When family domaines transition, no matter how smoothly planned, there is nonetheless a period of readjustment. When that transition is sudden or forced, either through a sale or unexpected death, it's that much more disruptive. And when it's a domaine with loyal and passionate fans, many of those followers can have an immediately fateful reaction. From the exasperation expressed by some at the news of Clos Rougeard's recent sale to Château Montrose, to the decrying of the end of Rayas when Emmanuel Reynaud took over from his uncle Jacques, I have seen wine lovers jump ship quickly.
I prefer to take a cautiously optimistic wait-and-see approach. Wine is a long-term proposition, and it's a knee-jerk reaction to suddenly abandon an estate in such a situation. Yes, things will change. But it takes a decade until things play out. Sometimes things work out well, as they have at Rayas. Other times, the results are less inspiring, as at Jaboulet. But you have to give it a chance.
The latest mythic estate to face this transition is Henri Bonneau & Fils, following the legendary vigneron's sudden passing last year. Already some lovers of the wines have thrown up their hands in despair that Bonneau's unique style and quality are gone forever. Already rumors are flying about who might swoop in and purchase the estate. All of this is premature speculation. It's also unfair.
Henri's son Marcel, 42, is trying to continue his father's work. He leads a tasting in the cellar much as his dad did, with a free-flowing conversation that compares notes on butchers and bakers to joking about the pronouncements his father used to offer. "Syrah is for Hermitage, it's not Châteauneuf!" he jovially exclaims, invoking his father.
Bonneau is surrounded by those who helped his father as well, with Daniel Combin managing the business side and Régis Charmasson doing the heavy lifting in the vineyards and cave. The domaine retains the same 16 acres of Châteauneuf (7 acres of Vin de France). And giving Marcel a leg up during the transition is the fact that vintages 2012 through '15, all vinified by his father, remain in barrel here, going through the long, slow élevage they always have. Topping that off, Marcel's first vintage on his own, 2016, looks to be among the greatest Southern Rhône vintages in recent memory. So there's a built-in qualitative buffer for the next several years.
The cellar is also the same catacomb of tiny rooms, with the floors and walls covered with dark mold. The barrels are still the same dusty, worn-looking vessels. The grapes are picked, fermented in cement with stems, then moved to barrels for the élevage. The wine is slowly selected based on quality, and barrels are only racked when they show reduction. When the wines were bottled was always a personal and arbitrary decision of Bonneau's, with the cuvées selected just before bottling (the 2011s are now in the market, and the 2012 is about to be bottled). There are usually several bottlings for each cuvée and they can be a few months apart, meaning some bottlings have been in oak longer. But while any handcrafted wine is likely to have bottle variation, I have never found glaring disparity among Bonneau wines in bottle. Likely as the élevage is so long, the wine is so thoroughly imprinted and stabilized that a spate of a few months between bottlings has virtually no effect. (For additional background, reference my past visits here).
A sample drawn from tank of the nascent 2016, from fruit in the Consonnière parcel ripples with bay and lavender notes followed by red currant fruit. From fruit in the Nalys lieu-dit, the wine shows an intense kirsch profile, brimming with red licorice through the finish. A sample of the 2016 from the La Crau vines is loaded with blackberry paste, with intense acidity allowing it to have weight without an extracted feel.
Two samples from 2015 show contrast, with the first having a sappy, red currant feel with taut tannins versus one with a dark, saturated plum sauce core and waves of garrigue and tar through the massively grippy finish. From 2014, a barrel sample shows lots of the bay, tobacco and lavender profile typical of this slightly cooler and lighter year, with a menthol edge through the finish. A 2014 drawn from foudre has a beautifully silky feel, with long, echoing red currant and cherry notes and a light dusting of lavender at the end.
Going back further, the wines begin to be more defined. A sample earmarked for the Marie Beurrier cuvée is filling out its core of kirsch fruit, with a broad swath of dusty tannins and lavender through the finish. There will be no Celestins cuvée (the top bottling) in 2013. The 2012, from a lot just about to be bottled is packed with dark ganache and black licorice, with a long, dark, smoldering finish. Yet despite its brooding sense, there's a finishing note of freshness. A remarkable wine.
I sampled the 2011 Marie Beurrier from barrel (a barrel of each wine is always kept in reserve for sampling, even after the wine is bottled). It's a fully formed wine now, with the house style of steeped currant, plum and cherry fruit notes studded with lavender, alder, iron, chestnut and brick dust accents. And then to finish, the 2011 Celestins, a step up as always in depth and intensity, with waves of spice and incense leading the way for the core of fruit, turning plush through the finish as bay and chestnut accents linger effortlessly. It's superlong. And it's 100 percent Bonneau.
I miss Henri Bonneau, and count myself lucky to have tasted with him. I understand the connection his distinctive wines have with his fans. Even if everything else stayed exactly the same, without Henri, it isn't quite the same. But the domaine has earned the right to be given a chance. So let's wait and see.