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Day 3: From Châteauneuf to Tavel

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 20, 2008 12:14pm ET

Domaine Vacheron-Pouizin, located in the northern end of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, on the back road heading north from Château Rayas, is owned and run by Sylvie Vacheron. The domaine was bought by Vacheron’s grandfather in 1939, but World War II prevented it from functioning as an estate. During the 1950s, the estate renovated its cellars and began purchasing more vineyard land. Sylvie’s father then planted much of the estate, expanding it from 17 to 53 hectares during the 1960s, so the property’s vines are mostly 40 years of age or older, with 85 percent of the plantings Grenache, along with Syrah, Mourvèdre and touches of Carignane and Counoise.

Vacheron, 41, and her former husband, Jean-Denis Vacheron (related to the Vacheron family in Sancerre), took over from Sylvie’s father in 1996, and began to bottle the estate’s production themselves (the grapes were previously sold to E. Guigal). A new cellar was constructed in 2001 and the estate was on the upswing when Jean-Denis died in a car accident in 2002.

Sylvie brought in Bruno Gaspar as winemaker in time for the 2002 harvest (Gaspar, 44, had worked 11 vintages at Château du Trignon in Gigondas). The 2002 vintage was a disaster for the appellation and the heat of 2003 vintage hampered the reds here, as the vines are planted primarily on sandy soils, far more susceptible to drought than other soil types in the appellation. The transition following the death of Jean-Denis was, needless to say, difficult.

But starting with the 2004 harvest (along with the help of consultant Philippe Cambie), the ship has been righted, and with some exceptional wines here in 2006 and 2007, Domaine Vacheron-Pouizin seems poised to take its place among the appellation’s elite. There are 16,500 cases produced here annually, one-third of which comes to the U.S.

The reds are fermented in a mix of wooden vats and cement tanks, with foudres, demi-muids, barriques and stainless steel used for the élevage and storage. There is exacting attention to detail here, with the bunches first sorted in the vineyard, and then transported to the winery in small 25 kilogram boxes where the berries are then sorted on a table de tri.

The domaine has sizable holdings in the Côtes du Rhône appellation, and as the property straddles the boundary between Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône, along with an additional holding along the border of the Coudoulet lieu-dit, Gaspar pointed out that “All our Côtes du Rhône are from vines within the [Châteauneuf] appellation, or just outside.”

The 2006 Côtes du Rhône Le Clos du Caillou Bouquet des Garrigues (85 percent Grenache, along with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane) was bottled in March, and it shows stone, cherry pit and cherry fruit flavors with a dusting of toast on the finish. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône Clos du Caillou Les Quartz (Grenache with 15 percent Syrah), is a single-vineyard wine sourced from vines on sandy soils covered with rolled stones. It’s superbright and juicy, with a mix of red and blue fruits all offset by riveting minerality. It transcends the average quality level of the appellation. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône Les Clos du Caillou Réserve, uses 17 percent Mourvèdre along with Grenache. Aged in demi-muid and foudre, its dusty tannins carry dark black cherry, spice and black tea notes with a long, silky finish. Both it and the Les Quartz bottling could easily stand in blind among a flight of Châteauneufs.

The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Clos du Caillou Les Safres, made from 100 percent Grenache aged 100 percent in foudre, is loaded with sweet kirsch, pepper and mineral notes, and heralds the house style – rich, but graceful, with silky texture.

“I like the style of ’06, it’s more elegant, balanced,” said Gaspar. “2005 is too big for me.”

The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine du Caillou Les Quartz, from the same vineyard as the Côtes du Rhône bottling (but on the Châteauneuf side) is juicy and pure, with a hint of shiso leaf running through gorgeous raspberry and cherry fruit. The top wine is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Clos du Caillou Réserve, made from 60 percent Grenache with equal parts Syrah and Mourvèdre, aged for 16 months in a mix of demi-muid and cement vat. Sourced from the Pignan and Guigasse lieux-dits, it’s loaded with dark, macerated fig and blackberry fruit, along with hints of sweet tobacco, shaved vanilla and mesquite, all laid on top of impressive structure. The 2007 red cuvées play right into the house style, with amped-up raspberry and currant fruit kept honest by mouthwatering acidity and minerality.

As if that weren’t enough, the domaine also produces superb whites. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône White Le Clos du Caillou is made entirely from the pink version of the Clairette grape, which used to go into the red wines but has been kept separate since the 2003 vintage. Fermented in stainless steel it offers a distilled essence of pink grapefruit fruit with a lush mid-palate offset by a bitter citrus note on the finish. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône White Le Clos du Caillou Bouquet des Garrigues is made from a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Viognier and Roussanne, and offers a very minerally attack, with grapefruit and lemon zest flavors and a long, minerally finish. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Les Clos du Caillou Les Safres, made from 70 percent Roussanne along with Grenache Blanc and Clairette is stunning. Fermented in used barrels, it has laser focus to its citrus peel and blanched almond notes, superb minerality and a finish that expands in the mouth with creamy melon, Jonagold and Bosc pear flavors. Its mind-boggling display of fruit and precision puts it in the rarified class of white Châteauneufs that includes the bottlings from Beaucastel and the Boisrenard cuvée from Domaine de Beaurenard. Though there were only 200 cases made, it’s well worth the search.

As with Vacheron-Pouizin, Clos St.-Jean is another estate that has remade itself, and backed by the appellation’s strong recent string of vintages, and a little help from Philippe Cambie, it has caught fire, qualitatively.

The domaine is owned and run by the brothers Vincent, age 48, and Pascal, 49, Maurel. The estate was founded by their grandfather in 1910, and was one of the first to export its wine in bottle to the U.S. (they have old letters from interested clients in America asking for samples following the end of Prohibition). The estate totals 44 hectares, an ample 40 of which are in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and nearly two-thirds of them in the La Crau sector. The wines are made in a minimalist style: The grapes are destemmed, then fermented in cement vats, with the Grenache aged in cement vat and the Syrah and Mourvèdre aged in barrel.

The estate underwent a massive change in philosophy starting with the 2003 vintage. Previously, the wines had been made in a tannic, rustic style, using 100 percent stems, élevage in foudre, and then released years after the vintage. When asked why they decided on such a drastic change, Vincent Maurel said his epiphany came during a tasting of other wines from the appellation. “I tasted my wine along with all these others, and it was obvious. I used to champion the traditional style, but then I realized change was needed.”

Now, following the domaine’s superb performance in the 2005 vintage, Maurel is dealing with the vagaries of being a star boutique producer. He’s found clients reselling the wines on the Internet for profit (he’s since stopped selling to them) while dealing with the backlash that came his way when European retailers sold quantities of Clos St.-Jean wines they had never confirmed getting from the domaine in the first place.

The scramble is on for the wines as quantities are small, just 5,800 cases annually despite the ample vineyard holdings. That’s due to yields kept ridiculously low, in the 20 to 25 hectoliter per hectare range.

“That’s my choice,” said the soft-spoken Maurel.

Made specifically for the U.S. market, the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes, of which there are about 1,000 cases, is made from three-quarters Grenache, 15 percent Syrah and the rest Cinsault, Mourvèdre and the overlooked Vaccarèse (which provides acidity). It shows the hint of shiso leaf that low-yielding Grenache typically gives, along with very supple texture and lots of pepper, cherry and herb flavors. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Combe des Fous uses approximately two-thirds fruit sourced from the estate’s oldest Grenache vines (planted in 1905) with the remaining third made up of Cinsault, Vaccarèse and Syrah. “It’s the more elegant, feminine cuvée,” explained Maurel, as the wine displays kirsch and pepper notes with a supersilky finish. In contrast is the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Deus Ex Machina, which is the more muscular of the top two cuvées, as it uses 60 percent old-vine Grenache with the remainder entirely Mourvèdre. It’s extremely dense, but remarkably silky, with blackberry, fig and linzer flavors that sing through the gorgeous finish. Both are potential classics that should rival the quality of this estate’s 2005s.

As with many of the Châteauneuf domaines now producing lush, modern-styled wines (and using Cambie’s services) the quality of the 2007 vintage has played right into Clos St.-Jean’s hands. Samples of the various grape varieties (the final blends have not been assembled) showed awesome depth of fruit, with dark licorice, hoisin sauce and fig notes. The Mourvèdre component (a key variable that will separate cuvées that veer toward jammy from those that maintain balance and grip) in particular shows enough currant, coffee and black fig flavors to be bottled on its own.

“The winner of the vintage is Mourvèdre,” chimed in Cambie as we taste.

Comparing the wines still in their infant stage, Maurel prefers them to the more muscular 2005 vintage.

“2005 is massive, but it’s a little alone,” he said. “2007 has more around it.”

"More" is the operative word at Clos St.-Jean in 2007. If only it applied to quantity.

It would be easy to stay in Châteauneuf all day—trust me, I’ve done it. But there are other producers working outside the appellation making good wine as well. Take the road to Roquemaure, cross the bridge over the Rhône, drive through the town, up onto the plateau and eventually you reach the towns of Tavel and Lirac. First stop: Domaine de la Mordorée in Tavel.

As I pulled into the parking lot behind the domaine, the sun broke through, and suddenly a month’s worth of rain seemed like a distant memory.

Christophe Delorme and his brother, Fabrice, run this domaine, founded by the Delormes along with their father after selling their family’s manufacturing business in 1986. Quality has been Delorme’s passion ever since, and today Mordorée is one of only two domaines in Tavel to hand harvest their grapes. That’s quite an effort considering the domaine’s sizable 64 hectares, 30 of which are in neighboring Lirac.

If you haven’t heard of Lirac, that’s because the rest of France hasn’t forgiven it for being the birthplace of phylloxera, the root louse brought from America by a local vigneron in the 19th century that soon wiped out the country’s wine industry. Tavel is of course the home of France’s best-known rosé, which at its best provides juicy cherry flavors and a heady finish. So what is Delorme doing out here? Quietly making some superb reds, whites and rosés from both appellations, as well as a small amount of dynamic Châteauneuf from the domaine’s 4.5 hectares there. Domaine de la Mordorée produces approximately 20,000 cases a year, and sends about 10 percent to the U.S.

Delorme, 45, wiry, handsome and with a full head of dirty blond hair, produces a 2007 Tavel, made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Clairette (pink and white) and Bourboulenc. After macerating overnight the juice is then bled to the press. It’s very juicy, with dried cherry, watermelon rind and mineral notes and is one of the few consistently outstanding bottlings in the appellation. The 2007 Côtes du Rhône Rosé, produced from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre using just the saignée method (bleeding off tanks of red wine) offers floral, sweet cherry and strawberry notes. Among the whites, the 2007 Lirac White (Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul, Bourboulenc and Ugni Blanc) is fermented predominantly in stainless steel with a touch done in barrel. It offers piercing citrus peel and chalk dust notes with a hint of heather honey on the finish.

As if rosés and Lirac weren’t enough off the beaten path, Delorme’s 2007 Vin de Pays du Gard Renaissance is made from a blend of Merlot and Marselan. Marselan? Yes, Marselan, a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon bred for its resistance to mildew. The wine offers immediate up-front appeal, with smooth texture and rich chocolate and plum flavors.

Among the reds, the 2006 Lirac La Dame Rousse, made from equal parts Syrah and Grenache, is vinified in stainless steel and is meant to offer more up-front, supple fruit. The 2006 Lirac La Reine des Bois, from vines planted on Châteauneuf lookalike terroir, is equal parts Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre and drinks like a small-scaled Châteauneuf, with juicy linzer and graphite notes and a long, minerally finish.

For those who can’t stomach drinking wine from an unheralded appellation, have no fear – Delorme produces the real deal as well, a luxury-priced Châteauneuf cuvée that has steadily built a track record for not just outstanding, but classic-level quality. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Reine des Bois is no exception, made from a blend of 80 percent Grenache, 10 percent Mourvèdre, 5 percent Vaccarèse plus a mélange of other varieties, the wine offers a strapping profile, with jam-packed fig cake, Turkish coffee and loganberry flavors backed by superb grip for the vintage. (The domaine’s ultratiny production Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Plume du Peintre, made only in 2003 and 2005, was not produced in either 2006 or 2007).

Located down the road and in the town of Lirac is Delorme’s cousin, Pascal Lafond, who is also doing his best to produce excellent wines from this overlooked corner of the Rhône. Lafond, 52, follows in the footsteps of his grandfather and father at Domaine Lafond, which started bottling its own wines in 1979.

The domaine totals 85 hectares, destems 100 percent and then vinifies all its wine in cement or stainless steel tanks “to avoid dry tannins,” said the quietly serious Lafond, who oversees production of 33,000 cases annually of some of the best values in the region (5,000 cases come to the U.S. annually).

The Tavel bottling here is made in the same manner as at Mordorée, and the 2007 Tavel is fresh, with stone and berry flavors that are complex but without the heady aspect typical of most Tavels.

The 2006 Côtes du Rhône Roc-Epine (Roc-Epine is in homage to the famous French champion trotting horse named Roquepine), made from a blend of 70 percent Grenache and 30 percent Syrah, offers light cherry and raspberry fruit with a dusting of spice on the finish. It’s indicative of the house style: The wines show fresh and bright fruit with harmonious finishes. “I want freshness and suppleness,” said Lafond matter-of-factly.

When well made, reds from Lirac offer a Châteauneuf-like profile at a dramatically lower price, and they’re also ageworthy. We ran through several vintages of the domaine’s Lirac Roc-Epine, including a still very-much-alive 2000 that offered tobacco, olive, berry and truffle notes. The current 2006 Lirac Roc-Epine has the racy profile of the vintage, with juicy fruit and solid acidity, and it too should age well.

Culled from the domaine’s best vineyards is the 2006 Lirac La Ferme Romaine, a Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre blend that receives a longer maceration and subsequent élevage than the Roc-Epine bottling. It’s also aged in high-toast barrels, which is evident in the wine’s plum sauce, fruit cake and chocolate notes, though these fade with time, as a bottle of the 2001 vintage showed more subtle aromatics and a lingering blackberry finish. The best part? The La Ferme Romaine retails for around $22, the Roc-Epine bottling for under $20.

Once again though, if you need the prestige label, look for the domaine’s 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Roc-Epine, another rock-solid value delivering medium-weight red and black fruits, fresh acidity and honest grip that ages well over five to 10 years.

The lesson here? Sure, there’s plenty of good wine in Châteauneuf, but don’t be afraid to head into the hinterlands for value and character.

Brad Coelho
New York City —  June 20, 2008 7:29pm ET
Clos St. Jean's '06s really transcended my impression of the vintage...along w/ Vieille Julienne, Barroche, Clos des Papes, Mon Aieul and Charvin, they seemed to harness the silky, forward personalities of the year, while adding depth and intensity that most of the wines I tasted from '06 lacked. Top notch impressions as always James...your notes always leave me thirsty.
Eric Yates
Geneve, Switzerland —  June 21, 2008 3:24am ET
James, thanks once again for the detailed insights which you provide while traveling. I have just started planning our annual wine buying trip to the Rhone region. Armed with your insight we feel encourged to step out of the box and explore to find the hidden gems which all wine regions have. Thanks for taking the time to blog each day during the trip.
James Molesworth
June 21, 2008 3:30am ET
"Planning the annual wine buying trip to the Rhone"...yes, I need to talk to Nancy about that myself...
David A Zajac
June 21, 2008 7:45am ET
Its also nice to see you highlight other area's, such as Lirac, I am a dedicated Rhone drinker and the wines of Mordoree and Lafond are super wines for the price, anyone afraid of trying these wines just don't know what they are missing - As for the 2007 CduP, I get the impression it is borderline over the top, is it the vintage or is it more the producers that are pushing the ripeness levels?
James Molesworth
June 21, 2008 10:46am ET
David: It's a function of both - the vintage provided beautiful, clear weather through September. The grapes were healthy and ripe and growers could pick at their leisure - the quality was there from the start.

So that, combined with the fact that some vignerons waited longer than others - there was a two to three week spread among picking times - has resulted in a large group of wines that do push the envelope. The best examples of this group are absolutely gorgeous, while others may be burning the candle at both ends.

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