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Day 2: A New Quartet of Châteauneuf Domaines

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 19, 2008 1:10pm ET

A second straight day of gloomy, rainy weather dogged Châteauneuf today, with each grower I visited touting the increasing need for the official arrival of summer later this week.

After bumping into Lucien Michel of Le Vieux Donjon on the street and chatting for a few minutes (his No. 3 standing in last year’s Top 100 issue still has his phone ringing), I visited with his next-door neighbor, Thierry Sabon of Clos du Mont-Olivet.

This historic property is now moving to its next generation, with Sabon, 37, working in the cellar since the 2001 vintage, alongside his father, Jean-Claude, 67, and uncle, Pierre, 63, who both still work in the vineyards.

One of the main criticisms of this estate in previous years was its inconsistent bottling practices: The wines would stay in foudre, with each individual foudre bottled as needed for an importer’s order (the domaine does not have the space to hold stocks of bottles). One foudre could be bottled years after another from the same vintage (some 2003 was still in foudre, waiting to be bottled), making for totally different-styled bottlings. Starting in 2005, Sabon has condensed the bottling time to just a few months, bottling all the production for one particular market at one time.

“This has been the biggest change I wanted to make,” said Sabon, who maintains the house style of black fruit, silky texture and lovely perfumed aromatics in the reds.

Sabon, who has studious good looks, initially was working toward a degree in physics, but decided he liked the outdoors better after serving his perfunctory military service, so he went back to school (in Montpellier) for his vinification degree. Like many other young vignerons, Sabon has also spent time abroad, in both Australia and South Africa, to improve his learning curve.

The domaine totals 46 hectares, 27 of which are in Châteauneuf. Production stands at around 200,000 bottles annually, with just 10 percent coming to the U.S. market.

The whites here are bright and crisp, as Sabon tries to halt the malolactic fermentation (if it does wind up happening, he lets it). The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White features 25 percent Roussanne fermented in used barrels, along with Clairette, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Picardin and Picpoul fermented in tank, a tactic Sabon has settled on after fermenting all his white varieties in wood in previous vintages. It shows a creamy texture up front, with peach and melon notes backed by juicy acidity.

“I want fruit flavors,” explained Sabon. “But I also want a wine to drink now and that can age.”

The 2006 Châteauneuf White has absorbed the touch of oak it received and is now even crisper than the 2007, with a bright floral profile and a very minerally finish.

At Clos du Mont-Olivet, some 2003 Chateaneuf-du-Pape still waits in foudre to be bottled.

The red wine portfolio begins with a trio of Côtes du Rhône cuvées, sourced from vineyards to the north of Châteauneuf, around the town of Bollène. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône Font de Blanche is sourced from vineyards on the valley floor which feature alluvial, sandy soils. The blend of 55 percent Grenache and 45 percent Syrah is aged more in tank than foudre, and offers cherry, sandalwood and spice notes with a lacy finish. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône Montueil-la Levade Vieilles Vignes is sourced from Grenache, Carignane and Syrah vines up on the plateau above Bollène, and is aged entirely in stainless steel tank (Sabon has increased the percentage of stainless steel here as well). The stonier, more clay soils produce a wine with blacker fruits and more evident backbone. The 100 percent Grenache Côtes du Rhône Serre de Catin comes from vines planted on the hillsides between the two other wines’ vineyards. “I want the taste of Grenache as it is in each vintage,” said Sabon of the cuvée, and the 2006 version obliges with lots of forward, ripe dark cherry fruit and a dusting of cocoa powder.

For the red Châteauneuf cuvées, Sabon has added a new wine called Le Petit Mont starting with the 2005 vintage. Not yet in the U.S. market, the wine is both a vineyard and barrel selection, as Sabon culls young vines and more forward, less structured juice from the two main wines.

“If you blend wines with fruit with wines with structure, you lose some of both,” said Sabon. “I want to produce wines that show both sides of the appellation, but both in the Mont Olivet style.” The Le Petit Mont cuvée is also Sabon’s way of responding to criticism that the domaine produces its top Cuvée du Papet too frequently. “By making this cuvée, I make the Mont Olivet cuvée stronger, so taking out the top parcels from that for Cuvée du Papet does not affect it that much.”

The wine (90 percent Grenache, along with Syrah and Mourvèdre) is aged mostly in stainless steel along with some used barrels before bottling and it shows supple dried cherry fruit, with rose petal, sandalwood and spice notes followed by a dusty finish.

The domaine’s main Châteauneuf cuvée, which contains 85 percent Grenache, with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault, is very supple, with great focus to the beam of red currant, plum and tangy mineral notes. It’s both approachable now but should age well too. “I don’t want to be one of those vignerons who says my wine is only good after 10 years,” said Sabon.

The top cuvée, the Cuvée du Papet, was first made in 1989 and 1990, then took a break until 1998, 2000 and then every vintage from 2003 to 2007. The 2006 bottling, 80 percent Grenache with 10 percent each of Syrah and Mourvèdre is potentially classic, with dark, racy fruit, a mix of red and black licorice notes, and a long, tight, mineral-driven finish. Because of the vintage’s more precocious fruit, the 2006 was aged in tank and foudre, as opposed to all foudre for the vintages up to 2003.

The 2007 vintage seems to play into Sabon’s hands: The lush fruit of 2007 shines through the domaine’s reds, with additional notes of licorice and more crushed fruit, and even rounder, riper finishes. Sabon hasn’t stopped expanding either, adding another Côtes du Rhône labeled Varène, from a rented vineyard near Montueil. The 100 percent Syrah wine (just 6,000 bottles produced) could rival the well-known Fonsalette Syrah bottling from Château Rayas, with its lush blueberry and currant fruit woven with dark earth and gutsy structure.

Sabon is doing an excellent job of tweaking the production process here for better consistency, adding and improving the cuvées, all while maintaining the house style.

Around the corner and down the hill from Clos du Mont-Olivet, housed in a former distillery facility, is Domaine Giraud. This family-run domaine mirrors the trend in the appellation over the last generation—the previous generations of Girauds sold their grapes to négociants, but the current generation now bottles the estate’s production itself. The results—small lots of well-managed old-vine terroir—get a chance to shine on their own rather than being lost in a larger blend culled from around the appellation in general.

The brother-and-sister Giraud team of the boyishly handsome François, 27, and sporty Marie, 31, were the first ever clients of the increasingly busy winemaking consultant Philippe Cambie, who now counts 56 clients, 25 of whom are in Châteauneuf. Both Marie and François share responsibilities at the domaine, which totals 19 hectares of vines and produces 5,000 cases annually, sending nearly one-third to the U.S. market.

The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition (60 percent Grenache, 35 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvèdre) is, as its name invokes, the more traditionally styled of the cuvées, with juicy blackberry and licorice notes with a rustic edge of chestnut and coffee in the background. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Gallimardes is sourced from the lieu-dit of the same name, located in the southern part of the appellation. The parcel comprises deep, red clay soils with large stones on the surface and the Girauds' 100-year-old Grenache vines (there’s 10 percent Syrah in the cuvée) produce a succulent, crushed plum and fig-filled wine backed by a dark, enveloping, hedonistic finish. As lush as it is, it’s topped by the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Grenaches de Pierre, which shows far more stuffing than its 2005 counterpart. This 100 percent Grenache cuvée, sourced from sandy soils in the La Crau sector, near the Pignan lieux-dit, is very primal, with a huge core of blackberry fruit and a very, very long finish.

Quality is dialed up even more in the 2007 vintage however, with the domaine producing three ultralush cuvées that sport high alcohols, but are seamless in their integration.

“Grenache is ripe at 16,” said Marie, matter-of-factly. “When we check for ripeness, we taste first, because if we used a refractometer [to check potential alcohol] first, we would say, ‘Whoa, let’s pick at 15 or 15.5.' But the balance is there [at 16].”

The 2007 Tradition cuvée is almost jammy, but holds it together thanks to hot stone and mineral notes on the back end. The 2007 Les Gallimardes is packed with black Mission fig sauce, Turkish coffee and sweet mulled spices. It, like the Les Grenaches de Pierre, is a potential classic, with the latter showing even more depth of macerated black and blue fruits, and a long graphite- and licorice-filled finish that refuses to quit in the mouth, delivering a haunting echo of crème de cassis.

Mark it down now: This is a domaine to watch, with its portfolio in both 2006 and 2007 offering terrific potential.

If ever there were an example of how someone’s personality makes it into their wines, it’s Olivier Hillaire and his: intense, intense, intense.

With his athletic build, overt energy, icy stare and Daniel Craig-like looks, Hillaire has happily adopted my nickname for him, "the James Bond of Châteauneuf" (he greets me posing with his fingers in the form of a gun). His wines nearly boil over with fruit and structure: black, blue and purple notes backed by vivid minerality and a briary edge that leaves your mouth watering. This small domaine is another client of the consultant Philippe Cambie, but as with all of Cambie’s clients, the domaine’s wines have their own distinct personality.

After working for nearly 30 years at Domaine des Relagnes before its sale, Hillaire managed to procure some of that domaine’s choicest parcels (7 hectares total) and has since added 2 hectares from the La Crau parcel in 2008. Though small in size and with only a few vintages under his belt (2005 was the first to be bottled under his own name), Hillaire suddenly finds himself heading up one of the most dynamic domaines in all of Châteauneuf.

Hillaire works out of an old apple-canning facility on the side road from Châteauneuf to Sorgues (Clos St.-Jean shares the same facility for its barrel aging). There are two cuvées of Châteauneuf made here. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is made of 80 percent Grenache with equal parts Syrah and Mourvèdre. The grapes are destemmed entirely, fermented in tank, and then moved to a mix of demi-muid, barrels and tanks for their malolactic and élevage. The wine is black in color and almost chewy, but it stays fresh and driven thanks to authoritative fig and briar notes and intense grip on the finish, particularly for the vintage. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Petits Pieds d'Armand is made entirely from old-vine Grenache located n the La Crau lieux-dit. With intense dark fruit and vivid structure it offers the best of the 2005 and 2007 vintages combined, roiling with fig, hoisin sauce, currant confiture, ganache and a terrific finish packed with briar and muscle.

The final blends have not been assembled for the 2007 cuvées, so we tasted through some of the component parts. A sample of Châteauneuf from barrel was open and juicy with cassis bush and sweet tobacco notes, though it was also a touch hot thanks to its 16 percent alcohol. Meanwhile a sample of the same being aged in tank showed much better integration.

“That’s why the blend is always important in Châteauneuf,” said Hillaire. “That’s where you get the balance.”

A sample from barrel of the juice destined for the 2007 Les Petits Pieds d'Armand touted 17 percent alcohol, but was remarkably integrated with lush, nearly exotic fig fruit. A sample of the same from tank was intensely concentrated with a jammy mouthfeel, but fresh in its aromas and finish, an impressive tug of war between the two profiles.

The bad news is there are just 1,250 cases of Châteauneuf made here each year (though twice that of a very strapping Côtes du Rhône bottling). The good news is that almost all of it comes to the U.S. market.

From the intensity of Hillaire I switched to the passive, restrained style of Michel Maret who, along with his wife, Mirielle, and daughters Véronique and Caroline, owns and runs the Domaine de la Charbonnière, located on the road from Châteauneuf to Courthézon.

The domaine was bought by Michel’s grandfather in 1912 and initially sold en vrac and to négociants before it began to bottle its own production in the late 1970s. The domaine produces 5,500 cases annually and sends about one-third to the U.S.

Maret has recently begun fermenting all his reds in open-top wood vats, where he also ages the wines—there are no classic foudres here. Despite the new-wave approach, the wines are supple and full of garrigue and mineral notes, along with ample cores of red and black fruits.

Though only the basic Châteauneuf cuvée is officially imported into the U.S. market, you’re also likely to find one of the domaine’s top three bottlings, so I’ve included notes on all of them here. The 2007 Châteauneuf (70 percent Grenache with equal parts Syrah and Mourvèdre) is supple with currant, sandalwood and mineral notes, an excellent introduction to the house style. Stepping up in class though is the 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Mourre des Perdrix, from older vine fruit sourced from the Le Mourre des Perdrix and Charbonnières parcels. With the same varietal blend as the regular cuvée, it offers more density, along with licorice and cherry notes and a longer finish. The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Vieilles Vignes contains 70 percent old-vine Grenache from La Crau with the rest Mourvèdre. It really sings, with great length and density all without being bombastic or large scaled, just perfumed red and black fruits and a fine-grained finish. While Monsieur Maret prefers the gentle profile of the Vieilles Vignes cuvée, Madame Maret prefers the muscle of the 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Hautes Brusquières Cuvée Spéciale, a single-vineyard cuvée spruced from fruit in the northwest corner of the Les Brusquières lieu-dit, located on the Mont-Redon plateau. The blend of 70 percent Grenache with the remainder Syrah offers more obvious grip, with blackberry and violet notes and a tarry finish brought on by the ample Syrah component.

There is also a Châteauneuf White produced here, made of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Clairette, made in a very crisp, minerally style. A Vacqueyras rounds out the portfolio, the 60/40 Grenache/Syrah blend is silky, with a taut iron note running through currant fruit and brown bread flavors.

While some domaines are grabbing the spotlight with their high-powered wines, this domaine is quietly going about its business, producing equally outstanding wines in a more sedate, elegant style.

Tomorrow I’ll make a few more stops in Châteauneuf before heading out to the hinterlands of Lirac and Tavel.

William Keene
North Carolina —  June 19, 2008 3:59pm ET
James: I have been enjoying your coverage thus far. Great stuff! The '06 Hillaire Les Petits Pieds d'Armand sounds fantastic. I didn't pick up any '05s, which appears to have been a mistake.

I know you are busy and probably don't want to spoil any surprises, but would you be willing drop any hints about tomorrow's visits? Can't wait to see your thoughts on Vieux Donjon, Saint Prefert, and Pegau. If I have to be patient, I understand.

Thanks again for all the awesome coverage!
James Molesworth
June 19, 2008 5:19pm ET
William: Patience is a virtue...plus writing 2,000 words a day after visiting four or five estates takes a little time!
Brad Coelho
New York City —  June 19, 2008 6:50pm ET
Glad to see you gettin' around ok ;) Rain or shine, I miss Chateauneuf terribly. It's the only place in the world where a 100 km per hour wind makes me feel at home. Enjoy your visits...especially those decadent '07s. Lots of exciting new stars to check out!
Matt Zimmer
Columbus Ohio —  June 20, 2008 6:06pm ET
James,Did you try the whites at Giraud or their new rose? I visited there in April and went twice in the same week. I agree the 2007's are great. Ultra ripe and rich, but very well balanced and drinking great out of barrel. Do you feel availability will increase in the states in the next few years? It seems hard to get my hands on Giraud wines and I need to stock up on the 2006's and 2007's when they come out. I brought a case of the 2005's home from my trip. Another great part of the trip was a trip to Critia, were you able to stop by there? Keep up the blog, I watch for it daily and it is very informative
James Molesworth
June 21, 2008 3:27am ET
Matt: I did taste the white at Giraud, but didn't include it in my notes above as they only have 1 hectare of white vines...It's made from Roussanne (fermented in a new barrel) along with Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc. I found it soft, with anise, banana and cream of coconut notes, though it gained more definition as it aired. Potentially outstanding, but in the lower end of the range.

The Giraud's do send a third of their production to the U.S., so the wines shouldn't be impossible to find. You can always try emailing the domaine to ask where the wines are in the U.S. market.

I don't have a visit at Cristia scheduled this trip...

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