My flight was on time. My train was on time. And I even figured out the rental car in short order, getting that frustrating "eco" function off to avoid the maddening engine stop at red lights, as well as figuring out where the parking brake was.
So, first things first: a quick lunch at the reopened La Mère Germaine. Now open for about a year, the bar has been taken out to add a few more tables, and the dining room feel spacious and breezy. The back terrace is still the "it" spot on a warm June day. The menu is shorter on choice but the food is better executed. The wine list doesn't have the depth it had under the previous owners (that cellar was bought out when it closed) but it is growing steadily—stacks of newly arrived wines are sitting by the front desk waiting to be put away. Owner André Mazy is busily working the dining room, and it looks like the heart of Châteauneuf-du-Pape has begun beating again.
When the Cazes family of Bordeaux's Château Lynch-Bages purchased Domaine des Sénéchaux in 2006, it did more than raise a few eyebrows in the small town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The purchase was fought by other vignerons in town, some of whom viewed the Cazes family as outsiders. The purchase was no small deal, either, as Domaine des Sénéchaux is a hefty 64 acres of vines, and it drove land prices up. But while some feared an influx of unwanted outside investment on the heels of the Cazes' move, it may have actually served to lock up the appellation.
“There's very little for sale,” said Jean-Charles Cazes. “With so many producers now making their own wine instead of selling to négoce and so many estates making multiple cuvées, most everyone's land has become too expensive to buy and no wants to sell.”
Cazes may be the new guy in town, but he hasn't taken a brash approach or made radical changes. He kept maître de chai Bernard Tranchecoste, who had been at the estate since 1998. In the vineyards, the pace of replanting dying vines has been stepped up a little to keep the vineyard healthy and in full production. This was my first visit here since February 2009 and I could see the changes in the vineyard, with fewer spaces from dead vines and a more even look.
In the winery, some lots of Syrah and Mourvèdre are now aged in barrel, used oak brought in from Bordeaux, as opposed to only aging in large foudres or cement vats.
“For the precision it gives us in managing small lots,” said Cazes. “But we didn't really come in with a plan for major changes. We just wanted to watch and learn about the vineyards first. We thought maybe about pulling some parts out for a cuvée, but we realized that the sum of the parts is better as a whole than separated. We've dropped yields a little bit and gotten the viticulture more even, but otherwise no big changes.”
Sénéchaux is an anomaly in Châteauneuf-du-Pape: It's both a fairly large estate and most of its vineyards are in two major blocks, 27 acres in Bois de Sénéchaux and 20 acres in Le Reves, located just next to Château La Nerthe. The former parcel faces north and has sandy clay soils, and that cooler exposition results in later ripening. The latter parcel faces south and has a touch more clay, resulting in earlier ripening. Samples of Grenache from both parcels in 2011 show the difference dramatically as the Bois de Sénéchaux features red, silky fruit while the Le Reves is darker, plusher and richer in profile.
While Cazes hasn't tinkered too much, he does admit to learning a few new things. Coming from a multi-variety culture in Bordeaux that blends both grapes and parcels, making wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a fairly easy adjustment, except for the climate and its affect on the vines.
“It is so dry here, so much more so than Bordeaux of course,” said Cazes. “I didn't realize how much the age of the vines had an effect on the quality. In dry conditions you need deep roots, so old vines are critical here. And old vines here means 50 years or more.”
About one-third of the estate boasts those old vines, one third is between 20 and 40 years, while the remaining plantings are young vines under 20 years old.
“You have such a wide gap between alcoholic and phenolic maturity with Grenache, that you really need to wait. Coming from Bordeaux, we have Cabernet that is ripe at 12.5 [degrees of potential alcohol],” said Cazes. “But here, the Grenache hits 14 and it's not ready. Then there's maybe a trend in the market to look for wines with lower alcohol. But 15 degrees in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is not a recent trend—that's the reality. And so sometimes that can be difficult to explain to the market.”
“The other surprise was the yields here,” said Cazes. “In 2010 we had [1.8 tons per acre]. That's a painful change from Bordeaux,” he said with a bit of a laugh.
The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape looks to be the estate's best wine to date under the Cazes ownership. It's darker in profile than the outstanding 2009, with black cherry, licorice snap and black tea notes, but it's also fresher, with tighter focus and better definition through the very long finish.
“Flowering was late and harvest was earlier, so the growing season was shorter,” noted Tranchecoste. “But with the coulure on the Grenache, yields were down naturally from the start, and so ripening was not a problem in '10.”
The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White, made from nearly one-third each of Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Roussanne, along with a drop of Bourboulenc, is vinified in stainless steel tank and then aged in second-fill barrels. The wine sees no malolactic either, resulting in a bright, delineated style with high-toned talc, green almond and white peach flavors backed by a crunchy, lively finish.
Always a solid blue-chip bottling under the previous ownership, Sénéchaux has seen an uptick in quality under the Cazes' direction. It remains one of the more modestly priced bottlings in an appellation where price escalation has been an issue over the past decade or so, which means serious lovers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape should consider stocking up on this ageworthy red and delicious white.
It was late in the afternoon, but I wanted to squeeze in another quick stop on my first day. I visited with Daniel and Frédéric Coulon last November, at which time I thought they were sitting on their best vintage since 2001, so I wanted to taste the 2010s here one more time before formally reviewing them. The lineup was just bottled in early spring and yet it showed no signs of bottle shock. And my impressions were confirmed: The 2010 Beaurenards are superb.
The 2010 Rasteau offers the telltale dark fruit profile of the vintage, with pastis, charcoal, blueberry and warm gravel notes. It has impressive range, juicy acidity and a lovely lingering lingonberry note on the finish.
“You taste not only the pulp, but the skin of the fruit. And it's not dry or overripe; it's intense but soft at the same time. That's what sets the '10 apart,” said Daniel.
The 2010 Rasteau Les Argiles Bleues is a step up, as usual, for this older vine selection from bleu clay soils. It's very dark, with licorice snap, blueberry paste, bramble and a hint of Turkish coffee. Intense and grippy, it's also velvety, echoing Daniel's thoughts on the vintage, with a long, alluring finish.
The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape delivers saturated blueberry, blackberry and boysenberry fruit offset by a spine of racy charcoal that has really lengthened since I tasted it last fall. Toasted anise ripples through the finish and this wine should be a lynch-pin bottling for Châteauneuf-du-Pape enthusiasts as it will be modestly priced (relatively, for the appellation) and age well for 15 to 20 years.
The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Boisrenard is a showstopper. Always ambitious aromatically thanks to its dose of new oak, it has soaked up its toast completely now, and offers dark, muscular yet defined blueberry paste, Turkish coffee and currant preserve notes, with ample anise, smoldering spice notes and a terrifically long graphite spine through the finish. It's clearly classic in quality and will rival the 2001, '03 , '05 and '09 vintages, if not eventually surpass them.
Yields here in 2010 were just 1.8 tons per acre, “naturally, not because of selection as in '08,” noted Frédéric. In the decade from 2000 through 2010, there have only been two “high-yield” vintages here, with '00 and '07 both above 2.2 tons per acre, still small in comparison to the world of wine, but high by Châteauneuf standards.
Do not overlook the whites here either. The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Boisrenard is gorgeous, with piecrust, macadamia nut, creamed melon and heather notes backed by a sweetened butter finish that glides along beautifully, offset by a hint of bitter almond. It should be among the top white bottlings in 2010.
The Coulons also gave me a quick look at the young 2011s, starting with the 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White, which has just been bottled. It starts with a flinty edge, along with very aromatic peach and green fig notes. It's very typical of the appellation's whites, which have become more uniform in style over the past several vintages, favoring the fresher, brighter style as opposed to a more tropical or even slightly oxidized profile.
“The '11s are very expressive,” said Daniel. “Not as dense as '09 or '10 obviously, but very lively. The problem was uneven ripening, with some pink bunches at harvest. A green harvest didn't help—that's too broad a technique and the ripening was uneven from vine to vine. Plus, we normally like to only green harvest on young vines, since old vines are better self regulating. So, you really had to sort the grapes at the winery in '11.”
The 2011 Côtes du Rhône Rosé (just bottled) is a refreshing watermelon- and Campari-filled version, with a light, stony finish that has wonderful cut. There are only 6,000 bottles of this though, down from a more typical yield of 9,000 bottles.
The 2011 Côtes du Rhône (just bottled) offers tangy red currant and loganberry fruit notes, with a lightly dusty finish.
From barrel, a sample of the 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape shows good dark kirsch and bramble flavors with a slightly chunky finish that still needs to settle in.
Also from barrel, a sample of the 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Boisrenard, from a parcel planted in 1902, drips with kirsch, anise and toasted spice notes. It's very dark, but feels plush and velvety. A second lot, from vines planted in 1920, shows a redder fruit profile, with cassis and raspberry notes, but noticeably grippier structure as the tannins seem more forceful than in the first sample.
“That's the difference between old vines and young vines,” said Daniel, joking about the two lots.
Always affable and welcoming, this is one of the larger, well-situated estates that is also open to the public via their tasting room. A stop here is de rigeur when in Châteauneuf. And chasing down their 2010s is de rigeur for any Châteauneuf lover.
The day was ending and my jetlag was kicking in. So, a restorative dinner at Auberge de Cassagne followed by hopefully a good night's sleep was next on the list. Tomorrow I'll head back into Châteauneuf-du-Pape for stops at Jean Royer, Ogier and Domaine de Cristia.
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — June 19, 2012 4:31pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — June 19, 2012 4:36pm ET
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