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Day 3: From the Established to the New

Tasting the 2010 Châteauneufs and more at Clos des Papes, Domaine Giraud, Clos St.-Jean and Château de la Font du Loup
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 4, 2011 1:42pm ET

Upon my arrival in France's Rhône Valley this week, I immediately had to cope with my newest rental car, then visited Domaine Tour St.-Michel to taste the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Papes. On my second day I visited Domaine de Boursan, Domaine Charvin and Jean-Paul Daumen at Domaine de la Vielle Julienne. Today I tasted at Clos des Papes, Domaine Giraud, Clos St.-Jean and Château de la Font du Loup.

Clos des Papes

Clos des Papes is well-established—the 2005 vintage earned Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year honor, and its 2009 white earned a top 10 ranking as well, giving the winery a rare red-white double in our annual ranking. That could be considered the icing on the cake for an estate that is one of the Châteauneuf's most historic and that has been arguably the benchmark for the appellation since the 1990 vintage. But of course, Vincent Avril isn't letting up. (For background on Clos des Papes, where I make an annual visit, reference my most recent blog entry from November 2010.)

Avril continues to draw a hard line in the sand, philosophically and qualitatively. He is among the last to defend the one estate/one wine theory (along with Lucien Michel at Le Vieux Donjon), eschewing not only the production of multiple small cuvées which have populated the region in recent years, but also refusing to make even a second wine from his own declassified fruit.

"I will not put medium-quality wine into a bottle with my name on it," said Avril flatly, defending his decision to produce just a grand vin. "And this is the Rhȏne—we have many grapes and many terroirs. This is not Burgundy, with one red grape and one soil. For complexity, we have to blend. That is why I make only one wine from all my parcels."

As for the 2011 vintage, Avril saw something he had never seen before. Following a cold snap during veraison in June, some vines never ripened their fruit, leaving pink berries until the end of the season that never fully turned dark in color. These pink berry bunches were interspersed sporadically throughout his vines, affecting the Grenache primarily.

"We wound up dropping 30 to 40 percent of the crop because of this," said Avril. "The yield in '11 for us was just 18 hectoliters per hectare."

That follows a run of vintages with incredibly low yields: 18 hectoliters per hectare in 2008, 19 hl/ha in 2009 and 18 hl/ha again in 2010. Sometimes the selection is natural, as in 2010, when coulure reduced yields. Other times it's done by Avril's doing, as in 2008, when he had to sort out for mildew, or 2011 for uneven ripening.

"We've lost the equivalent of an entire vintage with the reduced yields of the last four vintages," he said. "The first seven foudres in the cellar are empty, and have been for so long that the casks have dried out and I won't use them again. The good news though, is the quality. I am very happy with what I have in the cellar."

A self-professed fan of aging wines, Avril said he is daydreaming about bottling his entire production in magnum and jeroboam format (he already bottles about 4,000 magnums annually and is increasing that amount bit by bit every year).

"The evolution in magnum is just perfect. And really a wine should be drunk with many friends around the table, so getting through a magnum shouldn't be a problem."

For the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we tasted through multiple lots resting in foudre that will ultimately make the final blend. The first is a lot of 80 percent Grenache with equal parts of Syrah and Mourvèdre filling it out. It's pure cassis on the nose and palate, with a sleek, red licorice-filled finish—the texture and aromas of the final blend. The second lot features a majority of Grenache with 35 percent Syrah and just a drop of Mourvèdre. It's markedly different, showing more rigid structure, taut violet and anise notes and a grippy plum peel edge on the finish. It provides the muscle for the wine.

"We are at the southern limit for ripening Syrah well," said Avril. "More than 10 or 15 percent in the final blend and it really starts to take over, as you can see from just this foudre."

The final foudre contains 60 percent Grenache and the rest Mourvèdre; it's the soul of the blend, dripping with cocoa, blackberry and mesquite notes and a blazing iron note on the finish.

The fourth foudre Avril draws a sample from already contains a blend of the first three foudres, as he assembles part of the blend early in one foudre to watch it develop, should he wish to change anything during the élevage (though he rarely does).

"This is why I don't do cuvées," he said. "This lot adds something to that lot. That lot brings something to this lot, and so on. You see it in the final wine, the complexity is there."

Indeed, the likely final blend of the 2010 is gorgeous and integrated already, with dense but polished structure and layers of red, black and blue fruit, perfumy spice and black tea notes and ample muscle and minerality through the finish. It easily rivals the awesome '05, with perhaps a touch more flesh and length (so, do the math, as the say in New York).

"The 2010 is a combination of '90, '05 and '07 for me," said Avril. "The richness of '90 and '07 but the structure and density of '05. The final blend will be about 15.5 degrees alcohol, but you don't feel it, because the acidity is there and the supple tannins are there. That's the balance you get when you wait for full phenolic maturity. There is three weeks difference between sugar maturity and phenolic maturity for my vines, ever since '03. It's not a bigger style, it's just that the balance in the wine is better achieved at 15.5 than at 14 [degrees alcohol], because of the phenolics."

In drawing a comparison to '05 and '07 with the '10, I asked Avril how he feels those two disparately-styled vintages are aging. He decided to let the wines do the talking and pulled a bottle of each.

The '07 only takes a minute to start opening in the glass, with lush currant and plum confiture notes and a rounded, plush feel. It's big and long, if a touch shy on drive. In contrast, the '05 is tight as a drum top, with singed apple wood, cedar, truffle and tobacco notes up front and a core of dark currant and blackberry held in reserve. It takes much more coaxing in the glass to start stretching out and Avril feels it would have been ideal to decant it for at least two hours ahead.

"The tannins are still very closed, but everything is there," he said of the 2005. "And in 20 years, it will still be all there."

Domaine Giraud

While Clos des Papes represents the established, the brother-and-sister team of François and Marie Giraud at Domaine Giraud are still the new kids on the block. Better get on the band wagon now though, because this domaine is fashioning some superb wines. One of the first clients of über-consultant Philippe Cambie, I caught up with the trio to taste the 2010s. All showed the effects of a long, drawn out 2011 harvest.

"Tired, but happy. It was a really long harvest and you had to do a very strict selection in the winery," said François, who still lives the bachelor life in an apartment above the winery itself.

"With the uneven ripening, things were difficult. W were bringing in lots of small lots all the time and we were at the winery into late October sorting through everything, much later than usual," said Marie, who now has two sons that she said are almost as tiring to manage as a harvest.

"And even the logistics were difficult, just coordinating, and keeping the pickers, because the plan would change every day in terms of what was ready to harvest," said Cambie who never seems to slow down, as he works with dozens of clients in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and elsewhere throughout the southern Rhone.

Another semi-regular visit for me, you can reference background on Domaine Giraud from my November 2010 blog entry.

This estate continues to grow, too, with recent purchases of vines in Lirac and Cotes du Rhône to augment production, and an organic certification for its Châteauneuf vineyards beginning with the 2011 vintage.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition starts the portfolio of reds here, a traditional blend of two-thirds Grenache, with 25 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvèdre (and it's the bulk of the production, with 20,000 bottles on average annually). It delivers lush anise and plum sauce flavors with a lovely inlaid graphite note that extends through the finish.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Gallimardes relies on 90 percent Grenache and the rest Syrah, and it delivers gorgeous, sleek, polished griottes fruit (the wild black cherries found in Burgundy) along with a suave, perfumy finish that just sails on. There are just about 2,000 bottles produced annually.

There are only 2,000 bottles of the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Grenaches de Pierre as well, sourced entirely from old-vine Grenache grown on sandy soils in the Pignan and La Crau parcels, bordering parcels used by Domaine de Marcoux, Château Rayas and Olivier Hillaire. This sweet spot in the middle of the appellation delivers velvety texture and loads of dark blackberry and plum sauce notes, but remarkable finesse and minerality through the finish, which fans out to show more apple wood and black tea. At first glance, it seems an overtly modern expression of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but with additional flashes of shiso leaf and iron, it stays well grounded in its terroir. It's the sandy soils that give it such a polished edge—a side of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that is sometimes overlooked in the rush for the bigger, more muscular versions sourced from clay and rolled-stone plots. Check out the accompanying video with Francois Giraud as we check out some 100-year-old vines in the Pignan lieu-dit.

Clos St.-Jean

Another client of Philippe Cambie are the brothers Vincent & Pascal Maurel at Clos St.-Jean, which recently renovated and added on to a cellar facility around the corner from Giraud and Mont-Olivet that gives them a substantially improved working space over the cramped vinification cellar at the old winery in the middle of town.

Clos St.-Jean is also a new kid on the block, sort of. The Maurels are experienced and the domaine has been around for more than a generation, but it was a major philosophical change in the vinification here starting with the 2003 and 2004 vintages that suddenly put the domaine on the map in the U.S. market. For more background, you can reference my blog notes from my February 2009 visit.

That change has resulted in some of the lushest, darkest, deepest wines now being produced in the appellation. They are hedonistic expressions of Châteauneuf, yes, but they are also emblazoned with their terroir. Two-thirds of the estate's ample 40 hectares are in the La Crau sector. These are not the pure cassis beam of Clos des Papes, not the polished, suave wines of Giraud. These are strapping wines, loaded with cocoa and graphite and smoldering with dark fruit. They are yet another expression of old-vine Grenache and further evidence of the diversity not only within the appellation, but of the ability of Cambie to work with different clients without imposing his own personal style on all of them.

This domaine has picked up a cultlike following in the U.S. since its change, but this is not a small domaine: 40 hectares puts it at the upper end of the appellation in terms of size. But there are several cuvées, which parcels out the production. In addition, 20 percent of the estate's production is sold off to négociants, while only 15 percent of the bottled wines actually come to the U.S., which helps to generate that sometimes-overheated speculation on the wines.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White blends Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Clairette into one of the rounder, more lushly-styled whites in Châteauneuf. The vintage marks the first for the domaine's new ladder press, which Vincent Maurel feels gives a gentler extraction, reducing the bitterness that might come from the pips. The wine offers creamy plantain, melon and yellow apple fruit with a long, opulent finish.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is destined for the European market, though you may find some via gray-market sourcing in the U.S. A blend of 75 percent Grenache with 15 percent Syrah and the rest Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Vaccarèse, it's an outstanding wine with velvety plum sauce, espresso and Black Forest cake notes. Bottled specifically for the U.S. market is the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes, which up the Grenache to 80 percent, rounded out with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. It shows aromatic mulling spice and warm plum confiture aromas, backed by inviting Linzer and black cherry notes and lots of graphite and Valrhona chocolate on the finish. Representing the largest of the U.S.-market cuvées, there are 9,000 bottles made.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Combe des Fous begins the run of opulent special cuvées, a 6,000-bottle selection of 60 percent Grenache (from sandy soils) along with 20 percent Syrah and a hefty 10 percent each of Cinsault and Vaccarèse, easily the highest percentage of Vaccarèse in any red Châteauneuf (Laurent Charvin is probably next, with 5 percent).

"We want to add the acidity and finesse of the Vaccarèse to the richness of the Grenache," said Maurel. Despite an almost heady kirsch, espresso and bittersweet cocoa core, the wine manages to stay defined and racy, with gorgeous blackberry pâté de fruit and lingering violet notes on the finish. It's potentially classic in quality.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Sanctus Sanctorum is a step ahead, a stunning 100 percent old-vine Grenache sourced from the rolled-stone terroir in La Crau, and aged entirely in demi-muid. Bottled only in magnum format (700 magnums total), it delivers an almost endless beam of Linzer, espresso, Maduro tobacco, roasted bay leaf and cocoa notes offset by a piercing graphite spine. Produced only n the '07, '09 and '10 vintages, this has quickly become one of the hen's teeth cuvées in the appellation.

There are 6,000 bottles of the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Deus Ex Machina, which was tasted after the Sanctus Santorum because its blend of 60/40 Grenache and Mourvèdre makes it the most muscular of the estate's cuvées. Sourced from clay soils in La Crau, this is all muscle and heft, with roasted espresso, truffle, fig sauce and brown bread notes buttressed by the graphite edge that marks the Clos St.-Jean wines.

As if the lineup wasn't already enough, there's a new cuvée in 2010, born of the Maurels' friendship with California's Manfred Krankl, who visits a few times a year and helped spur the Maurels to produce something that is unlike any other Châteauneuf, but is still Châteauneuf. How do you do that? You rely on a blend of 95 percent Mourvèdre, with 4 percent Grenache and the rest a mix of all the permitted white varieties. Age the wine in 300-liter barrels and bottle only 400 magnums. The debut 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Chimere is reminiscent of a Tempier Bandol Cabassou in its dark, roasted espresso and mesquite frame, though it sports more opulent flesh along with intense hoisin sauce, plum brandy and fig notes, all backed by a distinct roasted juniper wood edge on the finish. It achieves its double-edged task of both remaining Châteauneuf while becoming something else and is certain to raise even more debate over this domaine's distinctive style.

All I can say is bravo to the Maurels. They made a change that was drastic, breaking from a very traditional style espoused by their grandfather and father. But they did it because they believed in what they were doing. They are creating a new paradigm in the appellation, one that is already bursting with diversity. They have added to the mix and they are creating their own new tradition. What's more exciting than that?

Château de la Font du Loup

The last stop of the day was at Château de la Font du Loup, another newcomer, sort of. The estate has been bottling its own wines since 1977, but it only started exporting to the U.S. market with its 2007 vintage. Philippe Cambie has been helping owners Laurent Bachas and Anne-Charlotte Mélia-Bachas since 2001. Young winemaker Stéphane Dupuy d'Angeac, just 29, joined the team for the 2010 vintage.

You'll probably never see the château itself from the road, as it is tucked in amidst a small wooded area in the Courthézon sector in the northeast corner of the appellation, just 3 kilometers due south of Beaucastel. Built in 1905, the dramatic pink brick structure is atypical and striking in its quirkiness. A spring-fed fountain that still delivers potable water runs in the back garden, guarded by a statue of a wolf (get it?).

Laurent was a seminary student, but when he saw Anne-Charlotte, his heart raced and he waved goodbye to that life, chased her down and now they run her family's estate together. A first-time visit for me at this estate, there are about 38,000 bottles of red and 4,000 bottles of white, split between two distinct properties.

The first is a small 4-hectare parcel that is bottled under the Le Puy Rolland label, a Grenache-only cuvée (from sandy soils in La Crau) which debuted in the 1992 vintage, though the vineyard was replanted during its first few years. Since '07, the Le Puy Rolland vineyard has been solely owned by Melia and Bachas. The Le Puy Rolland 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is vinified and aged in cement vat and it offers a distinctly high-toned, red berry and floral profile, with elegant mineral and shiso leaf notes on the tender finish.

The larger of the two estates is Font du Loup itself, a 16-hectare property adjacent to Rolland de Puy, The main cuvée is the 2010 Château de la Font du Loup Châteauneuf-du-Pape, made from 65 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah and the rest a blend of Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The Grenache is vinified in cement vat, the Syrah and Mourvèdre in stainless steel, before aging in a mix of vat, barrel and demi-muid. The stylish crushed cherry and red currant profile is textbook for this relatively cooler sector, with silky tannins and a hint of iron on the finish.

In some years, including 2010, there is a separate cuvée, a rare 100 percent Syrah bottling labeled as the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Château, which delivers very mineral-driven plum, violet and shiso leaf notes.

"This area is the latest to harvest of all the domaines I consult with in Châteauneuf-du-Pape," said Cambie. "It's really more like the Northern Rhône here, it is so cool, and the wine shows that minerally style. It is the complete opposite of Clos St.-Jean for example. But as with all my clients, these are not 'my' wines. I give help and advice, but the wines are from the terroir, by their owners. That is why they are different."

The reds here are outstanding, but I give the leg up to the  2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White, a blend of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne, with smaller amounts of Clairette and Bourboulenc. Benefitting fro the cooler microclimate, the white varieties are harvested into October, but retain a distinctive freshness that results in a crunchy, lively pineapple-, melon-, yellow apple- and heather-filled wine with a bright finish.

It's always fun to get introduced to a new estate (or in this case, new to the market) after covering a lot of ground in the region. And it was a fitting end to a day of visits that demonstrated both Châteauneuf-du-Pape's solid grounding in tradition married to constant change.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

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