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A Day in Châteauneuf for the Palmetto State

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 5, 2007 2:57pm ET

Today was warm and sunny, an ideal Provençal June day. So nice, in fact, that I parked my car in the center of town and walked to my first three appointments. The better to offset the foie gras with, I told myself.

My first stop of the day was with young Julien Barrot, who I first profiled in a previous blog. Barrot began bottling his own wines in recent years, and I was curious to see if his early success could be sustained. Plus, I wanted to see if I could catch the kid napping early in the morning—no chance though, he was busy in the cellar when I arrived.

There are three cuvées of red Châteauneuf here: The first, called Réserve, is made from a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault and is vinified in a traditional manner (cement vat, then to foudre for aging). The 2005 is silky, with smoke, spice, incense and blackberry notes followed by a garrigue hint on the supple finish. The 2005 Fiancée is made from a blend of equal parts Grenache and Syrah, and it’s really vivid, with the purple fruit and violet notes of the Syrah dominating for now, though the Grenache and its raspberry and mineral profile are lurking in the background. The Pure cuvée, so named for it’s 100 percent Grenache composition, is sourced from Barrot’s oldest vines on sandy soils, and it offers up a super silky texture along with very rich blackberry, cassis, mineral and graphite notes à la the wines of Rayas, which have similar terroir. It’s well-embedded with acidity too, and should really stretch out nicely with cellaring. All three are outstanding and better than their ’04 counterparts.

I then headed further up the street to see Jean-Jacques Sabon at Domaine Roger Sabon & Fils. Sabon heads up this domaine, which quietly makes supple, silky wines. The ’05 Châteauneuf Les Olivets, which was bottled two months ago, is juicy but elegant, with red fruits and a pretty, lingering finish of spice. The ’05 Châteauneuf Réserve is made from 60-year-old vines and aged two-thirds in foudre and one-third in demi-muid. It’s blacker than the Les Olivets, with more flesh and notes of sandalwood and spice on the finish.

Sabon has moved to using demi-muid (600-liter barrels) instead of the typical 225-liter barrels, as he likes the integration of oak with the wine. “You get the texture without the taste of the oak,” he explains. As with the Réserve, the Prestige cuvée is two-third foudre, one-third demi-muid. From 80-year-old vines, the wine is very suave, with a great mouthfeel and a mix of red and black fruits, floral, spice and mineral notes with a persistent but very fine and lacy finish. There’s a very small, limited-production cuvée called Le Secret, sourced from Sabon’s oldest vines, and the ‘05 has the house style of elegance and perfume, along with silky layers of raspberry and mineral. It drinks like a Chambolle-Musigny, with a velvety finish that just goes on and on. It’s another consistent performance from Sabon, with his cuvées moving up the quality ladder from outstanding for the Les Olivets to potentially classic for the Le Secret. I found the wines are even more elegant and Burgundian in style than in previous years, but Sabon say it's not a conscious style change, it's “just what the vineyards did in ‘05.”

The heart of Châteaneuf-du-Pape at lunchtime: La Mère Germaine.  
After the elegance of Sabon’s vines, the style of Domaine du Pégaü is like doing a 180—rich, Port-like and filled with dark fruit and briar notes. Laurence Féraud was in good form. She has added a new line of wines from purchased fruit, called Selection Laurence Féraud (she also partners with André Brunel in the Féraud-Brunel négoce operation), and we had an interesting conversation about her top cuvée, the Cuvée da Capo, which she has surprisingly decided not to make in ’05.

“There’s a big difference between good, great and exceptional,” she explained. “2005 is great, but da Capo has to be exceptional, and early on the fruit in 2005 was a bit showy and not serious enough for da Capo.” (Féraud does plan to bottle a Cuvée Laurence in ’05, which is essentially the same juice as the Cuvée Réservée, but spends more time aging in cask.)

In addition, Féraud has been turned off by the speculative nature of people seeking her da Capo cuvée. Offers to triple her asking price have only strengthened her resolve: “When we go that way, we forget the wine, we forget the vineyard,” she said. “It’s not a question of money, but a question of what I like, and what reference I want to have for Pégaü and Châteauneuf.”

For the ’05 Cuvée Réservée, we tasted from two different foudres: one just four years old, the other 60 years old. The younger one, explained Féraud, put a heavy influence on the wine shortly after she filled the foudre with wine. “After one week I couldn’t even recognize the wine, but it’s settled down now,” she says. The wine is dark in color with lots of wild black fruits and licorice and a sweet but pure finish. In contrast, the sample drawn from the old foudre shows more aromatic complexity, with violets, plum cake and brick dust notes that are the usual markers for me of Pégaü’s wines.

Pégaü makes it’s Cuvée Réservée from a blend of juice aged in both young and old foudres, or large wooden vats.  
This is typical Pégaü,” says Féraud, before she mixes glasses of the two samples for an approximate blend of the final wine, which is dense and sweet, and full of black and purple fruits with a long, licorice- and grip-filled finish. If it puts on some more weight and dimension, it could rival the awesome ‘03/’04 duo made here, but for now I agree with Féraud’s decision to split hairs, and feel that the ’05 here is only great, and not exceptional.

It was time for lunch, so I headed back down the street to La Mère Germaine: A week in Châteauneuf without a lunch at this lively, centrally located bistro is like a week without sunshine. Despite the warm weather, the covered back terrace was cool enough to allow me to go for the daube de boeuf.

Seated next to me was a couple from South Carolina who told me they make their way through France on eating and drinking trips from time to time. They were enjoying a bottle of Domaine de Beaurenard’s Côtes du Rhône Rosé with their meal, and the wife joked, “We don’t speak French, so we don’t know what we’re going to be eating.”

As I asked them how they got their love of French wines. In a southern drawl, the husband laid it out flatly, “No California Merlot for me.” He told me he dreamed of opening a wine shop in the Palmetto state, one that wouldn’t have a bottle of Chardonnay in it. “Not sure if it will work though,” he said. I encouraged him to give it a try ...

Unfortunately I needed to drive to my next appointment, so I engaged the 2/55 air conditioning (that’s two windows rolled down at 55 mph) and headed north out of town to see Philippe Bravay at Domaine de Ferrand. Bravay is another of the town’s young rising star vignerons: He started bottling his own wine in ’95 and his first vintage in the U.S. market was the ’98. He made an eye-opening ’04, and I was hoping he could follow it up successfully in ’05. I wasn’t let down.

The choices are many as you walk the streets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  
Bravay’s ’05, which has been bottled for just two weeks, is nearly overloaded with blackberry, fig and cassis fruit, but a torrent of minerality keeps it all together, driving it to a vibrant finish. It’s a wine with a lot of volume and harmony—one to stash in the cellar after it gets to the U.S. later this year.

Bravay was particularly enamored with the photo he and his family had in last year’s cover story on Châteauneuf, though he joked that the skiing accident he had shortly before the photo was taken had him so sore he could barely bend down for the shot of him with his children in the vines. He’s fully recovered though, and he continues on his steady rise to prominence within the appellation.

Last stop of the day: Château La Nerthe. This is a reference point domaine for lovers of exotically spicy, modern-style Châteauneuf, and director Alain Dugas makes some of the best whites in town as well. Dugas, who also owns Domaine de la Renjarde and Château de Signac in the towns of Uchaux and Chusclan, respectively, bottled the ’06 white Châteauneuf in March. As the vintage is steadily proving to be a great one for the whites, it’s a superb wine with a ripe, oily texture and notes of braised fennel, anise and mineral. The ’06 Clos de Beauvenir white was not presented, as it is still in barrel. The ’05 Clos de Beauvenir, however, is one of the best white Châteauneufs I’ve ever tasted. Made from just Roussanne and Clairette, it’s a very showy wine, with lots of melon, apricot and hazelnut flavors, superb richness and definition, and a long, captivating finish.

The ’05 reds have been bottled for two months already and will be shipped to the U.S. this fall. The regular cuvée, which has nearly one-third Syrah (a higher than normal proportion) offers La Nerthe’s textbook profile of sweet, mocha-infused toast, along with juicy raspberry fruit and a long, supple finish. It shows better density than the ’04, with an encore of coffee and black fruit on the finish. The ’05 Cuvée des Cadettes offers the most modern-styled aromas in the appellation—only the Boisrenard cuvée of Domaine de Beaurenard can offer competition there—with lots of sweet mocha and cocoa notes, along with plum sauce, blueberry pie and fig paste. It’s rich and powerful, with ample grip, but the tannins are ripe grape tannins rather than just firm oak tannins, thanks to a 22 percent Mourvèdre component and more than one-third Syrah. Both grapes reached ideal ripeness in ’05, according to Dugas, and give the wine its backbone. In fact, Dugas likens his ’05 to the ’98, and he opens a bottle of the ’98 Cadettes to demonstrate his point. Both wines show remarkably similar tannin profiles (even though the ’98 is a few years ahead). The ’05 Cadettes should rival the superb ’04 that was produced here.

I wanted to dine at Le Grand Pré tonight, but it was closed, so a salad and cheese plate on the terrace outside my room will suffice instead. Frankly, I could use an early night. That just leaves tomorrow to choose between Le Grand Pré or La Beaugravière, and I’m sure you can guess which way I’m leaning. Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary, and perhaps the one down side (along with higher cholesterol) to being a wine writer is the time away from home, and missing important dates. I’m hoping my wife will give me the green light to celebrate for the two of us—our wedding year of ’98 just happens to be a recurring theme on this trip ...

Glenn S Lucash
June 5, 2007 7:55pm ET
James...do you think that the Pegau CdP received such high scores in 03 and 04 because the winemaker didn't produce a Capo in those years and used the grapes in the reservee. Do you think that 05 will be a replay?
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  June 6, 2007 1:24am ET
I'm pretty sure there was a 03 da Capo since I bought some...but it's an interesting point.
Glenn S Lucash
June 6, 2007 9:03am ET
You are right Peter....It was produced in '03, I just couldn't find any and try to block it out.
James Molesworth
June 6, 2007 12:16pm ET
Glenn: Yes, there was a '03 da Capo, no '04. I think the Reservee gets high scores from me because the quality is there, period. 500 cases of da Capo out of a total cuvee of 5,000 cases isn't going to make that much difference...it's the domaines that produce three separate thousand case lots of three different cuvees instead of one lot of 3,000 cases, where you can really see some differences qualitatively between wines...

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