To what degree are our notions of wine quality a social construction? Is it notions of quality that are historically contingent, or is it just questions of style? Notwithstanding all I’ve written in my “First Principles,” to the degree that one may think of a “True,” “Pure” or “Ideal” wine (in the Platonic sense), does such a concept make any sense? (I will be exploring these, and related questions in greater detail in future writing, as I explore the hermeneutics of wine tasting and criticism.)
These, and related questions, hovered in the back of my mind as I tasted an array of 2007 Châteauneuf du Pape wines. This is an appellation that has changed considerably over the past few decades, both in terms of grape-growing practices (notably the increased plantings of Syrah from the 1980s through the early part of this century) and wine-making practices as well. This vintage, with warm days and rather cool nights, was regarded by many as a great vintage, and fine vintages tend to show more consistency of quality. While certainly not an exhaustive tasting, such, it still offered guidance about where Châteauneuf is these days. The answer? Seemingly, all over the place. Admittedly, the appellation is not a small one; the vineyard sites vary and there is considerable variation of soil types within the vineyards; and, of course, the blend of grape varieties allows for endless iterations of Châteauneuf du Pape, even if at root, it’s a wine that’s really about Grenache, whether it’s 100% Grenache, or not.
And that’s only a few of the variations in the vineyard, not to mention cultural practices, especially the historical situatedness of the vigneron. (This largely refers to their place in history, which will influence the vinicultural choices they make.) Which, then, includes vinification options: cold soak? De-stem? Fermentation temperature and vessel? Pigeage? And so on. Perhaps it is the vast number of variables that inevitably leads to Châteauneuf being an AC without one style one could point to as being “typical.” One could gloss that Châteauneuf tends to be an expansive, generous wine, with its top expressions nonetheless show elegance, harmony and finesse — but that includes a stylistic value judgment, both oversimplifying the matter and not saying very much.
The differences among the wines wasn’t so simple as “traditional” vs. “modern.” On the one hand, there were three wines, very different one from the other, that stood head and shoulders above the others: the pulsating, layered Rayas; the massive, concentrated Chapoutier Barbe Rac; the well-knit, harmonious and long Clos des Papes. These three wines, in my view, were what we might call “classic” Old World wines: complex, synergistic, with the grape and resulting wine a medium for the expression of the land. At another extreme, there were wines that “embraced the fruit” — a comment coined by a Russian River Valley friend articulating his wines’ style. Wines in this group seemed deliberately crafted to be fruit forward, to deliver purity of fruit, tout court. (It makes sense, actually, as Grenache has fruit as its essence, much as does, say, Pinot Noir.) In the middle, perhaps, was another category: wild, untamed, sauvage, sometimes out of balance, assertive and brawny, if not downright aggressive.
Thus, instead of the consistent high level of quality one might have expected in this vintage, there was instead tremendous variety, both in quality and in style. (Not all “traditional” wines were good (or bad); and the same could be said of the more “modern” wines.) But this raises another question: if we cannot point to a particular style of wine as being “typical,” does that mean our standards of quality need to be adjusted — so that we don’t judge Châteauneuf du Papes according to their “typicité” — or that the appellation and the producers themselves are still sorting out what “typical” might be for themselves, collectively and individually? One way or another, it appears that the standards of “quality” within Châteauneuf du Pape are as varied as its terroirs.
All wines were in magnum unless noted otherwise.
1. 2007 Château Rayas
Medium deep ruby but intense, focused, with a bull’s eve nose drawing you to a focal point in the glass: intense aromas of raspberry, spices, still seeming relatively primary, but at the same time quite exotic, with high toned cranberry, saffron, and other Indian spices. Full-bodied, with a huge front palate attack. Initially hard to sustain, with noticeable alcohol and firm tannins; but once initiated, those tannins are vibrant, vibrating and very alive. A very persistent wine, with volatile acidity offering a bit of lift into the pulsating finish. Full palate coverage; very layered. The tannins resemble vibrating cello strings. Flavors as per nose with a smoky, meaty element. [90-100 year old vines on limestone soil; 100% destemmed; 100% Grenache; epoxy resin concrete fermentation for 3 weeks reaching 30-33° C; 12 month stainless vat elevage.] (750 ml)
2. 2007 Chapoutier Barbe Rac: Deeper color than the Rayas, with a tighter, more closed nose, which also offers more “mineral” character, though aromas of raspberry reduction, ripe baked fruits, spices, cherry: Fresh and tightly wound. Fuller on the palate than the Rayas: alcoholic, but less volatile, rather chewy, with a dense mid palate. Very spicy, with vanilla, black pepper, dark cherries (including Caucasian sour cherries), with a mid palate center of gravity yet still very taut as it moves back on the palate, with a savory, smoky quality; cured meats. Persistent, firm, but relaxes slightly as it’s chewed, with mineral, smokey bass notes in the finish. Will be great in time. For a long time. [100% Grenache on marl and clay; whole bunch; no destemming; 10-14 days in concrete vats; enamel-lined concrete for malolactic fermentation; then 16 months in old demi-muids & founders; 12-16 months elevage.]
3. 2007 Isabel Ferrando Colombis: medium+ dark ruby, with a candied nose – even candied apple. Much less complex than the first two, though with notes of fresh and dried strawberries, with allspice in the deep background. Full-bodied, with a sweet attack and very sweet, soft, zaftig tannins; a more flaccid structure than the first two wines; also more obviously alcoholic and volatile. A smokey, minerally, spicy quality to the medium finish (encouraged by the alcohol), but the wine lacks the density of the earlier wines. The Rayas seems poised in retrospect. [100% Grenache from 60-100 year old vines; 100% destemmed, fermented in a truncated cone-shaped oak vat; 14 months in new oak]
4. 2007 Domaine Giraud “Grenaches de Pierre”: Medium deep ruby, with a nose of raspberry and “mineral” nose, then cherry, herbal, lavender; still fresh. Full-bodied and broad, with more obvious, appetizing acidity than the Colombis, giving the wine tension and adds to its mineral expression. Less persistent, layered and complex than the 1st two wines, but still offers full palate coverage with a lifted, spicy finish of medium+ length. [100% Grenache on sandy soil; 80-100% destemmed; cold maceration and fermentation at 23°C for 3-4 weeks; 18 mod concrete tank elevage.]
5. 2007 Domaine la Barroche “Pure”: Very dark ruby with a medium rim. An intense nose, seeming yes, “pure” in that it is fruit-forward, or at least fruit-driven, a fruit essence of black raspberry/black cherry/vanilla, fruity black chocolate in the Valrhona style, all emerging out of a pastry flute. Full-bodied and broad, pure but not complex, with high alcohol and insufficient density to sustain it; mid-palate center of gravity, crisp finish; short and simple. [100% Grenache from 100 year old vines on sandy soil, 50% destemmed; concrete foudre ferment @ 31°C stainless MLF]
6. 2007 Clos des Papes: Medium deep ruby, the nose much more tightly wound in a concentrated way, with more mineral than fruit speaking: raspberry and cranberry add flesh to the minerality, showing both density and breadth. Full-bodied, with a big attack, immediately palate coating and complete: very impressive: layered, well-knit, harmonious and long, with a mineral layer continuing throughout as a rich, subtle smoky thread. [65Grenache/20Mvd/10 Syrah/5 Vaccarèse, Counoise, Muscardin; destemmed; 3 week ferment at 32°C, no new oak; 15 months in old foudres.]
7. 2007 P. Usseglio Cuvée de Mon Aieul: Very dark crimson, with an intense, overripe nose: dried raspberry, blue- and blackberry; dried cherries, cherry pie; candied cherries. Full-bodied with a sweet attack, quite extracted, with flavors of dark cherry and vanilla before the alcohol kicks in. Concentrated, tannic within, then alcoholic and short. Flavors as per nose; the wine seems forced, pushed, with a woody finish. [95 Grenache/5 Syrah; 50+ year old vines; destemmed, 14-16 months in concrete; 10% in small 1-3 year old barrels]
8. 2007 Domaine Durieu “Lucille Avril”: Medium ruby, with an alcoholic nose, and no density: raspberry aromas. Full-bodied, broad, with full palate coverage, but volatile, then spicy and alcoholic: impossible to sustain. Hot finish. Short, then bitter and stemmy. Woody; no finesse. astringent: downright unpleasant. [90% Grenache, 6 Mvd, 4 Syrah from 100 y.o vines, no destemming; 3-4 week maceration; Grenache aged in concrete; the others 16-18 months in new oak]
9. 2007 Domaine Saint Préfert Reserve Auguste Favier: Very deep crimson: sour nose, as if it were still fermenting: sour plum, tart red fruits, relatively pure fruit forward focus. Full-bodied, but much bigger on the palate than the nose suggested. Sweet fruit attack and segue, but not very layered or dense. Even, crisp, fresh pure: a crowd pleaser for a certain kind of crowd. [85 Grenache (vats)/15 Cinsault (barrels); 20 hl/ha from 40-100 y.o vines; destemmed]
10. 2007 Domaine Grand Veneur Vieilles Vignes Alain Jaune et Fils: Very dark ruby, with a layered, concentrated dark raspberry nose. Full-bodied, tense, concentrated and firm, with a “masculine” structure. Spicy, then alcoholic, though mineral/stony character emerges: taut and assertive, with a center of gravity toward the front of the palate. Lots of extract and feels forced. Stony finish but not three dimensional: a bruiser. [50% Grenache/ 40 Mvd/ 10 Syrah from 40-90 y.o. vines on marine sandstone with a layer of Alpie diluvium clay limestone; some stones in the topsoil; destemmed; 16-18 months new oak.]
11. 2007 Mas de Boislauzon Quet: Very dark ruby, with a relatively closed nose: black raspberry, black cherry; mineral, charcoal, tobacco. Full-bodied, with a big, full-on, fruity attack; initially lovely, then gritty, with no finesse. Smoke; harsh underneath some pretty fruit quality, but astringent tannin and crisp acidity: a little mean, with a medium finish. Lightly volatile, but ok: it’s the other parts that create the problems. Rustic and not integrated. [80 Grenache/20 Mvd on sandy soils from 5 lieux dits; no destemming; aged in tank and small oak]
12. 2007 Domaine de la Janasse Chaupin: Very dark ruby and not very clear, with a lightly candied nose; somewhat liqueurish; evokes Cherry Heering. Full-bodied, with a big attack of sweet cherry and raspberry flavors; sexy, impressionable, then alcoholic and short. Not very complex; extracted. Later, the sweet (medium) tannins seemed well-wrapped, and the wine appeared well-knit, even and well-styled, with a medium finish. The impression of this wine varied significantly depending on what was tasted before it. [100% Grenache on cool, soils of clay and sand with large stones; 80% destemmed; 14 mos. elevage: 70% foudre, 30% new, small oak]
13. 2007 Domaine Saint Préfert Collection Charles Giraud: Medium+ deep ruby, with an odd nose: lightly confected, seemingly with hints of brett, then spice, then alcohol. Full-bodied and even, with high-toned spice notes, but lacks the depth to handle the level of volatile acidity and alcohol. At best one could say it is “delicately nervy” — the spice quality adds to its core and nerve. [90% Grenache, 5 Syrah 5 Mvd; 15 hl/ha; destemmed, 18 months in 3-5 year old small oak casks]
14. 2007 Domaine Pegau: Very dark crimson, with a distinctive nose: dark cherry; not very complex yet, but yielding lots of Indian spices, and seemingly not overly alcoholic. Full-bodied, nervy, taut and spicy, with lightly astringent tannins, but perhaps a bit shallow on the mid-palate. Disjointed and uneven across the palate; angular; the structural elements seem to be fighting with each other. Disappointing after a promising nose. [85% Grenache from 95 year old vines; 4% Mvd; 2 other varieties; whole cluster ferment, then 18 months in old foudres. 15.5% abv]
15. 2007 Domaine de la Solitude Reserve Secrète: Very dark ruby, with a lightly funky nose: not especially defined, but vaguely earthy/garrigue-evoking, with lavender. Crisp, with fresh acidity, nicely volatile, imparting lift and nerve, though wood peeks out after an integrated palate. Shows well in the line-up; medium finish. [65% Grenache; 35% Syrah fr0m 50+ year-old vines on sandy & clay with stones; destemmed; 16 month tank elevagel 10% new barrels]
16. Domaine de la Janasse Vieilles Vignes: Medium+ deep crimson, with a firm, dark raspberry nose; quite concentrated. Alcoholic on the palate, with concentrated cherry/raspberry fruit; firm, but with a short finish. I expected more. [85% Grenache; 10 Syrah; 3 Mvd; 2% others from 60-100 year-old vines on varied soils; 80% destemmed; 14 month elevage, 75% in tank, 25% small barrels, of which 40% are new]
17. 2007 Deux ex Machina Clos St Jean: Very dark ruby, with a tight nose: not very expressive beyond some dark ripe raspberry, blackberry and a “mineral” note. Good immediate impression on the palate, but no vibrancy or liveliness especially on the finish. Fine, reasonably well-integrated and seemingly à point now, with enough tannin and acidity to give edge to what essentially feels like a hedonistic pleasure. Short and not nuanced, especially on the finish.
18. 2007 Reserve des Deux Frères, Domaine Pierre Usseglio: Dark ruby, with a leaner, almost weedier nose, more resiny and linear. Just over medium-bodied, with a much fuller palate than the nose suggested, but dominated by peculiar notes of cooked orange. No freshness. [100% Grenache, grown on sand & clay with very large stones; 25 hl/ha; destemmed; 20-day concrete maceration; 12-15 months elevage, 60% in new barrels & demi-muids, 40% in 1-3 year old barrels.
OLDER VINTAGES FOLLOWING THE 2007s