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The Rhône, Day 1: Hitting the Ground Running

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 26, 2009 2:22am ET

Flight: On time. Train connection: No problem. I got to Avignon just before noon, as scheduled, and so finally my long-running travel jinx is broken. Sort of.

My GPS didn’t exactly have the new roundabout on it, and I spent a few extra minutes getting to my hotel, but that hardly counts. I dropped my bags at Auberge de Cassagne and headed out to clear the cobwebs from my head after the trip.

Walking in to La Mère Germaine, the bistro in the center of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the buzz of lunch was full bore and I snagged the last available seat. Frédéric Albar, chef and owner since 1997, saw me come in and gave me a warm greeting. A glass of Domaine de Nalys Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2007 and a fresh crudité laced with a nice biting horseradish dressing helped restore some clarity, while a sliced duck breast in a mushroom sauce with a half-bottle of Château de Vaudieu Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2005 finished my post-travel decompression.

Lingering for a bit after lunch and as the customers slowly filed out, Albar and I caught up. He’s well in tune with the latest buzz in the appellation, which these days is about the stunning 2007s brewing at Domaine Giraud, where I’ll visit later this week. Like most Châteauneuf-du-Pape lovers, Albar is wowed by the rapid changes and turnarounds at estates like Giraud, Clos St.-Jean and Domaine La Barroche, while he still adores the wines of longtime favorites such as Château Rayas and Henri Bonneau. It’s that wealth of diversity that makes the area so much fun to explore. And it's great to see one of its longtime denizens embracing and appreciating the changes as they occur around him—the wine list at La Mère Germaine is rock solid because of it.

After a final espresso, I had time for one visit. As I was walking up the street to Domaines des Sénéchaux, a pick-up truck pulls up beside me.

"You are a journalist, no?" said the driver. I guess my pad and pen seem to give me away.

"Yes, but my French may not be good enough to give you directions," I answer back.

"No, I’m Bernard, from Domaine des Sénéchaux," he answers back. "Hop in."

Domaine des Sénéchaux is the property recently purchased by the Cazes family of Château Lynch-Bages. You may be familiar with Jean-Charles Cazes, who guest blogged here on WineSpectator.com during his last harvest.

A parcel of old-vine Grenache in the Bois des Sénéchaux lieux-dit owned by Domaine des Sénéchaux.

When the Cazes family bought the large Sénéchaux property, the move raised some eyebrows in the still somewhat insulated, small town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Whatever concerns some of the locals may have had about approaching hoardes of Bordelais and others streaming in with pockets full of cash and scooping up any vineyard land they could find have probably disappeared in the current economic climate. After only a day, it's the main lead-in topic of conversation with everyone I've spoken to.

Bernard Tranchecoste, 45, is a native of Provence who has lived in Châteauneuf-du-Pape for 10 years. He came on at Sénéchaux in 1998 and the Cazes family retained him to run the day-to-day operations at the domaine, located around the corner from Domaine La Roquète and across from the town post office.

The domaine consists of 27 hectares of vines, the bulk of which are in two parcels, 12 in Bois des Sénéchaux and 8 hectares in Les Revès, both of which are located on the eastern side of the appellation, stretching from south of Courthézon down around the back of Château La Nerthe’s property. The estate is currently divided among one-third new vines (15 years or less), one-third averaging 40 years and one-third 60-year-old vines. There’s been little in the way of change here—no major replantings and only minor tweaks in the cave—since the Cazes family bought the estate from Pascal Roux in 2006.

"It’s about getting experience through observation from here on," said Tranchecoste. "It's not about big changes."

There’s little going on in the vineyards these days—winter pruning has been done and some folks are doing a light plow to break up last season’s ground cover. The air smells of sweet humus and the burning of piles of dead vines that have been pulled out to make room for their replacements. The vineyards of Sénéchaux look particularly healthy, though the number of young vines sprinkled among the vine rows (vines were historically replaced as needed under the previous owner, rather than replanting entire parcels all at once) are noticeable. When I ask how they work parcels with such a mix of vine ages, Tranchecoste said, "We vinify the old vines separately. That’s one of the small changes since 2006."

One other small change is the best parcels of Syrah and Mourvèdre are now vinified and aged in barrels, whereas the Grenache is still vinified in cement vats before aging in foudre. The final blend is made after 14 months, just before the bottling. Production stands at around 7,300 cases annually of red, with 1,000 cases of white.

The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a blend of 64 percent Grenache, 19 percent Syrah, 15 percent Mourvèdre and the rest Vaccarèse and Cinsault (for descriptions of the grapes used in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, reference my ABCs of Châteauneuf-du-Pape). It shows bright red cherry fruit, with alluring garrigue and mineral notes and a dusty finish. It opens steadily in the glass too, showing a more supple profile as it airs, a trait that the new team is aiming for by shortening the initial vatting period by a few days. The 2006 offers outstanding quality, with the freshness and purity that are the hallmarks of the vintage.

And then comes the 2007, the first vintage totally under the new ownership’s control. With a drop less Grenache (62 percent) and a touch more Syrah (20 percent) and Mourvèdre (16 percent) along with the usual Vaccarèse and Cinsault, the 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is clearly outstanding, with a noticeable step up in aromatic intensity and flesh. It really jumps out, with sweet tapenade, licorice and plum notes backed by a fleshy but focused finish. Set for bottling at the end of March and subsequent release in September, it looks to be a textbook example of this impressive young vintage. While it carries 15 percent alcohol, it’s seamless, without a trace of heat, thanks to finely imbedded acidity.

Don’t overlook the white at this estate either. The 2008 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White is made from one-third Roussanne (barrel fermented) along with nearly a third each of Clairette and Grenache Blanc and a drop of Bourboulenc, the latter three all fermented in stainless-steel tank. The varieties are aged separately and then blended after five months, just before bottling. The result is a plump, creamy, pure orchard fruit-filled version with lingering minerality. The 2008 is a delicious followup to the outstanding 2007 white that I've already tasted blind in New York (with an official review to appear soon) and it provides an excellent introduction for those of you who are yet to try the best white wine you’re not drinking.

With Tranchecoste minding the store, the Cazes family seems to have settled in well enough here. I like the subtle tweaks rather than drastic changes—even the label has received just a minor brush up. The domaine has always had a good reputation for its terroir.

If the 2007 plays out as I imagine it will, it should be a buy-by-the-case bottling for those looking for excellent QPR. At around $40 a bottle, Sénéchaux is one of the appellation's better values.

It's early evening and the day is suddenly growing short. The mistral is kicking up and I realize it's time to recharge the batteries for my first full day. I'll be visiting a half-dozen estates in town tomorrow to dive head first into the 2007s. Stay tuned.

Andrew Bernardo
Halifax, Nova Scotia —  February 26, 2009 5:36pm ET
Thanks for the update James. Will you be visiting La Roqu¿ on your trip? After some impressive performances from them the last couple of years, I am anxious to see how they are doing.

All the best,

James Molesworth
February 27, 2009 2:40am ET
Andrew: I am not getting there on this trip - but you're right, the property is very much on the upswing. I visited with Daniel Brunier last May, so you can reference my notes fro that tasting...
Eric Yates
Geneve, Switzerland —  February 27, 2009 8:52am ET
Ahhh - so good to hear you are back in the Sounthern Rhone.¿ I always look forward to the blogs as it provides information and focus for our annual wine buying trip to the Southern Rhone.¿ We started purchasing from Domaine des Senechaux in 2005 due to the value in both taste and price. I am happy to hear the price has not jumped with the purchase of the winery. I also believe the whites from CdP are a hidden gem. Next year if you want to leave the clouds of winter in New York, you should come to Switzerland a week early and enjoy the sun and skiing. I am willing to provide a place to stay for the week.

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