Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Touring Vintages of the Southern Rhone

Exploring A Love-Hate-Love Relationship at The VIP Table

I’ve Always Wanted to Love the Southern Rhone

For the longest time, you could say that I had a love-hate relationship with the Southern Rhone.  

Love, in that I wanted to love it.  I tried very hard to.  I would avidly delve into articles from The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, covering the Southern Rhone, talking about its history, its climate, its people, its soil and the descriptions of the wine.  As I read, I became more enamored with the region, because with each descriptor, as I imagined the world that these wines came from, I couldn’t help but believe that I would truly love them.  So I bought into the hype over the 2005 vintage, and again in 2007; yet when I first tasted the wines, I must admit that I didn’t completely understand.  These didn’t speak to me the way they spoke to the critics of that time.  

Of course, the first thought was that I needed to allow them to mature in my cellar, and so I buried them deep.  Then came 2009 and 2010, again with the same result. Somewhere along the way, a good friend organized a 1998 tasting (reportedly a great vintage), and I was overjoyed to attend.  I saw it as my chance to get a better idea of the aging curve on these wines, and what I should expect from the maturing vintages in my cellar.  Unfortunately, I left that tasting unimpressed, as most of the wines came across as tired, soupy and over the hill.

What was I missing?

It took quite a bit of time and a lot of trial and error, but in only the last few years, I finally started to understand why I was having so many problems with the Southern Rhone.  It was really a three-part issue.  

One was the style that many of the producers were seeking in the late ‘90s and into the 2000s.  You see, the man that was most responsible for bringing the region the fame that it was enjoying was Robert Parker, and many of the producers literally changed their winemaking styles to better fit his palate.  They pushed ripeness to the extreme and began to limit the use of the traditional mix of Rhone varieties in their blends.  As a result, a large selection of prestige wines appeared on the market, which in most cases took advantage of the choice parcels of old-vine Grenache from each vineyard and pushed them to the edge of over-ripeness.  The problem with this is that the mix of Rhone varieties used in a traditional blend were often the reason that winemakers were able to make good, balanced wines in most vintages.

Speaking of which, the second issue was vintage.  For one thing, it was almost impossible to get all of the different publications to agree on which vintages were better than the others.  However, what became very clear to me was that I found the most pleasurable drinking from what many critics considered the “off” vintages.  Years that were not necessarily bad, but not the blockbusters that years like 2007 and 2005 were.  You can imagine that a warm vintage, mixed with old vines in a hot climate, would make high-alcohol reds that tipped the scales of ripeness.

Lastly, there was the drinking window.  Somewhere along the path of wine and wine writers becoming part of our pop culture, it was decided that the ability to age a wine over a long period of time was an indicator of how good that wine was.  And so, a review would be posted about a current vintage Châteauneuf du Pape, and the recommended date to start drinking the wine would be no less than ten years down the road.  What’s more, many of these reviews would lead you to believe that there wasn’t nearly as much pleasure in enjoying them in their youth--which, with the Rhone, would be a huge mistake.  Is it a better experience? Not necessarily, but it’s a different experience, and you’re missing out if you don’t taste them young.

In the end, what I came to realize is that I preferred most Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Rasteau (and a host of others) starting around their fifth year of life, and through their twelfth.  This is not to say that many of these wines won’t mature past that date, but it must be a structured vintage and a producer who made a wine to age.  I also realized that I do prefer the vintages that didn’t receive the hype, such as 2004, 2006, and 2012.  Even a year like 2014, where many winemakers added an extra dose of Mouvedere, really brought a unique and truly enjoyable aspect to the vintage.

As for the warmer years, in my opinion, it’s a matter of preference.  A good example can be found on www.cellartracker.com when reading member notes on the 2007 Clos des Papes, a wine that is either loved or hated depending on the palate.  My best advice is to better understand your vintages before jumping in.  I recently found an excellent guide to Southern Rhone vintages that was published by Jeb Dunnuck at www.jebdunnuck.com which has greatly increased my enjoyment of these wines.

My Inspiration

As for my inspiration to start tasting these again and ultimately write this piece, it was the combination of the 2015 and 2016 vintages, which have shown me that the region has made huge strides away from the high-octane wines of the last decade.  There’s a balance and vibrancy that I hadn’t seen before, leaving me very excited to see what’s coming next.  I’m officially back to collecting wines of the Southern Rhone, and I recommend that it’s time to check in on your own stocks and pay attention to the vintages in the market today.

Below you’ll find notes from my recent exploration of wines in my cellar, along with back vintages that I’ve placed on my radar.  I tried to focus on what I liked instead of listing the wines that fell flat.  The villages of Châteaunuef du Pape and Gigondas get the most love here, basically due to my own tastes and what was available to taste.  If you’re not familiar with Gigondas, the wines are spectacular, produced through a very similar blend and aging process as CdP, yet most have a minerality, purple floral tinge and sweet spiciness that I adore.  They also mature wonderfully in the cellar.

On to the Tasting Notes

2003 -- The Jury Is Out

I’m hesitant to jump into too many 2003s, as I’ve always thought of this as a very warm year for France.  However, it always pays to think about your favorite producers before the vintage, and so an opportunity to taste a mature Caillou Les Quartz could not be passed up. It was pretty special too.

Le Clos du Caillou Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine du Caillou Les Quartz 2003 - The bouquet was completely mature, yet in a beautiful place, showing dried florals mixed with dusty black earth, as notes of plum, fig and raisin came forward in a sweetly spiced and almost confectionary expression, yet not quite; instead, it swayed more toward the balsamic spectrum. On the palate, I found silky textures on a light-medium bodied frame, creating a hovering effect, as notes of dried black cherry, bitter balsamic spice, moist earth, and hints of Chambord gave way to dried inner floral tones. The entire experience remained incredibly fresh in its maturity, as the acidity here was in perfect balance, going into a long finish, showing saturating dried strawberry, plum, and a slightly porty spiciness. (93 points)

2004 - Fresh as a Daisy

This is a vintage that Jeb Dunnuck recently turned me onto.  I doubt I could explain it better than him: “The 2004s are fully mature and have fresh, vibrant, mid-weight profiles. Given their higher acids, these wines will certainly continue to keep in cold cellars, but there is no upside.” Jeb Dunnuck

Domaine de la Janasse Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Chaupin 2004 - The first thing I noticed was the unexpectedly dark ruby color from this fourteen-year-old Chaupin, which ran from its core to the rim. On the nose, I found an inviting mix of rich cherry compote, brown spices, tobacco leaf and hints of dusty earth. It was velvety and rich on the palate, yet it maintained a wonderfully fresh personality, as the wine seemed to glide effortlessly across the senses, showing notes of sweet blackberry, fig, lavender, violets and milk chocolate. Its tannins were fully resolved, yet the acidity remained perfectly balanced, enveloped by the wine’s body, creating an amazing textural experience. The finish was shorter than I’d hoped, with the slightest sensation of heat, yet still displaying a flurry of purple florals and dark fruits before tapering off. The ‘04 Chaupin is fully mature, yet showing no sign of decline. That said, I wouldn’t wait much longer on any bottles still in the cellar. (92 points) 

Le Clos du Caillou Châteauneuf-du-Pape Reserve le Clos du Caillou 2004 - The nose was dark, rich... intense, with a display of wood smoke overlaying ripe black cherry and raspberry fruit, with peppery spice, green olive, animal musk, crushed stone, and savory herbs. On the palate, I found velvety textures with spicy dark red fruits, yet lifted by vibrant acidity as a mix of savory spice, wild herbs and saline-minerality coated the senses. Its finish was long, dark and spicy, as saturating black raspberry and spice gave way to an herbal-balsamic twang with lingering minerality. Everything was perfectly in place here, balanced, and so youthful. Nowhere did I find the sweet fruit that early tasting notes spoke of; instead this was a savory and animalistic wine of amazing depth. (94 points)

2006 - Always Charming

This should have been the vintage that tipped me off early to my preference for the under-the-radar years, as I fondly remember quickly working through half a case of Janasse Chaupin.  The 2006s are wonderfully textured wines with dark fruit and usually a wild herbal note.  They are fully mature and worth seeking out.

Domaine Giraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée les Grenaches de Pierre 2006 - The nose was incredibly dark, rich and earthy, showing baked plum, crushed black cherry, balsamic wood, sweet tobacco, classic garrigue, hints of animal musk and moist soil tones. On the palate, I found a silky Autumnal expression, complemented by ripe blackberry, cherry and plum, with black licorice, sweet spice, more balsamics, hints of coffee rind, brown spice, minerals and hints of mushroom. The finish was long, with zesty spice and residual acids making the mouth water, as saturating black cherry and minerals lingered long. This is a full-throttle, fruit-forward and massively textural wine, yet it maintains amazing balance. (93 points)

Château de Saint-Cosme Gigondas Les Claux 2006 - At twelve years old and from a vintage that flew well under the radar, the '06 Les Claux showed a complex bouquet of crushed blackberry in brown sugar, with spiced orange, wood smoke, savory dried meats, provencal herbs, white pepper and a hint of exotic dark florals. On the palate, I found soft, velvety textures, lifted by a burst of bright acidity, as vibrant black fruits, spice and minerals splashed across the senses, soaked in a sheen of liquid violet florals, with a savory, salty meatiness left in its wake. The finish was wonderfully long and mouthwatering, resonating of smoked meats, saline-minerals, tart black fruits and lingering purple florals, with hints of tannin still tugging at the palate, yet almost completely resolved. Wow, just wow! (94 points)

2007 -- Love ‘em or Hate ‘em

I think it’s amusing that of the two 2007s I recently had, I scored them very high, because I really didn’t expect to like them so much.  However, as I stated above, you need to know what you’re getting into, and if you’re looking for structure, freshness and verve, 2007 is not your thing.  Expect intense, ripe dark fruits, with velvety textures.  However, the wines that achieved balance in the vintage are remarkable.

Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 - Upon pop and pour, this was a massive beast of a Châteauneuf du Pape with an intensely sweet and deeply pitched fruit-forward bouquet, massive textures and a hint of heat on the finish. However, after an hour of being left open in bottle, things changed drastically. The nose showed a mix of crushed blackberry, raspberry and fig, with violet pastille accents, crushed stone, sweet dusty minerals, mint, hints of undergrowth and animal musk. On the palate, I found silky, almost-creamy textures lifted by brisk acidity, as a wave of vibrant dark fruit swept across the senses, leaving notes of spicy red berries, savory herbs, minerals and blue inner florals in its wake. The finish was wonderfully long and fresh, as hints of tannin settled on the side palate, and remnants of black fruit, minerals and savory herbs lingered on. The balance here is remarkable, especially for the vintage. (95 points)

Le Clos du Caillou Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine du Caillou Les Quartz 2007 - The 2007 Quartz is absolutely a wine for the hedonist, yet we all need to treat ourselves from time to time. The nose was incredible, showing a mature mix of both savory and sweet, leading off with a burst of balsamic-soaked black cherry, crushed blackberry, licorice and brown sugar, as notes of rubbed sage, allspice, plum sauce and dark earth mixed to form a heady yet wonderfully enjoyable bouquet. On the palate, silky textures displaying velvety weight flooded the senses with notes of overripe plum, black cherry, cinnamon, saline-minerals, sweet tobacco and inner floral tones. The finish was long with a bitter twang of spiced orange, rosemary, sage, dried cherries and lasting savory minerals. (95 points)

2011 - Sunkissed and Singing

I can’t say that the below wine is necessarily the best representation of the vintage, it’s essentially an under-the-radar Rayas.  However, what I can say is that the best 2011s take the warmth and ripeness of the vintage and match it with radiant personalities and energy.  Again, know what you’re getting into, and expect these wines to be racy and ripe.

Château des Tours Côtes du Rhône 2011 - Another incredible performance from the 2011 Château des Tours Côtes du Rhône, with a wonderful bouquet of fresh ripe strawberry complemented by exotic florals, sweet-and-savory herbs, crushed seashell minerality, hints of rose, pepper and undergrowth. On the palate, it was wonderfully fresh, vibrant and fleshy, with silky textures contrasting zesty acidity, as sweet, floral-laced strawberry and spice swept across the senses with a hint of green stems, yet in the best possible way. The finish was long, as hints of mineral-soaked tannin tugged gently at the senses, while lingering cherry and strawberry tones, a twang of zesty acid, and wood smoke remained. What a gorgeous wine, and I'm so happy to have half a case left in the cellar. (94 points)

2012 -- Firing On All Cylinders 

Here we find wines that possess a fresh personality over pliant fruit with balanced acidity.  The result is that 2012 is a vintage that remains firmly on my radar.  Consider me a buyer.

Domaine Giraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition 2012 - The nose was dark, showing spicy blackberry, crushed black cherry, balsamics, white pepper, and smoky minerality, with a note of garigue. On the palate, it was velvety smooth, displaying notes of black raspberry, as savory meatiness and spice flooded the senses, along with zesty acidity and saturating saline-minerality. The finish was medium-long, resonating on savory cherry, a twang of wild herbs, and lingering fine tannin. Who doesn't love this wine? (92 points)

Domaine de la Janasse Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Chaupin 2012 - The nose was dark with depths of ripe red and black fruits, black tea, crushed raspberry, and a hint of licorice. On the palate, I found soft textures, yet it was energetic and lifted with inner florals and sweet black-toned fruits. The finish was fresh, soft, and remarkably pretty, leaning more toward grace than power. (92 points)

Domaine Bois de Boursan Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée des Félix 2012 - The nose was dark and intense with crushed raspberry, cherry, sweet florals, hints of lavender, and clove. On the palate, I found silky textures offset by intense dark red fruits, where the textures were almost oily yet offset by chewy, cheek-pucking tannin. It finished on dark, spicy fruits with a hint of bitter herbs. There's so much going on in this glass, and there is a tremendous amount of depth to its fruit--yet it is structured and balanced. (94 points)

2013 -- A Mixed Bag 

I remember tasting many of the 2013s upon release and finding them to be concentrated yet taut, without the dimensions of better vintages.  It remains a year that I seldom recommend.

Domaine de la Janasse Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes 2013 - The nose was dark and intense with crushed raspberry, fresh herbs, soil tones and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, I found a fresh expression offset by saturating red fruits, with sweet minerality, a bump of acidity, and fine tannin. It finished tense, youthfully structured and restrained. I’m not sure what to make of the 2013 at this point in its evolution; only time will tell. (92 points)

Domaine des Bosquets Gigondas La Colline 2013 - The nose was dark, rich and layered with blackberry and plum giving way to savory spices, and raw red meat, with hints of violet florals, lavender, and crushed stone. On the palate, I found creamy textures, yet it was finessed and lifted with violet floral-tinged tart black fruits, savory spice, and caking minerality, as zesty acidity created a bump of energetic trust toward the finale. The finish was medium in length, resonating on blackberry and lingering minerals, with lasting inner florals. Be warned that upon pop and pour, the La Colline was far less interesting. (92 points)


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