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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Day 1: A Trio of Well-Known Estates

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 18, 2008 4:00pm ET

I make an annual stop at Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, so you can reference my previous Cellar Notes and blog entries for the basic background on this domaine, as well as the F. & D. Brunier-owned La Roquète and Domaine Les Pallières estates.

Daniel Brunier continues to look for balance in an appellation that seems increasingly intent on producing power-driven wines. His Vieux Télé bottling used to be among the most grip-filled wines in Châteauneuf, but now it’s out muscled by many ultraripe Grenache cuvées, many of which push the limit in the 2007 vintage, a trend on which Brunier sounds a note of caution.

“Yes, 2007 is a big vintage,” he said. “We [the appellation] have touched the limit of ripeness. But too round a wine and you start to lose the balance. Minerality, freshness, acidity … combining that with the fruit is the key.”

The offerings here include a Vin de Table Rosé produced under the Domaine Les Pallières label. The Domaine Les Pallières Vin de Table Français Au Petit Bonteure 2007 is a direct press-style rosé made from Grenache, Clairette and Cinsault grapes. It’s extremely pale in color but has surprising persistence on the palate, with a very dry, stony beam of flavor backed by a white pepper note on the focused finish. There are 400 cases earmarked for the U.S. market, and those who enjoy a good, dry, food-friendly rosé will appreciate its precision.

Two other Vin de Pays wines are produced here under the F. & D. Brunier label, both labeled Le Pigeoulet. Those looking for light-weight wines with the complexity to match with food should search out both the white (made from Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Roussanne) which offers stone fruit and peach pit notes, or the red, (predominantly Grenache along with the Cinsault, Syrah and Carignane) which sports pepper, garrigue and mineral notes with a dusting of cherry fruit.

Both the 2007 and 2006 Les Pallières Gigondas continue to show the improvement at this domaine, which now has 10 vintages under its belt. With its more northern exposure, this domaine produces one of the more elegantly styled Gigondas bottlings.

“To get the right tannins in Gigondas is key. It has to have a certain severity, but then a good balance is hard to find,” said Brunier of the appellation’s penchant for dark-fruited, aggressively structured wines. There are usually about 8,000 cases produced annually of the wine, which shows spice cake, raspberry and stone notes, the 2007 being the plusher and deeper of the two potentially outstanding vintages.

While reds typically get top billing here, the whites merit your interest. The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White La Roquète, produced from 22-year-old Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette and Bourboulenc vines planted on sandy soils, is very floral, with a piercing kaffir lime and white peach profile. In contrast, the Vieux Télé 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White La Crau (Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne) offers a denser profile of star fruit, anise and honeysuckle, with a lovely, pure finish. It’s easily outstanding. Echoing the common trend among producers in the Rhône, Brunier is using more bâtonnage (stirring of the lees) during the vinification of his whites, and the extra nourishment the wines receive during this process helps fend off the long dumb period the whites are known for. Instead, Brunier finds his whites still go through a dumb period, but it’s both shorter in duration and less severe in profile, without the overtly oxidized notes of apricot and walnut.

Among the reds, the Vieux Télé Châteauneuf-du-Pape Télégramme takes young vines from both the La Crau and the La Roquète property, so it’s a "double" second wine. The 2006 version is a blend of 80 percent Grenache with Mourvèdre that shows black cherry and currant fruit with a stony, minerally finish. The 2007 version shows its Mourvèdre component even more so, with a taut graphite note riding underneath the juicy currant paste flavor. “You can really feel the potential of the vintage here,” said Brunier. The 2006 flirts with outstanding while the 2007 should equal the 91-point 2005 version, among the steals of that vintage at just $35.

Both of the La Roquète reds are also improving rapidly, following up on their impressive 2005 performance. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Roquète (70 percent Grenache with Syrah and Mourvèdre) offers kirsch and linzer flavors with a racy, graphite finish. The 2007 version offers an amped-up version of the same profile, with a very racy, driven finish. The single-vineyard-sourced 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Roquète L’Accent (90 percent Grenache with Mourvèdre) is silky and pure with a beam of kirsch backed by a long, fine finish. The 2007 L’Accent is sappy and intense, with mouthwatering raspberry fruit and a powerful finish.

Brunier’s flagship cuvée, the Vieux Télé Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Crau should score big again in both 2006 and 2007. The 2006 shows the domaine’s telltale gravelly note, which backs up notes of sage, tobacco, cherry and black currant. The 2007 version is a potential classic, checking in at "only" 15.3 percent alcohol, with saturated currant and crushed blackberry fruit and a surprisingly round, fresh finish. It should gain more grip and dimension as it finishes its élevage, though it’s not as overtly grippy as the blue chip 2005.

“The alcohol [in 2007] is the same as 2003,” said Brunier, comparing the two vintages' exotic fruit profiles. “But I much prefer [2007's] fresher, more mineral profile. And the tannins are not as dry.”

At Domaine Font de Michelle, located next door to Vieux Télé, the new generation is slowly beginning to assume control. Young Guillaume Gonnet, 27, works with his cousin Bertrand, following in the footsteps of their fathers, Michel and Jean (who are still active in the domaine). Guillaume is showing both the vivacity of youth, as he strips the vinification of the domaine’s parcels down to their spare parts, along with the wizened experience of someone who listens carefully to the older generation, as he discusses the penchant for ultraripe cuvées in the 2007 vintage. “Lots of vignerons have been seduced by that style,” said Gonnet, wearing a CBGB t-shirt. “Like the dark side of the force.”

To learn his domaine from the ground up, Gonnet has begun fermenting parcels separately and is giving a number of coopers trial runs in the cellar to find the right barrels for aging his reds.

“If you really want to improve something, you need to understand all of the process,” said Gonnet. “I want to optimize every vineyard we have.”

The house style remains intact here with the 2006 reds—perfume, spice, sandalwood and dried cherry flavors run through the elegantly styled Châteauneuf-du-Pape, while the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Etienne Gonnet offers a wider range of red and black fruits, with a licorice- and spice-filled finish. Both are in line with their counterparts from recent vintages.

In 2007, the final blends have not yet been assembled, so instead we tasted through a range of barrel samples as Gonnet gets familiar with the raw materials in his possession. Syrah taken from a range of barrels shows both the house style of perfume and red fruits, along with more grippy, black fruit and tar prevalent samples. Grenache taken from a range of barrels and parcels shows just how dynamic—and fickle—the grape can be. Young vines from the Pierre Planté area show their 16.6 percent alcohol with a hot edge to the red berry fruit, while older vine fruit sourced from the famed La Crau sector checks in at equal alcohol, but doesn’t show a blip of heat, with sappy, intense fruit and lush texture.

Gonnet, who is debating even asking an outside consultant for advice ("My father would throw stones at him and tell him to get away," he said laughing) is looking to make wines that reward aging, rather than provide immediate gratification.

“I’m looking for mystery in wines. It sounds silly to say that, but Rayas and Clos des Papes only show you what they have after 10 or 20 years. You lose that when the wine has too much up front,” he said.

Another regular stop on my annual tour through the region, Château de Beaucastel, needs no introduction.

As with other Rhône domaines, the use of barrel fermentation and bâtonnage here on the whites has resulted in bottlings that stay fresher and purer longer, with a reduced dumb period. In fact, Marc Perrin noted that since the 2002 vintage, the domaine’s white cuvées have not shut down at all, and show no oxidized notes.

“The wines were never oxidized [in past vintages]. If they were they wouldn’t have come back,” said Perrin of the penchant for earlier vintages to go into a sullen phase for five, eight or 10 years or more before remerging. “It’s just in the DNA of Roussanne to act like that.”

The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White (Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, Clairette and Bourboulenc) is superlush, with macadamia nut, crème frâiche, melon and peach cobbler notes all mixed together on a remarkably bright and pure frame. The single varietal (all Roussanne) Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Vieilles Vignes 2007 offers amazing precision already, with mouthwatering acidity coursing through the cream, almond, yellow apple and melon flavors. Both are potentially classic, and remain among the most overlooked of the world’s great wines.

For the reds, we began with two offerings from the large Perrin & Fils operation, the family négociant line of wines, which (currently) are all from the Southern Rhône. The 2007 Vinsobres Les Cornuds, from an area recently upgraded from Côtes du Rhône-Villages status is a blend of equal parts Syrah and Grenache. It’s very racy, with lots of graphite and mineral running through the juicy raspberry fruit. It shows more of a Northern Rhône profile thanks to its large Syrah component. In contrast, the 2007 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau L'Andéol (80 percent Grenache with Syrah) is very rich and broad, with dark berry fruit and a chocolaty finish.

“I picked the two because they are opposites,” said Perrin. “But they show both sides of 2007: The Grenache is big, rich and ripe while the Syrah is more pure, more mineral.”

From Beaucastel proper, we tasted through (as we usually do) a few of the separate grape varieties that eventually make up the final blend.

The Counoise is very griottes (cherry jam but not cloying) along with a roasted pepper finish. The Grenache is sappy and intense. While very ripe, it stays stitched together with a mouthwatering minerality on the seamless finish. While the vintage is clearly a powerful, heady one for Beaucastel, its location at the northern end of the appellation means it receives more of a cooling influence from the mistral that blows through the valley, mitigating the alcohol prevalent in many wines (the Grenache checks in at just 15 to 15.5 percent alcohol in 2007). The Syrah offers terrific focus, with violet, black pepper and plum notes, while the Mourvèdre (where the malolactic is not yet finished) shows tons of brawny grip and enough dimension in both fruit and structure to warrant being bottled alone.

“Yes, the vintage is high in alcohol, “ said Perrin of some of the headier portions that go into the wine. “But that is where the blending helps.”

The 2006 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, bottled last month, is another classic in the making. It offers the pure, direct fruit of the vintage, but with a sappy intensity that belies the generally forward-styled vintage. It’s very primal, but seamless, with power and focus and a very, very clean, minerally finish. Perrin notes that they bottled the 2006 later than usual in order to let the wine integrate fully, typically the sign of a bigger-than-usual vintage.

There is no Châteauneuf-du-Pape Hommage à Jacques Perrin Grande Cuvée in 2006, but the 2005 version, just now being released, maintains the heritage of this cuvée, one of the first luxury cuvées to be made in the appellation (1989 being the first vintage). There are just 4,000 bottles (two-thirds the normal production) of the 2005, which is clearly dominated by its high Mourvèdre component, offering a towering profile of currant paste, coffee, leather, bittersweet ganache and a powerful, nearly dehydrating finish. Still sinewy, it could take 20 years or more to fully round into form, and should be among the top wines of this classic vin de garde vintage.

The wine’s length was a fitting way to end a long first day in the Rhône. Tomorrow, I’ll make my first ever visits to a quartet of domaines, including Olivier Hillaire’s new eponymous estate, as well as the still-young Domaine Giraud.

Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  June 18, 2008 9:14pm ET
What, no truffles?? Seriously, if a white CdP does go into a dumb stage, when might this be expected?
William Keene
North Carolina —  June 19, 2008 7:56am ET
Karl: Obviously I am not James, but this article has a little info on it towards the bottom. The whole article is informative - a nice resource:

http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Archives/Show_Article/0,1275,6345,00.html
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 19, 2008 2:34pm ET
James,To my taste the Beaucastel wines from the 1990s had excess levels of brett. But the newer wines are much cleaner than in the past (and I prefer them). Do you have any idea what they did to clean up the cellar? Given the concerns that many wineries have about this it would be interesting to know how they dealt with this problem.Adam LeeSiduri Wines
James Molesworth
June 19, 2008 5:17pm ET
Karl: The dumb stage is changing for white wines in the Rhone. What used to occur after just a year in bottle and last for 5 to 10 years, now occurs a few years after being in bottle and lasts for just a short time - if at all. Beaucastel reports their whites haven't shut down at all since the 2002 vintage. Rayas whites never close down. The Coulons at Beaurenard also note their whites are going through a reduced dumb period. It's evolving, and most vignerons link it to the increased used of barrel fermentation and batonnage...

Adam: Beaucastel doesn't hide from their brettanomyces issues of the past...the wines are much, much cleaner today. Proper hygiene with barrels and a newly renovated cellar are the primary reasons, as well as increased attention to detail in general. Brett is usually a function of poor hygiene, simple as that (which I'm sure you know)...
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 19, 2008 6:52pm ET
James,Thanks. Definitely new about the hygiene end of things but know that once you have brett sometimes it is harder to get rid of that simply washing barrels better. I didn't know about the new cellar, however. Adam LeeSiduri Wines
Mark Reinman
NJ —  October 5, 2010 5:50pm ET
Hi James-- I went diving to find the appropriate blog to attach this question to, so I hope you get an alert that it's being jostled from dormancy! I just lucked into a bunch of bottles of the 2006 Beaucastel CNDP at a crazy price, and the only "problem" is that they're 375s. I've never bought that size before (but at $17 per bottle, I just couldn't say no!), and I was hoping you might advise me a bit on how long I should let them sleep. Do your 750 drinking windows apply to half-bottles? Or do 375s crave earlier drinking? Many thanks,
Mark
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 5, 2010 6:33pm ET
Mark: Our drink recommendation are always for the bottle size reviewed (750ml unless otherwise noted) and assume proper storage. Half bottles tend to age at a faster pace than full bottles...
Mark Reinman
NJ —  October 5, 2010 8:18pm ET
Thanks, James. Sorry to have troubled you.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 5, 2010 9:35pm ET
Mark: No trouble at all - thanks for digging for an old blog entry!

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