Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

In the South

August 2005

 

Domaine Marcel Richaud lies on the outskirts of Cairanne, in the southern Rhône, on the road to Rasteau. From its terrace you can look out over a sea of vines towards the jagged peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail and the noble pyramid of Mont Ventoux.

 

Marcel Richaud is not just a superb wine maker, he’s also renowned for the great care he lavishes on his 40 hectares of vines. When I first met him, three or four years ago, he had the shining good looks of a film star. Neither wind nor sun has eroded these but experience – and hard work – have etched new lines on his face, which has gained in character and resolution.

 

His 2004 Rosé is made from the first lot of juice from freshly-pressed red grapes, the moment it has taken on a slight pink blush (the rest of the juice is, of course, left on the skins to become rich red wine). The rosé is the only one of his wines that calls for no reflection from the drinker. Fresh and sappy, smelling of rowanberry and strawberry, it can be enjoyed in gulps over the coming months. The rest are made of altogether sterner stuff :

 

2003 CAIRANNE BLANC * (Roussanne, Clairette, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Marsanne)

A rich oaky yellow (new oak enriches the colour of whites), this has an intense, flowery scent of lime, fresh fig, and honey. Quite fat, it is fresh and fruity on the palate and should be drunk around 2006-08.

 

2004 COTES DU RHONE “GARRIGUES” *

A blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan, this smooth dark wine has a grapy, inviting smell of raspberry jam, sweet prunes, and bilberry. Soft on the palate too, a bit chocolaty, it has ample fruit and is well balanced – if closed up at present. It will open up over the next year or so and drink well until end-2008.

 

2004 CAIRANNE **

Almost opaque, this has a full, characterful nose of blackberry jam, blackcurrant, prunes, and chocolate. The Grenache dominates at present (the blend includes three other varieties) and there is good concentration. The compact flavour shows typical South Rhône traits – low acidity, spice, and weightiness – and calls to mind black fruit jams, liquorice, and prunes. There’s also a hint of bay leaf on the earthy finish. A brooding wine to enjoy with stews and game dishes over the next 5 years.

 

2003 CAIRANNE “ESTRAMBORDS” ***

Darker still, this has a glorious scent, weighty and full, of ripe black fig, raspberry jam, and chocolate. This superb nose is full of old-vine mellowness and depth. The flavour is full and weighty, with plenty of flesh and good structure. Fig, prune, and bay leaf show on the nuanced, persistent finish. Tannins begin to exert their pull after a moment or two, like tendons acting on muscles. A slight roughness on the finish ought to melt away in about 4 years; the wine will then drink beautifully for another 5-7.

 

 

The last wine should be viewed within the context of a local tradition of making sweet, port-like dessert wines in very rich vintages :

 

2003 CAIRANNE “L’EBRESCADE” **(*)

This near-black wine has a rich, full aroma of sweet damson jam, prunes, and liquorice (a smell that’s more similar to a Banyuls than a port). The flavour is full, rich, and viscous, with a long, earth-and-stone finish. Despite the porty sweetness (the wine contains 14 grammes residual sugar), the aftertaste is quite dry, with a rasp of tannins. This will be ideal with chocolate or crème brûlée around 2010-15.

 

A view across the vineyards towards the celebrated village of Cairanne.

 

2003 JEAN DE VERDE (pure Grenache)

This paleish red has a soft, jammy nose of plum and plumstone, blackberry, and ripe fig. The flavour, too, is soft and plummy, but the aftertaste is drily tannic and lacks harmony. The tannins are a little green.

 

I was back on the Route de Rasteau in only a few minutes. Having a bare 25 minutes to spare I dropped in unannounced at Domaine la Soumade on the outskirts of Rasteau. Several bottles of this estate’s wines have given me unalloyed pleasure in the past. I rang the bell three times without response and was just about to leave when a slim and elegant blonde appeared and, with exemplary efficiency, fitted a tasting of some of their best wines into the 20-minute slot that now remained.


2001 RASTEAU PRESTIGE * (80% Grenache, 10% each Syrah and Mourvèdre)

Not very dark, this four-year-old has a soft, unassertive nose of plum, prune, blackberry jam, and bay leaf. The flavour is round and supple, and very agreeable, but lacks concentration. Of only medium length, it should be drunk now and over the next 2-3 years.

 

2001 RASTEAU “CONFIANCE” ** (from vines aged 50-100 years)

Deeper and more intense in colour, this has a big, broad, spicy nose of damson jam, prunes, and cocoa. It’s much weightier and denser than the preceding. Elegant and expressive on the palate, this plummy, balanced wine has the structure to improve for a good 8 years.

 

2003 COTES DU RHONE “VIOLETTES” * (80% Syrah, 10% each Viognier and Roussanne)

The dark Syrah grape accounts for the unusually blackish colour, while a percentage of new oak barrels explains the pronounced smokiness on the nose. Damson is the main fruit on nose and palate, with some pruny density in the background. Sinewy on the finish, and very closed, this should show best around 2008-12.

 

This is a kind of southern Rhône pastiche on Côte-Rôtie, the great red from the northern part of the region, which is mainly Syrah to which up to 15% Viognier may be added.

 

2003 “FLEUR DE CONFIANCE” ***

Made from tiny yields (15 hectolitres per hectare), this has a fine explosive aroma of cherry, raspberry, and damson. Complex and flowery, it is faintly sweet. This sweetness carries over to the palate, which is loaded with damson and raspberry fruit. The tannins on the long, sinewy aftertaste impart a certain severity at present, but lurking in the background is a very real delicacy. Needs time : drink around 2009-17.

 

All of the wines here are excellent but none, it has to be said, has quite the sumptuousness I found in their best cuvées in the great 1990 vintage. But then such years are few and far between, even in the southern Rhône!

 

 

A tiny minority of people in all disciplines have minds that are so utterly their own that they view all received wisdom with scepticism and set themselves a course dictated wholly by their very own instincts, emotions, and thought processes. Jérôme Bressy of Domaine Gourt de Mautens is a wine-maker of this ilk. Fanatical about low yields – his mean production is around 12-15 hectolitres per hectare – he is helped in this endeavour by most of his vines being very old. Quite a few were planted 50-80 years ago. His 13 hectares of vines are planted with 70% Grenache, 15% Carignan (a variety that gives commonplace wines except when the plants are very old, as in the case here), 10 % Mourvèdre, and a cocktail of other varieties that includes the fascinating Counoise.

 

The wine-makers he most admirers, he declares roundly, are Gérard Chave and the late Jacques Reynaud of Rayas.

 

Lively and intense, but no introvert, Jérôme is in his thirties and has blazing eyes, a jutting jaw, and square shoulders. In the right costume, bat in hand, he could easily pass for a US baseball champion. But he’s no team player: he’s a man who bats for himself and his wines. His main credo – he repeated it several times during my short visit – is “you have to take risks!”.

 

2004 RASTEAU BLANC

Still fermenting, this pale yellow wine is hard to judge, with some sulphur still masking the fruit on the nose. The flavour is more revealing: round, lush, and lively, it hints at apricot with a touch of pineapple. A second barrel of the same wine is slightly more open, with a suggestion of fig on the finish.

 

2003 RASTEAU BLANC *

This has a full, round, expressive aroma of apricot, mirabelle, and orange blossom, and is very fresh and flavoursome on the palate, tasting almost like a light white Hermitage. This will make excellent drinking around 2007-10.

 

2002 RASTEAU

Medium-deep in colour, this has an aromatic nose of prune, plum, and carnation. The mild flavour is a meld of strawberry jam, plum, and chocolate. A pleasant wine to drink over the next year or so. (’02 was a catastrophic year in the southern Rhône and Jérôme was only able to make this respectworthy wine by reducing yields to a pitifully 7 hectolitres per hectare and vinifiying with the utmost care and attention.)

 

2003 RASTEAU ** (15° alcohol)

This dark wine has a rich, weighty, concentrated scent of damson jam, liquorice, sweet prune, and spice. It also smells of the garrigue. There’s a porty density to it. In the mouth, prunes, plum jam, and liquorice. There’s lots of extract here, and a feeling of clay on the long, fat finish, which has a lot of depth. Drink 2010-16.

I picked late in ’03, between 18 September and 7 October. I put off the picking when I cut open a grape that seemed ripe, only to find it still green inside… you have to take risks!”

 

2004 RASTEAU ***

Still loaded with malic acid (which will be transformed into mild lactic acid in due course), this richly-pigmented wine smells of black fruits and is vital and very focused. The intensely fruity flavour has very good structure and, while closed at present, will clearly develop for a good dozen years. It has better acidity than the ’03 and should end up the better wine. We then tasted other barrels of the ’04 Rasteau, some containing different proportions of grape varieties (the best will be blended together to make the grand vin in due course): Grenache and very old Carignan; Grenache and Mourvèdre; and Grenache with extremely old Carignan planted on chalky soil. All had different traits that, when the barrels are mixed, will produce a whole that is far, far more than the sum of its parts.

 

At the finish, I sampled Jérôme’s version of a sweet Rasteau. A deep purple colour, it smelled of all manner of black fruits, violets and crushed raspberry. Only 1200 bottles exist; those owning any will have an excellent port-substitute to enjoy with nuts, chocolate dessert, or Christmas pudding around 2015-20.

 

 

 

CHATEAU-NEUF-DU-PAPE is, of course, the most prestigious of all appellations in the southern Rhône. In top vintages, the very best wines exhibit a unique spiciness, power, and dynamism yet also have delicacy and subtlety too. A harmonious fusion of these characteristics is not very easy to bring off, not least because these hot climes inevitably result in very high levels of alcohol.

 

But vinous miracles are possible: you can drink Châteauneufs that dose over 14° alcohol yet are still as fresh as a Burgundy and have real finesse too. On the whole, though, the best producers do all in their power to hold alcohol levels low.

 

Château Mont-Redon is the biggest family-owned estate within the appellation, with 125 hectares of vineyard. It has been run for over 30 years by two cousins, Jean Abeille and Didier Fabre, both of whom have bright-eyed children well-qualified in oenology.

 

The ’04 whites are promising – fresh, flowery, and elegant – with the Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc having a composite smell and taste of apple, melon, and orange. With good acidity, it will drink well over the next 4 years. The white Lirac shows promise too, despite being in an oaky phase. As always, the Châteauneuf is best:

 

2004 CHATEAU MONT REDON BLANC **(*)

Flowery and expressive, with a mingled scent of white peach, orange blossom, and honey, it has a fresh, lushly fruity flavour which leads into a chalky, but otherwise closed aftertaste. This will be ideal with elegant fish dishes over the next 6 years or so.

 

2003 CHATEAU MONT REDON BLANC ***

Voluminous and waxy on the nose, with hints of rose hip, crab apple, and pear, this is a bigger, richer wine with a great deal of power. Richly fruity on the palate, with lots of viscosity, it also has good minerality. Already long, it will expand considerably as it ages and ought to improve for a decade or two (the ’76, also from a low-acid vintage, was superb about 7 years ago).

 

On the red side, the ’03 Côtes du Rhône and Lirac were both excellent, with good balance and plenty of structured fruit, and will evolve well over a number of years. Given that ’02 was a very difficult vintage, all three of Mont Redon’s reds (inclusive of the Châteauneuf) are surprisingly successful, with ample fruit and good freshness; all will drink well over the next 1-3 years.

 

2003 CHATEAU MONT REDON ***

A medium-deep purple, this has a vital, focused, concentrated aroma with plenty of refinement, suggestive of cherry, damson, peony, and raspberry. One is struck by the sheer elegance of the aroma – quite an achievement in this oven-hot vintage which gave so many harshly tannic reds in these parts. But this should not obscure the fact that there’s lots of Châteauneuf power too.

 

This is confirmed on the palate where the gamey Mourvèdre (about 12% of the blend) makes its presence felt alongside many other varieties. The dominant taste is of plum and blackberry jam, with clovey spice on the long, elegant finish.

 

Mont-Redon usually shows very well when young and one can easily make the mistake of drinking it up long before full maturity has arrived. Those who keep at least some bottles until 2013-20 will find they have good reason to pat themselves on the back.

 

A sampling of a few older vintages revealed that the ’01 is evolving well, along similar lines to the compact and spicy ’99, while the ’95 – which seemed to lack weight a few years back – has grown fuller and more powerful and will also last well. Best of all, though, is the 2000 which, while delicious now (it’s hard to put your glass down!) will grow in complexity over the coming 10 or more years.

 

The vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are among the hottest in all France. Still greater heat is generated by the millions of large pebbles – washed down from the Alps aeons ago – which absorb heat during the day and radiate them, ripening grapes at night.

 

Domaine Pierre Usseglio achieved international fame some years ago by launching a super-cuvée called Mon Aïeul, which is made from the choicest grapes from the oldest vines on the 22-hectare estate. Production of this “bijou” wine is very small and the price high. Until recently, its existence partly masked the fact that the estate’s “normal” Châteauneuf-du-Pape was not all that exceptional. This situation has been partly remedied in recent years, as a small vertical tasting demonstrated. The more recent the vintage, the better the wine.

2000 CHATEAUNEUF DU PAPE *

Given that ’00 was an excellent year, the colour is disappointingly light and the nose, while elegant, lacks power and density. Raspberry, pomegranate, and wisteria form an aromatic interweave, and there’s also a whiff of clay from the soil. The flavour is elegant and refined but lacks drive. This is an attractive but not arresting wine to drink over the coming 6-8 years.

 

2001 CHATEAUNEUF DU PAPE **

An immediate jump in quality : the colour is deeper, the aroma richer and more complete, conjuring up damson, sloe, chocolate, and dried fig (the latter smell probably from super-ripe Grenache). The flavour has a similar elegance to that of the ’00 but with more definition and richer fruit. The taste is a meld of pomegranate, blackberry jam, and clove. Will improve for a decade or more.

(the smoother texture and greater intensity are explained partly by the low yield – 28 hectolitres per hectare – and by the fact that the Usseglios started to destalk the bunches in this vintage.)

 

2002 CHATEAUNEUF DU PAPE (100% Grenache)

From one of the worst vintages in recent decades, this is weak in colour but has an attractively soft, spicy scent of cherry and cherry stone, strawberry compote, and cinnamon. Light, clean, gently spicy, this agreeable wine will give moderate pleasure over the coming 2-3 years if served with delicate dishes.

 

2003 CHATEAUNEUF DU PAPE **(*)

Vivid in appearance, the ’03 has a fuller, richer nose than the ’01 and smells appealingly of red cherry, raspberry, carnation, and plum. The flavour is the fullest so far and has a solid core of ripe, healthy fruit. There’s quite a bit of depth too. The aftertaste is of appreciable density yet there’s delicacy too.

5-6 years’ ageing will bring a maturity that should persist for a further 8 or so.

 

2004 CHATEAUNEUF DU PAPE ***

This has the darkest colour of the series, which suggests that the grapes were harvested when very ripe and full of pigment. The aroma is big and forceful – raspberry, elderberry, and blackcurrant – and is very harmonious. It also shows classic restraint – always a good sign in a Châteauneuf. The intense flavour is packed with spicy fruit, with good sève, and allies suavity with forthrightness and power. The emphatic, harmonious aftertaste shows real persistence. Drink around 2013-20.

 

If the “basic” Châteauneuf has improved in leaps and bounds the Mon Aïeul cuvée remains infinitely superior, even if the gap has lessened dramatically. But this is inevitable if the choicest parts of production are reserved for this bottling.

 

2003 MON AIEUL *** (100% Grenache)

Much darker than the previous wines, this has a strikingly noble, concentrated aroma of cherry, raspberry, and oriental spices with more than a suggestion of truffle. There’s an almost Vosne-Romanée-style opulence to it.

 

The flavour is velvety and rich, but also shows buoyancy and freshness. Pomegranate, ripe fig, and plum show on the long aftertaste, which unfolds new subsidiary flavours every few seconds. This infant wine needs holding back for 8 years or so and should then evolve splendidly for a further 12-15.

 

2004 MON AIEUL ****

The nose is fresh, vital and, while distinctly woody to begin with, velvety. Dominant scents include those of cherry jam, violets, cinnamon, and (very subtle) smoke. The flavour, of great refinement, expands to include fig and pomegranate. The aftertaste, which is flecked with minerality, comes in waves and is very long. Ideally, this great wine – it definitely has the edge of the ’03 – should be forgotten for 8-9 years and enjoyed over the 15 that follow.

 

 

Domaine Charvin must be one of the most unprepossessing properties in the whole of Châteauneuf. The nondescript farm building has an abandoned air (I nearly turned away, thinking it the wrong place) and stands in an isolated spot at the end of a meandering track. But it is (as the Michelin puts it) definitely “worth a special voyage”.

 

Laurent Charvin, who runs things, had forgotten our appointment and I was initially received by his elderly father, and immensely courteous man who immediately insisted that I came inside to get out of the sun. The estate, he told me in his rolling Provencal accent, had been bought by the family in 1851, only to be devastated by the phylloxera a couple of decades later. It then passed into a state of desuetude until his grandfather replanted it in the early 20th century. The estate covers 24 hectares in total, but only 8 of these are within the Châteauneuf appellation. In 2003 they produced 50,000 bottles of Côtes-du-Rhône, 30,000 of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and a quantity of vin du pays.

 

When Laurent turned up, a little late, he generously gave up a slice of his lunch hour to compensate for the delay. He is of average height, quiet-spoken, with a high-bridged nose, a round chin, and spectacles. He looks bookish, and clearly thinks deeply about his wines, which he discusses with intensity and complete candour. Modes hold great sway in today’s wine world but not at this estate. No oak is used whatever, all the wines being vinified and matured in inert concrete vats. The wines are not forced into any kind of mould but are allowed to find their own way (with emphatic help at crucial moments) to the point closest to perfection that nature will allow. What you smell and taste in the glass is nothing but the fermented juice of noble grapes – and the purest possible expression of the terroir.

 

In a region known for its powerful, even elemental wines, Laurent Charvin attaches prime importance to subtlety and refinement. “The Grenache is the most oxidative of all grape varieties but it also has an exceptional capacity to give finesse. In fact, together with the Pinot Noir, it can give more finesse than any other variety.”

 

2003 COTES DU RHONE * (85% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 5% old Carignan)

Well-coloured, this has a refined aroma of bilberry jam, violets, and provencale herbs. In the mouth it expands to include prune and sloe too. The aftertaste is quite long and smooth and the wine’s viscosity almost masks a slight hardness, even stalkiness. The latter, however, fades away after a while. The texture on the finish makes me think of marron glacé.

 

2003 CHATEAUNEUF DU PAPE *** (80% Grenache, 10% Syrah, and small percentages of Mourvèdre and Vaccarèse)

Darker and more intense than the Côtes-du-Rhône, this has a soft, subtle, complex aroma of ripe plum, prune, violet, date, and bilberry jam. The flavour is delectably soft and glyceriney, with lots of finesse. Sloe and fig come into play and the gently rich flavour is very long and fresh, delivering a succession of sub-flavours all susceptible to future development. The tannins are very ripe, endowing the wine with a structured softness seldom found outside Burgundy.

This will show best around 2013-20.

 

*

 

A lone visit was paid in Provence, to Château Calissanne, a vast property that boasts extensive olive groves as well as 100 hectares of vines. All three colours are produced in three grades, in ascending order of quality : Cuvée du Château, Cuvée Prestige, and Clos Victoire. All last well, while the two superior cuvées often show exceptional balance and depth of flavour.

 

The vineyards of Château Calissanne in Côteaux d'Aix are even more sun-drenched than those of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In most years the harvest starts well before the end of August.

Medium pink, this has a grapy scent of yellow and pink cherries and a fine sappy flavour that conjures up the same fruit. Made from Grenache, Syrah, and Cabernet-Sauvignon (15%), it should be drunk up within the year.

 

2004 CLOS VICTOIRE ROSE ** (95% Syrah, 5% Grenache)

An intense pink, this has an intense aroma of raspberry, strawberry, and red cherry. The excellent flavour is very closed but there is a fugitive hint of sweet radish (the first of the season, before bitterness sets in). Do not touch for a year, then enjoy for a further 2-3. (Clos Victoire Rosé has the weight of a Provencal red – you could mistake it for a top Tavel – and needs at least one year to open fully).

 

2003 CUVEE DU CHATEAU ROUGE **

The colour is impressively deep, while the characterful aroma positively soars out of the glass, full of the odours of the south : underbrush, the garrigue, leather, liquorice. The flavour has excellent concentration and is full of character. Graphite and bay leaf show on the long, spicy aftertaste. Drinkable now (with pizza, pasta, and stews) but not at its best until around 2007-12.

 

2002 CLOS VICTOIRE ROUGE **(*) (60% Syrah, 40% Cabernet-Sauvignon)

The colour is deep and nuanced, while the aroma – very Cabernet-Sauvignon at the moment – is full of blackberry and damson fruit. Only a slight pepperiness betrays the presence of the Syrah. One is struck by the freshness of the flavour – plum jam, prune, dark chocolate – and there is a reprise of damson and blackberry on the sustained, elegant finish. A very poised wine. Drink 208-13.

(Calissanne, which usually starts harvesting in August, was not affected by the torrential downpours witnessed in the south in ’02, which explains the excellent balance of this wine).

 

2004 ROCHER ROUGE **(*) (100% Mourvèdre)

This has the deep and vivid colour of crème de cassis, while the rich, dynamic aroma conjures up wild cherries, raspberry, graphite, and cinnamon. The same fruits and spices are found on the palate and there is a feeling of intense ripeness.

Quite Bandol-like in style, it has an aftertaste reminiscent of crème brûlée. The Mourvèdre is a hard wine, initially, but softens in time – when the grapes were fully ripe as is the case here. At best around 2010-15.

 

2003 ROCHER ROUGE ** (100% Mourvèdre)

A similarly deep colour with a more savage, broader aroma, suggesting damson jam, smoke, graphite, and toasted oak. The flavour is more voluminous than the ’04, with damson jam well to the fore. The dense, closed aftertaste is very smoky. A violent, earthy wine, smoky and savage.

 

It is more marked by the oak – a very toasty oak – than the more elegant ’04, which is also better balanced.

 

2004 CHATEAU CALISSANNE “CUVEE DU CHATEAU” BLANC **

A bright yellow gold, this has a full flowery scent of greengage and chalk. Apple and yellow plum take over on the palate, and you can taste the chalky/limey subsoil on the finish. A little closed at present, it will expand enormously over the coming year and will then drink well for at least 4 more (even at this humble level, the Calissanne whites age extremely well).

 

2003 CLOS VICTOIRE BLANC *** (50-year-old Clairette, 25-year-old-Sémillon)

The colour is an intense, nuanced green-gold while the nose is a tantalising meld of apple, white rose, and grapefruit peel. The delicious, lushly fruity flavour calls to mind apple mousse, yellow plum, and ripe wheat. The long, rolling finish is very mineral and opens up, sensuously, to show lots of appley fruit and acidity. After a few seconds it swells into still greater minerality with a tangy finish. A splendid southern white, with the authority of a fine white Burgundy, to wonder at over the next 12-15 years or more.

 

© Frank Ward 2005

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