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A Week in the Rhône: Part 2

A journey of discovery reveals a memorably diverse region

Kim Marcus
Posted: December 12, 2005

In early November, I found a window of opportunity in my work schedule to spend a week in the Rhône on a journey of discovery. As I have become more and more enamored of the gutsy and pure flavors of its dominant red grape, Syrah, as well as other local stars such as Grenache and Viognier, I have looked forward to visiting this diverse region, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south to the Côte-Rôtie in the north. It was a memorable trip. —K.M.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape: How a 1929 Was Saved From Nazi Looting

The next morning, Molesworth rolled up in a hatchback budget Mercedes, a sort of Smart car on steroids. He was rubbing his hands in anticipation of a retrospective tasting of 1995 Châteauneuf-du-Pape he had arranged. The man was on a mission. The local vintners had supplied the wines, and there were about two dozen bottlings in front of us. Usually, Molesworth can whip through a flight pretty quickly, but this tasting would be different.

We didn't taste the wines blind; instead, we took our notes and scores in silence and then compared them. Our favorites included: Château Rayas, lush and structured; Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe La Crau, notable for its hickory smoke flavors; Le Vieux Donjon, big and silky; and Château de Beaucastel's Hommage à Jacques Perrin, with intense beef bouillon notes. All but a few of the wines showed outstanding to classic quality (90-100 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale). I have tasted a few Châteauneufs in my day, but not enough, and these wines were a real eye-opener. Lively and still fresh, as well as structured and full of layers of flavor, many have decades more ahead of them. (See 1995 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Retrospective.)

Châteauneuf stands at a unique place in the world of wine, given that its vintners can utilize up to 13 different grape varieties. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Counoise, as well as more obscure varieties, all play their role in the Châteauneuf equation. Châteauneuf provides a complexity of flavors that are distinctive and ageworthy in a world too dominated by varietal bottlings.

We spent almost two-and-a-half hours tasting the '95s, savoring them, making sure we didn't miss any of their nuances. As a result, we had only the afternoon left to explore Châteauneuf, but a quick visit was better than none at all. I had always visualized Châteauneuf as being situated on a plain next to the Rhône, flat and undifferentiated. But as we left Le Pontet and headed north, Châteauneuf quickly appeared as a small plateau, with a gentle slope all the way around. No wonder the district has a wealth of terroirs—each slope provides a different exposure.

We followed the signs to the estate of Roger Sabon, which is somewhat easier said than done. That's because there is not one Sabon but two in Châteauneuf. It's a common situation in many French wine regions that, after centuries of winemaking and the Napoleonic code, there can be many different vintners sharing the same last name. (The other Sabon family owns Domaine de la Janasse, which also makes excellent wines.)

Sabon welcomed us in his pleasant tasting room. Slight of build and with trimmed gray hair, he seemed to take real pleasure in our company. "Do you want to visit the vineyards?" he asked. It was music to my ears. It may sound sacrilegious, but I view most wineries as engineering constructs meant to house a collection of barrels, tanks, vats, hoses, bottling lines, cooling ducts and, of course, computers. Instead, it's the land that counts more for me in the end—its topography and fertility, drainage and exposure, as well as the cultivation methods employed in the vineyards. Sabon owns several parcels scattered throughout Châteauneuf and he took us to one of the most fascinating—a tiny parcel in a small gulch that featured a slick, clay-based soil.

Sabon took obvious pride in the vines (mostly Grenache); he said they were 100 years old, planted in the traditional manner without trellising. They grew from their own roots, meaning they lacked the American rootstocks that are resistant to the deadly phylloxera root louse. "Look, these are some of my best vines, and they survived phylloxera," Sabon said as he parted the leaves and munched on some berries left by the harvest crew. I was skeptical, but held my tongue. The origin of the phylloxera infestation that destroyed most of the vineyards of Europe in the 19th century has been traced to the village of Roquemaure, located just a few miles down the Rhône, so I considered the tale apocryphal. Still, these vines did indeed look quite old. Sabon credited their longevity to their isolation, in this relatively remote site surrounded by scrubby oaks and underbrush.

Leaving Sabon, we passed through the small village of Châteauneuf on our way to Domaine de Beaurenard, overseen by affable brothers Daniel and Frédéric Coulon. We started out with a tasting of their '04 white Châteauneuf, a delicious spicy white blend made mostly from Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Roussanne grapes. White wines account for less than 10 percent of Châteauneuf's production, so this was a rare bird indeed. I am increasingly drawn to high quality whites, such as the Coulons', from the south of France for their rich flavors and solid structures.

The Coulons proceeded to pour a mini-vertical of their red Châteauneufs. We started with the 2004, which had just been bottled (a little closed, but very silky) and worked our way backward. We were soon to the '85 (still lively and vibrant after 20 years), and they ended by pulling out a mystery bottle, its vintage hidden by a layer of cellar dust and grime. Once opened, it was in fine shape, with aromas and flavors of mineral, black fruits and just a hint of asphalt. My first guess was 1959, and the Coulons said no, but the wine was from a ripe year like '59. Molesworth then guessed '55, and then I said '45, with Molesworth backtracking to '47. No, it was still older than that, the Coulons said.

We threw in the towel. So what vintage was it? 1929. An amazing wine, still full of life and flavor. It had been saved from Nazi looting by the Coulons' father, who built a brick wall in the cellar to hide the wines. "I haven't drunk this for 10 years, and I want to thank you," Daniel said with a broad grin. "I hope our '03 [special Boisrenard cuvée] will age as long as the '29," he added. Later that night I called my mother in San Francisco to tell her I had drunk a wine from her birth year, and it was aging gracefully, just like her.

I thought she would thank me for the compliment, but instead I was asked, "Can you get me a bottle?"

"No, Mother, I don't think that would be possible," I chuckled.

Read Part 3 of Kim Marcus' journey through the Rhône. For more on the region, see also:

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