaurenard, where brothers Frédéric and Daniel continue to produce some of the most impressive wines in the appellation. One of their best vintages was '01 (I reported on a retrospective of this vintage a few blog entries back), a racy, acid-driven vintage that the Coulons seemed to capture perfectly. So, I was curious if the '10s would play out the same way here. I was not disappointed.
Tasting in the cellar, we started with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2010, which is always in a pure and racy style, even more so in the acid-driven '10 vintage.
"2010 is the exception," said Daniel. "A vintage where both the reds and whites are excellent. That really doesn't happen often."
"And the vintage was long and easy through the harvest," said Frédéric (the brothers always alternate talking, without ever cutting each other off). "You could go through and pick each cépage at just the right time."
The blend of Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul and Picardin offered crunchy peach, nectarine and almond notes with a superfresh finish that should evolve nicely over the next several years.
Moving to the reds, the Côtes du Rhône 2010 sports the crunchy acidity of the vintage, and it's well-embedded in the core of blue, red and purple fruits, as this wine shows the range of some Châteauneufs, and should age nicely for three to five years.
"2010 was a vintage you could do a long maceration without harsh extraction," said Daniel. "No pigéage [punching down] was needed and we did less rémontage [pumping over]. The fruit is so pure and balanced. There was no need to be massive."
The Rasteau 2010 (now its own cru, no longer Côtes du Rhône-Villages) is a blend of 80 percent Grenache and the rest Syrah, though it is not yet bottled. It shows the density of the single-vineyard Les Argiles Bleues in a top year, excelling with gorgeous plum skin, blueberry and anise notes laced with a rock solid graphite spine. The Rasteau Les Argiles Bleues 2010 is still in barrel, and it could be the best vintage yet for the wine: Dark and winey, with a strong anise note and sappy kirsch and blueberry reduction flavors that are offset by terrific tension from the graphite spine that always defines the Coulons reds. It's easily outstanding and should age well in the cellar for a decade.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 is set to be bottled in March. It crackles with life, with lots of spice-tinged Linzer, blackberry and blueberry fruit and plenty of briar embedded in the finish.
"2010 was an easy vintage to harvest and vinify, but you needed to take a little longer with the élevage, to allow the balance to take hold," said Frédéric, noting that the regular cuvée is being aged for 15 months instead of the usual 12 months. "2010 has the acidity of '78 and '05, but it has more material around the structure."
"During the élevage, the '10s have never closed. They just opened more and more," said Daniel. "I could see that kind of evolution continuing in bottle. Vintages of tannin tend to close down, but vintages of acidity tend to stay open, like '01 for example."
The Coulons are not mad scientists. They just have a collection of the 13 allowed Southern Rhône grape varieties they keep for posterity.
For a sample of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Boisrenard 2010, the Coulons drew from several lots to approximate the final blend, as the wine has yet to be finally assembled. It is its usual blend of about 90 percent Grenache with the rest of the allowable varieties in the appellation, as they are all co-planted in the Coulons' old-vine parcels. The wine is already zooming along with terrific spine and definition, mirroring the Coulons' superb '01, with gorgeous dark fig, blueberry and plum sauce notes laced with anise, pain d'épices, espresso and black tea. Then the minerality kicks in on the finish as the wine shows another gear.
We finish with the top white cuvée, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Boisrenard 2010, which is a blend of a majority of Clairette and Roussanne with the rest of the allowable white varieties. Fermented in barrel, 20 percent new, it's typically one of the more opulent whites in the appellation, but married with the freshness of the '10 vintage, its rich, expansive pear, macadamia nut and brioche flavors are further amplified, with additional pineapple, persimmon and melon notes coursing through the very long finish.
The Coulons are sitting on a big one in '10, with the best performance I've seen here, top to bottom through the portfolio, since I began visiting regularly nearly 10 years ago.
After the impressive '10s at chez Coulon, I was anxious to see how Isabel Ferrando had done at her twin estates, Domaine St.-Préfert and Domaine Ferrando. Since debuting in the 2003 vintage, this has quickly become one of the reference point producers in the appellation. In recent vintages, Ferrando has eschewed a more fruit-driven style to aim for wines of more structure and precision, primarily through the addition of stems during the vinification. It's been great fun watching this domaine grow and evolve, and once again, I had high expectations for Ferrando and her wines. Once again, I was not let down.
I was barely out of my car when Ferrando (read more about her here) came out from the winery to greet me.
"I know you want to focus on '10, but let's taste two tanks of '11. With 35 hectoliters per hectare, my cellar is full for the first time. And the quality!" she said, trying to contain her obvious satisfaction.
We tasted from two tanks—one wood, containing Grenache and Mourvèdre, the other cement, containing just Grenache. They provide a great contrast in the unique ability of Grenache to combine power and elegance. The wine from the wooden vat emphasizes darker, smokier, meatier notes, but stays velvety. The wine from the cement vat performs the opposite way, with a beguiling, silky mouthfeel its most prominent feature right now, though with ample power in reserve.
"And both were 100 percent with stems," said Ferrando. "In '11, it was really important to keep the stems, for tension, as the tannins were a little bit soft."
After its sensational debut in '09, the St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Cuvée Spéciale Vieilles Clairettes 2010 increased in production a little. From just a lone demi-muid in '09, there is now an additional barrel's worth of wine. The wine has its malolactic fermentation blocked and is aged for 18 months before being bottled in magnum format. It's fleshier than the '09, with more verbena, brioche and citrus peel notes, as opposed to the bracing grapefruit and bitter almond notes in the previous vintage. Yet underneath the creamy flavors is a long, fine, minerally finish that should expand as the élevage moves along. In just its second vintage, it has become one of the most compelling whites in the appellation.
Under the Domaine St.-Préfert label (which represents 19.5 hectares of vines now), the basic Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 is culled from Ferrando's young vines, and sometimes from barrels she feels aren't up to the quality level of the two main cuvées. It shows silky-textured crushed cherry fruit, plum pie and a dusting of tobacco. A hint of shiso leaf, a characteristic of Ferrando's wines, flickers through the finish. There are about 10,000 bottles of this wine.
There are just 9,000 bottles of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Auguste Favier Réserve 2010, which as usual combines 80 percent Grenache with a hefty dose of Cinsault, but 8 percent Syrah as well for the first time.
"It gives a little spine to the flesh of the Grenache and Cinsault," said Ferrando of the new addition of the Syrah to the blend.
The wine retains the house style's silky, beguiling mouthfeel, along with lush kirsch and plum sauce notes and a finish that just sails on and on.
Under the Domaine Ferrando label (still just 3.4 hectares of vines) there are 5,000 bottles of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Colombis 2010, made entirely from Grenache, It's fleshier in feel, with darker fig and boysenberry fruit flavors, and nicely buried minerality. It shows more freshness and purity than recent vintages, which had more obvious heft to the fruit.
We finish back with the St.-Préfert label's top bottling, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Collection Charles Giraud 2010, which as usual is a blend of 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent Mourvèdre. This is just the second vintage for the wine to be vinified with stems, and there are 9,000 bottles of this stunner, which pumps Turkish coffee and roasted cocoa notes out front of a massive core of dark fig and currant paste flavors. The structure is dense but well-coated, driving the lengthy finish where smoldering mesquite, iron and tar notes emerge. It's a huge wine, but deftly balanced.
Ferrando's Collection Charles Giraud bottling has earned five classic ratings in its first six vintages—and the not-yet-bottled '10 is likely the best version yet. A fitting end to my annual tasting tour of the Southern Rhône.
After the tasting, Ferrando's restrained giddiness started to bubble up again. She wanted to show me her latest acquisition, a parcel of Côtes du Rhône vines just on the southern border of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (see the accompanying video). The soils are very similar to the famous appellation, but she expects them to produce a lighter-bodied, more forward wine than her Châteauneufs. One of the queens of Châteauneuf continues to build her domaine, giving me yet another reason to keep coming back.
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