When a Serious Consultant Lets Loose

Xavier VignonOften the phrase “winemaking consultant” generates a little eye rolling from us, because so often consultant winemakers, when they get successful enough to be famous, do little more than look at a few sheets of lab results and stamp their winemaking signatures, cookie-cutter style, onto dozens of different wines.

But this has never been Xavier Vignon’s style, and when he had a chance to make his own wines, he really started to show his individuality and unique approach to this famous terroir steeped in tradition.

As the brains behind big name estates like Chateau la Nerte, Grand Veneur, and Chateau la Gardine, Xavier Vignon has serious chops, but also likes to have fun, and his higher end blends show that irreverence – some are non-vintage, multi-vineyard blends, and they’ve gotten huge scores from major critics like Robert Parker.

But he also uses his access to world-class fruit (he takes some of his fee in the form of grapes) for his less expensive cuvees like his 2012 Cotes du Rhone, which was made from fruit selected from over 100 plots, including 65% Grenache from more than 80 year old vines, 25% Mourvedre from more than 60 year old vines, and 15% Syrah from more than 45 year old vines, mostly from the Vaucluse area. The Grenache plots come mostly from the northern part of Vaucluse near the Dentelles de Montmirail, the mountain range at the foot of Mont Ventoux, the highest peak in Provence, while the Syrah and Mourvedre come from more south-facing parcels.

xavier vignon cote du rhone bottlesEach grape variety is fermented and matured a little differently to bring out its unique character in various sizes of concrete tanks. This slightly more involved version of a traditional fermentation method gives this Cotes du Rhone a much finer, more sophisticated tannin structure than you often find from this region. It’s part of what distinguishes this Cotes du Rhone from the oceans of “just OK” wine this region pumps out, and what will make you regret all the times you settled for mediocre Cotes du Rhone.

You’d expect nothing less from such an experienced winemaker putting his own spin on a classic style.

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What’s So “Super” About “Super-Tuscan” Reds?

SuperTuscanImage

With this week’s feature of two great wines from Castello dei Rampolla, including a sizzling great Chianti Classico and a very super “Super-Tuscan” Sammarco red, we know at least some of you have a couple of questions:

1) Who are these guys at Castello dei Rampolla?
2) What the heck is a “Super-Tuscan”?

Let’s take the second question first. Bear with us, because we’re going to need to cover some background and history before we actually answer the question.

The Power of Place Names

As you know, wine in Europe has a long, long, history. From Greek/Roman times through the mid-20th Century, neither consumers nor many wine growers knew much about how wine was made or what grapes it was made from. But they did know that wines from some places – say Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti in Tuscany – tended to be better than most. So, wine lovers started searching out wines made from specific places with the expectation that a Bordeaux or Chianti would be better than other wines grown nearby.

Not surprisingly, wine growers in places not so famous soon started calling their wines by famous names (in America, think of Gallo “Chablis” and “Hearty Burgundy”.) And unscrupulous wine growers/makers in famous places began taking shortcuts, including planting high-yielding but lower quality vines, to take advantage of their famous names.

So, over the years, governments and local associations began making rules about what wines could have what place names on their labels. At a minimum, the grapes for the wine had to be grown in specified areas. Most regions also added rules about which grapes could be used, sometimes including how much/little of each. And, really picky regions included rules on maximum yields, minimum alcohol, and even requirements for minimum aging time in barrel and bottle before the wine could be sold.

Tuscan Rules Bent Out of Shape

In Italy, the rules for Tuscan reds took shape and became law in the 1930s-1950s. At that time, the only regions in Tuscany that made really good wine were Chianti, Montepulcianno, and Montalcino – so those were the only geographic names allowed. And Chianti was still made using the recipe created by Barone Ricasoli in the 1880s, so the rules required Chianti growers to add an assortment of local grapes, including white grapes, to their Sangiovese.

Two big problems emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. First, the very best Chianti growers discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were better for Chianti than the traditional grapes and learned how to get their Sangiovese ripe enough to bottle without adding any other grapes at all.

The second problem: the Tuscan coastal region of Bolgheri where no one was making wine in the 1930s or 1940s. It was in this remote, disease-riddled, rural region that Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon in 1948. And, it was here that the Marchese’s nephew, Piero Antinori, convinced him to offer his wine for sale to the world in 1971. Since Cabernet Sauvigonon wasn’t recognized in any Tuscan wine region, Rochhetta had to label Sassicaia as simple “Vino de Tavola,” the designation meant for cheap, everyday, plonk.SuperLabels

At the same time, the owner of Chianti Classico estate Le Pergole Torte, Sergio Manetti, revolted against the rules requiring him to dilute his magnificent Sangiovese with other grapes. So, he made a pure Sangiovese, dropped the Chianti Classico label, and also offered it for sale as Vino da Tavola.

By the late 1970s, wine critics and consumers around the world had fallen hard for Sassicaia, Pergole Torte, Tignanello, Solaia, Sammarco (launched in 1980) and a handful of other wines from Tuscany that carried the Vino da Tavola label. But what to call them? “Bolgheri Bordeaux Blend” didn’t really grab anyone, nor did “It Could Be Chianti Except for Stupid Rules,” or – in the case of Sammarco – “Cabernet Sauvignon from Chianti.”

“Super!”

Someone – probably Decanter Magazine – decided to lump all these Vino da Tavola wines together as “Super-Tuscans,” a name quickly embraced by the wine trade – because, well, “Super!”

As the Super-Tuscans began to attract more attention and capture much higher prices than Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulcianno, and even Brunello, the Italians became a little embarrassed – it didn’t look good to have Italy’s most famous wines come from entirely outside the legal naming system. So, over the years, Chianti’s rules have been changed to allow all Sangiovese and/or blending with Cabernet and Merlot. And a new Bolgheri region was created for those wines plus a “Toscana” designation for everything else.

But the “Super-Tuscan” moniker stuck because – again – “Super!” Today you’ll hear “Super” appended to lots of wines in Italy and even beyond that “break the rules” – whether rules legal or simply traditional. Lots of those wines really aren’t very Super at all. Sammarco 2011 most definitely is.

Historic Quality from Historic Tuscan Estate

Castello-dei-Rampolla

As Wine Advocate said a couple of years ago, “Rampolla is one of the most fascinating wineries in Tuscany, and Italy, for that matter. The relentless pursuit of excellence is evident in these spectacular wines.”

Castello dei Rampolla sits in the southern valley of Panzano, the Conca d’Oro, south of Greve in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. The land has been owned by the Di Napoli Rampolla family since 1739, although serious viticulture didn’t begin until Alceo Di Napoli took over in 1964. In 1975, Alceo began working with his good friend enologist Giacomo Tachis (who led the creation of Tignanello and Solaia) and bottled his first wine.

The big change came in 1978, when Alceo began grafting some of his Sangiovese over to Cabernet Sauvignon and, later, a little Merlot and Petit Verdot. In 1980, he released his first Super-Tuscan blend, Sammarco, made from 95% Cabernet and 5% Sangiovese. Despite ups and downs in quality during the late 1980s (after Alceo retired and before his children took over the estate), by 1996 Wine Spectator reported, “Rampolla’s Sammarco remains the benchmark super Tuscan red in its region for its powerful concentration of fruit and tannins and unique character.”

Since the early 1990s, the estate has been run by Alceo’s children, Luca and Maurizia, and quality has never been higher. Luca converted the vineyards first to organic and then biodynamic viticulture, lowering yields and heightening already impressive ripeness and concentration. Harvest and winemaking are all done by hand according to the phases of the moon, and the di Napoli’s are now experimenting with fermentation in Roman-style clay amphora for optimal wine/air contact.

Staying True To The Core

Through all these changes, the di Napoli’s have never lost their intense focus on their two most important wines: Chianti Classico and Sammarco.

chiantiThe Chianti continues to draw its fruit from one of the region’s greatest vineyards. After harvest, Sangiovese (about 90%) plus Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are fermented and aged for 8 months in concrete tanks. Then, after blending, the wine spends a full year in large (12 hectoliter) French oak casks and a further 6 months in bottle before release.

Rampolla Chianti is always a bit intense at first, with pure blackberry and black cherry fruit and firm, fine, tannins. It shows well with grilled/roasted meats from release and softens, broadens, and gains still more finesse over a decade or more in cellar.

sammarcoOver the years, the di Napoli family has reduced and now eliminated Sangiovese as a blending partner to Cabernet Sauvignon in Sammarco, turning instead to Merlot. In the warm 2011 vintage, the Cabernet ripened so perfectly that only 4% Merlot was used. It’s very young, primary, and full of fruit right now and already delicious with an hour or so in decanter. It’s going to shine through at least 2030, although I suspect you’ll struggle to leave it alone that long!

Rampolla’s local importer, Downey Selections, has worked with us to create a very compelling buying opportunity on Rampolla’s 2011 Sammarco and 2013 Chianti Classico. Don’t miss this chance for huge savings on some of Italy’s most compelling reds!  You can see more information on both wines here.

What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf? 

Champauvin Vineyard

This 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 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,  they banded together in the early 1930s 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; we know they protested and demanded explanations for years (but never got one). When you visit the Jaume’s at their modest winery 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.

champauvin and galetFortunately, 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, black olive 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.