07 May 2010

Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Part III

After a delicious lunch at la Mule du Pape, we headed to Domaine Giraud to see what this younger generation of farmers has been up to, and to taste for ourselves whether the influence of Philipp Cambie is as heavy-handed as some claim (and if, in the end, it even matters when the only question we should be asking is, “Does it taste great?”).  Let me be another voice shouting in the desert: Consultant or no, these wines taste good—no, they are better than good, better than great even; they are a new superlative not yet invented.
When I tasted the 2007 ‘Tradition’ I thought to myself, There is no way this can be just their introductory cuvee.  But it is, and it was delicious.  I imagined a Scharffen Berger sandwich, with a layer of plum jam bordered by coils of thyme-studded licorice.  It became clear to me after talking for a while with Francois Giraud, son of Pierre Giraud (after whom their 100% Grenache cuvee is named), that this was an uncompromising and visionary young man filled with age-old wisdom, a boy who grew to manhood through the soil of Chateauneuf like his father, and his father before him.  Not long after we sat down to taste with Francois, his father Pierre, the great and mighty tender of vines (and altogether prolific drinker), joined us for introductions and to inspect what wines we’d tastes so far.  From what I’m told, despite the fact that Francois and Marie, Francois’s sister, have since taken over day-to-day operations at the estate, Pierre still haunts the vines and the winery, apprehending unattended bottles, offering helpful, though perhaps unsolicited criticisms and inspecting the imminent or latest harvest.  He is a formidable figure, and if he told me something had to be a certain way, I’d listen.  If his son and daughter have the sense I think they do, they’ve listened to their father quite a bit, and thus proven him a wise man.
Marie joined us not long after Pierre did, and we tasted wines together in their modest tasting room, made all the more warm and enriching by Pierre’s stories and boisterous, contagious laugh.  You don’t need a fancy wine tasting room when you have wines as good as these and people as wonderful as the Girauds.  I was extremely impressed by the Gallimardes cuvees.  Marie was gracious enough to take us through the dynamics of that hot southern vineyard and their personal harvest culture.  The 2006 was sensational, making the decision whether to buy the stupendous 2005 or the 2006 extremely difficult.  I deferred to the 2006 because it managed to be both weightless and yet one of the heaviest hitters on the table.  Irony?  Hardly.  2006?  Assuredly (refer to aforementioned opinions).  We finished the tasting with a glass of the 2008 ‘Tradition’ (very good considering the challenges of that rainy vintage) as well as a component of the future 2009 ‘Tradition’.  

2009, according to the Girauds, will be yet another sterling vintage for Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Although a month has passed since I tasted the wine, I still recall every indication of its imminent greatness, despite its profound youth.  In an attempt to summarize the culture at Domaine Giraud, and to a greater extent the culture of consulting enologists and the proliferation of super-cuvees or new blends with atypical (read: non-traditional) cepages, let me say that Domaine Giraud need no help from outside sources to make great wine.  They have every asset they need already at their fingertips.  The influence of Philip Cambie, or a Didier Robert, is not felt in the final product, but rather in the processes that lead to a vision fulfilled.  Elements of the younger generation of Chateauneuf seem compelled to translate a new tradition, to foment the (r)evolution and exploit something unexpected, radical.  Lest we forget, the traditions we now hold so near and dear were at one time as new and radical as the vision of this next generation in Chateauneuf.  If there is talent out there—acknowledged, renowned, qualified talent—willing to help this generation realize the dreams of their youth, then you cannot fault these budding stars for reaching out to consultants any more than you can the writer who studies diligently the works of Joyce, James or Cather.  The Rollands and Derenoncourts of our day and age can be as rich a wellspring of inspiration as they can be a boatload of hints and data.  Some say these 'flying winemakers' impart too distinct a signature.  On the other hand, I beg the question: Who says this ‘signature’ isn’t exactly the kind of wine some gasping vigneron had been struggling to make for so long, believing he had the right raw materials, just couldn’t bring it all together?  Is it then the signature of a Chris Ringland?  Or is it some other dreamer’s vision at last fulfilled? 

At Domaine Giraud, these are the wines of Francois and Marie alone.  No one else.  And they are far from gasping.  They are plowing through the pitch at breakneck speed, size 5 in hand, ready to take on the world, and ripe with all the talent and veracity to do so.  Lest we forget about Pierre, he’s probably a grandpa by now, and aside from this newfound joy in his life, he’s a great giver of joy himself.  After the ballyhoo of stories shared and bottles re-tasted (and re-tasted, and…), Pierre kindly escorted us to his dear friend’s estate, Clos du Mont Olivet.

06 May 2010

Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Part II

I fancied myself the luckiest dork in the world when I found out about a week prior to this trip that we’d been offered a scheduled appointment with Jean-Paul Daumen, the owner and winemaker of Domaine Vieille Julienne, a biodynamic estate situated just north of the official border of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.  Our introduction to the personality and dynamic of Jean-Paul began promptly at 1100, as scheduled.  If there was one thing we weren’t going to do on this trip, it would be to show up late at the doorstep of arguably the greatest farmer in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  

Vieille Julienne is situated in the northern, cooler terraced frontier of Chateauneuf, primarily in the lieux-dit of Cabrieres, as well as Boislauzon and Maucoil.  The tasting began with Jean-Paul’s 2007 Cotes du Rhone ‘Lieux-Dit Clavin’, a wine of such unabashed freshness and potent florality that I could hardly believe it wasn’t actually Chateaneuf-du-Pape.  Ahh, the glories of the little guy.  But keep in mind this parcel sits literally across the road that doubles as the dividing line between the 1933 AOC of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the rest of the Cotes du Rhone.  Clavin essentially surrounds the estate of Vieille Julienne, giving it a solitary feel in the midst of a thousand gnarled vines, like ancient aliens growing through the craggy rocks and shifting sand.  If you ever come across this wine for under $20, you’re putting a case of it in your cart.  If you don’t, you’ll have done yourself a great injustice.  The range of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, primarily from a cuvee perspective, is relatively limited.  Based on Jean-Paul’s philosophy this is a refreshing approach, one rooted in the balance of the land and not in the marketing skills of a newer generation.  Jean-Paul blends vineyard sites into a collective whole, believing the constituent parcels to be of more merit and ultimate complexity than an independent existence in some form of cuvee speciale or varietal bottling.  Even what could be classified as his super-cuvee, the Reserve bottling, remains a blend of parcels that Jean-Paul deems suitable for bottling as a unique and superior blend.  In 2007 Jean-Paul didn’t feel there was a substantial enough difference in the quality of grapes going into the traditional bottling and the grapes going into the Reserve—they were nearly identical in their superlative quality.  So he forewent bottling two distinct wines and made a single 2007 Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  And what a wine!  Sensational depth, all the vibrant freshness a Rhone freak could ask for, and even a bit of leesiness still on the nose.  On the palate the wine is pillow-like, weightless and airy but firm enough to rest your head on.  The 2006 is even more ethereal, unctuous in weight but covering the tongue and mouth with a silk throw.  I’ll probably say this a million times, but 2006 remains my favorite vintage of the 2005-2006-2007 trio, its only fault being…well, 2007 (thanks Francois for that perfect quip).  It’s a vintage of impeccable balance, buoyant acidity, lush if not flamboyant fruit, but restrained from going too far into cloying territory by a meaty, yet fine-grained texture that says Prime filet-mignon over and over again.  Jean-Paul captured this vintage’s expression with aplomb, and in a way that allowed his colder mesoclimate to invigorate the wine’s already flashy fruit with racy, uplifting acidity.  And what can I say about 2005?  It’s my least favorite vintage of the 05-06-07 trio, but in the hands of a man who will capture purity at all costs, 2005 remains a masterpiece.  It is a huge wine, without a doubt, but it unfolds like a giant red carpet, fluffy and weighty but soft to the touch.  

There is zero doubt in my mind that Jean-Paul’s biodynamic principles both in the vineyard and in the cellar contributed greatly to the feel of his 2005, as it retains that delicate balance between freshness and compression, purity and power.  When so many 2005s remain hardened monuments of the vintage of a generation, Jean-Paul’s has become a motion picture in progress, with infinite moving pieces, grandiose colors and unstable characters.  It’s complex, majestic and still sexy, something I can say about maybe one other wine from 2005: Domaine Cristia’s Chateuneuf-du-Pape (also, not ironically, a certified organic producer).  Discussing winemaking and personal philosophies with Jean-Paul was probably the richest one-on-one interaction of the trip, and I respect this man immensely for his passion and conviction.  His wines are the seventh level of Heaven and not to be missed.

04 May 2010

Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Part I

Monday, 15 March 2010 - This has been one of the most—if not the most—difficult experiences to translate into some representative succession of letters and words, let alone coherency.  Hence the reason it's taken me nearly two months to figure out how to forge ahead with my collected ramblings.  Not a second goes by that I don’t think the effort pointless, meaningless.  Maybe it’s not even right, my standing at the Exit sign of those two days imagining all the moments, names and faces can be folded tidily into a substantive vinologue as easily at the days unfolded.  Maybe it’s wrong not to speak of this community of farmers, of beating hearts running red with wine and Provencal sunsets; not to share the unforgettable names and personalities of vignerons who ushered us into their lives with open arms and bottles and never flinched when we waxed vinosophical in a language no doubt foreign.  Maybe it’s right and wrong alike to prove I tried the impossible, to translate Chateauneuf-du-Pape into a story about people, and not the latest controversial trend in this constantly evolving physical and philosophical landscape.  Certainly Harry Karis took this village to new heights with the release of his own ‘Mission Impossible’, but what’s lacking in his starkly objective approach—though highly commendable and endearing—is the distinction between who will fold the carpet out in front of you when you arrive unexpected, and—if this is even possible—who will treat you coldly even with a prior appointment.  During our stay a cold reception was apparently not on the agenda, save le Mistral.
I had the greatest of intentions to document our visits at the end of every day, our impressions of the wines, and any other stories or information worth mentioning.  Obviously, I failed; I’m over a month behind.  Trying to capture Chateauneuf, even subjectively, is like trying to capture Michaelangelo’s Pieta on disposable camera.  Somewhere along the line, you’ve missed the mark—perhaps the point even.  Nevertheless, thanks to two extraordinarily generous people—Don, Tom: Thank you from the bottom of my heart—my hands felt the soil of Rasteau, and my feet the galets roules of Chateauneufsans disposable camera.  While this attempt at capturing Chateauneuf will no doubt be lacking in a number of areas, I make no claims to perfection or comprehensiveness.  I was told those two days, Monday and Tuesday, would be mine: I would call the shots, aside from appointments already booked.  So we went to the doorstep of every winemaker I ever dreamed of visiting—in this lifetime and the next.  Through those portals this story begins…

Vieux Telegraphe is a cherished traditional estate crafting fantastic wine under the direction of brothers Daniel and Frederic Brunier.  The same family is also crafting some spectacular juice at La Roquete, a Chateauneuf estate formerly known as La Roquette (two T’s) before the Brunier’s purchased it and began their transformative work in 1998 (?). Two wines are made here: the traditional Chateaneuf-du-Pape blend as well as their homage to old-vine Grenache (and, to some degree, their anti-Cuvee Speciale) known as l’Accent du Roquete (sp?).  Both are fantastic wines that should be on every enthusiast’s Rhone-dar.  Also on the Brunier map since 1998 is the Gigondas estate of Les Pallieres, a joint venture between the Bruniers and world renowned importer Kermit Lynch.  In 2007 the Lynch/Brunier team separated what was normally the blended Gigondas into two separate cuvees.  One cuvee, les Racines, is being produced from the ancient vines surrounding the estate, situated at lower altitudes and thus exuding the characteristics of a much warmer mesoclimate.  Les Racines tastes like a southern Rhone interpretation of Zinfandel, and I mean that in the best possible sense.  Not very endowed in the acidity department, but what it lacks in raciness it makes up for in sheer chuggability.  Moderate alcohol (14,5% abv) allied to creamy fig and plum textures makes for a drink with just enough southern Rhone charm and fat California-like fruit to keep things interesting.  Its stable mate, le Terrasse du Diable (sp?), is sourced from older vineyards at the highest altitudes of the estate, where the vines begin to ascend the imposing Dentelles de Montmirail (sp?), making for a theoretically cooler climate.  To my tastes, this is where the rubber begins to meet the road: Racy acidity, vibrant red fruit characteristics but still packing a subdued black-fruited kick, with lithe structure and velvet tannin rounding out this seductive wine.  The cool-climate raciness is kept even more honest by the expression of the Grenache-heavy cepage; the fruit is anti-blowsy—extremely focused, linear to some degree, but still coating the mouth from front to back, finishing with a long fuse of licorice and bramble.  I foretell the immense success and renown this estate will soon have with these two wines; certainly there is something here for every palate, and I hope they keep things honest by blending the two cuvees together if Nature or necessity demands it.  Our tasting at Vieux Telegraphe ended naturally with the tasting of the namesake Grand Vin, and me oh my, what a wine it is.  The 2007 is a svelte but hugely nuanced wine that insists on keeping your attention all the way from the first sniff to the last dance of the evening.  It is unctuously textured, a quarry of minerality with no calculable depth, a lot-by-lot introduction to the fruit stands at the Monday market.  The 2007 has the structure of 2005 and the enveloping silky sweetness of 2006—no easy feat.  Price-wise, this is hands down the greatest single-vineyard expression I’ve tasted of the famed lieux-dit known as la Crau.  It was an incredible finale to the line-up at Vieux Telegraphe, and still only the beginning of a much longer, even deeper (hard to believe, I know!) tasting journey.

After apparently misunderstandings our requests to simply purchase a bottle of the 2007 l'Accent du Roquete to taste at the domaine, our 'tasting coordinator', essentially Mr. Deeds, disappeared for a few minutes.  A fresh bottle of 2007 l'Accent appeared in the hand of Monsieur Deeds.  He refused to let us pay for it, insisted we swirl the wine violently in our glasses, and assured us with his silence that we'd not only enjoy the wine immensely, but that these silent moments are necessary.  That there would be any number of wines we'd taste in the next few days, opened with no charge but a smile and a glance, that would silence even the birds of spring.  Yes, there is something natural about this place, perhaps even supernatural, spritual.  It is either the connection to the Pope, but most likely it's people like Jean-Paul Daumen, who are changing the face of wine forever in this tiny hamlet, and doing so with spiritual verve.  Part II...tomorrow.