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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The Rhône, Day 3: Only Five Today

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 2, 2009 11:06am ET

Mother Nature is showing off a wonderful yin-yang these past two days. The air is brisk and cool and the smell of the chauffage, or burning of old vines in the vineyards, fills the air. Winter hasn't let go yet, but the almond trees have flowered and the sun has turned bright and strong, warming my face. Spring is just around the corner.

Nothing helps clear a jet-lagged mind like a 9:00 a.m. visit with the irrepressible Laurence Féraud at Domaine de Pégaü. She drives the 50 meters from her house down to the office to meet me, with a flurry of construction activity all around as the cellars are being expanded. Her equally garrulous and affable father, Paul, is dealing with the driver of a large delivery truck that’s arrived to pick up a few palates of wine, and everything seems to be happening at once. Féraud leaves me with a lineup of her Sélection Laurence Féraud wines while she dashes off to finish some paperwork. (I've been making regular visits here for several years now, so you can reference background via my 2003/2004 Cellar Notes as well as the 2004/2005 Cellar Notes, and searching back through previous blog entries.)

The house wine here, bottled under screw cap, is the Vin de Table Français Plan Pégau, labeled as Lot 2007 to indicate the vintage which can't officially be on the label of a Vin de Table Français level wine. The blend includes half fruit from Pégaü vineyards and half fruit sourced from Costières de Nîmes and is a kitchen sink blend of 50 percent Grenache along with Syrah, Merlot, Alicante, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and more. It’s a friendly, soft, forward wine with lots of herb, black cherry and lavender notes followed by a peppery finish.

The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret 2007 is sourced from a single grower, as are all the AOC wines in the Sélection Laurence Féraud lineup. The wines are vinified by the individual growers and then bottled and labeled at the Costières et Soleil facility in Nîmes. The blend of 90 percent Grenache along with Syrah offers racy licorice and raspberry flavors with a touch of garrigue on the juicy finish.

In contrast, the Gigondas 2007 (80/15/5 Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) is much blacker in profile, with lots of olive and tobacco notes and a big, mouthfilling finish. It, along with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 (80/15/5 Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah), offers potentially outstanding quality. The latter shows the gorgeous kirsch and licorice profile of the vintage with a whiff of lavender and solid grip on the finish. Féraud explained as she came back with a stack of papers to sign for the delivery, “I just put my name on the label to help them sell the wine, but I am not a négoce.” (Féraud is also a partner with André-Brunel in the Féraud-Brunel line of wines, which I detailed in my previous blog entry).

As for the Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée 2007, the house style of vivid purple and black fruit laced with brick dust, blood orange, lavender and tobacco is fully evident, with the fruit amplified by the generosity of the vintage. The foudre Féraud draws a sample from is showing serious grip and is rather tight today, but the pieces are in place. This is typically one of the latest releases from the appellation—the wine will not be bottled until September.

“In 1990 we didn’t realize the quality that we had at the time,” said Féraud, comparing the young 2007 to the vintage she thinks it most resembles. “But now, we realize,” she added with a smile.

Trophy hunters will be happy to hear that the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée da Capo will be produced in 2007, the first time since the 2003 vintage. This single foudre cuvée looks to be a major step up from the Réservée in ’07, unlike previous years ('98, '00, '03) where I found the quality difference minimal. The wine is extremely expressive right now, with mouthwatering purple, black and blue fruits mixed with hoisin sauce, lavender and mineral notes that all rumble through a dynamic, lengthy finish. While the Cuvée Réservée 2007 is just flirting with classic quality in ’07, the Cuvée da Capo is clearly among the elite wines of the vintage.

Féraud’s longtime partner, Mark Fincham, continues to produce his own Costières de Nîmes bottling as well. The Red Note Costières de Nîmes 2007, a blend of equal parts Syrah and Grenache, is open knit, with delicious red berry fruit woven with herb and tobacco notes and backed by a dusty finish. Bottled under screw cap, it always delivers good, gutsy value at its $20 price point.

***

From the ebullient Féraud I drove the short distance down to Clos des Papes, where the reserved, mild-mannered Vincent Avril produces one of the appellation’s reference-point wines. The final blend of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 is set to be done this week before its eventual bottling in May. As usual, Avril led me through a tasting of the various foudres, which always contain a majority of Grenache, mixed with differing amounts of Syrah and Mourvèdre (as well as the other varieties). There is little introduction needed for Clos des Papes as this domaine has garnered some impressive accolades here in recent vintages. You can reference background in previous cellar notes both here and here.

After tasting the individual foudres, an approximate blend is then made, which never fails to provide a dramatic example of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The wine should again be a rival for top honors in the vintage, with crème de cassis, blood orange, incense and plum sauce notes held together in a dense core and backed by an incredibly long, supple finish. It’s as stunning a combination of power and purity as you can find in the wine world. Avril has managed to harness the forward, exuberant fruit of the 2007 vintage to a classic, fine-grained structure that most of the 2007s do not possess. The wine is big, with the 15.5 percent alcohol typical of many 2007 reds, but it's totally seamless, with marvelous elegance.

“I’m not looking for 15.5,” said Avril. “But sometimes you have to wait longer for full maturity. The same thing happened in 1990.”

There has been some confusion among consumers as to whether there are various bottlings of the Clos des Papes. There are not. All of the production is bottled over a four-day period. The wines are labeled with serial numbers, however, that Avril uses to keep track of shipments to various markets, to make sure his distributors aren’t sending wine to secondary markets and jeopardizing the wines’ storage conditions.

We also retasted the Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2007 (which I officially rated 95 points in the Oct. 31, 2008, issue). It’s arguably the appellation’s best white wine (Beaucastel might have something to say about that) delivering invigorating minerality along with a panoply of anise, green plum, chamomile and white peach flavors. The wine has a track record for aging beautifully over a decade, turning into a cross of a mature Mosel Riesling and a Meursault, with additional petrol, macadamia nut and candied citrus peel notes. Once again, the best whites from Châteauneuf-du-Pape are probably the best white wines you’re not drinking.

***

Across the street is Domaine de Beaurenard, where some of the good old boys of the appellation, brothers Daniel and Frédéric Coulon produce both superb red and white bottlings. Previous cellar note entries can be found here and here for this domaine, which combines old fashion hard work (some parcels are still plowed by horse) with a dash of modernity (some new oak) to create distinctive wines.

Two overlooked bottlings are the domaine’s Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau 2007 and Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau Cuvée Les Argiles Bleues 2007. The former, a blend of 80 percent Grenache with Syrah, shows delightful blueberry and raspberry fruit, with a fresh, spice box-filled finish. The latter (made from the same 80/20 Grenache/Syrah mix) is sourced from 45-year-old vines on blue clay soils and delivers its typical blueberry cobbler aroma, along with Linzer torte, cocoa and graphite notes and a long, stylish finish. Both are potentially outstanding.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 has been blended and is awaiting its mis. It’s fine-grained and elegant for the vintage, with red, black and purple fruits laid over a mouthwatering graphite note. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Boisrenard 2007 is the domaine’s top cuvée, sourced from the Coulons' oldest vines. The blend has almost been finalized and is slated to be bottled in May. It shows the flashy spice and inviting mocha aromatics it’s known for, but it has already completely absorbed its oak (it is aged in barrel, 20 percent of which is new oak).

“The ’07 married with the oak right away,” said Frédéric.

The wine shows gorgeous mouthfeel, along with Turkish coffee, date bread, currant paste and warm fig sauce notes. It should rival the estate’s sublime 2001 for top honors in the history of the cuvée, which debuted in 1990.

***

In the afternoon, it was time for a new face, as I made my first visit to the cellar of Raymond Usseglio, which is now run by Stéphane Usseglio. This domaine has had the typical rise of many Châteauneuf-du-Pape domaines: Stéphane's grandfather immigrated to the area in the 1930s and bought the family's initial holdings. His father, Raymond, initially sold his production to négociants and then eventually began bottling the domaine's own production in the early 1970s. Now Stéphane is charged with going to the next level. He has been working at the domaine since 1997, and was on his own beginning with the '99 vintage.

The domaine totals 23 hectares (19 in Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and currently produces about 40,000 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape annually, sending 20 percent to the U.S. market.

Well-situated Grenache vines in the Les Girardettes parcel provide fruit for the Cuvée Impériale of Domaine Raymond Usseglio.
The younger Usseglio produces a straight Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 that is not made for the U.S. market, though it may appear from time to time. It’s sappy, with lots of pepper and licorice. Made from a blend of 75 percent Grenache, along with 10 percent Mourvèdre and 5 percent Syrah, the grapes are destemmed entirely and fermented in cement vat before aging in foudre, all traditional techniques.

The 2007 blends here are final and are set to be bottled in the next few weeks. Among the cuvées produced expressly for the U.S. market is the potentially outstanding Châteauneuf-du-Pape Girard 2007, made from 75 percent Grenache with 15 percent Mourvèdre and the rest Syrah and Counoise. It’s very pure and racy, with a great beam of black currant fruit laced with pepper and hot stone notes backed by a sweet, pliant finish that really gains steam (8,000 bottles made). The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Impériale 2007 is made from 90 percent Grenache with a mix of the other allowed varieties sourced from the domaine’s oldest vines planted in 1901 and 1902 on sandy soils in the Courthézon sector of the appellation. The two parcels are well-situated, neighboring vines used for Domaine Giraud’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Grenaches de Pierre and Olivier Hillaire’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Petits Pieds d'Armand cuvées. It could prove to be one of the sleepers of the vintage, as it delivers a very primal, pure expression of raspberry and crème de cassis along with bittersweet ganache, coffee and graphite notes. It’s rich, but isn’t tiring at all to drink, with captivating mouthfeel.

A new cuvée has been added in the 2007 vintage as well—the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Part des Anges 2007 is 70 percent Mourvèdre along with 20 percent Grenache and 10 percent Syrah. The Mourvèdre was aged in barrel, half of which is new, and the resulting blend is a big, strapping wine loaded with melted licorice, Christmas pudding and warm fig sauce notes. It has a pure and creamy mouthfeel despite its obvious heft. Mesquite and charcoal notes ripple through the finish, which has also completely absorbed its oak. As with most artisanal expressions of winemaking, this new cuvée was produced in a small amount—there were just 2,600 bottles made.

“2007 is very concentrated, like 2005,” said Usseglio. “But without that salty minerality. It’s sweeter in the mouth. The alcohol is high, yes, but it’s integrated. That’s the balance of the vintage.”

Though quite young, Usseglio is producing a rapidly improving portfolio of wines that should not be overlooked. As with the next domaine on my schedule, quality here has outpaced the domaine's actual reputation with most consumers, so there may still be time to build a vertical of this domaine’s wines without breaking the bank.

***

Finishing off the day, I checked in with the young, engaging Philippe Bravay at Domaine de Ferrand, one of the up-and-coming estates in the appellation. You can reference background from a 2007 visit here, as well as my initial profile on the domaine.

Bravay’s estate is located on the northern edge of the appellation, tucked down a side road with only a small sign. It all belies the quality of the wines, though it fits Bravay’s go-it-alone reputation.

“It’s taken him 10 years to find out what he wants to do and how to do it,” said one vigneron I spoke to. “But he has done it all by himself, without consultants or anything else.”

This estate really "popped" qualitatively in 2004, and the 2007s in the works here should continue the upward trend.

The Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Antique Vieilles Vignes 2007 was bottled in November and is set for an April release. The 90 percent Grenache blend with Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and others, offers lots of olive, sage, briar and blood orange notes with a sappy finish that lets a hint of anise linger. Only 200 cases are sent to the U.S. annually, but this is worth tracking down: It has outstanding quality, terrific regional character and an approximate $20 price point.

The main wine here though is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007. Just the single cuvée here, no small-lot, single-vineyard wines for Bravay. Since 2003 he has destemmed his fruit entirely and the wines often show a very primal, sleek profile when young, though they put on weight as they age. (Bravay notes his vats often have noticeable CO2, which he feels protects the wines from taking on any oxidative aromas or flavors). The current vintage will be blended formally in May and bottled in June. An approximate blend shows a wide range of red and black fruits along with intriguing mesquite, briar, plum, anise and black tea notes and a lingering hint of sweet Provençal tapenade. The wine has great drive and looks to be the best vintage yet for this quietly surging domaine, with potentially classic quality.

For every Pégaü, Clos de Papes and Beaurenard—domaine that have deservedly won their fame—there are other domaines such as Raymond Usseglio and Domaine de Ferrand that are quietly producing stellar wines. Those consumers who are willing to go off the beaten track and eschew name recognition will be well-served, particularly in a vintage as impressive from top to bottom as 2007.

Eric Yates
Geneve, Switzerland —  March 2, 2009 12:07pm ET
James - the blog is making hard to wait for these wines to be bottle and shipped to market. While visiting CdP in spring of 2007 a local wine merchant suggested we try Raymond Usseglio as a value purchase. Do you have any plans to visit Domaine Paul Autard? He is making a new wine which he is very excited about.
Mark Reinman
NJ —  March 2, 2009 3:26pm ET
Hi again, James-- thank you very much for the detailed notes! Your blog always marries my two great passions: wine and travel! If you ever need someone to tote your luggage on one of these trips, you'll never be at a loss for volunteers! But don't tell me that you missed out on the Usseglios' Mon Aieul?! I was looking forward to reading your impressions... Enjoy the rest of your trip (as I go out to shovel a freaking foot of fresh snow)!
James Molesworth
March 2, 2009 4:45pm ET
Eric: Unfortunately I am not seeing Jean-Paul Autard this trip - lovely guy though. A review of his new Juline cuvee, made from equal parts Grenache and Syrah and made entirely in new oak, ran back in the Dec. 15, 2008 issue. This domaine quietly produces some excellent wines, though they do mature a little sooner than most others. Both the ¿98 and ¿00 are super delicious right now. The Cotes du Rhone has been an excellent value for several vintages...

Mark: Perhaps you're confusing the Usseglios? Pierre Usseglio makes the Mon Aieul cuvee. Raymond Usseglio, detailed above, is a different domaine. I have tasted and reported on Pierre Usseglio before...

FYI, I don't visit the same exact domaines each and every time through the region, but rather rotate in different ones for each trip...
Mark Reinman
NJ —  March 2, 2009 6:15pm ET
Indeed I was! Apologies for my lapse in attention and thanks for the clarification. I'm looking forward to reading about the rest of your travels.
David Smith
Austin, TX —  March 2, 2009 8:07pm ET
Can I suggest that you schedule Domaine Roche Audran and Domaine Fond Croze for future visits. Some really neat Cotes du Rhone that were surprising to me last time I was in the area. Roche Audran is totally biodynamic.
Connie Allen
Columbus, Ohio —  March 3, 2009 10:06am ET
David,How did you find out about Roche-Audran? I import a few of his wines to the U.S.. Vincent Rochette (the owner) is working very hard to produce better and better wines. He is organic and biodynamic, but will not be able to label the wines as such until the 2008 vintage. If you would like to learn more about Vincent you can go to www.uewines.com.Best regards,Patrick
James Molesworth
March 3, 2009 12:43pm ET
David: Thanks for the tips. The domaines I visit are always predicated on what I taste in the office first however, and I haven't gotten any Roche-Audran wines in a while (and never any Fond Croze)...hopefully in the future they will start sending samples, as I have an open door policy for samples...
Connie Allen
Columbus, Ohio —  March 4, 2009 10:09am ET
James,My apologies, I will send samples of Roche-Audran to you as soon as we receive Vincent's the new vintage. Best regards, Patrick
James Molesworth
March 4, 2009 12:38pm ET
Patrick/Connie: Thanks for the samples - please contact Alison in the NY tasting department first however, to get the details on how/where to send the wines...
David Smith
Austin, TX —  March 4, 2009 12:56pm ET
James I will make sure you receive samples of the others as soon as new vintages come in. For years Fond Croze has sold their juice off to the coops or negociants, but over last several years has moved to domaine bottling. They still sell to one of the big names in the Cotes du Rhone. Tasting there the first time reminded me a bit of my feeling the first time I tasted at Martinelles and saying, where did these people come from.
James Molesworth
March 4, 2009 12:59pm ET
David: Thanks - and ditto to please contact Alison in the NY tasting department for the details...Yes, there are lots of growers with good vines who sell their juice to co-ops. Making the break to domaine bottle seems easy, but isn't, however...

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