Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Châteauneuf-du-Pape : “The Wine that made the Pope Famous”

October 2001

In a world where more and more wines are increasingly alike, Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône continues to remain largely inimitable. With a glowing deep purple colour, huge spicy aroma, generous mouth-filling texture, and the unique, intermingling aromas and savours of such characterful grapes as the Grenache, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Syrah, and Piccardin, a top Châteauneuf can scarcely be mistaken for anything else.

A very old, gnarled Grenache vine surrounded by large pebbles which absorb heat from the sun during the day and radiate it on the grapes during the night. The pebbles were born from Switzerland, aeons ago, by glaciers.

Fifteen years ago, though, barely 8-10 of the 225 or so estates made wines that were really worthy of the appellation’s potential. Today, their number has swelled to perhaps 25-30, while wines from most of the rest are at least a lot better than they used to be. This overall improvement is due to at least three key factors: the much keener scrutiny brought to bear on the region’s wines by leading wine-writers; vast improvements in wine-making technology; and a willingness on the part of consumers to pay higher prices for the best wines.

One estate that has made top-quality wines for as long as most of us can remember is Clos des Papes, run by the veteran Paul Avril and his son Vincent. Civilized and very approachable, with a keen appreciation of good wines from other regions, they are dedicated to quality and do everything in their power to make the best possible wine. They hold yields some 20% below the already fairly modest maximum of 35 hectolitres per hectare, and sell off any less satisfactory vats in bulk. Both red and white versions of Clos des Papes are among the purest and best-balanced of the appellation.

The main problem in the south, M. Avril said, is the wines’ tendency to oxidize. This is encouraged by the hotness of the region, the natural proneness of the main grape – the Grenache – to maderize, and the wine’s naturally high level of alcohol. At Clos des Papes they have done everything possible to counter this trait. The cellars are now completely air-conditioned with humidity held at exactly the right level to minimize evaporation, and everything is as clean and fresh as a new pin.

A bunch of ripe Grenache grapes – the variety that, more than all others, gives the wines of Châteauneuf-neuf-du-Pape their unique character.

The only really major innovation at the estate within living memory was when M. Avril, about twenty-five years ago, decided to make a big increase in the percentage of the Mourvèdre vine planted on the estate, doubling it to 20%. They were among the first to show more attention to this fascinating grape, which gives extra body, weight, tannin, and density to the wines. It also confers meaty, even gamey, aromas and flavours, still further emphasizing the masculine, challenging side of the best Châteauneufs. As observed above, the average quality of the region’s wines has improved immensely over recent decades and few vintages today, even the lightest and rainiest, are unworthy of attention. “In the ’70s we only used to discuss top years like ’45, ’47, and ’52. But these days all the vintages are worth talking about,” M. Avril commented.

2000 CLOS DES PAPES Blanc
Pale but intense green-gold colour and a round, flowery scent conjuring up white peach, grapefruit, and honey. On the palate, racy and very stylish, lusciously fruity and appealing. The long aftertaste hints at peaches, honey, and grapefruit peel and has the kind of elegance and harmony found in very good white burgundies. Elegant and full of charm, it will be delicious for a year or two but may close up for a while before reaching a true maturity that should persist into the second decade of this century.

1999 CLOS DES PAPES Rouge
Deep, dense colour with a broad, powerful, yet freshly fruity aroma of ripe berries and currants and a suggestion of violets. Very subtle, elegant aroma of great purity but in no way lacking force. Excellent flavour with “cut”: blackberry, damson, prunes, smoke. Long harmonious aftertaste needing at least 8-10 years to reach maturity, with a further 10-15 years of steady development. A fine tannic bitterness on the firm finish. Medium-bodied rather than a blockbuster (like the ’98, ’95, and ’90) but complex and structured. (“Similar in style to the ’88 and ’78,” was M. Avril’s comment).

1998 CLOS DES PAPES Rouge
Superb, dense black-purple colour and a strikingly rich, voluminous nose of great ripeness and tremendous depth. Superripe Grenache and Mourvèdre grapes contribute dense, truffly scents, while also suggesting raspberry, black cherry, violet. The scent grows glossier in the glass, as the wine absorbs oxygen, and turns towards flowery opulence (peony, red rose). The full, powerful flavour is superb, showing great richness and complexity, with a medley of berries and cherries and a hint of morel. Long weighty emphatic finish, densely tannic yet lusciously fruity and with wonderful balance. A great Clos des Papes, to be relished around 2012-2030.

It was interesting to register the fact that, while both vintages of the red contained an identical 20% of the Mourvèdre, this almost visceral grape was immediately identifiable as a separate element in the ’98 but quite muted in the ’99.

 

It was after 12.00 when we left Clos des Papes and it was purely fortuitous that we were outside Domaine Pierre Usseglio at 12.20. In France, the lunch hour is sacred and most estates close until 14.00 or even later. We gazed at the building with intense interest. It would be wonderful to taste the wines, but we had no appointment and it would be a waste of energy even to ring the bell. So we rang the bell. The door was immediately swung open by a smiling, friendly Jean-Pierre Usseglio, a young man in his thirties, who instantly agreed to give us a tasting.

The 2000 Châteauneuf Blanc proved to be a deliciously honeyed, flowery wine with this appellation’s typical white peach scent and flavour and a long, distinguished aftertaste that was as pure as spring water. It seemed sure to last the decade out. The first red, a Côtes-du-Rhône from the same vintage, was better than many a Châteauneuf, with its full, chocolaty aroma and dense, plummy flavour with a liquorice aftertaste.

All the same, there was a big leap in quality when we sampled the red ‘99 Châteauneuf, a sumptuous, dynamic wine with a lovely ripe sweetness at its centre and lots of concentrated Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre fruit on the long, persistent finish. It will improve for at least a quarter century.

While one of the best ’99s I have tasted from these parts, it was put into the shade by a special cuvée from the same vintage called Mon Aieul. Made from a single plot of vines aged 80-90 years and planted on gravelly soil, it has a grape mix of 85% Grenache, 5% Syrah, and 10% Cinsaut. Almost opaque, it had a stunning aroma suggesting raspberry, blackcurrant, cranberry, and violet. Aromatically, it was very much a top Châteauneuf, yet it also had a striking affinity, on the nose, with a great Vosne-Romanée – praise indeed! The flavour, too, was magnificent, a cascade of luscious black fruits and liquorice. The earthy aftertaste, with its espresso-like grittiness, was closed but very complex indeed. A great wine to leave untouched for 10-12 years and drink with gratitude up to 2030 and beyond.

In fact, I preferred this wine to the dearer – and rarer – ’99 Cuvée du Cinquantenaire, which came next. Only 3000 bottles were made. Once again, the vines were extremely old and yields tiny. Weighty, very spicy, redolent of truffles and black fruits, it was immensely rich on the palate and very well balanced. All the same, I felt that its scent and taste owed too much to the charred new oak in which it had been lodged, and while it is undoubtledly a splendid wine it will never, in my view, quite shed that heavy oakiness, which partly deadens the lushness of the fruit.

 

At Domaine du Pégau we were received by the young and vivavious Laurence Féraud who is slowly taking over at the helm from her sympathetic father, Paul. Laurence has made quite a few changes at the estate, most notably the creation of a number different cuvées. There are 13 hectares of vines, of which a majority are aged 30-60 years.

Domaine du Pégau – one of the region’s most characterful wines.

Even if the sample itself was a bit oxidized, I was impressed by the 2000 Cuvée Reservée, which showed great amplitude and complexity. Despite the flaw, the wine developed magnificently in the glass, with the explosive aroma taking on the density of glazed fruit and the long, assertive flavour (it made me think of prunes steeped in Cornas, the densest red Rhône of all), having that exhilarating, untamed character for which Pegau is famous. It truly smelled of the garrigue, of sunbaked earth, underbrush, and the ripest of berries. Fresh fruity acidity gave considerable length and vitality.

The same cuvée from ’99 was along similar lines, with its exciting aromatic meld of blackberry jam, garrigue, Provençale herbs, prunes, and liquorice. Full, weighty, even aggressive in the mouth, conveying an impression of hot earth, crushed rock, and scorched underbrush, it tasted of molasses, prunes, and smoke. An echo of the ’79 vintage, this is a noble savage of a wine, for very long keeping.

The ’98 was even better (though here again the sample was a bit oxidized – something professional tasters don’t usually have to put up with!). A Heathcliffe of a wine, it smelled of damson jam, liquorice, violets, and wet, pungent earth and its fiercely assertive, bracingly rich flavour conjured up soot, wild berries, sloe, smoke, prunes. An overwhelming, potentially very great wine to keep as long as you can. By contrast, the absurdly dear ’97 Cuvée Justine, while round and appealing, and with lots of precocious charm, had no great depth and is unlikely to improve for more than a few years.

Domaine de Marcoux is run by the two Armenier sisters, one of whom looks after the vines while the other tends the winery. Sophie, the wine-maker, has the serious, dedicated mien of the born artist. She was candid and, while undogmatic in conversation, knows where she is going. Run along bio-dynamic lines, the estate covers 18 hectares. The 2000 white Châteauneuf fashioned by her was composed of one-third Bourboulenc and two-thirds Roussanne. The latter grape has high acid levels, which gives valuable crispness and precision – and longevity. The wine had a rich yellow colour, a big, blossomy aroma, and a round, luscious flavour of noticeable sweetness. Sophie confirmed that it contained some residual sugar. To me, it seemed a little flabby and we agreed that, despite the Roussanne, it should not be kept for long.

The 2000 pure Roussanne that followed was made of sterner stuff, being altogether drier and more structured. It had been fermented in barrel, with its lees being stirred at intervals in order to extract more flavour. It was immensely fat, not to say obese, but should live a good decade if only on the strength of its great density and acidic “nerviness”. Subtlety was not its strong suit and the best way to enjoy it, in a few years’ time, is surely with foie gras or fresh asparagus (both of which require fat, rich, powerful whites). I suspect that Sophie will be making better, more complex whites within only a vintage or two.

The reds are decidedly better, even if the first to be sampled – from a barrel of pure Grenache – lacked concentration and verve. The next, with an injection of 20% of the dense, assertive Mourvèdre, was better, being darker, fuller, better balanced, and altogether more complete. This in turn was capped by a third cask composed of Cinsaut, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache, which had a similarly deep colour and even more matière.

The first “finished” (fully assembled) wine was the excellent ‘99 Châteauneuf. Poised, elegant, and refined, with each of the component varieties contributing something to the whole, it had a harmonious scent and flavour with masses of concentrated ripe fruit on the long finish. Châteauneuf is always said to be a “masculine” wine. Here is tangible proof, provided by an intelligent female wine-maker, that red Châteauneuf can exhibit “feminine” traits without losing a scrap of its quintessential character.

Best wine of the visit was the ’99 Châteauneuf Vieilles Vignes, a separate bottling from the estate’s oldest vines. This confirmed that, even if 1999 does not have the outstanding concentration and structure of 1998, it does have the density and backbone needed for a good 13-15 years of steady improvement. Smelling enticingly of dried fig, ripe plum, and scorched grapes (something akin to bakelite), it was medium-full rather than massive on the palate, with a fresh, facetted aftertaste of some length.

All lovers of Rhône wines wonder what is happening at the near-lengendary Château Rayas, a unique property which, at its best, makes some of the greatest and most magical wines in all France. Jacques Reynaud, a great eccentric, ran it in his brilliant, inimitable way until his death a few years ago. Then it was taken over by his nephew, Emmanuel, a young family man with his own estate near Vacqueyras. Not long ago I served a 1990 Château Rayas “blind”, together with the Château Beaucastel from the same vintage. All present were agreed that the Rayas was easily the better of the two, even though the Beaucastel was great in its own right.

We dropped in on Emmanuel at his Château des Tours estate. A number of characterful generics that we tasted included a rich and succulent ’98 Grenache Blanc that was not wholly dissimilar to a Rayas Blanc, though of course much less complex; and a rich, surprisingly weighty ‘98 red Côtes-du-Rhône that would certainly improve over several years.

We naturally expected a lot from the sample of the ’98 Château Rayas that brought the tasting to an end, but were disappointed. Its weak, browning colour suggested a rapidly ageing Pinot Noir from a poor vintage. The aroma was flabby and half-oxidized and the flavour weak and insipid. Could this really have been the same wine that has received high marks from a number of respected tasters?

A visit to Château de Beaucastel is always a cheering experience. With 77 hectares of vines (seven of them planted with white varieties) it is one of the appellation’s biggest estates and is run with intelligence and panache by the Perrin family. Here, truly, is a pace-setting domaine which has always gone its own way. The regime is organic, and they have used no chemical fertiliser since 1964, preferring a compost made from sheep droppings and grapeskins left over from the previous vintage.

A highly unusual feature of the wine-making is that the bunches of grapes, which are picked at optimum ripeness, are heated to 80°C for 30 seconds, after which they are immediately cooled down to 20°C. This process is said to bring about maximum extraction of aroma and colour from the skins without the temperature of the juice within the grapes being in any way affected. In other words, the process does not involve pasteurization. An additional benefit is that no sulphur need be added.

The Beaucastel vines have an average age of fully 50 years, and each variety – they use all 13 permitted ones – is picked, vinified, and aged separately. This allows the Perrins to keep all vinous options open until the final blend, or assembly, is made. Happily for all lovers of natural wines, they use no new oak, the wines being matured mostly in very old foudres (wooden vats the size of a shed).

(To keep the record straight: foudres do wear out and have to be replaced from time to time, and the Beaucastel cellars do contain a number of new ones; but these are being “tamed” by being used only for Syrah wines from 30-year-old vines, and a sample from one of these showed that there was little or no woodiness.)

The deep, dark cellars at Château de Beaucastel, where large stocks of old vintages lie ageing.

A tasting of several pure varietals was as fascinating as it was instructive. The Cinsaut, unlike examples from many other estates, was extraordinarily concentrated and rich, and showed that this variety does not have to be pale and lightweight (indeed, it was richer than many a Châteauneuf grand vin!), while the Counoise had an almost shockingly rich aroma, with hints of leather, underbrush, autumn berries, and red roses. These traits, together with the dense, espresso-like tannins on the finish, made me think of the Petit-Verdot, the Bordeaux grape that makes even the Cabernet-Sauvignon seem a little lightweight. The Grenache, too, was an eye-opener, with its blackish colour, big meaty scent, and long fat, briary finish (prunes in port, dates, liquorice). The Syrah had a smell of bloodlike intensity, a racy, luscious flavour, and an aftertaste like a dollop of fresh, sweet damson jam.

Finally, the Mourvèdre was very black, with a vast aroma of prunes, truffle, damson and blackberry jams and a flavour to match. Given the normally savage, untamed nature of this remarkable grape, it was surprisingly smooth and mellow in texture – the sign of extreme ripeness – but the sheer tannic power showed on the weighty, characteristically gamey finish. Mouvèdre accounts for fully 30% of the grand vin and gives an unmistakeable stamp to every bottle of Beaucastel.

The “classic” white ’00 Beaucastel was a splendid wine by any standard -wonderful, honeyed mirabelle fruit – but was, perhaps inevitably, eclipsed by ’00 Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, fashioned from 90-year-old vines giving a yield as tiny as 12 hectolitres per hectare (no more than 1600 bottles). A glowing yellow-gold colour, it exploded with aromas (tangerine, orange, mirabelle plum), and had a miraculously round, luscious flavour with a rich apricot finish. I was reminded of a Meursault Genevrières from a top grower like François Jobard.

The first sample of the red ’99 Beaucastel was oxidized and we had to ask for a fresh one. The second was not just in perfect shape but also of stupendous quality. The blackest ’99 Châteauneuf I have seen, it had a truly magnificent, super-dense nose (plenty of Mourvèdre showing) of black cherry, damson, and blackberries. And that was only to start! Within moments, these aromas were reinforced by a gust of truffle, morel, rubber, and coffee. Wonderfully fresh on the palate, despite the wine’s immense weight and density, it had a long, voluminous finish that presented fresh nuances every few seconds. Unmistakably great, it will need 15 years to get into its full stride, and will evolve inspiringly for 15-20 more.

Another leading estate is Château La Nerthe, which has 90 hectares of vines. A quick sampling of the ’00 white showed a wine of rich yellow pigmentation (the new oak used here gives additional colour), with a fine, focused, very flowery aroma conjuring up asparagus, lime peel, greengage, and pineapple. New oak gave an accent of vanilla. It was tasty on the palate, but the finish was on the dry, woody side. This very oakiness will prevent the wine from improving for more than six or so years.

A ‘92 white had the ochre tinge of a white rich in extract and colour and its sweetish aroma, and viscous texture, were clues to the presence of some noble rot. On the heavy side, and faintly oxidized, it was a not entirely successful echo of an Alsace vendange tardive. To judge from these two samples, La Nerthe uses too much oak for its whites.

The ’98 red La Nerthe, while not as dark as some, had a dynamic, vinous aroma, round and smooth, with very precise, intense fruit: damson, peony, and blackberry jam. A second sniff (first aromatic impressions can be incomplete) confirmed a very briary character and that the wine had great elegance and excellent balance. In the mouth, it was no blockbuster, but was harmonious and tightly constructed, with sloe and damson fruit intermingled with suggestions of smoke and underbrush. It should drink superbly around 2010-2020.

Their top wine, Cuvée des Cadettes, has a singular composition, being made up of 60% Grenache (not in itself unusual) and 40% Mourvèdre. In both cases, the vines are extremely old. Dark but not black, it had a full, oaky aroma of damson, black cherry, sloe, smoke, and coffee, and the flavour had a huge amount of sinew, very intense, concentrated fruit, and a long, tannic aftertaste with espresso coffee on the finish. Long, dense, and well-knit, with a tonic bitterness, it will certainly improve for a good 30 years if stored in a cool, dark place. Extremely oaky to begin with, it opened up greatly in the glass, and the fruit, initially masked by the wood, showed in abundance. All the same, the wine would have lost nothing, and possibly gained something, if the wood were less in evidence.

At Château Mont-Redon, the largest private estate in all Châteauneuf, co-owner (with his cousin Didier Fabre) Jean Abeille was jubilant about their ’00 red Châteauneuf, the finest made at the property since the cousins started up, 29 years ago (their first effort, the ’72, is splendid, and still improving today). Deep blue-purple, nearly opaque, it has great aromatic intensity and superb balance, qualities which are confirmed on the palate. Like Beaucastel, they use all 13 permitted grape varieties, and most of these seem to be recognizable as separate elements (like voices in a choir) as well as contributing to a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Jean Abeille (standing) and the bearded Didier Fabre in discussion with Frank Ward.

I have been buying Mont-Redon wines for some 20 years and they are nearly always among the 12-15 best in each vintage. There is a tendency, though, for some to underestimate red Mont-Redon. This, I suspect, is because of their reductive approach to wine-making. In youth, red Mont-Redon appears much lighter than it really is, and is often deliciously drinkable when only two or three years old (the ’98 is already a delight to drink).

But as it ages it gains in body in leaps and bounds and the initially light-seeming wine can begin to show a disconcertingly savage side. A magnum of the ’80 – not a year that is much discussed today – was nothing short of enthralling two months ago, with all of the unique Châteauneuf traits of force, vitality, spice, and depth well in evidence. The ’78, very closed up for the last decade, with a bitter, even abrasive finish, has just started to open up fully, showing silkiness and sweetness on the long, balanced aftertaste. It won’t peak fully for another five years or so and I’d be surprised if it began to decline before it attains an age 35 or so.

This deceptive sleekness and lightness in youth has been misleading serious tasters for decades. One respected Rhône specialist writing 20 years ago, deplored what he saw as the lightness of the ’78 comparing it unfavourably with the “blockbuster” ’61. Many years later, he delivered a similar critique of the ’90, declaring that it simply did not have the power, force, and concentration of… the ’78!

Whether the same thing will happen with the ’00 I cannot say. But I do think that Jean Abeille is right in saying that it is the best Mont-Redon in nearly 30 years. As I have always said about wines such as this, and all the other good ones described above: Good wine is one of the few things in life to give one a vested interest in growing older.

© Frank Ward 2001

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