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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Day 4: The Drive For Five In Châteauneuf-du-Pape

After a rainy May, the sun has finally come out over Châteauneuf-du-Pape, helping to dry out the vineyards and relieve some stress among the town's vignerons.

Posted: Jun 20, 2008 1:57pm ET

As good as Mordorée and Lafond are, I couldn’t stay in Tavel and Lirac forever; that other town kept calling me back. The sun was shining from the start today, and the temperature quickly rose into the 90s, relieving the stress that had built up among vignerons over the wet and gray weeks that preceded my trip, so what better to do than check in at five of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s best domaines?

An early morning visit with Marie-Joseph Michel at Le Vieux Donjon was up first. You can reference earlier blog entries and cellar notes for the technical background on this family-owned domaine, which produces just one white and one red cuvée.

The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White is fermented in stainless steel and undergoes no malolactic fermentation. The blend of Clairette and Roussanne is extra crunchy in texture, with fennel seed, star fruit and grapefruit notes and a strong spine. It’s one of the white Châteauneufs that I prefer to drink young for its vivacity.

We tasted the components of the still-to-be-blended 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and while it shows the ripe, fresh fruit of the vintage, it has by no means given in to the vintage’s lush texture and exotic fruit notes. Instead it stays remarkably true to the house style, with enticing juniper and sage aromas giving way to wild black fruit, tobacco and briar notes and a brambly finish. As usual, the grapes were partially destemmed in 2007, and the grapes were harvested on the 8th and 9th of September, early by ’07 standards, which explains the wine’s more modest (by Châteauneuf standards) alcohol of just over 15 percent.

“Lots of people said ‘wait, wait’,” says Michel, about the penchant for later harvesting in 2007. “But we didn’t want 16 [percent alcohol] even if it is easier for the market.”

The Mourvèdre here is especially good in 2007, and its 10 percent part of the final blend will once again set the wine apart from the 90+-percent Grenache cuvées, as it provides density, flesh and backbone.

The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is very juicy and inviting, with crushed plum and licorice fruit showing brightly, along with the wine’s telltale juniper note. There’s plenty of freshly ground tellicherry pepper on the finish, along with surprising grip for the vintage.

The Michels, who earned No. 3 honors in the 2007 Wine Spectator Top 100 with their ’05 Châteauneuf, continue to make a wine in the style they like, without regard for the current fashion, and they do so with uncompromising standards of quality. This is one of the iconic estates in the appellation, which also thankfully produces a healthy amount of wine at a fair price.

When you earn No. 3 on the Top 100, your phone tends to ring--a lot. When you earn No. 1 however, it’s a different ballgame. Vincent Avril nearly ran out of breath responding to the interview requests, attending magazine photo shoots and returning calls from news outlets that contacted him after earning Wine Spectator’s top honor for his 2005 Clos des Papes.

“I have had a very busy year,” says the affable and self-deprecating Avril. “In Gala magazine [France’s version of People] there I was next to Nicole Kidman!”

OK, they were separate photos. But that’s a minor detail ...

Avril has been busy with the completion of his cellar following the collapse two years ago of a wall within the old cellar, and yet has somehow managed to keep pace with his own high standards. Both the 2006 and 2007 reds here are once again among the best of the vintage.

The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape has just been bottled, and is just a touch tight from the mis, but it still shows the wine’s textbook cassis aroma and silky but dense palate of perfumed cherry, spice and licorice flavors. The finish then lets stone and garrigue hints check in, before sailing on effortlessly. It’s not far off the pace set by the ’05, and as it fills out in bottle (as this wine always does) it should be another classic.

The 2007 vintage was a generous one for Avril, as he brought in a crop yielding 24 hectoliters per hectare. “A big crop for us,” he says with a half smile. Avril describes the wine as a cross between 1978 and 1990, but with a touch less acidity in favor of more power and tannins.

“But the tannins are better quality,” he says. “The maturity of the tannins is the most important thing for Châteauneuf. Just having good acidity with less mature tannins is not enough.”

We tasted through eight different foudres where the components now sit, each one a blend of predominantly Grenache, along with varying amounts of Syrah and Mourvèdre. While some showed red fruits, others showed black. Some showed more open textures, while others were more structured and backward. An approximate blend was put together, and it showed how each lot compliments the other, filling in all available space to provide a full range of fruit, mineral and spice, with dense but supple texture. It’s early, but the 2007 Clos des Papes clearly matches the 2005 in quality, and its slightly more hedonistic profile will probably garner it extra praise from those who find the ’05 to be too structured. It’s an amazing run of vintages at this venerable estate.

You only need to saunter across the street (actually, considering the way people drive through town, you might want to sprint) to get from Clos des Papes to Domaine de Beaurenard. Here the Coulon brothers, Frédéric and Daniel, are like a high-end comedy team. Daniel plays the outright jokester, Frédéric the well-timed, dry wit. The two are so close, they nearly finish each other’s sentences. The immensely enjoyable brother duo has also been among the most generous vignerons I’ve met, either agreeing to meet me at early morning hours or opening older vintages (the 1929 and 1967, both of which still haunt me today). Along with the Bruniers of Télégraphe and Gonnets of Font de Michelle they form one of the tightest cliques in town. More importantly however, they make excellent wine.

There’s a Côtes du Rhône Rosé that provides pale salmon color, dusty cherry fruit and an elegant finish, along with a 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White that offers a mix of anise, heather and stone notes. The top white cuvée, the 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Boisrenard, is one of the elite white wines in the appellation, a gorgeously textured, hyper-rich version that rewards cellaring. In the class of the whites from Beaucastel and Vacheron-Pouizin, the wine (barrel fermented Roussanne and the other white varieties) shows creamy melon, Jonagold apple and crème fraiche notes with a long green almond finish. It’s drinkable when young (if you like them big) but rewards cellaring, turning into a rich but graceful white-truffle inflected wine that begs for a dish of just about anything smothered in morels.

The reds move up the quality scale quickly here: the Côtes du Rhône a light-bodied dusty cherry and spice styled version; the 2006 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau offering more range, with blue and red fruits and a minerally finish. Consistently outstanding is the small production Rasteau cuvée, and the 2006 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau Cuvée Les Argiles Bleues doesn’t disappoint, with its telltale blueberry nose (the wine is named for the blue clay on which the vines are planted, which provides the corresponding fruit profile) as well as more modern-styled mocha and fruit cake notes and a long, structured finish.

There are two Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds here. The domaine’s 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape shows plum, cherry and fruitcake notes with a twinge of traditional sandalwood, lavender and mineral. It’s always one of the more overlooked bottlings (consistently outstanding) from the appellation, and available in good quantity as well. Trophy hunters, however, tend to chase after the small production cuvée, the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Boisrenard, which was bottled 10 days ago. It’s loaded with ganache, spice box and mocha aromas, and is as explosive as always in that regard. The palate sports racy graphite, red, blue and purple fruits and a long, fine-grained finish. While the wine shows its complex barrel aging when young (the Coulons use a number of coopers for different flavor and aroma qualities), it ages wonderfully, turning progressively silky as it offers up more layers of alluring spice and exotic fruit.

As for the 2007s, the Coulons used a small percentage of stems on some cuvées (they typically destem entirely), adding grip to offset the vintage’s hyper-ripe profile. The move seems to have paid off, as the wines, even at this early stage, offer tons of up-front fireworks before settling down and then delivering long finishes that eventually echo with fruit and minerality. The Coulons: fun guys, serious wines ...

After lunch at Châteauneuf’s always-bustling La Mère Germaine, where owner Frédéric Albar has gone back into the kitchen himself while also opening a small side coffee bar/wine shop next to the restaurant, I met up with the irrepressible Laurence Féraud. Still wearing her jogging outfit from the morning, Féraud had taken to belt sanding an old wooden table top out in the late day sun when I arrived. She quickly turned the operation over to her partner Mark Fincham (giving a few suggestions) and off we headed to the cellar.

Domaine du Pégaü is another regular stop on my annual tour of the region, and you can reference background on the winery here, as there is little change there, except in terms of its growing popularity. Due to the domaine’s distinctive wines, but also due to Féraud’s spunky personality, Pégaü has become one of the ‘it’ spots for wine-loving consumers to stop at. Féraud is generous with her time (she’s had to hire a full time assistant just to program her schedule) despite the demands it places on both her work and family life. The day I arrive, Féraud decries a group that was supposed to have shown up before my scheduled visit, but that she predicts (correctly as it turns out) will show up rather late, and while I am still there. No worries – Laurence’s father Paul take them through a tasting while Laurence and I focus on the latest vintage.

“At last, a white as good as the red,” says Laurence excitedly. This domaine’s white has had an up and down track record recently, as it shifted from the old, oxidized style of the previous generation, skipped a vintage entirely (in ’04) and then moved to a crisper, fresher, more modern style. The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Cuvée Réservée, a blend of mostly Grenache Blanc along with Clairette, Bourboulenc and Roussanne, offers mouthwatering stone fruit, peach pit and mineral notes with a crunchy finish, and is easily the best version yet.

It’s the red wines, though, that have garnered Féraud her reputation, and there’s also more to the domaine than just its Châteauneuf. Féraud handles production on her Sélection Laurence Féraud line, a négociant project that features among others, a Vin de Table Français Plan Pégau made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Merlot and Carignane vines planted in the Vin de Table area (this is not declassified Châteauneuf from Pégaü as is commonly thought) that offers pepper, garrigue and tobacco flavors. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret is chewy, with fig, coffee and chestnut notes, while the 2007 version of the same wine offers an even richer profile, with boysenberry, coffee and mocha notes. “It’s a brute now, but I love it,” says Féraud.

The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée has not yet been assembled, as Féraud practices a longer than typical élevage in a mix of barrels and foudres, though a range of wines drawn from various casks shows everything from fig, currant and pastis to roasted chestnut, mesquite, brick dust and charcoal. There will be no Cuvée da Capo produced here from ’06. Those who enjoy chasing after Féraud’s small production cuvées, however, might want to aim for the just-released 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Laurence, which is the same juice as the Cuvée Réservée, but it spends a longer time in foudre. The result is a fig, prune, coffee, cedar, sweet humus and mesquite-filled red, back-loaded with lots of grip that is a potentially classic example of the house style.

As for 2007, Féraud is very happy. In contrast to 2005, which she was never comfortable with, Féraud is at home with the lush fruit of ’07, though she does sound a note of self-caution.

“I am afraid of too much sweetness,” she says. “Some producers start with 50 percent oak, then go to 100, and then 200 percent new oak, and they get addicted to the taste of their own wines. I don’t want to become addicted to the taste of my own wines. I don’t want to be saying ‘more, sweetness, more sweetness’. And that’s why I like ’07 so much. It’s like ‘00: great balance and acidity, and not too sweet.”

Féraud picked her grapes during the last two weeks of September, in the group of those who gambled (and won) that the vintage would repay extended hang time.

“I kept wanting to finish,” says Féraud. “But the grapes that were coming in at the end were fantastic, and clearly for da Capo,” she adds, referring to her single-foudre, rare-as-hen’s teeth cuvée.

The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Papes are far from assembled here, though the lots likely destined for the Cuvée Réservée show enormous depth already. One particular foudre, which was new when used for the 2005 vintage, and which Féraud feels contributed to the wine’s overt toast and structure in that vintage, has already been earmarked for da Capo. When it's racked, it will go into foudre #84, an ancient chestnut wood vessel that is a particular favorite of Féraud’s. Both it and the samples tasted from other foudres and barrels show potentially classic quality. In the mold of 2003 and 2004, the vivid fruit of 2007 has given Féraud exactly the kind of raw materials she is a master at forming into some of the appellation’s most individualistic wines.

Located at the opposite edge of town is the Domaine St.-Préfert / Domaine Ferrando operation, owned and run by the charming Isabel Ferrando (whose husband, Germain, is amongst the most gentle souls on earth). I was lucky to catch this domaine at its birth in the 2003 vintage, when it debuted with a classic quality cuvée Charles Giraud bottling. Since then, Ferrando, who has earned the close friendship and assistance of Henri Bonneau, Lucien Michel and the consultant Philippe Cambie, has steadily become a source for some of the appellation’s most impressively rich, silky, modern-styled wines, a style that she proudly defends.

“The style of the wine is the style of the vigneron,” says Ferrando. “Look at me, I am modern,” she adds, pointing at her sporty zip front athletic shirt and gesturing at the décor in her house. Sleek, modern and stylish, Ferrando’s style is consistent through her lifestyle and wines.

Ferrando has continued to quietly add hectares each year since 2003, and her St.-Préfert domaine now totals 16 hectares, with another 2.5 under the Ferrando label. Production in 2006 was typically small: just 26,000 bottles of St.-Préfert (and 6,000 of Ferrando), though production of the St.-Préfert wines doubles to 54,000 bottles in 2007 (Colombis remains the same). As she bought hectares of vines, Ferrando would rent half of each hectare out to offset the cost. Those rental agreements ended in 2007. Quality should not suffer with the jump in quantity, as Ferrando worked the vineyards entirely to her specification, but merely sold off half of the production.

The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Auguste Favier Réserve, a blend of 85 percent Grenache with the rest Cinsault, was bottled in February and is on the way to U.S. now. It offers dark, succulent black cherry, fig and warm cocoa flavors, with the Cinsault providing bright pepper and acidity on the finish, which just courses on and on. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Collection Charles Giraud, made from 60 percent Grenache and a hefty 40 percent of Mourvèdre, is stunning for its depth of black currant, graphite and tar flavors, flicker of shiso leaf, buried minerality and great tug of sweet earth on the finish. Both are potentially classic in quality. The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Colombis is a 100 percent Grenache cuvée, which, since the ’05 vintage is sourced from both the Colombis and Les Roues parcels. The 2006 version was the first vintage to be fermented and aged in a wood vat, and it shows the oak influence with a broad, upfront toasty profile, along with fudge, coffee and charcoal notes. There’s plenty of sweet fruit, and the finish shows a touch more muscle that Ferrando’s typical wines.

The 2007 trio here is flat-out stunning. The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Colombis shows more integration with its oak, with brighter raspberry fruit, Grenache’s shiso leaf hint, and super-fresh, bright finish. The 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Auguste Favier Réserve teeters on the edge; its alcoholic fermentation is still not finished, though its malolactic is. Ferrando, who picked her Grenache the third week of September and Mourvèdre in October, nearly blushes as she describes the wine’s 17.8 percent potential alcohol level (which should drop as the fermentation finishes). Though the wine is crawling along, Ferrando is not concerned.

“Henri [Bonneau] told me not to worry. When this happens, it’s a great wine,” she says. Bonneau's wines often have extremely long fermentations in big vintages.

The wine gushes with fig and boysenberry fruit, and though still sweet, it already shows tremendous depth of fine, rounded tannins.

For the 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Collection Charles Giraud, we tasted samples from two demi-muids – one new, the other aged – with the new one showing a blip of heat on the finish, but the second totally seamless.

“That’s why we blend,” she says.

Together they offer fruit as black as staring into a well, with Turkish coffee, licorice root and hoisin sauce notes backed by electric minerality on the finish. It’s a very, very impressive set of vintages at Chez Ferrando.

William Keene
North Carolina —  June 23, 2008 4:09pm ET
James: Awesome day! A nice surprise too as I thought you had finsihed up in Chateauneuf on Friday. You hit a lot of my favorites and it was great reading about them. Thanks for the awesome notes - I know getting all this posted has to be tough. It is very much appreciated though. By the way, the '07 Pegau white sounds delicious.
James Molesworth
June 23, 2008 5:31pm ET
William: Yes, it's nice to see Pegau joining the ranks of excellent white CdP producers as well...
Scott Mitchell
Toronto, Ontario —  June 23, 2008 6:11pm ET
Jealous doesn't even begin to cover how I feel right now.
John Osgood
New York, NY —  June 24, 2008 9:15am ET
James - great reporting from CDP. Clos des Papes is really on a roll these days. Good to hear that the 06 and 07 are some special wines to look forward to.
Brad Coelho
New York City —  June 24, 2008 4:28pm ET
John,Clos des Papes wasn't too bad in '69 either ;)
Jason T Pett
Baltimore, —  July 15, 2008 12:08pm ET
James: Excellent blogs on The Rhone. When do you plan to release your formal reviews on the 2006 Le Vieux Donjon and Vieux Telegraphe?
James Molesworth
July 15, 2008 12:16pm ET
Jason: All formal reviews are based on tastings (blind) of finished, bottled wines submitted for review by the producers and/or importers...so, when the wines arrive here at my office, I'll taste them and the reviews appear thereafter, either via our website or directly into the magazine.

Vieux Donjon will likely be reviewed sooner than VT, which is typically a later release...
Alex Mcwilliams
New York, NY —  December 23, 2008 1:30pm ET
James...I'm looking to buy a futures case of 2007 Chat. du Pape for my son who was born in 2007. Based on my reading so far I'm thinking Vieux Telegraphe or Beaucastel. Do you have an opinion for something that will age well for 20+ years, but is not a crazy price? Thanks...AMMAlex McWilliams
James Molesworth
December 23, 2008 3:37pm ET
Alex: I would focus on those cuv¿ that carry an ample amount of Mourvedre, which will be key in balancing out the Grenache in '07. The two you mentioned, along with St.-Prefert, are good bets...

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