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Day 2: Sticking to Their Guns

Jean-Paul Versino, Laurent Charvin and Jean-Paul Daumen don't change much, but make some of Châteauneuf's most distinct wines
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 1, 2011 1:42pm ET

Time to roll up the sleeves and get busy. I was able to partially shake the jet lag, thanks to the adrenaline of a busy day's schedule in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, starting with a quirky rental car and a visit to Tour St.-Michel. Today's program included stops at three vignerons with staunchly traditional winemaking methods in their own right, who each rely on different areas of the appellation and different key varieties to craft their unique styles.

Domaine Bois de Boursan

First up, make just a hard left and hard right after entering Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the route de Sourgues and you come to Domaine Bois de Boursan, where Jean-Paul Versino makes some of the appellation's most peppery, garrigue-filled reds. I make a semi-regular visit here, so you can reference my blog notes from my March 2009 visit, as well as complete reviews on Versino's wines.

Versino is traditional in that he rarely destems fruit and never uses new oak, aging his wine in large foudres. With 27 parcels covering 16 hectares of vines, Versino is also the prototypical small domaine that relies on blending various terroirs, though the wines are always marked by the grippy, peppery Mourvèdre and Counoise grapes that buttress the fleshy Grenache.

Versino's 2011 harvest was still going through the malolactic fermentation, so the wines were not presented. But he noted that while he's happy with the results at his end, he has seen some considerable heterogeneity throughout the appellation.

"In '11 we had a little rain mid-July, mid-August and then early September, but every time followed by mistral, so there were no problems there," said Versino. "But the wines can really vary in alcohol depending on when you picked your Grenache. You could've picked into early October because the fruit was so clean, or you could've picked earlier. I've seen alcohols ranging from 13.5 to 16. It's a very variable vintage in that regard."

As for the 2010s, Versino seems to have captured the vintage's distinctly racy character, starting first with his oft-overlooked white. The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White is a blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Bourboulenc with its malolactic blocked. Bottled in March, it delivers crunchy green fig, honeysuckle and stone notes. Versino noted that he likes his white either very young, or after eight to 10 years of cellaring, when "the minerality of the Clairette and Bourboulenc comes out, sometimes with a hint of petrol."

Versino recently switched U.S. importers, not uncommon for small domaines that struggle for a consistent presence in the marketplace, even when they offer high quality.

"It was surprising though, because we noticed sales dropped with the '07 vintage, which was rather well-received in the U.S.," said Versino. "I could understand if it was the '08, but '07?"

For the reds, the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape was drawn from four different foudres to approximate the final blend, which combines 70 percent Grenache with 10 percent each of Mourvèdre and Syrah and the rest Counoise and Cinsault. It delivers Versino's telltale peppery note, along with lots of hot stone, garrigue and mulled black cherry fruit all offset nicely by fresh, racy acidity on the finish. It's set to be bottled in September 2012 and there will be an ample 37,000 bottles made.

"2010 is a vintage of acidity," said Versino. "The alcohols are more moderate and more consistent [than '11]. It's elegant and rich at the same time. It's similar to '01 in style, but the '10 has a little more richness."

The old-vine cuvée, sourced from 80-year-old-plus vines, is the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée des Felix, of which there are only about 5,000 bottles made. A blend of 60 percent Grenache with a hefty 25 percent Mourvèdre and the rest Syrah and others, it too has a pronounced tobacco, pepper and stony spine, but more flesh, denser layers of dark currant and fig fruit and a distinctive chestnut note on the finish. Offering potentially classic quality, it also has a track record for being one of the longer-lived wines in the appellation.

Because of a slightly longer élevage than most vignerons in the appellation, Versino's wines are always released late, and the 2009s are just now getting to market. The 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is sappier in feel than its 2010 counterpart, with more up-front flesh to its core of red and black currant fruit and licorice notes, though the pepper and iron hints flash in the background. It's a touch fatter in feel, but not quite as long as the 2009, a quality mirrored in the 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée des Felix, which has lots of dark fig, currant and blackberry fruit laced with notes of cherry pit, tobacco and mineral. It shows a very racy edge though, that belies the general easygoing feel of the 2009s.

"The Mourvèdre really kept the acidity well in '09 and it shows in the Felix," said Versino. Both '09s, in contrast to the '10s, provide a textbook example of a domaine maintaining a consistent house style, while allowing the vintage to leave its own mark as well; Versino doesn't change, just the vintages.

***

Lunch is now no longer as easy in Châteauneuf-du-Pape as it used to be, when Frédéric Albar ran La Mère Germaine, the centrally located bistro that was always bubbling with vignerons and tourists, good if simple food and a cellar deep in the appellation's best wines. Following a rent hike, Albar closed up, and the lunchtime heart of town was dormant for over a year. It has since been reopened, but the wine cellar is no longer there (scooped up by the Perrin family and taken to their top-flight restaurant L'Oustalet in Gigondas). Locals are giving mixed reviews on the food as well, with the kitchen already undergoing chef changes since the May reopening. I didn't have the heart to risk a disappointing experience there, so I headed over to Château des Fines Roches for lunch. While the atmosphere is much more sedate—almost too tranquil, with tiny dining rooms set amidst shelves of books—the food is quite good. A starter of roasted mushrooms and poached egg highlighted autumn's earthy fungal bounty perfectly, while a fillet of cod coated with crumbled pistachio was an ideal match with a white Châteauneuf from the estate's own production.

Domaine Charvin

Following lunch, I headed up to the northern edge of the appellation, driving through the Plateau de Mont-Redon and down the winding dirt road to Laurent Charvin's domaine.

As at chez Versino, Charvin changes little himself, while the vintages leave their mark. Here, the key grape is Vaccarèse, a bright, acid driven grape rarely used by others; Charvin has about five percent in his blend. Charvin's domaine also has sandier soil terroirs defining his cuvées, with the wines showing more perfume, minerality and elegance, as opposed to the peppery muscle of Versino and his Mourvèdre- and Counoise-driven wines.

I've visited here several times, so for more background you can reference my most recent blog notes from February 2009, along with a list of reviews on the wines.

Charvin also tends to blend late, so even his 2010 Côtes du Rhône Le Poutet has yet to be assembled. For tasting, Charvin drew from four vats, each with a majority of Grenache, but varying amounts of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Vaccarèse, vinified separately depending on the maturity of the parcels and/or their vine age. The first, from a precocious parcel, was dark and sappy, with a surprisingly fleshy and forward personality (Charvin's wines tend to be more reticent when young). I asked if there had been any changes, but Charvin just cracked a wry smile, before nodding his head "No. There is nothing different but the '10 vintage itself. You'll see as we taste more," he said.

It didn't take long to see what Charvin was hinting at. The additional vats of the Côtes du Rhône showed progressively more depth and character, with invigorating bitter cherry, tobacco and mineral notes. After blending samples from the four vats to approximate what the final wine will be, it showed a mouthwatering frame with a core of enticing red and black fruits and a long, structured finish that will merit some cellaring, an exception to the majority of wines from this basic appellation.

"The 2010 vintage was so easy," said Charvin, almost bubbling with mirth. "Not too hot, not too dry, not too cold. It really was perfect, with one exception. The coulure on the Grenache was the most severe in 10 years, so the yields are rather small."

To sample the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Charvin drew wine from two lots, the first featuring mostly Grenache with 10 percent Syrah sourced from rolled stone (galets) terroir. It's tightly focused, with gorgeous cassis and pepper notes and a lip-smacking finish. The second lot blends 80 percent Grenache with Vaccarèse and Mourvèdre, delivering stunning pastis, violet and blackberry pâté de fruit notes allied to a terrifically racy spine. The wine is dense and layered with copious fruit—the purists who have come to love Charvin for his perfumy style might be taken aback a bit at first if they tasted this today, but don't fear: The wine's drive and mineral-infused finish is there. It's bigger than usual, but racier as well. Translation: The 2010 might just be Laurent Charvin's best vintage yet, in a league with his sensational 2001.

"There's fruit and structure in the '10, but in the end, the acidity pulls it along. 2010 is a vintage with tension. It's not '07. I like tension in a wine," said Charvin. "In comparison, the alcohol is about the same between '07, '09, '10 and '11. The difference is that '07 has less acidity and tannins, so you feel the alcohol more. In the other vintages, the balance is better. And the '10 in particular, well...," said Charvin, letting his words trail off as he broke into his mirthful grin again.

Domaine de la Vieille Julienne

Equally distinctive, yet in another completely different style from Versino and Charvin, are the wines of Jean-Paul Daumen. Just over a kilometer from Charvin and still on the northern edge of the appellation, Daumen's domaine is situated on the north-facing terraces that sit on the back side of the Mont-Redon plateau, with a majority of the vines on clay soils that deliver more purple fruit, fleshy mouthfeel and denser finishes than his colleague's wines from earlier in my day.

Now back in the U.S. market after a brief hiatus from changing importers, Daumen has not changed his vinification in recent years—he destems, uses cement vats and continues to farm his vineyards biodynamically. This was my first visit here since 2006, when I profiled Daumen in my cover story on Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

But there have been some changes in the wines themselves: Daumen still produces his hen's teeth Réservé bottling from a single plot of his oldest vines. But the Vieilles Vignes bottling has been phased into a new bottling called Les Sources, though it still draws on the same principal parcels it always has. In addition, Daumen's regular bottling, which relied on fruit from parcels in the Cabrières and Boislauzon sectors that flank the heart of his domaine's holdings, has been shifted over to be part of a new lineup under a different label, as Daumen develops a new portfolio of wines from several different appellations starting in the 2010 vintage.

"I don't want to change style," said Daumen of the changes he has made. "Any change should be in the vineyards, not the winery. I just wanted to get the domaine back to the heart of what my grandfather and father planted here, around the lieu-dit of Clavin. That's why I moved my Cabrières and Boislauzon parcels to the new line, along with some purchased grapes from growers who are working organically."

For the new lineup, likely to be labeled as just Jean-Paul Daumen, there is a 2010 Vin des Pays de Principauté d'Orange made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which offers dust-tinged mixed berry fruit and anise flavors with a light tobacco note on the finish.

"It's a wine without pretension," said Daumen, matter-of-factly.

The 2010 Côtes du Rhône, made from Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre begins to display the house style here, with a rounded feel and delicious blackberry and cherry fruit held together by a sleek plum skin note.

Cinsault is Daumen's preferred grape to accent the dominant Grenache, a varietal that he likes for its "pure fruit and freshness", before adding "but you must have ow yields, of 30 hectoliters per hectare or less. That's when you get the freshness and complexity to offset the flesh of the Grenache," he said.

The 2010 Lirac is very sleek, with gorgeous boysenberry and pastis notes and a lovely supple finish. Daumen likes Lirac for its terroir, similar to Châteauneuf, but without the name recognition that brings added expense.

"Lirac is not a vin de garde, but the flavors are very similar to Châteauneuf. It's a way to introduce people to the wines of the region." he said.

Daumen also has a 2010 Gigondas in the works, which is sourced from a mix of vines on both the clay soil plateau below and limestone terraces above the town itself. With 10 percent Cinsault combined with 70 percent Grenache and 10 percent Syrah, it cuts a broad swath on the palate, with mouthfilling Linzer, blackberry paste and fig fruit and a long, creamy finish that is rather polished for the appellation.

"This is new for me," said Daumen with a slight shrug at his Gigondas. "Bringing in grapes from 20 kilometers away and a new terroir. Lirac is similar to Châteauneuf but Gigondas is totally different."

Using estate grapes, Daumen now bottles his 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape under his new hybrid négoce/estate label. It combines the racy acidity of the Cabrières parcel with the plump, muscular blue and black fruits of Boislauzon parcel to provide a textbook, outstanding Châteauneuf. Interestingly, the differing parcels and varieties (Grenache, with Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre) are co-fermented, as they ripen together despite their varying terroirs.

"The Cabrières parcel is north-facing, so it's cooler and ripens later, at the same time as the Boislauzon. One tank, all together," he said of the wine.

For his Domaine de la Vieille Julienne wines, the portfolio is now smaller and more directly focused on the parcels situated around the heart of the domaine.

The 2010 Côtes du Rhône Lieu-dit Clavin shows vibrant kirsch and bramble notes with lots of spice as well. It's grippy but fresh, and like the bottling from Charvin, will merit a few years of cellaring in bottle to show its best.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Sources is newly labeled for 2010, drawing from the parcels that used to produce the Vieilles Vignes bottling. It's vivid, pure and driven, with lovely pastis, violet and plum sauce notes and a long, grip-filled but polished finish. It's easily outstanding, flirting with the upper end of that quality band. A noticeable step up though is the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réservé, which is still quite primal, with steeped plum and blackberry fruit backed by licorice snap and graphite notes. The core of fruit is large, but this is still tightly wound, and will need substantial cellaring to show its classic potential to the fullest. It drips with fruit but stays racy through the long finish.

"2010 is different from '09," said Daumen. "2009 is very good, but it's not a grand vintage. 2010 has the acidity, and the acidity pulls the terroir along."

Interesting. I think I heard that sentiment somewhere before …

Matt L Kirkland Md
Gladwyne, PA, USA —  November 2, 2011 5:30pm ET
It is unfortunate you did not visit La Mere Germaine. We have been going there for years and missed it during the closure. Andre is working hard to rehabilitate the facility and is doing a great job. Our meal was prepared by the sous chef and was wonderful. The wine list is not (yet) as broad as was previously available, but it will grow with time. We visited on September 14 for a late lunch. Also, we were there for the rains in early September, the north side of the Redon Plateau was quite saturated when one walked the vineyards, but there was the Mistral afterwards.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  November 3, 2011 1:16pm ET
Matt: I'll certainly try and get there to see what is going on first hand. I did call for a reservation for dinner tonight - but no one answered the phone...ah, France!
Ann Vaughan
Wimington, Delaware —  November 4, 2011 10:57am ET
James - Thanks for all the information on the differences in vintages and winemaking techniques. As a relative newcomber to the wines of the region, I find I prefer the 2005 vintage the best of over the last 5 or 6 years. I appreciate the information you provide on the wine maker's styles and thoughts on the differences in vintages. Sounds like 2010 might be more like 2005?
Jerry Solomon
Uniontown PA —  November 4, 2011 11:00am ET
I echo Matt's comments. My wife and I were disappointed when La Mere Germaine, our favorite in CDP over the years, closed. When we returned to CDP in early September, we were surprised to find that it had reopened. We had a wonderful dinner and delightful breakfast during our week in CDP. Although there was a limited menu and wine list, the meal was delicious and the wine excellant. Andre knocks himself out and we hope he is able to succeed.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  November 4, 2011 11:16am ET
Ann: 2010 has some similarities to '05 - it's a structure-driven vintage, though it's more acidity driven than '05, which is more tannin-driven. If you like wines of balance and precision, and that are meant for aging, you'll like both vintages...

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