VILLA MARIA WINERY, AUGUST 2016
A worthwhile conclusion about Southern Rhone wines:
There are basically two kinds of wine people. Firstly, there are those who love the aromatic and savoury appeal of Southern Rhone wines, and the way they match so many kinds of tasty main-course meals so well. These people approach the wines looking for complexity, sensory stimulation and pleasure. They don't mind the higher alcohol, or the fact some of the wines are complexed by the handiwork of the fragrant little yeast Brettanomyces. Some of these people in fact point out that the spice from brett makes the wines even better with food. And then, conversely, there are those of a more delicate persuasion, who find Southern Rhone wines too big, too alcoholic, too dry or too tannic, and in general just too flavoursome. These people tend to find their greatest red wine pleasure in pinot noir, not grenache blends. It is worth adding (in brackets) that these people formerly found pleasure in claret, too, before the wines of Bordeaux became Americanised.
All this is perfectly natural, perfectly understandable, and simply illuminates the diversity and joy of wine. Thus those who attended this tasting found pleasure according to their preferences – or prejudices. The best of the wines were simply magnificent. Those who seek to dismiss the 1998 vintage in the Southern Rhone Valley (because it was a warm year) are missing the point of the winestyle ... though I hasten to add, Southern Rhone wines can be over-ripened. This is more a problem now, than then. Some will find my writing-up too indulgent, but that's OK too. The wines are simply themselves. My reviews seek to indicate which factors dominate in these wines, and particularly those in which a balance has been achieved. Some bottles (rather than the wines) do now fail that test, particularly because when it comes to brett, every bottle is a law unto itself. Hard though it is too rationalise or understand, the unarguable fact is, that 20 years later, two bottles taken from the same case of wine can show wildly differing levels of brett complexity / degradation. Thus one cannot conclude one should sell the balance of one's case, on the basis of today's bottle, because the next bottle may be near-perfect. This tasting amply confirmed that, the Beaucastel being perfect though previous bottles have been bretty, and the Mordorée being a major disappointment, whereas a bottle only a month previously was a delight. Southern Rhone wines are only consistent from bottle to bottle, where producers sterile-filter to bottle. But few in the Rhone Valley do. In advocating unfiltered wines, Robert Parker has overlooked this vital point.
Six wonderful and food-friendly wines from the sometimes-maligned 1998 vintage in the Southern Rhone Valley: 1998 Domaine de Nalys Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 18; 1998 Ch de Saint Cosme Gigondas, 18 +; 1998 Ch des Tours Vacqueyras Reserve, 18 ½; 1998 Domaine Charvin Chateauneuf-du-Pape Non-Filtré, 18 ½; 1998 Domaine André Brunel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Cailloux, 18 ½ +; 1998 Ch de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 19 +.
Background information to the Tasting – Vintages in the Southern Rhone Valley:
Only four times in the last 43 vintages 1970 – 2012 has Robert Parker / The Wine Advocate allocated a score of 98 to a Southern Rhone vintage. 1998 is one of them. Wine Spectator is more conservative, having gone to 97 twice in that time span, and again, 1998 is one of them [ but note their rating for 2010 ! ]. So we have an exciting tasting. There is no doubt that 1998 heralds a golden era for the southern Rhone Valley, only four vintages in the preceding 20 years rating 90 or more (in the American view), but many reaching that level since. Yet with the recent strength of the $NZ, prices have remained accessible, for wines of absolute world quality.
Table 1: The better Southern Rhone Vintages of the last 45 years, compiled from Broadbent (to 2002), Parker (rated 90 or more, from 1970, where T = Tannic / youthful, E = Early / accessible, I = Irregular, and C means Caution, may be too old), Wine Spectator (90 or more, from 1988), and John Livingstone-Learmonth (checking detail):
|YEAR||Broadbent||Wine Advocate||Wine Spectator||Summarised comments|
|1970||****||–||–||B: excellent in south, rich and well-balanced|
|1971||****||–||–||B: low acid, not kept quite as well|
|1978||*****||97R||–||B: best since 1911, big, tannic, rich; J.L-L reference year|
|1983||*****||87C||–||B: excellent, rich, concentrated, hard tannins have softened|
|1985||*****||88R||–||B: outstanding reds, rich, long-lasting|
|1989||****||94T||96||B: rich complete reds; WS: powerful concentrated reds, round tannins|
|1990||*****||95E||95||B: less aromatic than 1989, powerful, promising; WS: massive wines, great concentration|
|1995||****||90T||90||B: comparable with 1990; WS: tannic reds, Chateauneufs improving beautifully|
|1998||*****||98E||97||B: best since 1990; WS: dense, rich, superb grenache, ripe tannins|
|1999||****||90E||90||B: south less than north; WS: syrah and mourvedre wines better than grenache|
|2000||–||98E||94||WS: powerful rich ripe reds with silky tannins|
|2001||–||96T||92||WS: great vintage with structured racy reds in Chateauneuf|
|2003||–||90I||93||WS: very hot dry year, best superb, some inconsistency|
|2005||–||95T||97||WS: great concentration, structure, should rival '98 and '90|
|2006||–||92R||93||WS: ripe, pure, balanced, fresh, like 1999 but more concentrated|
|2007||–||98E||95||WS: ripe rich powerful reds, some grenache over-ripe, mourvedre key for balance|
|2009||–||93E||94||WS: Warm dry year, cool nights retained acid, pure fruit and polished tannins|
|2010||–||98T||98||WS: Reduced crop, warm days, cool nights, beautifully ripe racy wines for aging, the spine of '05 with extra flesh|
|2012||–||92E||93||WS: small crop, grenache year, ripe flavours, well-balanced|
|2015||–||94 – 97||97||WS: best since 2010, powerful; J.L-L excitement evident ...|
As might be predicted, Jancis Robinson with her cool or temperate-climate palate is less enamoured of the 1998 vintage, on which our tasting is based. So immediately we have a fun opportunity to check up on these famous people, and make up our own minds. Our tasting is half Chateauneuf du Pape, the most famous appellation in the Southern Rhone Valley, the balance sampling other districts. They should give us a great feel for the wines of the Southern Rhone Valley, and how well they age.
Cepage: the Main Grapes:
The main red grapes of the district are grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsaut and carignan. Some appellations permit whites in the red. Few winemakers use them. Grenache is far and away the dominant and traditional variety of the region. It is thin-skinned, is characterised by aromas of raspberry and cinnamon, and in a sense produces a kind of spirity pinot noir. Unlike pinot noir, it hides alcohol freakishly well, such that wines up to 15% may be quite acceptable. Either syrah or mourvedre is the next most important in quality terms. Both add darker berry notes and complexity, and (from syrah) perhaps hints of black pepper / spice though the climate is against the more subtle characteristics of syrah. Mourvedre is more finicky, and harder to ripen, but in the great years is the more noble of the two, particularly in its tannin structure. Wines with a higher percentage of mourvedre cellar well. Of the lesser varieties, cinsaut is a pretty pale early-maturing variety reminiscent of pinot meunier, and carignan is a robust productive well-coloured grape making hearty wines which are great in youth but don't age well. Its best use is in vin de pays and the like.
Table 2: The southern Rhone Valley is famous for its diversity of grape types. In Chateauneuf-du-Pape 13 varieties are authorised, actually 15 if the colour forms of grenache and picpoul are counted. The table below is based on the 15 varieties authorised for Chateauneuf, plus three (asterisked) which are not authorised there, but may be elsewhere. Order approximately reflects incidence / frequency in the Southern Rhone Valley:
grenache rouge (c.75% of all reds)
syrah (c.10% of reds, increasing)
mourvedre = mataro (<10%, increasing)
carignan * decreasing)
| WHITE VARIETIES|
grenache blanc (c.2%)
roussanne (the finest white, c.1%)
ugni blanc *
muscat blanc à petits grains *
Ch Beaucastel is noted for using all the permitted varieties, including small amounts of the whites.
Further Background Information on Southern Rhone Wines, including Buying:
Any tasting of moderately well selected Southern Rhone wines is always a delight. We have Cotes-du-Rhone, Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages, Cotes-du-Rhone-Vacqueyras now entitled to the stand-alone appellation Vacqueyras, Gigondas (second only to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and often half the price), and the most famous of all and the absolute benchmark for the district, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation covers 3,200 ha (7,900 acres). To quote Jancis Robinson, it produces: mainly rich, spicy, full-bodied red wines which can be some of the most alluring expressions of warm-climate viticulture, but can also be either impossibly tannic or disappointingly jammy. The district is famous for being the first in France to institute harvest yield, ripeness and quality specifications for the district (in 1923). They were the foundation for the subsequent national Appellation d'Origine Controlée scheme. The base yield for absolute quality in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape district has long aimed for 35 hl/ha (4.6 t/ha = 1.85 t/ac), one of the lowest in France, and a key factor in the quality of the better wines. The contrast with new world countries is vivid.
Sources vary in their advice, but in practical terms, all these Southern Rhone Valley reds are made from blends which include grenache and some syrah or mourvedre. In the southern part of the district, the quality grape grenache must be a minimum of 40%, plus varying amounts of the noble grapes syrah and mourvedre in the better wines, and likewise percentages of carignan and / or cinsaut in the lesser ones. There can even be up to 5% white grapes.
There is a lot of straightforward Cotes-du-Rhone, with over 5,000 producers making over 400 million bottles a year. Minimum alcohol for the red is 11%, and it is cropped at around 5 – 6 tonnes / ha ( 2 – 2.5 tons / acre). The next level up is Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages, a much more restricted concept covering only 3,000 ha, with wines showing a minimum 12% cropped at c. 5 t/ha = 2 t/ac (only the best New Zealand growers practice this kind of level). For these wines, grenache must be at least 50%, and syrah and / or mourvedre 20%. The better quality is usually evident in mouth, much more so than the slightly higher cost. Likewise the Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages named-Village (18 - 19 only) are at best fractionally better again, with slightly lower cropping rates and a minimum alcohol of 12.5%. Note that the rules are constantly changing, and that there are traps. For example good Ventoux is great, but the appellation allows 30% carignan, which isn't, so as always, keep a wary eye on the cepage for any wine you wish to cellar.
The two most famous names are Gigondas, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The former is along the lines grenache up to 80%, a minimum 15% syrah and / or mourvedre, and a maximum 10% other Rhone varietals, carignan not allowed. Gigondas are thus great for the cellar. Minimum alcohol 12.5%. The average yield in these districts is 32 hL / ha = just over 4 t/ha = 1.6 t/ac. This is very different from New Zealand red wine average yields, and further accounts for why Gigondas and related wines cellar so well. Chateauneuf-du-Papes are more variable in their cepage, even Gr 100% being OK, but otherwise specs are similar.
Buying: The big challenge for the antipodean wine-lover is to find clean wines. Traditionally French winemakers and European winewriters have to varying degrees been blind to sulphides, which even in small amounts have the unfortunate effect of making the whole wine dumb. This is exacerbated by many wines being made and held in concrete vats, where aeration is difficult. Nowadays, switched-on winemakers (and winewriters) are much more conscious that these Southern Rhone grapes are gloriously fragrant when neither over-ripened, or reductive. The goal is to find wines redolent of floral notes such as sweet william / carnations / wallflowers / dark roses, lavender, rosemary (the so-called 'garrigue' note) sometimes with a touch of cinnamon spice (from grenache) or white or black pepper spice (from syrah). Many are still made in concrete, a number now in stainless steel, supplemented by big old wood. A few have some new oak, but the varieties scarcely need it, due to their intrinsic tannins – especially in mourvedre. All too often, the Reserve bottlings with more new oak are lesser wines than the straight ones, but appeal to the American market where bigger and heavier is favoured over light and beautiful.
Cellaring: Good Cotes-du-Rhone and better wines from the more highly rated appellations will cellar for decades. One of my all-time favourite wines right now is 1983 Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone. This fact is markedly in contrast to the consumerist views emanating from the American wine-writing establishment, where until very recently the thought of conserving is alien, and consuming is obsessive. They say they keep a year or two, maybe 3 or 5 sometimes. Disregard those views. Good ones will give much pleasure in cellar for a surprisingly long time, as the tasting amply confirmed. And they are wonderfully food-friendly, even with our fragrant yeast-friend brett ... or were until the American influence led to over-ripening, even in 'perfect' years like 2010, and hence alcohols higher than are enjoyable at table. While straight grenache can cellar remarkably well on great sites, as a general rule look for a good percentage of mourvedre in the cepage, for cellaring wines. Avoid wines with carignan.
Broadbent, Michael 2002: Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine. Harcourt, 560 p.
Broadbent, Michael 2003: Michael Broadbent's Wine Vintages. Mitchell Beazley, 223 p.
Parker, Robert, 1997: Wines of the Rhone Valley. Simon & Schuster, 685 p.
www.wineadvocate.com Robert Parker, then
www.drinkrhone.com John Livingstone-Learmonth
The indispensable basic reference for the wines of the Rhone Valley is Parker, 1997. It is now out print, but is freely available overseas second-hand for literally a few dollars (e.g. www.abebooks.com). The new guru on the Rhone is John Livingstone-Learmonth, whose book on the Northern Rhone is 'the bible'. We await a companion volume for the South. Meanwhile his quirky website www.drinkrhone.com is a both a delight and a frustration. Sub. £40 per annum.
THE WINES REVIEWED:
Values given are current from wine-searcher, then the original price is given later in the 'admin' section, where available.
Rosy ruby, garnet and velvet, exactly in the middle for depth. Bouquet is quiet, contained, fragrant, complex, not exactly saying grenache or syrah-dominant, just pure, appealing and winey, little or no brett. It is on the palate that this wine suddenly springs into life, displaying a richness and complexity that is both multi-flavoured and multi-layered. It is so rich it seems succulent, a vivid demonstration of dry extract in red wine, gorgeous. The flavour is more obviously grenache-dominant, red fruits browning a little, but wonderfully rich and juicy, with furry tannins more grape (mourvedre) than oak. The aftertaste goes on and on a whole spectrum of grape flavours, again, just wonderful. This is one of the purest, finest and richest Beaucastels I have tasted: a glorious example of Chateauneuf-du-Pape the winestyle. The second most popular wine on the night, perfect now, and will cellar 5 20 years more. GK 08/16
Ruby, garnet and velvet, well below midway in depth, a little older than the Beaucastel. Bouquet is immediately more aromatic than the Beaucastel, suggesting a higher percentage of syrah or mourvedre, which the specs more or less confirm. The aromatics are lifted by a little brett. Palate has a great central body of red-fruited grenache browning now, with considerable weight and body, plus the aromatic blending varieties darkening the flavour considerably relative to Beaucastel. Yet the mourvedre is not at all heavy. This too is lovely Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It was reasonably well received by the group, three first or second places, is perfect now, yet will cellar 5 15 years more. GK 08/16
Rosy ruby, garnet and velvet, the second to lightest wine. Bouquet is immensely fragrant and lifted by spicy grenache, but sadly some of the lift is due to the nutmeg of 4-EG, from brett. So we need to check more carefully. Varietal quality in the grenache-dominant red fruits browning now is still good, the bouquet being almost enchanting. In mouth the wine is rich, both juicy, and savoury from the nutmeg, so the palate structure is not yet too obviously adversely impacted by brett. Right now it shows the best of both worlds, wonderful fruit and length, plus wonderful complexity from both grapes and fermentation characters, oak being near-invisible. The fourth most-favoured wine on the night, it will be glorious with food. Techno-freaks will (of course) reject the wine, in the single-factor way technical people do. Sad, really. So the message I suspect is, best not to cellar this for too much longer: to misquote the car people, brett never sleeps. Cellar 3 8 years. GK 08/16
Rosy ruby, garnet and velvet, a perfect mature Southern Rhone wine colour. Bouquet on this wine is simply heavenly, almost perfection in grenache, red fruits browning now, but the term 'red fruits' seems almost inadequate for what you smell here, all lifted by complex cedary / silver pine essential oils characteristic of maturing grenache. Little or no brett. Palate is succulent, only word for it, illustrating dramatically that grenache at its purest and most sympathetically handled, with little or no new oak, is like a kind of 'more exciting' / more spirity pinot noir. Dramatically good wine, by far the best bottle of this vintage of des Tours I have tasted. Not favoured so much by the group however, two only tasters rating it their second favourite. Fully mature now, but will hold some years. GK 08/16
Ruby, garnet and and velvet, a little older than some, below midway in depth. Bouquet is really exciting on this wine, showing a dianthus / wallflower lift from the syrah blending component which is wonderful. Below that are the red fruits of grenache, as for all the wines browning now, and great varietal purity, scarcely affected by oak. Little or no brett. Palate continues the syrah excitement, you can taste it in the grenache, which is quite an achievement in a hotter year such as 1998. The syrah component must have been picked relatively early, to retain such dianthus florals wonderful. In mouth the whole wine has the complexity of flavour from blending varieties that Les Cailloux shows, relative to for example the single-variety des Tours, but it is not quite so concentrated. Classic Gigondas which appealed to the group, being the third most-favoured wine. Beautifully mature now, but still some cellar potential 3 8 years. GK 08/16
Ruby and velvet, one of the darker wines. This wine had to be rejected from the presentation set, due to TCA. Well ventilated, it cleared to show a complex blended wine in the style of the Saint Cosme Gigondas, the syrah component obvious, and little or no brett. Palate is rich, youthful, showing good varietal flavours not too much impacted by the unusually high percentage of new oak, with lovely length where again the syrah takes the lead. This wine looks to have 5 20 years cellar life ahead of it, to lose some tannin: the score given here can only be indicative, with an impaired bottle. GK 08/16
Rosy light ruby and garnet, the lightest wine but no hint of weakness. Bouquet is vividly in contrast to all the other wines in the set. It shows a lovely freshness and near florality / perfume (+ve) / even leafyness which adds enormously to the impact of the wine on bouquet. There are reminders of new world pinot noir. And there is little or no brett. Palate comes back more into line with the others, attractive richness, nearly juicy, minimal oak interference with the flavours, even perhaps a slight lack of tannin structure. All in all a pretty, even charming, wine. Flavour is long, and the aftertaste is the most clearly 'typical' part of the wine in a Chateauneuf context. As for the detractors, that the whole-bunch approach gives wines that don't cellar well, we need to tighten up the parameters. This wine is 18 years old and is perfect. What percentage of consumers keep wine for 40 years, now ? The criticism is ill-founded, methinks. By a narrow margin, the most popular wine on the night, perhaps because the wine showed a 'new world' purity. The surprise of the tasting, lovely now, several tasters being enchanted with it. Cellar 3 8 years. GK 08/16
Ruby, garnet and velvet, above midway in depth. Bouquet on this wine stood out dramatically in the set for its wonderful near-wallflower perfume (+ve) and florality. It really epitomises syrah from a much cooler climate, so it must have been picked very early, given a season like 1998. Perhaps the whole bouquet is less generous than some of the red-fruits grenache wines, but several tasters seized on this wine as clearly speaking to them. Little or no brett either. Palate confirms the thought that the wine is high syrah, not quite the body, a suggestion of black pepper, but best of all, hardly any oak so the grape speaks clearly. An astonishingly good wine for the price, showing how worthwhile it is each year to check a good range of the available Cotes du Rhones, to find those which are clean, fragrant, and worth cellaring. Perfect now, or cellar 3 8 years. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, some velvet. This was one of the 'in Reserve' wines, opened when the Bouissiere showed as corked. This replacement wine was also corked, but less so, so it seemed sensible to convert the dilemma to a learning opportunity, for less-experienced tasters not sure what TCA smells like. Once well-aired, bouquet is very much in the blended grenache / syrah style, not exactly showing the beauties of either grape, but well-fruited and slightly aromatic. Little or no brett. Palate shows good fruit, not much oak, but still a good tannin structure. As with several of the other former Cotes du Rhone appellation wines in the tasting, this wine at 18 years illustrates vividly what patent nonsense so much conventional American wine-writing is, driven by their unquestioning consumerist ethic. To suggest a wine like this be consumed (as they say) within two, three or five years is ridiculous. Perfect now at 18 years, and will hold 2 5 years. For the bottle on the night however, clearly the least-favoured wine, due to TCA at that point. GK 08/16
Ruby, garnet and velvet, well above midway in depth. Bouquet on this wine is delightfully fragrant, savoury, not obviously fruity any longer, just a lovely winey mature-red-wine smell. In mouth the browning red fruits of grenache are much more apparent, with the syrah component near-invisible. There is still good plumpness, even though the flavours are mature. One taster was at pains to say the wine was too old, but the texture and palate deny this. It will be wonderful with food, as many well-constructed Cotes du Rhone wines are in maturity. Perfect now, cellar 2 5 years. GK 08/16
Ruby and garnet, some velvet, midway in depth. Bouquet on this wine was quiet relative to the set, with the fruit component of the grapes somewhat curtailed by brett, introducing a spurious (or excessive) savoury character. The wine is much better in flavour: it must have been a big wine at the outset because it is still rich, with dark brooding flavours suggesting mourvedre but laced through with meat extract suggestions, the whole wine now tannic to a fault. A dilemma here, therefore, whether to cellar further to lose some tannin, or will the wine further dry out on brett activity in the meanwhile. There is no hurry, in its sturdy style. Some disappointment, here, I thought, but two rated it their second-favourite wine. GK 08/16
Ruby, garnet and velvet, the deepest wine. Bouquet on opening was simply a shock. No previous bottle in the case (the most recent a month ago) has smelt so old and pruney-mature, with a dry roast-beef-skin quality to it suggesting high brett levels. How exactly neighbouring bottles of the same wine can vary so much in the perceived impact of brett on the wine I have yet to have explained convincingly to me, but I have encountered this puzzling phenomenon before. Palate still has the wonderfully rich physical body this wine has always displayed, but here too the fruit charm is well-nigh gone (in this bottle), and roasted pumpkin flavours intrude on the grape flavours. The wine being so savoury and big, it will still suit many people, for example with a grilled steak dish, but this bottle is a major disappointment. The group agreed, this wine being the second least-favoured wine. Not possible to make a cellaring recommendation, whereas for previous bottles it would have been decades. I just hope all bottles haven't gone this way. GK 08/16
Ruby, garnet and velvet, above midway in depth. Brett has had its way with this wine too, but even moreso, the wine opening baked, charmless and dry. It still smells rich and winey in a hot-climate and spicy way, but the combination of over-ripening and new oak for the American market, plus imperfect barrel maintenance, has led to a once-attractive wine being almost destroyed by brett. In mouth the alcohol (of over-ripening) shows now, yet physically the wine is still rich, and like the Mordorée, it still washes down hearty meals in a most acceptable way (if you are not irrational about brett, or like most people, have never heard of it). It is very much better the next day. Stephen Bennett MW in speaking to the wine produced the best descriptor I have heard in a long time, for this kind of high-alcohol brett-affected red: 'coca-cola and charred steak'. Another major disappointment. If all bottles are like this, and Santa Duc do seem to have a problem with cellar hygiene and brett, this wine can only deteriorate further with keeping. Hard to score, simply because later sampling with food showed how well even severely bretty but still rich wines do accompany savoury meals. Technical tasters would score the wine much lower. GK 08/16