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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The Rhône, Day 4: From North to South, and Back Again in Châteauneuf

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 3, 2009 10:56am ET

I think there's a famous quote that goes: Woe unto he who cries "Hold, enough Châteauneuf!" … or something like that. Anyway, another five visits today before heading out into some of the Southern Rhône's other appellations.

The mistral was really kicking up its heels today, particularly over the northern sector of the appellation, where I began my day with a visit to Mas de Boislauzon, a domaine that has been quietly turning up the quality dial in recent vintages. The estate is run by the brother-and-sister team of Daniel and Christine Chaussy, who are the fourth generation to work the family’s vines. Daniel started at the domaine in 1990, taking over from his mother; Christine joined to help run the business in 1998.

The domaine consists of 26 hectares, nine of which are in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the rest in Côtes du Rhône), with the estate’s vines planted mostly on the clay/sandy soils that dominate the northern portion. Most of the estate’s vines are 50 years old, with some ranging up to 90 years of age.

The Chaussy family produces about 80,000 bottles annually, and send about 25 percent to the U.S. market. The reds are produced in a traditional manner, with fermentation and aging in cement vats, though the fruit is now destemmed entirely (since the 2006 vintage).

“I thought it was a good idea for that style of vintage,” said Daniel Chaussy about the destemmer he purchased in 2006. “And I liked the results so much, I kept using it.”

The Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2007, made from a 70/20/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre is a dynamite value, clocking in at around $15. It’s very silky, with tasty blackberry fruit and a lively mineral edge on the finish.

All the 2007 Châteauneufs have been blended and are set for bottling over the next few weeks. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 (80/10/10 Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) offers very inviting blackberry fruit, with hints of charcoal and loam on the broad, rich finish. The flavors define both wines from the northern area of Châteauneuf, as well as the house style here.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée du Quet 2007 (pronounced "kay," Quet is the old place name for the estate’s location) is made from a blend of 80 percent Grenache and the rest Mourvèdre, the favored variety for Chaussy. It’s dark and loamy, with lots of bittersweet ganache, Turkish coffee, graphite and roasted fig notes that glide through a broad, supple finish.

“In the northern sector you have deep clay soils, with lots of moisture—the ideal soils for Mourvèdre,” said Chaussy. “I adore the grape.”

To that end, Chaussy has added a new cuvée that debuted in the 2006 vintage. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tintot Spécial Cuvée 2007 carries the old Provencal name for Mourvèdre and is made entirely from the variety, sourced from a single parcel of 80-year-old vines. The wine is fermented in cement vat and then aged in a range of used barrels, resulting in a powerful wine loaded with dark plum and black currant fruit, loam, cocoa and graphite notes. It’s remarkably lush considering its ample muscle. Both it and the Cuvée du Quet are at the upper end of the outstanding range, and this domaine merits keeping an eye on.

***

After that, I got caught up on the latest at Félicien Diffonty & Fils, where the young husband-and-wife team of Jean-Marc and Karine Diffonty hold sway. This is another domaine that I initially profiled in my cover story on the appellation a few years back.

It had been a few years since my first visit here, and the feisty Karine, a regular jogging partner of Laurence Féraud, was anxious for me to see some of the changes at the estate. The cuverie has been expanded and new rows of stainless steel tanks are now in place—tanks of varying sizes so that various parcels can be fermented separately. Fruit is destemmed entirely now and there’s less élevage in barrel, as the Diffontys are now aiming for a racier, more mineral-driven style of wine.

“I like wood,” said Karine. “Just not that much.”

In addition, the labels have been updated, with a cleaner, more modern style, a trend these days in the appellation. (I hope Le Vieux Donjon and Clos des Papes never change their labels however!)

There’s a delicious Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2007, with an ample 40,000 bottles produced. A blend of 80 percent Grenache with the rest Syrah, it’s vinified in cement vats and gets a short eight- to 12-month élevage before bottling. It’s full of bright red berry and spice notes, with a pleasantly firm, minerally finish and offers potentially outstanding quality in this vintage.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée du Vatican 2007 is blended and ready for bottling. The blend of 85 percent Grenache, 10 percent Syrah and the rest Mourvèdre and Cinsault offers very racy raspberry and Linzer notes, with additional floral and spice hints. The percentage of Mourvèdre (previously 8 percent to 10 percent) has been reduced here, in favor of the top cuvée, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée du Vatican Sixtine Réserve 2007. Sourced from the estate’s oldest vines in three different parcels, including the La Crau and Rayas lieux-dits, the wine was fermented entirely in stainless steel for the first time this vintage. It’s very racy and still tightly wound (particularly for the vintage) with raspberry ganache, red licorice and spice notes enlivened by fresh minerality. It’s got great drive on the finish, and shows far less of the overt mocha and fruitcake aromatics of previous vintages. It should rival the superb 2003 and 2005 vintages here.

Karine asked me if I had tasted older vintages from the estate and was incredulous when I related my experience with the 1998 and 1990. She dashed off and returned two minutes later with a bottle of the 1959, a classic, fully mature wine made in the traditional style (all stems, all varieties cofermented) that now shows toffee, truffle, sandalwood, sautéed ceps, bitter cocoa and cedar aromas and flavors, but with a remarkably supple, elegant texture, with hints of date and dried currant lingering on the long, saline-tinged finish. I love history lessons.

***

A short drive down to the southern edge of town and out into the dusty Quartier des Serres, you come across Domaine St.-Préfert / Domaine Ferrando, the two domaines owned and run by Isabel Ferrando. Following her debut in the 2003 vintage, Ferrando has been producing some of the most compelling wines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and when I visited here last year, the 2007s were, at the time, among the most thrilling young reds I had ever tasted. Initial background can be found here and here, as well.

The 2007 cuvées here have fully rounded into form following their long, slow ferments, though the Colombis and Charles Giraud are not yet bottled.

From the Domaine Ferrando side of the operation (the domaines are separate to deal with the oppressive tax regulations in France), the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Colombis 2007 is a 100 percent Grenache cuvée that combines fruit from both sandy (Colombis) and clay (Les Roues) parcels. There are 7,000 bottles made of this forward, flattering, juicy offering loaded with gorgeous Linzer and blueberry flavors laid over plenty of bass notes of fig and coffee that all stay velvety and creamy through the superlong finish. It’s aimed directly at the hedonist crowd, and flirts with classic quality.

These old Grenache vines were purchased by Isabel Ferrando, who will divide the fruit between her Domaine St.-Préfert and Domaine Ferrando labels.
From the Domaine St.-Préfert side, the basic Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 now totals 12,000 bottles as production grows steadily. Ferrando has regained control of some parcels she rented out after her initial purchase in 2003, while additional vineyards have been rejuvenated and dead vines replaced. The blend of 80 percent Grenache along with Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvèdre was bottled in December and offers a textbook introduction to the house style: silky raspberry, pepper and shiso leaf notes with a long, supple finish.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Auguste Favier Réserve 2007 was bottled in January, not long after it finally finished its long, very slow ferment. Numbers-wise, it’s a bit of a freak: 16.2 percent alcohol and 3.5 grams per liter of residual sugar, which comes off as dry in feel because of the alcohol. The 80/20 Grenache and Cinsault cuvée flaunts the explosive fruit of the vintage, with captivating raspberry and boysenberry notes, but its all offset by pepper, black tea and sweet tapenade notes. Echoes of Linzer and lavender ripple through the finish and the velvety mouthfeel is simply jaw-dropping.

Set to be bottled in April is the massive Châteauneuf-du-Pape Collection Charles Giraud 2007, a wine that continues to put on weight each time I taste it. There are only 7,000 bottles of this 60/40 Grenache/Mourvèdre blend, which offers stunning depth and purity, with crème de cassis, black Mission fig, Turkish coffee, graphite and mulled blackberry notes all allied to a superdense but creamy palate. While it carries obvious power, it does so without being top heavy, as the formidable tannins are completely embedded in the core of fruit. A mineral twinge extends the finish, as if any more length were possible. This cuvée should give the Clos des Papes a run for its money for honors of top wine in the vintage.

“2005 is for the collector—you have to wait for it,” said Ferrando, echoing similar comments of the town’s vignerons. “But 2007 is perfect because it is agreeable now, but you can also wait for it too.”

The top two St.-Préfert reds here are among the most compelling wines I’ve tasted from the appellation since I began covering the region. I hate to make such statements before the wines are fully in the marketplace for fear of contributing to any financial speculation on the wines—the worst side of the wine business. And in addition, it’s hard to recommend that anyone buy futures these days considering the economic environment. But Ferrando’s bottlings aren’t in the upper echelon of Châteauneuf in terms of price, ranging from $45 to $70 a bottle. So if you’re going to make an exception…

On a side note, the Domaine St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2008 is also a beauty. The 80/20 Clairette/Roussanne blend is entirely barrel fermented, though does not go through its malolactic. Sourced from 50- and 70-year-old vines, it delivers Jonagold apple, Cavaillon melon and heather notes followed by intense minerality. Easily outstanding, and approaching the quality of the whites from Clos des Papes, Beaucastel, Vacheron-Pouizin and Beaurenard. It is set for release this April.

***

My afternoon slate of visits started with a stop at Domaine Bois de Boursan, an estate that produces wines stylistically the opposite of Domaine St.-Préfert, but no less exciting. For rugged, ageworthy wines with superdistinctive character, this estate is hard to beat. For more background on the estate and vigneron Jean-Paul Versino, reference my previous entries both here and here.

Jean-Paul Versino doesn’t look as if he will ever age—it must be in the wine. Versino expresses the combination of concerns and hopes running through the village. The economic crisis is front page here too, and many vignerons are worried about selling their wines to the U.S. market, the top market for Châteauneuf-du-Pape in recent years. But on the plus side, they know they have a strong vintage in 2007, unlike the rest of France, and the euro has slowly slid back down to more manageable levels against the dollar.

Consistently outstanding, and no less so in 2007, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 is produced from its typical blend of two-thirds Grenache along with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Counoise. The wine shows its telltale pepper, cedar, tobacco and brick dust notes along with a core of macerated black currant fruit and plenty of forceful grip. But along with its rusticity, there’s racy acidity for balance. The wine is slated to be bottled in July.

“In comparison, it’s like 1990,” said Versino of the vintage. “There’s lots of material, structure, but it’s also accessible now too.”

In a year defined by the long, constant mistral at the end of the season, which concentrated the wines, the structure is not overt—the tannins are supple and already integrated, and I ask Versino how that can be. Mistral-influenced years usually show prominent grip and backbone.

“Because of the slightly higher yields in ’07 than ’05 for example,” he said. “The same thing happened in ’98 and then 2000. Both years were very similar, except 2000 had a slightly bigger crop, and the wines were richer in feel and stayed open.”

So could that possibly be a problem for the ’07s?

“Has it been a problem for the 2000s?” asked Versino rhetorically.

The domaine’s limited-production cuvée is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée des Felix 2007, made from Grenache, a hefty 25 percent Mourvèdre and small amounts of Syrah and others. It’s a big, brawny wine, with roasted fig, braised beef, chestnut, aged tobacco and loam notes, along with concentrated currant paste fruit. It shows superb concentration though, with the rugged back end almost absorbed already and a long saline twinge on the finish boding for the minerality that should blossom with cellaring. Potentially classic, and a worthy rival to this estate’s 1998 and 2001 versions.

While little changes at Bois de Boursan, one new cuvée has been produced in 2007. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Baud 2007 is made from an 80/10/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, without any Counoise or Cinsault. The grapes were destemmed entirely—the first time ever for Versino to try this technique—and the wine was aged in a single 400-liter new oak barrel and some in cement tank. There are just 1,500 bottles of this "very modern" wine, Versino called it with a chuckle, and it shows the vintage’s typical juicy raspberry and blackberry fruit with notes of fruit cake, black tea and racy acidity. It shows what a dramatic shift in style, but not necessarily quality, can be made with a simple tweak in the cellar, such as destemming. When I ask him why he has finally caved into making such a wine, he said it’s for the future.

“With global warming, the area is seeing warmer and drier years which can make tannins change, and so the use of stems might need to change,” he said.

Considering his fountain-of-youth looks, my guess is Versino will be here to see for himself just how much of an effect global warming has.

***

From the southern end of town, I then made the 15-minute drive up to its northern limit, where the flagship Château de Beaucastel stands almost alone amidst its large vineyard in the Coudoulet sector. As usual, initial background can be found here and here for this estate, owned by the Perrin family that also operates the large, value-priced but quality-oriented Perrin & Fils négociant business.

"It’s my obsession to make wines that age,” said Marc Perrin, who joined his cousins, father and uncle in running both wineries.



The Perrin & Fils lineup is particularly strong in 2007, and with 250 hectares of vines under their control (they own more than 200 of them, and manage the viticulture in the rest), this operation has quietly become Guigal-esque for both is breadth and quality of offerings.



The Vinsobres Les Cornuds 2007 is a blend of equal parts Grenache and Syrah, far more Syrah than is typically used in the Châteauneuf cuvées. From a more northerly appellation and at an altitude a few hundreds meter higher than Châteauneuf, this cool spot in the Southern Rhône produces very racy, violet, graphite-filled Syrah that the Perrins particularly like. The family now owns 40 hectares of vines in Vinsobres, which was recently elevated to its own appellation. In the accompanying videos, Perrin shows us an underground aquifer built during ancient Roman times that funnels water to the Les Cornuds area of Vinsobres, in addition to explaining what makes the Vinsobres area unique.

The Vacqueyras Les Christins 2007 (75/25 Grenache/Syrah) is very expressive, with ripe, forward purple fruits and a fresh, silky finish. In contrast, the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Peyre Blanche 2007 (60 percent Grenache with equal parts Syrah and Mourvèdre) shows a darker profile, with blackberry and mesquite notes and very suave finish.

“The winemaking is the same for all the wines,” said Perrin. "So we have to choose vineyards for their style instead.”

The Gigondas La Gille 2007 (85/15 Grenache/Syrah) offers lots of pepper, sage, blackberry and black tea notes with a long, perfumy finish.

In addition to their burgeoning holdings in Vinsobres, the Perrins have steadily increased their presence in Gigondas, where they recently purchased the Domaine des Tourelles, which includes a clos of old vines located just below the town itself. The vineyards are being reverted to organic viticulture, dead vines replaced and the cellar refurbished – a process that will take time. But a sample of the 2008, the first vintage vinified by the Perrins, bucks the trend of this lighter-bodied vintage to display racy black cherry and currant fruit with a long, minerally finish.

Finally, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Sinards 2007 (it and the Gigondas are the only two ‘07s not yet bottled) is sourced from both young vine Beaucastel vines (15 years or younger) as well as additional leased plots within the appellation.

“So it’s not a second wine of Beaucastel at all,” said Perrin, “As there is a lot of fruit from outside Beaucastel in the wine.”

It shows the racy raspberry and spice cake notes of the vintage with a fresh, open-knit finish, and like the rest of the lineup, is potentially outstanding.

In the constant quest to appreciate the diversity of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one is always dealing with the various terroirs—sand, rolled stones, clay and limestone. In doing so, however, you have to be careful not to overlook the individual roles that each of the 13 different grape varieties can ultimately play in the final blend. At Beaucastel, that is always a lesson well taught, for the Perrins vinify the varieties separately and blend them late: Even on this visit, the 2007 has not yet been assembled, and I was able to taste through component parts that have had over a year’s worth of élevage.

Tastings at Beaucastel can take a while. Good thing there's plenty of stock.
Among the various varieties waiting to be blended, the Counoise variety is notable for its white pepper and expressive aromatics . It typically makes up about 8 percent of the final blend for the Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007. The Grenache component (30 percent) is nearly oversized, with intense black and purple fruits, but a restrained mouthfeel. The Syrah (10 percent maximum) is very dark and a touch reduced today, with a good beefy edge lurking. The Mourvèdre however is truly stunning, and should ultimately define the blend (it typically comprises 30 percent of the final wine). It’s loaded with bittersweet ganache and Linzer notes, along with fig paste and mulled currant fruit and has enough length and intensity to nearly be bottled alone.

Because of the high quality of the vintage, there is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape Hommage à Jacques Perrin Grande Cuvée 2007 in the works. The Mourvèdre-based cuvée (70 percent) will rely heavily on fruit from the Courrieux parcel located in front of the winery. With braised fig, black tea and Valrhona chocolate notes laid over an incredibly dense but supple frame, it should easily provide classic quality and be among the stars of this extremely flattering-styled vintage.

If Perrin’s obsession is to make wines that age, he and his family will have hit the mark in 2007.

Eric Yates
Geneve, Switzerland —  March 3, 2009 4:22pm ET
James, will you be exploring Lirac on this trip? I have found good value and ready to drink wines as I wait for my 2004 and 2005 CdPs to age. Thanks again for the time and detail of your daily blog. Hopefully you are enjoy a glass or two while you are typing the daily blog. Have you found any new dining treats?
William Keene
North Carolina —  March 3, 2009 5:03pm ET
James,

Like others, I have been enjoying the blog. Thanks for working so hard to put this together. St. Prefert sounds great as usual. You turned me on to them with the '03 vintage. I usually don't enjoy a lot of the more "modern" cuvees, but I always find the Saint Prefert wines very enjoyable. I am looking forward to trying them.

By the way, are you headed to Gigondas and Vacqueyras on this trip?
James Molesworth
March 4, 2009 3:05am ET
Eric: No Lirac this trip - I hit Lirac my last time in the area. Check past blog entries for visits to Lafond and Mordoree.

It's not quite all work - in truffle season, one must eat at La Beaugraviere once. I'll be checking out La Cachette in Valence later this week - it just got one star in the new Michelin...

Auberge de la Feniere, where Reine Sammet is the chef, is also excellent. Located down in Lourmouran...

William: Stay tuned - more from Gigondas and Vacqueyras coming...
John Wise
milwaukee, wi —  March 4, 2009 8:56am ET
no visit to La Nethe? I thought Alain Dugas was considered one of the top Cndp prducers?
Dorothy Thornton
Atlanta Georgia —  March 4, 2009 10:44am ET
You have got to stop by Le Grand Pre in RoaixPhone Number: +33 4 90 46 18 12you will LOVE it
James Molesworth
March 4, 2009 12:36pm ET
John: Yes, La Nerthe is a top producer - but it's impossible to visit everyone, every time. I have visited there before, you can reference previous trip/blog posts.

Dorothy: Yes, I know Le Grand Pre - Flora and Raoul Reichrath do a great job. We profiled them back in the Chateauneuf cover story a couple of years back.
Johnny Bisgaard
March 20, 2009 4:43pm ET
Hi JamesWhen can we expect to see your ratings for all the 2007? I'm placing orders with the usual suspects, but would off cause like to read your ratings before closing the book.
James Molesworth
March 20, 2009 9:05pm ET
Johnny: There are reviews of nearly 250 '07 Rhones already available in the online database, though most are whites and lesser red appellations such as Cotes du Rhone, etc. I only provide reviews based on tasting finished, bottled wines in blind tastings, so there are quite a few '07s still to come through the office tasting room this spring and fall. Producers and their importers typically send the wines just ahead of their official release into the marketplace...

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