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.