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Day 2: Châteauneufs Big and Small

On my second day of visits in France's Rhône Valley I made three more stops in Châteauneuf-du-Pape to check out the 2010 vintage
Photo by: James Molesworth
Grapes grown on the jagged limestone rocks in the Predelle lieu-dit have been kept separate for Ogier's new Éclats Calcaires bottling.

Posted: Jun 22, 2012 2:00pm ET

On my second day in France's Rhône Valley, I visited three domaines, beginning with Domaine Jean Royer. I then checked out Ogier, followed by Domaine de Cristia.

Domaine Jean Royer

I headed back into Châteauneuf-du-Pape today, meeting up with Jean-Marie Royer right behind the small chapel just as you enter town. I hadn't been to his domaine before and the chapel is a good meeting point when I need to be led in the final few hundred meters to a cellar.

Royer, 48, is short but well-built, with salt-and-pepper hair and a vigneron's stubble. His charming wife, Isabel, seems to always be by his side. And of course, you can't get far in Châteauneuf-du-Pape without running into Philippe Cambie, who has worked with Royer since 2000 and joined us for the visit.

This family-owned domaine has been around for a few generations, but in various stages. Royer's grandfather was bottling some wine before eventually turning it over to his son. But when Royer's father passed away at a young 38, Royer's grandmother had no one to run the estate. So the vines were rented out for 20 years with the grapes going to négociants. Royer began to pull the domaine back together, starting in 1986, cobbling together small parcels that had been separated out across generations during inheritances.

“But I was a young guy,” said Royer. “I didn't know anything and had no one to kick me in the ass.”

Today the domaine is just 12 acres, mostly in the southern portion of Châteauneuf-du-Pape along with some Côtes du Rhône and Vin de Table. After Royer connected with Cambie in 2000, he began to separate parcels and varieties during fermentation and bottled his own production once again.

“I needed to restart, to relearn everything from the ground up,” he said.

Royer works out of a rented facility on the edge of town and now produces 1,666 cases annually. Volume is small, but the U.S. is his best export market and he sends 60 percent of his production here.

In his first few vintages, Royer made wines that featured thick, chewy textures and dense finishes loaded with coffee and bittersweet cocoa. But in 2006 he decided to alter the style of his wines.

“I still pick very late, because I like good maturity. But in Châteauneuf that can mean grapes with 16 or 17 potential alcohol. So to get the balance and freshness, I keep the vats cold to start and slowly let them warm up after inoculating. The fermentation is long and slow. It was a choice I made, for personal preference. Elegance and finesse, rather than opulence, is what I want now,” said Royer.

All the reds are fermented in cement vats then aged in a mixture of used barrels, some from Burgundy. Royer also keeps some stems, but typically just a small percentage, depending on the vintage.

“I like a hint of menthol or freshness, but the danger is stems can make the wine aggressively dry or too vegetal and I don't want that at all,” he said.

The 2011 Vin de France Le Petit Roy is a blend of mostly Grenache with Carignane, Syrah, Alicante and others from Vin de Table and Côtes du Rhône vineyards. It's silky, with pretty pepper, red cherry and lavender notes and a lightly dusty finish, offering a textbook Provençal profile with a gentle, modest feel.

The 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Tradition is not yet the final blend. It's very supple, with perfumy cherry, sandalwood and bay leaf notes that pick up a nicely firm stony edge through the finish. It's made from a blend of 85 percent Grenache, with 5 each Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault, with the Cinsault being added since the 2010 vintage. “I really like the Cinsault for the suppleness and finesse,” said Royer.

The 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Prestige is entirely Grenache, sourced from his vines in the Le Bois de la Ville lieu-dit. It glides along with shiso leaf, lightly mulled black cherry and perfumy black tea notes, finishing with a pretty pepper note. There's subtle grip to hold the finish, which lingers nicely. The 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Les Sables de La Crau is sourced from vines Royer acquired in 2010, from sandy soils in the famed La Crau lieu-dit, next to Font du Loup. The all-Grenache cuvée offers gorgeous black fruit aromas, with a lovely silky feel and lots of charcoal and bay leaf notes weaving through the finish. It's deceptively powerful. And belies the generally lighter feel of the '11 vintage. There were just 141 cases made.

Moving to the 2010 lineup, the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Tradition marks the first vintage to include 5 percent Cinsault in the blend, with 85 Grenache and 5 each Syrah and Mourvèdre. It sports a kirsch- and pepper-filled core, along with plum skin, anise and bay leaf notes and a very silky, stylish finish that hides the power here nicely, with the pastis edges hanging persistently but gracefully. The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Prestige is loaded with a mix of black and red fruits, nicely melded together while bay leaf, lavender and pastis all chime through. There's more pepper, tobacco and iron notes filling in on the finish, which has good latent grip despite the overall silky feel. It's very long, shows admirable depth and easily tops the very solid 2009 bottling I recently reviewed.

There are only 39 cases of the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Les Sables de La Crau, as Royer only started with the parcel in the spring of that year.

“The vineyard wasn't very clean and we had to really do a lot of work. The weeds were higher than the vines,” he said. The wine is tight, with a taut graphite edge cutting through the plum skin, blackberry paste and toasted apple wood notes. It's not as fresh and long as the 2011, but should stretch out well enough, and though the 2010 is a better vintage overall, I preferred the balance and integration of the 2011 for this particular cuvée.

“That was the first year for me in La Crau,” said Royer when I mentioned my preference for the 2011 Les Sables bottling. “And it was very different from what I am used to in the south. Different exposition, faster growth, more vegetative growth. So first you have to appreciate and learn, and then you can improve.”

To demonstrate some of those details, we headed out into Royer's Bois de la Ville lieu-dit, the source for his Cuvée Prestige bottling. As we walked through the rows he immediately started to pull off bunches of still-green grapes and large shoots lower to the ground. With vegetative growth stretched higher up than I am used to seeing in the appellation (and earlier than usual for June). I asked him if he plans to trim that down as well. He explains that he'd rather have vertical vegetative growth, while doing more leaf thinning and pulling of smaller lateral shoots and suckers from the interior of his low, head-pruned vines. Then, with better air flow around the bunches and a lower crop load (he does aggressive green harvesting as well) he can wait until the very end of the harvest season before picking, aiming for very ripe fruit.

“There are so many small details, but they can make a huge difference in the end,” said Royer.

I like Royer's approach. The style change here is a reflection of Royer's own personal preference but he isn't using the keywords of finesse and balance as an excuse to produce simply lighter wines. He understands that Grenache and Châteauneuf-du-Pape still require fully ripe fruit to express the terroir fully. And now his wines are rather unique, with an old-school Henri Bonneau-like profile that features extra garrigue, tar and pepper notes, allied to the texture of wines from St.-Préfert or Rayas, with their incredibly silky feel.

A. Ogier

Watching the small details isn't easy at a small domaine like Jean-Marie Royer's. It's isn't any easier at a large operation either, such as Ogier. This combination domaine and négociant operation produces 750,000 cases annually over its various properties, with production sourced from its own 210 acres of vines (62 in Châteauneuf-du-Pape) as well as an additional 1,230 acres of vines it oversees, encompassing 35 different growers. The Jeanjean family bought Ogier in 1995, and eventually merged with the Laroche family in 2010 to form Advini, which now owns the company. This was my first stop here as well, so there are no earlier blog entries to reference.

Director Jean-Pierre Durand, 48, is an Avignon native and third generation vigneron, following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. But it was a big change to go from small family plots to overseeing the operation at Ogier (he had other stops along the way).

“This is a dream for me—to be making wine while having the investments necessary to make quality wine,” he said.

To that end, a cellar renovation was soon completed, with updated foudres and better equipment that reduced the amount of pumping the wine went through. “When I arrived at Ogier in 2006, I saw efforts in the vineyards that were being lost in the wines. We needed to make reinvestments in the winery first,” he said. From there, attention was turned to the vineyards.

“The owners wanted me to acquire more vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the Clos de l'Oratoire estate. But it's not that easy. I said, 'OK, what kind of vineyards? What terroir will keep the style of Clos de l'Oratoire, but improve quality?' We had to go back to the basics and really learn the vineyards.”

To that end, Durand began identifying individual grower parcels situated on the major different terroirs in Châteauneuf-du-Pape—sand, limestone, rolled stones (galets) and clay. He began to vinify and bottle the parcels separately, creating a lineup of terroir-specific bottlings for Ogier. And, knowing that wine always tastes better when you drink it at its origin, Durand took me out into the vineyards for added effect.

First stop was a parcel covered with jagged limestone, from which comes the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Éclats Calcaires. “This is the oldest terroir in Châteauneuf,” said Durand, noting its 200 million-year-old age. Destemmed entirely, fermented in stainless steel and then aged in large wooden vats (as are all the cuvées in this line), the wine shows racy red currant fruit offset by a noticeably chalky spine, with a long, floral, piercing finish. Another 10-minute drive and we were at a parcel on the northern side of the appellation, from which the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Safres comes from. The red sandy soils of the second-oldest geological outcropping in the appellation yield a wine loaded with plump red cherry, plum and red licorice fruit, along with substantial but very fine-grained tannins.

The next stop, on a terrace behind Nalys and just above Vaudieu, was the source of the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Grés Rouges. Large chunks of friable red rock, pot-marked with old sea shells, litters the surface of the clay-based soil in the vineyard. It's almost the same geological age as the Safres, but on a high plateau, so it's less decomposed in nature. “This terroir gives the least refined wine, so I am thinking maybe vinification in wood will tame it a bit,” said Durand. The wine shows exuberant black and red fruit, with a noticeably more brambly feel and edgy acidity, though the finish is still succulent.

The last stop is in the famed La Crau lieu-dit, known for its seeming impenetrable surface of large rolled stones, some as heavy as bowling balls. The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Galets Roulés has everything: minerally tension, rich red and black fruits, singed spice, garrigue notes and juicy acidity. It pulls everything together, I noted, to which Durand responded, “That makes sense, if you think about it geologically. This is the young terroir, and deepest soil. Below the galets is clay, then sand and eventually the limestone mother rock. All of that in one place is why this is a special terroir.”

It's was the kind of vineyard tour that I never get tired of, because even in an appellation I know well, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you can always learn something. Durand has taken a large operation and rededicating it to a quality operation from the vineyards up. While the terroir-specific cuvées average between 500 and 650 cases each, there is ample production of many of the winery's other bottlings, including their Oratorio line (which includes some bottlings from the Northern Rhône) and their solid values from their Notre Dame de Coussignac estate. Even a large company, with greater attention to the details, can produce excellent wines.

Domaine de Cristia / Chapelle St.-Théodoric

For my last stop of the day I went from big back to small. Or actually, suddenly not so small. At Domaine de Cristia in Courthézon, Baptiste Grangeon has grown his domaine from 90 to 148 acres since I last visited with him in November 2010. He's also moved into a larger facility across the street. And he's getting married later this year.

“So I need a big vintage,” he said with a wry smile.

Baptiste, 33, works the domaine along with his sister Dominique, 36, and brother Florent, 29

The growth has come from both newly purchased vines as well as additional rented vineyards. Some have gone to the Cristia domaine, others to a small négociant side project and an additional joint venture for a different label with an American importer.

Unlike at Jean-Marie Royer's, the style at Domaine de Cristia has not changed. Baptiste still prefers a ripe, juicy, lush style of wine—not as overtly lush as Domaine de la Janasse, for example, but wines with powerfully rendered fruit nonetheless.

The 2010 Côtes du Rhône Les Garrigues Vieilles Vignes is sourced from vineyards just outside the appellation, neighboring Coudoulet and Janasse. The 55-year-old vines are on red clay and rolled stones and this Grenache-only cuvée is very juicy, with captivating red licorice and boysenberry fruit that is almost heady, but stays refreshing and pure through the finish.

“It's richer than some Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but not as refined. It's a wine to wait just two or three years in bottle for,” said Grangeon.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (75/25 Grenache and Syrah) has less Grenache than usual because of the coulure in 2010 which reduced yields on the regipn's lead red grape. Vinified all in concrete vat and sourced from Cristia parcels next to Rayas, on sandy soils, it's very silky, with an almost creamy feel, despite the rich, ripe Linzer and blackberry torte notes. There's lots of spice embedded on the vivacious finish.

“For my own taste I prefer 2009 now, because it's riper and in the jammy style. But for balance, for acidity for long term, '10 is clearly the one for the cellar,” he said.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Renaissance is a 60/40 blend of Grenache (in used barrels) and Mourvèdre (in new oak). It's loaded with stunning ganache, blueberry compote and plum sauce notes that stay racy and defined despite their obvious heft. The gorgeous spice cake-loaded finish has riveting acidity for balance and it has classic-quality potential. The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes (from 85-year-old vines) is a 100 percent Grenache cuvée aged in used barrels. It offers saturated blue, purple and black fruit flavors backed by pastis, plum cobbler and ganache notes. As fleshy and broad as it is, it stays racy, thanks to finely-beaded acidity that pumps the finish along; it has clearly classic quality.

Grangeon's new joint venture project is called Chapelle St.-Théodoric which debuted in the 2009 vintage. Based on the 8 acres of vines Grangeon co-owns with U.S. importer Peter Weygandt, the wines are sourced from parcels in Rayas and Guigasse lieux-dits, sandy soils similar to what Grangeon's own domaine is situated on, though the wines are made in a decidedly different style. These Grenache-only cuvées are fermented in cement vat but with their stems, unlike the Cristia wines, and they have less extraction and are aged entirely in demi-muid rather than vat or barrel.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Sablons blends the juice from both the Rayas and Guigasse parcels.

“The Guigasse parcel is basically the same red sand as in Cristia, but the parcel in Rayas is pure sand, like a beach,” said Grangeon.

It delivers shiso leaf, smoldering tobacco and lightly mulled black cherry and blackberry fruit, backed by silky, gentle texture.

The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Guigasse (only from the Guigasse parcel) feels richer and fuller, with more Linzer and blackberry fruit inlaid with ganache hints and backed by black tea. It stays velvety on the finish, without the more overt acidity of the Sablons but with equal length and drive. In contrast, the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Grand Pin (from the Rayas parcel and named for the giant pine tree that stands alongside the vines) is a gorgeous, silky wine, with lush raspberry, plum and blackberry fruit melded perfectly together, laced up with flickers of anise, coffee and tobacco on the finish. It has weight but isn't heavy, staying lithe and graceful through the lengthy finish. It's a beauty that seems a full step ahead of the other two cuvées and flirts with classic potential.

Then, using purchased grapes and bottled as just Cristia (rather than Domaine de Cristia), Grangeon's négociant line starts with the 2011 Rasteau (just the wine's second vintage). A 75/25 Grenache and Syrah blend, it displays a forward, friendly, plump core of blueberry and plum fruit framed by gentle sweet spice hints. The 2011 Gigondas is 75/25 Grenache and Mourvèdre, with fuller blackberry and crushed plum notes backed by hints of ganache and raisin. It shows a slightly chewy edge but there's enough flesh to soak that up with during the remaining élevage.

Back to the domaine wines, the 2011 Côtes du Rhône Les Garrigues Vieilles Vignes is not yet finalized, but it shows very forward, juicy, friendly plum and raspberry fruit with an open-knit finish.

“The fruit is already there in 2011, so we might shorten the élevage, to preserve that. It's not a structured vintage like '10,” said Grangeon.

The 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is also not the final blend, but this sample is 60 Grenache, 25 Syrah and 15 Mourvèdre, and it contains the fruit that usually goes into the Renaissance and Vieilles Vignes bottlings, which will not be made for 2011. It has good plum cake, ganache and red licorice notes, with a rounded, friendly feel through the medium-weight finish.

“The Grenache is light in '11, so you need to add more Syrah and Mourvèdre than usual. But the more Syrah and Mourvèdre you add to Grenache, the more elegance you lose, so you have to be careful. We still have to think about the final blend a bit more,” cautions Grangeon.

For the Chapelle St.-Théodoric lineup, the 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Guigasse shows subtle mint and bay leaf notes along with pepper and lavender. A gentle cherry compote note glides in afterwards and hangs through the silky finish. The 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Grand Pin has a strong shiso leaf note, with pronounced garrigue, tobacco leaf and rosemary aromas and flavors, followed by subtle cherry and a twinge of iron. There is no Les Sablons cuvée in '11.

As is customary, we finish with the white. The Domaine de Cristia 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White is now a blend of 40 Roussanne, 40 Clairette and 20 Bourboulenc, as Grangeon swapped the parcel that had produced the 100 percent Grenache Blanc cuvée before. The wine sees no malolactic now either and the result is a refreshing green fig, pear and yellow apple peel combination with a flash of crème fraîche on the finish.

I always find it interesting when a producer make wines in differing styles. It's a talent to do things in contrasting ways and have success with both. The Cristia wines offer uncompromising fruit while the Chapelle St.-Théodoric wines are a touch more old school, with their strong shiso leaf edge. Both wines feature the silky tetxure that sandy soil Grenache produces, but both have their own distinct personalities as well, resulting in greater diversity.

Tomorrow is another day in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with stops at Château de Beaucastel, Domaine St.-Préfert and Château Cabrières lined up …

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

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