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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The Rhône, Day 2: A Half-Dozen Châteauneuf-du-Pape Estates

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 27, 2009 3:43pm ET

Time to roll up the sleeves.

First stop was Le Vieux Donjon, the family-run estate that takes a rather subtle approach to its signage.

The Michel family—Lucien, Marie-Joseph and daughter, Claire—is currently in charge at Le Vieux Donjon, a domaine familiar to many of you. Both their 1998 and 2005 vintages placed highly in our annual Top 100 listings, and you can reference an earlier profile on the Michels from my cover story on Châteauneuf, as well as a first look at the 2006 and 2007 vintages during a visit in June of last year.

 
There's only a modest marketing budget at Le Vieux Donjon.  
The final blend for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 now sits in tank, waiting to be bottled at the end of March. It’s a typical blend of 75 percent Grenache along with 10 percent each of Syrah and Mourvèdre with the rest Cinsault. The Michels kept about 50 percent stems in 2007, normal for this estate. The wine is very expressive, with the domaine’s telltale juniper and blackberry aromas leaping from the glass, followed by a very supple texture, with juicy pepper, plum cake and mineral notes. The wine shows admirable precision already and is almost flattering in style, particularly for this estate, which usually produces a briary, rather backward (when young) grip-filled version.

Marie-Joseph likens the ’07 to the ’85 vintage, for its agreeable nature and forward fruit. And when I ask her if it has the cellaring potential of a vintage like ’05, she gives a casual shrug as if to say, “We’ll see.”

***

André Brunel, whom I first visited in June of 2007, is now working out of the same former apple-canning facility just south of town that Olivier Hillaire uses. Brunel has been making wine since 1972 and he enlisted the services of the popular consultant Philippe Cambie in 1999, though the wines have always maintained a distinct personality, as do all the wines of Cambie’s top clients.

The lineup up here is growing slowly, as Brunel purchased a 45-hectare estate in Trevallon in 2005. Included in that purchase were some parcels of old-vine Grenache which provide the fruit for the André Brunel Grenache Vin de Pays de Vaucluse 2007, a deliciously juicy, black fruit- and pepper-filled wine that would be an ideal house wine for any Rhône lover. Brunel crops the vines to just 45 hectoliters per hectare, ridiculously low for a Vin de Pays designation, and he bemoans the fact that it costs .65 euros just for the empty bottle and cork, and then importers try to bargain him down to just 1 euro per bottle for the wine itself. There was an ample 12,000 cases made of the wine. Here’s hoping it does in fact make its way to the U.S. market at a fair price for both consumer and producer.

The André Brunel Côtes du Rhône 2007 blends fruit from both the east and west sides of the valley. “The sandy soils in the Gard provide finesse while the gravel in the Vaucluse produces bigger wines,” explained Brunel about the wine (labeled Est-Ouest in non-U.S. markets). “So it’s interesting to blend the two together." The Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault blend is lush and silky, with lots of blackberry and spice flavors and shows potentially outstanding quality despite the modest appellation designation, a sign of a great vintage.

A step up is the André Brunel Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Sommelongue 2007, a blend of 90 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah, sourced from old vines just south of the village of Massif d’Uchaux. It’s very black in profile, but ultraracy and fresh, with mouthwatering minerality extending the finish. The André Brunel Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cuvée Sabrine 2007 could top the outstanding 2005 version (rated 91 points in the Nov. 30, 2008, issue). Made from 70 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah, it’s sourced from the Trevallon property, and offers dark licorice snap and roasted plum notes with a long, graphite-filled finish.

Brunel also partners with the dynamic Laurence Féraud of Domaine de Pégaü to produce the Féraud-Brunel line of wines. The project, started in 2000, has steadily improved, and typically produces big, strapping wines. The Féraud-Brunel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 should rival the exceptional ‘05/’06 duo (both rated 92 points). The final blend is finished, with bottling set for late March. Made in a traditional style, with no destemming and aging in foudre, the Grenache-Mourvèdre blend is beefy and dense, with lots of blackberry and raspberry notes offset by a strong, chewy, long finish.

Brunel’s own estate has also turned in a strong showing in 2007. The Lucien & André Brunel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Cailloux 2007 rivals the ’05 version (rated 93 points) and could perhaps surpass it, as it offers stunning purity, with aromas and flavors of distilled kirsch fruit, black pepper and spice bread all held together by a great buried, minerally spine. The domaine’s luxury cuvée, sourced from its oldest Grenache vines is also among the best ever produced at the estate. The Lucien & André Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Cailloux Cuvée Centenaire 2007 offers layers of crème de cassis, black tea, sandalwood and mineral notes, with a long, iron-filled, but supersilky finish. It offers that rare trait of Grenache that combines both impressive power with admirable finesse. It offers classic level quality and should rival the 2005 and 1998 vintages.

Brunel’s wines seem particularly fresh in recent vintages, a shift Brunel says is the result of a slow and steady drop in the percentage of stems used during the vinification, from 60 percent or more during the latter part of the 1990s to only 20 percent in recent years. In 2007, the two Les Cailloux bottlings are particularly flattering and forward in personality, without sacrificing depth or cellaring potential.

“2007 is low in acidity,” said Brunel, seeming to sound a note of caution. “But so was 1990. It had expressive fruit and a forward personality at first too,” he added with a wink.

***

Domaine Giraud is one of the new, young guns in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The sister-and-brother team of Marie and François Giraud have taken over farming the family vines, and with the help of consultant Philippe Cambie, this domaine is quickly on the rise. You can reference the initial background on the domaine from my visit in June of last year.

There was an ample 2,100 cases produced of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition 2007 (65 percent Grenache with 30 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvèdre), which offers a high-toned, floral nose backed by red cherry fruit and a juicy, garrigue-filled finish. There are just 250 cases of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Gallimardes 2007 (90 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah) and it is one of the bigger wines of the vintage, clocking in at 15.5 percent alcohol. But it offers a seamless and surprisingly vivid fig, raspberry and blackberry profile, all laced with spice, violet and incense notes. It’s packed but racy, with a terrific graphite underpinning coursing through the finish. It should spend the next two decades evolving alongside its dramatically different brother, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Grenaches de Pierre 2007, made from pure, old-vine Grenache (350 cases made). It’s tighter today than the Gallimardes, but no less intense, with silky blueberry fruit, raspberry ganache, plum sauce, black forest cake and bittersweet cocoa notes. It’s more muscular than the Gallimardes and just a shade longer on the finish, but that’s splitting hairs between two wines that show potentially classic potential.

When I mention I find some similarities between the Gallimardes cuvée and the Vieilles Vignes bottling from Domaine de Marcoux, Marie’s father smiles before explaining—the vineyards are next to each other, the Giraud and Armenier (of Marcoux) families are related, and the two domaines were in fact one before being separated in the early 1970s.

If you like ripe, powerfully rendered wines, these are well worth tracking down. Quality here has jumped dramatically since the 2005 vintage, with the 2007 portfolio easily the best yet. The buzz around town for Domaine Giraud is justified.

***

Owned and run by brothers Vincent and Pascal Maurel, Clos St.-Jean made a drastic shift in style and philosophy starting with the 2003 vintage, changes which really took hold in the 2006 and 2007 vintages, which I first previewed here. This estate is another of Cambie's clients, though once again, the wines have a distinctive personality, rather than any similar overriding characteristic.

Tasting with Pascal and Cambie, we started with a quick preview of the 2008 vintage, a far more difficult year than 2007. Yields are down 20 percent at Clos St.-Jean in 2008 and with the variable quality of the harvest, the estate is still undecided as to whether they will produce a Deus Ex Machina cuvée or not. Various vat samples of 2008 Grenache showed the snappy, floral, red fruit profile of the vintage, with one sample in particular (likely destined for the La Combe de Fous bottling) showing impressive black licorice and anise notes. Despite the vintage's difficulties, 2008 here is promising, though it's still far too early to make the call on 2008.

As for 2007 however, the call is as easy to make as on a fastball down the middle: There are five superb 2007 reds, four of which could possibly wind up as classics. All are finished and await their bottling at the end of March, with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 cuvée slated first to get the mis. This clearly outstanding blend of 75 percent Grenache with 15 percent Syrah and the rest Cinsault, Vaccarèse and Mourvèdre shows textbook blackberry and cherry fruit with a very succulent mouthfeel. Pepper and licorice notes build through the finish, with nice latent grip. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes 2007 is the first of the potential classics, a cuvée made expressly for the domaine’s U.S. importer. This is the cuvée to aim for if you don’t want to bother with trophy hunting for the next three. It’s lush but focused, with gorgeous blackberry fruit, black forest cake and licorice notes followed by a long, mouthwatering, graphite-filled finish. Made from 85 percent Grenache, with decreasing percentages of Syrah, Cinsault, Vaccarèse and Mourvèdre, the wine showcases both the house style and profile of the vintage—silky and flattering, with superb purity.

A new cuvée enters the mix in the 2007, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Sanctus Sanctorum 2007 will be bottled only in magnum format, and there is just a single demi-muid worth of production of this 100 percent Grenache wine, made to satisfy the request for a Grenache-only cuvée from the estate’s U.S. importer. Though I'd normally be leery of such an idea (I'd prefer vineyards do the decision making, rather than the marketing side) it looks to be a very good idea: The wine is stunning, with plum sauce, melted licorice and mulled blackberry fruit allied to a silky frame. While it beguiles now, there’s a huge core of black fruit in reserve with great latent grip. Rivaling it is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Combe des Fous 2007, made from 50 percent Grenache, 30 percent Syrah and the rest equal parts Vaccarèse and Cinsault. The Syrah in this blend is aged in barrel; the other varieties in cement vat prior to blending. The final result is a wine that delivers intense Campari-like bitter cherry fruit, with additional blood orange, incense and mineral notes that turn ever more muscular on the finish. In contrast, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Deus Ex Machina 2007 is all power now, from start to finish. The 60 percent Grenache, 40 percent Mourvèdre bottling should evolve into one of the stars of the vintage, and it has managed to put on even more weight following my tasting last June. It stands apart from the crowd with its dense core of black Mission fig, Lapsang Souchong tea and blackberry ganache notes, while the velvety tannins let it all sail through the lengthy finish. It’s a massive young wine that delivers both hedonistic and intellectual pleasure.

It's been a meteoric rise since this estate's shift in 2003. While some might want to question the dramatic shift, I think after tasting the wines, far more people will ask, "What took so long?"

***

Located in the northern edge of the appellation, Domaine Charvin continues to quietly produce some of the most perfumed and stylish wines under the guidance of the current generation, namely Laurent Charvin. For background you can reference both the 2003/2004 Cellar Notes and 2004/2005 Cellar Notes from some of my previous visits.

The thoughtful Charvin admits he’s finally given up trying to resist the "Burgundy style" label that everyone keeps tagging him with. It took the 2007 vintage to do it.

“It could be too rich,” he said, half-jokingly about the wine. “But it’s soft and elegant too. I hope it’s my style,” he added with a wry smile.

Set to be bottled in June, the final blend of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 is the domaine’s typical mix of 85 percent Grenache along with 5 percent each of Mourvèdre, Vaccarèse and Syrah. It has the richness of the vintage, but is very stylish, with pepper, red licorice and floral notes followed by tangy minerality that really drives the finish. It’s the most Rayas-like wine I’ve tasted outside of that famed domaine’s wines, and it also demonstrates Grenache’s unique trick of putting on additional weight and darkening in color as it airs in the glass.

“2007 was easy to work with during the élevage and big from the beginning,” said Charvin. “The only surprise is the elegance. It’s funny because 2005, 2006 and 2007 are all very similar analytically—tannins, and so forth—but the ’07 is clearly more drinkable now.”

But can the wine be drinkable and a worthy vin de garde at the same time?

“Oh yes,” said Charvin ermphatically. “Because of the balance.”

It’s a vintage that plays into Charvin’s hands—fruit with eleganct structure—and the wine should rival this young estate’s sublime 2001.

In addition, bargain hunters shouldn’t overlook the Côtes du Rhône Le Poutet 2007, a Grenache, Syrah Carignan blend that delivers fresh red and black cherry fruit followed by a snappy, bright finish. Yields here were a little higher than in previous vintages, without sacrificing quality, and so there is an ample 5,400 cases made of the wine, which typically retails for about $20. It's a prime example of the "other" Southern Rhône that I always recommend readers to explore, past the boundaries of the big names of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

***

Olivier Hillaire struck out on his own after Domaine des Relagnes (where he worked for many years) was sold in 2006. But he's no rookie. Hillaire, 50, has been making wine since 1979. Today he makes some of the most electric, racy, intense wines in the appellation. Background on the domaine can be found here.

With his ruggedly handsome looks, Hillaire has taken a fair amount of ribbing since I started calling him the James Bond of Châteauneuf (he’s a dead ringer for Daniel Craig). “More Danielle, than Craig," said one vigneron, who shall remain nameless for his own protection, as Hillaire is rather fit and looks as if he could still star for the local rugby team.

This is a tiny domaine, but those who have been frustrated in the search for its wines will be happy to hear that production of the estate's basic Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottling will nearly double in 2008, from 11,000 bottles to 20,000 bottles, as Hillaire added two more hectares to his holdings, prime old Grenache vines in the Les Escondudes parcel located in the southeastern edge of the appellation.

"What a great name," said Hillaire of the spot, emphasizing the last syllable, "dudes," with a fake California accent.

The clearly outstanding Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 was bottled in November, and it has all the trappings of the vintage—a hefty 15.6 percent alcohol seamlessly absorbed by extremely flattering, creamy raspberry and blackberry fruit. Additional spice and incense notes echo through the long, juicy finish. Always a step up is Hillaire’s single-vineyard cuvée, sourced from his oldest Grenache vines. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Petits Pieds d'Armand 2007 was bottled just last week and it tips the scales at an eye-opening 16.8 percent, which elicits a chuckle from Hillaire when he gives the number. You’d be hard pressed to ever guess it, considering how streamlined and pure the wine is, with fig, blueberry and boysenberry fruit coursing from start to finish, while mesquite and tar notes weave through the saturated finish. If only production of this wine (currently 3,000 bottles) had doubled!

When I ask him to compare the flattering 2007s versus the grip-filled 2005s, Hillaire said, “For 2005, you have to enjoy it either very young or very old. But with 2007, you will enjoy it all along. And the polyphenols and tannins are the same in the analysis as 2005 so, yes, it is a vin de garde.”

As at many domaines, there is also an exceptionally good Côtes du Rhône bottling. Hillaire’s Côtes du Rhône Vieilles Vignes 2007 (made from 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent Syrah) is superjuicy, with briar and fig cake notes backed by a long sappy finish. At under $20, it’s an outstanding value.

Hillaire is another client of Philippe Cambie, so yes, there is a recurring theme in that regard. From Giraud to Clos St.-Jean to Hillaire, many of Cambie’s clients have made rapid progress qualitatively. But the results in the bottle are more than just the result of a few vinification tricks.

“Stainless steel tanks, barrels, stems or no stems … these just are details in the cellar,” said Hillaire, animatedly. “But you can’t make good wine without the vineyards.”

“Look at all these domaines,” he said referring to Cambie’s client list. “Then go look at the vineyards. That’s why they are making great wines."

Tony Wood
Brighton U.K. —  February 27, 2009 6:16pm ET
Hi James, What a great blog, the way you unfold your passion andprofound love of these Rhone domaines is a joy to the reader and a credit to your profession. Today I purchased Clos St. Jean Ex Machina 2007 and sometime in the future will toast your good health.
Hans Vinding-diers
Patagonia —  March 1, 2009 8:34am ET
Hi James, I totally agree with Tony, what a super blog this is, now, that is what I call proper reporting!Being a producer, I thrive on valuable information like this.....and your passion is unquestionnable.Skoll.

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