Today's schedule was for a quartet of some the appellation’s most consistent and distinguished producers, starting with an early morning visit with Vincent Avril at Clos des Papes. Construction on the collapsed cellar wall and new cellar continues here. “Another year I think,” sighs Avril wistfully. “Then the investment is done.”
Considering the disruption in the cellar for the last year, the quality control and consistency here is amazing. Following on the heels of the classic 2003 and 2004 bottlings, Avril has another beauty in the works in 2005, due to be shipped to the U.S. in another few months. The wine, which was just recently bottled, is still very open and showing beautifully, with a gorgeous crème de cassis aroma followed by a racy and super fresh palate of plum, cassis, anise and raspberry, all perfectly woven with supple tannins and a long, minerally finish. It’s combination of power and finesse is really impressive, and since I first tasted it, I continue to lean towards this being the best of the recent trio of vintages.
We also tasted an approximate assemblage of the ’06, still resting in foudre with a color that is one of the darkest I’ve seen so far for the vintage. It also has intense, sappy fig and currant fruit and impressive structure. It’s early, but Avril may have managed to greatly surpass the norm with his ’06, as the vintage looks to be more in the mold of ’99 and ’04—delicious, balanced and forward, but without the density of the best years (like ’05, ’01 and ’98).
No slouch here is the white, which is far too often overlooked. (Check out the vertical I tasted here last time I visited). The ’05 (which is in the marketplace) is very focused, with lots of acacia, honeysuckle and white peach aromas, and an oily texture but bright finish. The 2006, which is looking like a terrific vintage for the whites is a step above; bottled in April, it offers grapeseed oil, pear eau de vie and acacia notes on a super rich frame.
Next stop was just up the street (though the construction that spills out from Clos des Papes into the street makes the 2-minute walk a 10-minute drive) at Domaine de Beaurenard, where brothers Daniel and Frédéric Coulon run the show.
There’s a full lineup of wines produced here, including a refreshing rosé and bright white Côtes du Rhône bottling, along with some impressive Côtes du Rhône-Villages wines bottled from the emerging terroir around the village of Rasteau. The top wines are two red Châteauneufs—the normal bottling and an old vine cuvée called Boisrenard. Both offer complex aromas, with the domaine’s typical mocha, blue fruit and exotic spice profile. The normal cuvée is well-built with a long graphite finish—easily outstanding—while the Boisrenard offers additional fruitcake, mulled spice and blueberry ganache notes, and could be the best version since the estate’s exceptional ’01.
We also toured the Coulon’s vineyards in Rasteau, which are perfectly situated on rolling hills of rocky soils featuring a full southern exposure. The Coulons bought their 25 hectares here in 1980 and at first just bottled the wine as Côtes du Rhône before they eventually felt comfortable enough to bottle it as Côtes du Rhône-Villages. If you want textbook red Rhône profile, with a dash of modern spice, then search these wines out.
|The rolling hills and picturesque vineyards of Rasteau|
On a side note, for those who travel off the beaten path into the various villages that make up the Côtes du Rhône-Villages (Séguret, Cairanne, Rasteau, Roaix, etc)—you should stop in at Le Tourne au Verre for lunch. Located in the center of Cairanne, this wine bar and bistro offers delicious food at ridiculously easy prices (13 euros for a three-course lunch) as well as a great little wine list, loaded not only with Côtes du Rhône-Villages from the local producers (Gramenon, Delubac and more) but an extensive list of Châteauneuf and Languedoc-Roussillon wines as well.
Meanwhile, back in the working world, I stopped in to see Daniel Brunier at Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe (and La Roquète and Domaine Les Pallières). Though not as hot a wine as some of the small batch luxury cuvées that have proliferated in Châteauneuf in recent years, Brunier’s Vieux Télégraphe continues to be a blue chip for the cellar. Both the ’03 and ’04 were outstanding, and the ’05 is in the same league. Not yet bottled, but with the final assemblage resting in foudre, the wine is tightly drawn with iron and mineral notes leading the way for a rock-solid core of currant and black cherry fruit. It has serious grip on the finish, but gives an encore of purple fruit too. With its gravelly feel, though, patience will be required: it’s not as hard as the ’98, but is built for the long haul nonetheless.
Brunier also continues to focus on his Domaine La Roquète bottlings, which number two since the ’04 vintage. A regular cuvée, bottled in May, offers sweet berry fruit and supple texture with a peppery finish, while the Domaine La Roquète L’Accent cuvée, produced from this separate estate’s (it is not a second wine of Vieux Télégraphe) old vines in the Les Pialons lieux-dit is very pure and focused, with elegant structure, and fine sinewy tannins carrying plum and currant fruit.
My final stop was at the northern end of the appellation at Château de Beaucastel. Tasting here is always fun—and not just for the obvious reasons. The owners the Perrin family always provide me with Châteauneuf Vintage 101, allowing me to taste through a number of the individual grapes that are vinified separately before they begin to assemble the final wine (which always includes all 13 permitted grape varieties). Of the red varieties, we tasted the 2006 Cinsault (silky, spicy), Counoise (white pepper, sinew), Grenache (blackberry, cocoa, mineral ), Syrah (violets, grip) and Mourvèdre (fig, juicy and suave) before making a hypothetical blend. It’s far too early to comment on the wine in depth, but generally speaking, as with Clos des Papes, the quality bar is higher here than for most others in this vintage.
As for the 2005, which was bottled in May, it’s remarkably long and supple for a young Beaucastel, with superbly integrated structure carrying generous layers of black fruit, licorice and tar. Well-rounded but with ample grip, it easily surpasses the ’03 and rivals the exceptional ’04. The 2005 Hommage à Jacques Perrin Grande Cuvée, the estate’s luxury cuvée produced from 70 percent Mourvèdre along with Grenache, Counoise and Syrah, is a monstrous wine. Set to be bottled within days, there will be 4,000 bottles of this laser-like focused beast with fig compote, blackberry ganache, loamy tannins and super rich chocolate and licorice filled finish to chase after.
The good old boys—the Coulons, Avrils, Bruniers and Perrins—quietly represent the current leadership in Châteauneuf. They are both respectful competitors and friends and consistent sources of some of the appellation’s most cellarable wines.
The day started with nice weather, but turned grey and rainy in the afternoon: Gigondas apparently got hit hard with rain while a steady drizzle fell in Châteauneuf into the early evening. After several drought-influenced vintages though, no one is fretting some early season rains.
As for tomorrow, I’ll be seeing a mix of young and established domaines...