At 10 a.m., I rang the doorbell at Henri Bonneau’s modest house, located across the street from the town church. The doorbell must be connected, since the church bells started ringing right at the same time. Either that, or it was some kind of sign.
Bonneau was in good form, as he gave me an immediate run down of the goings on in his vegetable garden—all is well there. He was also happy with the mistral that came through yesterday, leaving a wake of dry, fresh air that the vineyards needed. As for the tasting, we started with the ’06, sampling from a barrel marked Crau, which usually means the juice is earmarked for the Réserve des Célestins, though the final cut is made before bottling, which won’t be for a few more years.
“The rest of France is not Bordeaux,” said Bonneau dryly, as he asked me what I thought. He was hinting at the fact that Bordeaux often sets the tone for consumer expectations of a vintage in France, even though each region can be vastly different. With low expectations for the ’06 Bordeaux, most consumers probably haven’t begun to think about ’06 Rhône.
The wine was nervy and bright, with lots of red fruits and a nice sappy, briar-filled finish. As with the other ‘06s I’ve tasted so far, the vintage seems a lot like ’99 or ’04—ripe, forward, balanced. Not a big muscular year, but an excellent vintage for medium-term drinking.
We then tasted two ’05 samples, one earmarked for the regular bottling, the other from another barrel marked Crau. Both showed beautiful garnet and ruby colors, with sappy bing cherry fruit, along with some game and mineral notes, but the Crau barrel was a bit more intense. Both were in the high outstanding to low classic range.
Next were two ‘04s from the same two different barrels. The regular cuvée was dark and Port-like, and it seems to really be putting on weight in a hurry, with dusty tannins and a dried currant- and cocoa-filled finish. The Crau barrel was very brawny for an ’04, with lots of cocoa, dried currant, licorice and iron notes and a long, bittersweet finish. Both were in the mid-outstanding range.
|The Clos des Papes stands tall above the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
A sample of the ‘03 regular cuvée showed a lot of confiture, with a long, ironclad finish, but no roasted quality interestingly enough, just intense and deep. In the high-outstanding range.
No ’02 was produced here, so we then moved to the ’01, a vintage which Bonneau prefers to the ’00, for its racier structure and better focus. The ’01 cuvée, earmarked for the Marie Burrier (and still in barrel), offers up the telltale Bonneau profile of brick dust, fig paste, dried currant and coffee. It’s amazing it can stand being in barrel for so long, but after five years, the wine really starts to take shape. It's probably classic. The ’01 cuvée marked Célestins is another enormous wine in the making, focused and very structured, with lots of cocoa powder, roasted coffee bean, fig, mineral and tobacco, all backed by super grip on the finish. It’s more of a rapier when compared to the round, meaty ’00 (and I prefer it too); it should merit a classic score when bottled.
We finished the tasting with bottles of the ’00 Célestins and ’98 Cuvée Spéciale, the latter of which always blows me away. As we stood in the doorway of his small, cramped cellar sipping the ’98, we talked about the chances of him ever coming to the U.S. He queried me on the food, and I assured him we do have good bread and cheese in New York.
“When they build a bridge then,” he said laughing. “I’ll only go by car.”
Next stop was at Domaine St.-Préfert
, which I first wrote about when it debuted in the 2003 vintage. Owner and winemaker Isabel Ferrando has learned a lot from Henri Bonneau, as well as Lucien Michel of Le Vieux Donjon and her consulting enologist Philippe Cambie. Yet her wines are very modern in style, unlike Bonneau's or Michel’s wines.
We tasted from two demi-muids
of ’06s which will eventually form the Auguste Favier cuvée—the first, 100 percent Grenache, floral, elegant and perfumed; the second, made of Grenache and Cinsault, was dramatically darker in profile, with lots of kirsch and pepper notes. The 2006 Charles Giraud cuvées (made from 60 percent Grenache and the rest Mourvèdre) is dark and racy, with great sinew, crushed berry fruit and a searing minerality. It’s one of the standouts from the ‘06s I’ve had so far.
Ferrando’s other label is Domaine Ferrando, for which she produces one wine, the Colombis cuvée. In 2006, it was vinified in wooden vat for the first time, and the influence is obvious, with lots of mocha and vanilla leading the way for supersilky raspberry fruit. The stuffing is there to soak up the oak, but it does need more time.
The ‘05s here are awesome young wines, so get in line now. The Auguste Favier, bottled from February is dark and lush, and loaded with creamy blackberry and raspberry fruit, with superfine-grained structure and great perfume. The Charles Giraud is a stunner and returns to being the top cuvée here (I preferred it to Auguste Favier in ’04), with amazing blackberry ganache, mocha, anise, sweet tobacco and fig paste flavors that won’t quit, followed by enticing shiso leaf and mineral notes on the finish. It’s in the league of the 96-point ’03, and probably better. The ’05 Colombis is juicy and very ripe, with boysenberry and anise notes and a supersilky finish. It’s a blend of two parcels now—on sand and clay soils—as opposed to just the sandy parcel that made up the ’04. It may be a touch overripe for some folks, but it has outstanding density and length nonetheless.
At Le Vieux Donjon
, Marie-Jo and Lucien Michel turn out around 4,000 cases per year of one of the appellation’s best, and most traditional-styled wines. It’s a blue chip for the cellar (if you like the style), rewarding a decade of cellaring with a truly distinctive, world-class wine.
The 2005 is young, bright and racy, with a super beam of red and black fruits, and just a hint of the property’s telltale juniper and sage notes in the background. The Michels returned to using 50 percent of the stems during the vinification in ’05, after removing them entirely in ’04. Marie-Jo felt the ’04 lacked concentration and structure because of the change, so they went back to using stems. The ’05 has that extra gravel and garrigue
feel on the finish that marks such top vintages here as ’95 and ’98. Le Vieux Donjon also remains one of the last great values in the appellations, typically found for under $50 a bottle. Kudos to the Michels for holding the line ...
Next door to Vieux Donjon is the cellar of André Brunel
, another of the respected old guard in town. Brunel, 60, vinified his first wine in 1972, and was also one of the first to enter the "cuvée game" when he bottled a small portion of his best wine separately in 1989. He did it to mark the 100-year anniversary of his grandfather planting vines, and so the Cuvée Centenaire was born. For those keeping score at home, it’s been made in the ’89, ’90, ’95, ’98, ’00, ’01, ’03 and ’05 vintages. It’s sourced from 100-year-old Grenache vines, along with some Syrah and Mourvèdre. The ’05 is a huge wine, with loads of fig compote, crème de cassis, charcoal, mesquite and mineral notes and very serious grip. If it evolves at all like the ’95, which André also opened, it’s a no-brainer classic. Don’t overlook the regular cuvée here either, called Les Cailloux. It offers bright red berry fruit, racy structure and a chalky minerality on the finish. Brunel also produces two delicious Côtes du Rhône bottlings, called Est-Ouest and Cuvée Sommelongue, and is partners with Laurence Féraud of Domaine du Pégaü in a négociant line of wines called Féraud-Brunel
The last stop of the day was at Jean-Paul Versino’s Bois de Boursan
. It’s always a fun visit with Versino, who talks fast, shoots straight and makes burly, throwback-styled wines that are remarkably consistent year in and year out. Versino finds 2006 to have slightly lower acidity but better fruit maturity than 2004, and his regular Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottling (made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Counoise) offers a very sweet entry, with red and black fruits and some sauvage
hints that build slowly on the finish. The Cuvée des Félix (mostly Grenache and Mourvèdre with some Syrah and others) is young and tight with a big core of cherry and plum fruit and a strong iron note on the back end. While both are easily outstanding, it’s a big step up to the ‘05s here, with the regular cuvée showing lots of kirsch, pepper, lavender and blackberry notes with a very stony, grip-filled finish. The ’05 Cuvée des Félix should rival the ’01 as possibly the best version yet--it offers blackstrap molasses, game, iron, fig, loam and lavender notes all backed by very, very serious grip. It’s huge now: I’ll be very curious to see how much more weight it can put on with another few months in barrel (Versino typically bottles after 18 months). It’s a potential classic for me, and among the vintage’s best wines.
Well, I consider that a full day, and think I deserve a chance to unwind tonight. It’s eight o’clock and the sky is still a bright blue. The mistral has picked up a touch again, so I think I’ll sit on the deck outside my room and take in the fresh air with a bottle of Côtes du Rhône. I’ll need a good night’s rest, too, since I’m doing it all over again tomorrow.