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A Visit to Henri Bonneau

The dean of Châteauneuf shares a few secrets

James Molesworth
Posted: April 10, 2006

Henri Bonneau, 68, has quietly assumed the position of dean of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He has been making wine since 1956 from his tiny holdings (15 acres) in the famed La Crau sector of the appellation. Bonneau's wines are distinctive, and definitely not for everyone, but they represent the archetype of small-production, artisanally crafted wines. I had my first visit chez Bonneau during my trip to Châteauneuf in March.

When I arrived at Bonneau's house, I mentioned that I had come to Châteauneuf-du-Pape for two weeks in order to understand the appellation.

"That's nice," said Bonneau. "I've been here 68 years and still don't understand it."

Bonneau has a reputation as being standoffish, but I found him open, effusive and happy to help those who ask. Isabel Ferrando at Domaine St.-Préfert frequently solicits his advice, and other vignerons say he readily gives it as well. He is also humble, and dismisses me with a wave of his hand when I ask if he considers himself the professor of the appellation.

When visiting with Bonneau in his catacomb of a cellar, wine seems almost secondary. The conversation revolves more around which local restaurant has the best lamb, or how the truffle season was. The wines seem secondary, that is, until you actually taste them.

Only red wine is produced here, and the vinification is as traditional as possible. The grapes are rarely destemmed; the parcels are separated, but varieties are blended, then fermented in vat and then moved to a hodgepodge of foudres and barrels (that look as if they were recently unearthed from an archeological dig) for the élévage.

"No micro-oxygenation, no tricks," he says. "Besides, I need time to go fishing."

It's the élévage that sets Bonneau apart. The wines often spend several years in their aging vessels before bottling, and the '00s were still in wood when I tasted them. (By comparison, most 2004 Châteauneufs are being bottled now.) Bonneau makes several different cuvées, selected according to his judgment of their quality. There is the normal Châteauneuf-du-Pape (what Bonneau deems "good"), the Cuvée Marie Beurrier ("very good" to Bonneau) and the Réserve des Célestins (the "grand vin").

The '04 and '05 wines, tasted from wood, are loaded with purple fruits and reverberate with vibrant acidity. But some of the vats from both vintages are still fermenting, and Bonneau has yet to decide what wines will be earmarked for the specific cuvees. Pinning him down on his opinion is impossible. He also asks me not to write down his comments on which of the recent vintages ('03 through '05) he prefers.

As I tasted the '03s, the wines really started to take shape. One barrel showed the classic Bonneau notes of garrigue, iron and beef, with burly tannins, while another showed Porty, grapey plum fruit with a wild, almost spirity finish.

Bonneau passed over 2002, a weak vintage, and instead showed his '01s, where he begins to give a clear picture of the cuvées. A foudre marked for the 2001 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Marie Beurrier offered iron, currant and olive paste flavors with gamey tannins. The 2001 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins is packed with fruit—licorice and currant—along with severe, iron-like tannins. Bonneau plans to keep both these cuvées in wood for another winter.

The 2000 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Marie Beurrier (still in foudre) tasted sweet, pure and long—remarkably feminine in its impression—and shows a long garrigue-filled finish. The 2000 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins is tight, and it alternates between silky and hard, cooked and pure, savage and demure, with a finish that is packed with truffle and chestnut flavors.

Tasted from bottle was the 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Spéciale, a fourth cuvée that Bonneau only makes in rare vintages, sourced from extremely ripe Grenache fruit. It smells like powdered rust, and offers layers of bitter cocoa, blackberry, currant, mineral and garrigue notes backed by Port-like power. The wine clocks in at 17 percent alcohol and a few grams of residual sugar; it blazed a unique trail across my palate, no small feat since it came after approximately 400 wines tasted during the previous two weeks. Bonneau says he'd serve it with chocolate mousse right now, but also notes that after aging, he can't tell it from his Réserve des Célestins (he last made the Cuvée Spéciale in '90).

This domaine is a reference point for traditionally made Châteauneuf—and a thoroughly inimitable one as well. The wines are difficult to find in the U.S. market, and you will pay a hefty premium for them. But if you are a fan of the Rhône, you should have at least one bottle of Bonneau in your cellar, for posterity's sake at least.

Note: The 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Spéciale and '99 Réserve des Célestins were reviewed in blind tastings in my New York office after I returned from the Rhône.

Wine Score Price
HENRI BONNEAU & FILS Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Spéciale 1998 98 $345
This offers an aroma of chocolate covered prunes stewing on the stove, along with notes of brick dust, black currant preserve, fresh espresso and powdered rust. Powerfully tannic and very heady, with layers of overripe fruit on the finish. This drinks like a Bual Madeira infused with black truffles, yet it somehow manages to maintain a sense of freshness. Amazing, but not for everyone. Drink now through 2025. —J.M.
HENRI BONNEAU & FILS Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins 1999 96 $225
Burly edged tannins pump through this heavy-weight, with roasted chestnut, game, licorice, tar and stewed currant and prune fruit. Steel-plated finish thanks to the tannins, but look closely and you'll see a river of acidity pumping through too. Drink now through 2025. —J.L.

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