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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Le Vieux Donjon: The Next Generation

This family estate is under new management, and its track record for excellence is in good hands
Photo by: James Molesworth
The kids kept the old foudres, moving them into the new cellar.

Posted: Jul 7, 2017 12:10pm ET

The Michel siblings, Claire Fabre, 34, and her brother François Michel, 28, have taken the reins at Le Vieux Donjon from their father, Lucien, who piloted this estate to one of the most consistent track records in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For background, reference my 2009 visit here.

With their parents officially retired, the kids opened up a new tasting room and winery facility in 2013, on the road to Courthézon, just as you leave Châteauneuf. "So my parents have some quiet now in their home," says François. "But of course, they still keep an eye over our shoulders."

Claire (whose husband, Adrien Fabre, runs Domaines de l'Echevin and La Florane) started in 2008, and she handles the business side of the operation, while François came on board in 2012, running the vineyard. And they combine their efforts to make the wine, as both are trained enologists, Claire in Toulouse and François in Montpellier.

A few acres of vines on sandy soil between Rayas and Cristia was added in 2012, bringing the domaine to 40 acres in total, all in Châteauneuf.

"And we still make just one red, one white—no cuvées," says François, espousing his father's philosophy.

The house style remains intact here. The structured red brims with a telltale juniper note; the white is fresh and precise. The siblings have inherited a domaine in prime condition, with an average vine age of 60 years, ranging from a single block of 3-year-olds to vines hitting age 100.

The 2016 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White was bottled in January. There are just 300 cases, as only about 2 acres of the domaine are committed to whites, but François is adding more going forward. "Demand for white is really growing, especially in the last five years," he says. "I think cooler vintages such as '12 and '13 have helped open some people's eyes to the whites here. Plus, we are getting better technically with the whites in general in Châteauneuf."

The 50/50 Clairette and Roussanne blend is vinified in stainless steel and never sees any oak. The grapes are picked a little earlier now than in the past, along with a lower fermentation temperature to maintain freshness. The result is a wine with a beautiful creamy feel while white peach, chamomile and green almond notes stream through a long and pure finish that has a lingering mirabelle note.

The yield here for the red grapes was a robust 2.4 tons per acre in 2016, approaching the AOC maximum of 2.57 tons. That means you'll be able to easily find some of the 2016 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is the usual 75/10/10/5 blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. There's been one tweak here, with 20 percent of the wine being aged in concrete, rather than entirely in foudre.

"Concrete protects the fruit a bit more. In comparison, a foudre softens the tannins a bit more than concrete, adding the garrigue notes," says François.

The wine shows a gorgeous juniper nose, with bay, lavender and rosemary notes streaking through, while the core of dark cherry and red currant fruit waits in reserve. It has taut sanguine and iron notes underscoring the lengthy finish, which has solid, racy grip.

"The winemaking isn't changing much," says François. "The most change is in the vineyards, switching to sustainable farming mainly as we are now working organically, but not certified. I want to hold out just in case of a very difficult year like 2002, should I need to keep the vines healthy. But in years like 2015 and 2016 and it's easy, we are organic."

"2016 was very hot and dry, so I was a little concerned about having wines like 2003. But the nights were cool, which was the main difference," he says. "And some rain in early September, right before harvest, stopped the alcohol from racing ahead. That helped save the vintage. 2015 is fresher, lower alcohol and better acidity. 2016 is richer, sexier, more expressive. I'm not sure if it will be the long aging one though. I think I prefer 2015 overall even though 2016 is showing better now. It's a great comparison with 2009 and 2010 for example."

The 2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, just bottled, is very expressive, with bright juniper and bay notes leaping out, backed by juicy red and black currant fruit, a hint of damson plum and then lots of white pepper, lavender, iron and tobacco lining the finish.

It would seem the kids are all right …

Follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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