What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Champauvin, covered with the famous galet,  sits across a 10-foot path from Cheateauneuf

Champauvins vineyard, covered with the famous galet, sits across a 10-foot path from Cheateauneuf

As you may know, the name and fame of the Rhone Valley wine region called Chateauneuf du Pape dates from the 1300s when the Papacy temporarily moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon. The Popes built a summer palace about 20 miles north of Avignon on the crest of a big hill overlooking the Rhone Valley. Locals called it “the Pope’s New Castle” – Chateauneuf du Pape. As the Church spurred growth in the Rhone’s vineyards to meet its ceremonial and social needs, the name came to be applied to the better vineyards surrounding the hill.

Once the Pope returned to Rome, the name dropped out of use and the wines came to be known simply as “vin d’Avignon” until the Chateauneuf name was resurrected in the mid-1800s. The wines gradually gained respect within France until phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in the late 1800s.

In the early 20th Century, growers in the area realized that they couldn’t compete with the rapidly developing Languedoc-Rousillon region in the south for pure bulk wine production. Seeking to improve quality, in the early 1930s they banded together to resurrect the brand of Chateauneuf du Pape and establish rules for what wines could or could not use that label. Their approach ultimately became the basis for all France’s designated wine regions – the Appelation Controlee system. The rules specified maximum yields, minimum alcoholic strength (12.5%), and determined which grapes were of acceptable quality (a hard debate settled on a list of 13 varieties).

Mapmaking Gone Wrong. And they drew a map specifying which lands were allowable for Chateauneuf du Pape and which would be left out (and ultimately be labeled Cotes du Rhone).

Cdp and Champauvins Map

To the south and west of the town of Chateauneuf, setting boundaries was easy. As the land sloped down towards the Rhone River, it eventually became too wet to support vineyards.

The eastern side was also easy, if not really based on vineyard character. The drafters simply followed the main road running from Avignon to Orange (now the A7 Autoroute) from the village of le Coulaire in the south and up to the end of the vineyards belonging to Chateau Beaucastel in the north. This sliced one of Beaucastel’s vineyards – called Coudoulet – in two, leaving half of the vineyard in and half out of Chateauneuf. Not entirely fair, but at least easy to explain.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery. The Jaume family farmed a collection of vineyards pretty much due west of Beaucastel and just under the Orange road. The vineyards have the same sub-soils and top-soils as Beaucastel, were covered by the rounded “galet” stones that are Chateauneuf’s hallmarks, and were planted to the same grapes. The logical thing to do would have been to simply continue to follow the road as it curved around to the west a little further and then allow the line to curve back down to the south to the river as the soils changed from red, iron rich gravel to more sand and limestone after the Jaume’s vineyards ended.

Instead, the drafters elected to abandon the Orange road just above Beaucastel and draw the boundary line down a narrow gravel path that ran right through the middle of the Jaume vineyards. The very fine vineyards planted in 1905 and still used for Grand Veneur Chateauneuf du Pape Les Origines plus another medium-sized vineyard became Chateauneuf. The 35 hectare Champauvins vineyard, identical in every way to the vineyards across the 10 foot wide path would be Cotes du Rhone.

Outstanding Wine the Best Revenge! It’s hard to imagine how frustrated and upset the Jaume family must have been when they saw the new region’s map, and we know they protested and demanded explanations for years (but never got one). And, when you visit the Jaume’s at their modest winery just outside Chateauneuf, you get the sense that they still are not entirely over the injustice of making Champauvins somehow “less” than vineyards a few feet away.

Fortunately, under the leadership first of Alain Jaume and today of his sons, Sebastien and Christophe, the family’s Domaine Grand Veneur has decided that quality is its own revenge. They farm Champauvins like the Chateauneuf vines across the path, working mainly by hand (necessary with bush vines and gravel-covered soils) and using certified organic viticultural techniques. Yields are similar to their Chateauneuf vineyards, meaning the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes achieve fantastic ripeness without any excess of sugar or roasted, pruny flavors.

In the modern winery, the winemaking for Champauvins is “old school” all the way. Fermentations proceed slowly with gentle pump-overs to extract classic Rhone flavor and structure without adding any harsh tannins. Grenache (70% of the blend) ages in concrete tanks to help it retain color and fruit. Syrah and Mourvedre mellow in old oak casks, given them the tiny bit of air they need to round out without imparting any oak flavor.

The result is a wine chock-full of big, deep, aromas of kirsch, black cherry, crushed herb, wild lavender, and dark chocolate flow from the glass. Those same notes flow across your palate in a rich, vibrant, wine that coats your mouth with flavor and leaves ripe, fine-grained, tannins lingering behind. If they wanted to, the Jaume family could give this the same heft and density that makes “true” Chateauneuf so cellar-worthy (if hard to enjoy young), but because it’s “just” Cotes du Rhone and cannot command Chateauneuf prices, they craft it to be open, supple, savory, and delicious right now.

Thibault Liger-Belair: Resurrecting a Great Name

Thibault Liger-Belair

Meet and Taste with Burgundy’s Thibault Liger-Belair on Saturday, April 18, 12-4 pm.

Thibault Liger-Belair’s ancestors tended vineyards and made wine in Burgundy’s Nuits Saint Georges from 1720 on, but in the early 20th century, the best vineyards were leased out to other winemakers.

Thibault studied winemaking before starting his career at a Parisian communications firm and then trying his hand at a dot-com start-up. In 2001 – at the age of 26 – he realized that he needed to return to Burgundy and resurrect the family Domaine.

From his first vintage in 2002, Thibault’s work attracted notice. Over the years, he’s gradually expanded the Domaine by taking back family vineyards as leases ended, purchasing additional vineyards, and adding a small negotiant business as well.

No Rules, Just Great Wine
As he explained during our visit in February 2014, his goal is to make wines that represent and reflect their vintage and terroir while avoiding harsh tannins and delivering pleasure to the drinker. He has converted the Domaine vineyards to biodynamics to build vine health and achieve ripeness, and is willing to take yields as low as he has to in order to get ripe fruit. In most of his vineyards, Thibault is allowed to harvest 30-40 hectoliters of juice per hectare of land. In practice, he rarely keeps 30HL, often drops fruit down to 20, and – as with the 2012 Nuits Saint Georges Charmot – can go as low as 10 hectoliters per hectare. Whatever it takes to get ripe, healthy fruit.

Once in the winery, his recipe is…no recipe! In general, Thibault prefers to avoid the flavor of oak in his wines, and most see 20-30% new oak (50% is his maximum). His oak barrels are custom-made for each vineyard, always using staves dried at least 36 months but mixing wood from forests grown on sand, clay, and stone – often in the same barrel! – to take advantage of each type’s different characteristics.

Fruit is always sorted twice – in the vineyard and on a sorting table at the winery – and given a pre-fermentation cold soak to begin gentle extraction. Whole clusters are usually mixed with destemmed fruit, although the exact ratio varies by vineyard and vintage. Gentle pumpovers during fermentation are supplemented by more vigorous punchdowns – sometimes only 2 or 3 in total, other times daily. Then, the wines go into their designated barrels and stay there until he feels they are ready to bottle.

The 2012s are an outstanding set of Burgundies, and a fine introduction to the work of what has become a Nuits Saint George benchmark. Thibault described them as “like 2010 but with more flesh,” and all are showing their fine quality and outstanding potential right now.

Rosso di Montalcino – More Than “Baby Brunello”

As Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner says, “Rosso di Montalcino is one of Italy’s most food-friendly wines (think pasta, grilled sausage and lasagna).” Like its big brother, Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso is made entirely from Sangiovese Grosso – the larger berried clone of Chianti’s Sangiovese that seems to thrive only on the rolling hills of Montalcino. But, unlike Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino is supposed to be … fun!

Brunello is intended to be a “serious” wine. When Biondi Santi first labeled Sangiovese from Montalcino “Brunello” in 1888, it was for their best wine from a great vintage. And, so it continued for years, with Biondi Santi only releasing new Brunello in 1891, 1925 and 1945. As “Brunello” became an annual event and more producers joined the party, everyone agreed to keep things serious. Only the most ripe, powerful, and intense wines qualified or could withstand the mandatory four years of cellar time before release – especially before 1998 when the wine had to stay in cask for a full 42 months.

When the Rosso di Montalcino designation was created in 1984, the objective was to let new Brunello producers (they were multiplying furiously by then) generate a little cashflow by selling at least some Montalcino wine a year after harvest. The first Rossos were a mixture of wine from younger vines and casks that didn’t make the cut for the “big boy” Brunello.

But, over the years, the best Brunello producers have come to see Rosso as its own distinct style of wine. The best Rossos retain many of the flavors of Brunello – dark cherry, wood spice, leather, and violets – but in a more fresh, vivid, and approachable style. Eric Asimov captured the whole point of Rosso di Montalcino in the introduction to his 2011 Rosso tasting:

“Here sat the wine panel, having tasted 20 bottles of Rosso di Montalcino, reveling in the unmistakable earthy, dusty flavors of pure sangiovese. With their winsomely bitter, citrus-tinged cherry flavors, these wines were soulful and elemental, like good trattoria food. They wanted less talking and more drinking.”

What Will You Taste? I’ve been drinking wines made by Andrea Cortonesi for years, and one of the many things I appreciate by the man who is often called “a master of Montalcino” is how his Rosso does just what Rosso is supposed to do.

Certainly, you’ll find echoes of Cortonesi’s two Brunellos in this pair of 2013 Rossos. The Uccelliera – from heavy soils in Montalcino’s south – emphasizes breadth, power, muscular tannins, and dark, intense, fruit. In contrast, the Voliero – from sandier soils in the northern part of the zone – delivers more perfume, more elegance, and a lovely floral spice not often found in powerhouse Sangiovese.

But I love that neither wine is trying to be Brunello. They both have the right touch of wood to match their open, pure textures and a level of extraction and tannin that invite drinking young with delicious, fresh foods. You can enjoy either right now, although both will get better over the next few years (and Uccelliera benefits from a decant today). And both cost about half what you’d expect to pay for even an average Brunello.

A Look at the Ratings. One last note, this time about ratings. We’ve come to admire and respect the experience and critical faculty for Italian wines of both Antonio Galloni (formerly of Wine Advocate, now with his own Vinous publication) and Monica Larner (formerly of Wine Enthusiast, now Wine Advocate). And, to quote Galloni, both are most valuable when you look beyond their ratings:

“Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in the value of ratings. In a perfect world, a score neatly summarizes everything that is contained within a review. But a number can never give you context, or tell you important things about a wine, how it was made, and, most importantly of all, if you will like it. I believe it is time for us – all of us – to start giving a little more importance to words. The keys to understanding these wines lie in the producer commentaries and tasting notes more than it does in the scores alone.” Antonio Galloni, Vinous, February 2015

In this case, we suggest you look beyond both the ratings and the words when evaluating Monica Larner’s review of Uccelliera Rosso 2013. I’ve tasted this wine – as you can on Friday and Saturday – and I can’t find the “brimstone and pencil shavings” notes she cites first or the “easy tannins” she finds at the end. What I taste and smell is a rich, ripe wine, with powerful tannins that really want a little time to mellow. Perhaps her sample bottle was shocked or off somehow? We’ll be interested in hearing your comments when you come by to try the wine this weekend!