A New Wave in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

James Molesworth
Posted: September 30, 2008

The Southern Rhône dodged the '07 bullet. While most of France's wine regions dealt with a cool, wet harvest, Châteauneuf-du-Pape had dry, sunny weather. Some vintners saw a rare opportunity and took a risk, gambling on the good weather that persisted through the month of September to advance a new wave of wine.


I spent two weeks traveling up and down the Rhône Valley in late June, stopping in Châteauneuf to visit more than a dozen estates along the way. One theme emerged clearly: The 2007 vintage played right into the hands of the growing number of vignerons in the appellation who are crafting powerful wines built on Grenache grapes harvested at extreme levels of ripeness.


In 2007, when most Châteauneuf growers decided the grapes were ripe enough to pick, these new-wave vigne-rons waited. Some domaines harvested their Grenache during the first half of September, but most of the new-wave vignerons brought in their fruit at the end of the month—not only exotically ripe Grenache, often exceeding 16 degrees of potential alcohol, but amazingly lush Mourvèdre and Cinsault.


This new style has gained more than just a foothold. The new-wave group counts among its number the domaines La Barroche, St.-Préfert, -Olivier Hillaire, Giraud and Vacheron-Pouizin; most also enlist the services of popular consultant Philippe Cambie.


There are dissenters, including some of the appellation's "elite": Daniel Brunier of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Lucien Michel of Le Vieux Donjon and Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes. Their wines do not lack ripeness, but they avoid the extreme of 16 degrees or more. They are concerned that the new wave might be forsaking terroir in favor of maximum up-front appeal.


But some traditionalists are joining the team, such as Vincent Maurel of Clos St.-Jean. Maurel changed his domaine's philosophy in the 2003 vintage, and now his wines showcase ripe fruit and velvety texture. When I asked him why he had changed, Maurel was matter-of-fact: "I tasted my wine along with all these others [from the new wave], and it was obvious. I used to champion the traditional style, but then I realized change was needed," he said.


As the new-wave vignerons develop and hone their style, they can trace their viticultural practices back to Henri Bonneau, one of the appellation's staunch old-timers. Over the years, Bonneau's methods—late harvesting of extremely ripe grapes, as well as extremely low yields and noninterventionist winemaking—have been respected but rarely duplicated by other vignerons. But these ideas have now become the mantra for the new wave.


The parallels aren't exact, of course. Bonneau uses stems during fermentation; the new wave for the most part does not. Avril and Michel still age their wine predominantly in foudres, while the new wave often uses a range of vessel sizes, including barrels and demi-muids. There are crosscutting currents; no one has a monopoly on how to make great wines.


But when I taste the Les Petits Pieds d'Armand cuvée from Olivier Hillaire, it's like Bonneau's Réserve des Célestins brought into more vivid focus. When I drink the Domaine du Caillou Les Quartz bottling from Domaine Vacheron-Pouizin, it's like Bonneau's Marie Beurrier cuvée but with even more precision. To my palate, the new-wave vignerons are not forsaking tradition or terroir; they're finding new ways to express them.


Perhaps no wine demonstrates this relationship better than Ferrando's '07 Auguste Favier Réserve cuvée. The wine's natural yeast was nearly choking on the wine's sugar in June as it slowly worked its way through its alcoholic fermentation (though its malolactic had already finished). If one simply looks at the numbers—over 17 percent alcohol and potentially a slightly higher-than-normal amount of residual sugar—it's a freak of a wine embraceable only by hedonists. But wine is more than numbers.


"Grenache is ripe at 16," says Marie Giraud of Domaine Giraud. "When we check for ripeness, we taste first, because if we used a refractometer first [to check potential alcohol], we would say, 'Whoa, let's pick at 15 or 15.5.' But the balance is there [at 16]."


And Ferrando's Auguste Favier and Giraud's Les Gallimardes cuvée from '07 are seamless. Powerful, yes. But pure, driven and expressive of both fruit and Châteauneuf's unique terroir.


With the 2007 vintage, a unique convergence of vintage, terroir and winemaker occurred in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A new generation of vignerons saw a rare opportunity and seized it—and the vintage may be defined by their success.


Senior editor James Molesworth has been with Wine Spectator since 1997.


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