What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Lirac galet

Ten feel of pebbly path separate the Champauvin vineyard from Chateauneuf du Pape.

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, 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!
champauvin and galetIt’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, 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.

Dom Grand Veneur Les Champauvins Cotes du Rhone

Wine That’s (Much!) Better Than Asparagus – The Paring from California’s Jonata

Jonata Vineyard, Winery, 191.6, Ballard Canyon, California(MultiA few years ago, billionaires Gerald Levin, Arnon Milchan, and Charles Banks (then owner of Napa’s Screaming Eagle) brought France’s Michel Rolland to see a patch of land in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. “What should we plant here?” they asked.

“Asparagus. I think you’d be better off planting asparagus,” Rolland replied

Fortunately, they didn’t listen. The trio decided to plant an 80 acre plot with 10 different varietals from Bordeaux, the Rhone and beyond. And when Matt Dees joined as Jonata’s first winemaker in 2004, they discovered that pretty much everything they planted made terrific wine!

An Expensive and Successful Main Label
Jonata’s “main label” wines have racked up huge ratings since the first releases, with 95s, 96s, and 97s scattered across the range. Now that Screaming Eagle’s current owner, Stan Kronke, had taken the reins, there’s a no-expenses-spared approach to vineyard management, harvest, and winemaking. And while the Jonata wines hit pretty stratospheric heights for Central Coast bottlings – lots of $80-$140 offerings – Robert Parker says, “Fasten your seatbelts as these wines will give purchasers a serious ride for their money!”

The Jonata style is big, bold, and built for the cellar. As the Wine Advocate’s current Central Coast critic, Jeb Dunnuck says, “this is always one of my favorite tastings. However, due to the mouth-damaging levels of tannin and structure these wines show in their youth, this is one tasting I have to schedule at the end of day!”

And a Softer Second Wine
That’s where The Paring comes in. Every vintage, a few barrels of Jonata’s wine turned out to be too supple, soft, and ready to drink – not right for the main label’s vin de garde, have to be cellared for years, house style.

For the first few years, Jonata simply sold these barrels off to other wineries. But as the vineyards matured, the quality of these “off lots” just kept getting better and better. So much so that, starting in 2011, the winery decided they should bottle and sell these seconds themselves.

“Superb Values”

The first release of wines under The Paring label came in 2011 and the critics were very, very, impressed. As Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck said tasting the inaugural 2010s, “These value-priced efforts are made by Matt Dees and the Jonata team, and are primarily made from declassified grapes from both their The Hilt and Jonata labels. They represent superb values and are a great intro to the style of the more expensive releases.”

By 2012, The Paring had expanded to six wines and the quality kept getting better and better. As Dunnuck said after tasting the whole line-up, “Made by the team at Jonata, these wines are basically declassified lots that didn’t make the cut for the top Jonata releases. These 2012s are a step up from past vintages and are crazy values. Don’t miss a chance to grab some of these!”

The 2013s are clearly the best yet. As Antonio Galloni from Vinous wrote after tasting the 2013s, “The four wines in this range are all absolutely delicious.” And, even at the release prices, he declared them, “among the very finest values readers will find in California. A great choice for by the case purchases or glass pours, these new releases from The Paring deliver serious bang for the buck. It simply does not get better than this.”

News from Willamette Valley: New Pinot and … Chardonnay

Meg and I are just back from a quick trip to Oregon and meetings with some of our favorite Willamette Valley winemakers. We’re lining up new shipments of some of your favorites from vintages 2014 and 2015, including some real stunners from John Grochau, Patricia Green Cellars, and Belle Pente. And watch for small quantities of some new Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs from the culty, hard-to-find Walter Scott.

A New Focus: Chardonnay. But the real story in the Willamette Valley right now is that – after 40 years of ups and downs – Chardonnay has finally arrived! At pretty much every stop, we found Chardonnay that showcases some of the energy, minerality and complexity you’d expect from top Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet married to the juicy, ripe, fruit flavors found in the best of California’s cool Sonoma Coast sites.

During my very first visit to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the spring of 2009, Chardonnay was on the wane. More than one winemaker told me they’d not figured out Pinot Noir’s natural white grape partner and that they either had or were considering grafting over their Chardonnay vines to Pinot Gris or Noir.

Returning in the summer of 2013, I heard folks say that Chardonnay really should work in the Willamette Valley, but that the original plantings were in the wrong places or of the wrong clones. “We really ought to figure this out,” was a common comment. Coming back in mid-summer of 2015, we heard, “You know, maybe we can figure this out!” although compelling wines in bottle were few and far between.

Last week, Chardonnay was a focus of conversation and tasting everywhere we went. Patricia Green has made their first Chardonnay in years, John Grochau’s Chards were zesty and rich, and newcomer Walter Scott has committed to making Chardonnay a full 50% of their production. No question, Chardonnay is on its way back in the Willamette Valley!

oregon-chardonnaysA Trio of Tempting Willamette Valley Chardonnays. Chardonnays from Grochau and Walter Scott are definitely on our “buy” list for later this year, and Chardonnay has clearly “arrived” at Belle Pente’s Yamhill-Carleton estate vineyard and in the old-vines Dundee Hills vineyards of Arterberry Maresh and Oregon Pioneer Eyrie.

Not much of any of these is made and less still is available. But all are well worth checking out to get a feel for why Willamette Valley Chardonnay is the “next big thing” for the world’s most popular white wine grape! Stop by this weekend for a taste!

Loess is More for Grüner

josef-bauer-familyAs you might imagine of a fellow who named his pink wine “Joe’s Rosé,” Josef Bauer isn’t a pretentious guy. But the casual manner and friendly, welcoming, smile don’t mean that Joe is casual about his winemaking! Especially in the outstanding 2015 harvest, Joe turned out some truly outstanding wines.
Joe is part of the fourth generation of Bauer family members to grow grapes and make wine from the steeply sloped hills of Austria’s Wachau region in Danube valley between the towns of Melk and Krems.
bauer-vineyardThe river Danube created the valley beneath Wachau’s hills, but the soils are something unique. During the Ice Age, strong winds blew westward from Eastern Europe, bringing with them clay and chalk ground fine by ancient glaciers. This fine light gray sand stuck to the Danube Valley’s hills, gradually building up layers of “loess” anywhere from a few inches to a 10+ meters deep.
Water and Minerality
gruner-veltliner-grapesAnd, for Wagram Grüner Veltliner, “Loess is More”! Loess holds more water and has a higher mineral content than most other soil types, and Grüner needs both to ripen to perfection.
Where the soils are almost all Loess, the wines are richer, riper, and show more fat texture on the palate. Where ancient Danube river pebbles are mixed in, Grüner develops a more intense minerality and keeps a leaner, more vibrant, texture. Where loess is least and deeper alluvial soils prevail, red varietals thrive.
Joe and his family have had plenty of time to get to know the character of their steeply sloped hillside vineyards and to learn to make wines that let each site shine through beautifully. Farming is practical and reflects the site and vintage characteristics. In damp years, cover crop grows between rows to limit the vines’ water uptake – in dry years, the rows are plowed to get more water into the soil. Chemical use is kept to a bare minimum, and grapes are pruned, thinned, and harvested by hand.
 josef-bauer-gruner-katharina
It’s a small, family operation that lets Joe sell most of his wine in Austria without much effort. The small trickle that reaches the USA flies under the critics’ radar – and, to be honest, snuck in under ours as well.
It took a morning last year spent with Joe in his vineyards and Wagram tasting room to discover just how good his wines are especially in Austria’s brilliant 2015 harvest. Katharina was our favorite of all, and it’s a “do not miss” bottling while it lasts.

A Benchmark Storms Back – Burgundy’s Michelot

Writing in 2008, Burgundy expert Clive Coats said, “Nearly 40 years ago, when I was studying for the Master of Wine examination, one of my tutors recommended two estates which produced yardstick white Burgundy: Michelot in Meursault and Sauzet in Puligny-Montrachet.”

That “yardstick” status came from the hard work of Bernard Michelot, a fifth generation winegrower who modernized the winemaking, increased the use of new barrels, and tended his large set of vineyard holdings with meticulous care.

Inheritance Issues
In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, the estate failed to keep up with the ever-improving quality of its neighbors. As Bernard aged, he was forced to split up the estate between his children and sell off some vineyards to deal with France’s punitive inheritance taxes.

Daughter Genevieve Michelot took seven ha and founded Michelot Mere et Fil. Son-in-law Jean-Francois Mestre and his wife, Odile Michelot, kept Domaine Michelot but were forced to place some of the wine and vineyards in a separate cellar, Domaine Mestre-Michelot. The separate cellars and Bernard’s continued presence (he passed away earlier this year at age 99) perhaps served as barriers to further innovation.

Reuniting and Re-energizing

michelot-familyOver the past decade, though, Domaine Michelot has come roaring back. Jean-Francois has been allowed to merge the two separate cellars – so all the wine is Domaine Michelot now. He and his son Nicolas have converted all of their vineyards to organic farming. Grass is allowed to grow between the rows to stress the vines and then plowed under to enrich the soils. Most chemical treatments have been dropped and copper and sulfur use have been reduced substantially.

In the cellars, Mestre has slightly increased the amount of new oak used – around 33% for the 1er Cru wines – but also moved to larger barrels to prevent too much oak flavor in the wine. All of the wines – from Bourgogne Blanc up – spend 12 full months in barrel before wracking by gravity into tank. There they rest for an additional 4-6 months to harmonize and settle before bottling.

The result of all these changes: superb wines that are once again “textbook” (or “yardstick” if you prefer) Meursault. Rich, full of ripe fruit, creamy in texture with plenty of vibrancy, and laced with plenty of toasted buttered nut goodness. The 1er Crus are majestic and, if young, promise a decade-plus of drinking delight. The Meursault Narvaux is at once sleek and sexy; hard to imagine anything more delicious with lobster or morels. And the Bourgogne Blanc – made entirely from vines grown within the village of Meursault – is simply the most outstanding white Burgundy value we’ve seen in years.

Folks, do not miss the Michelot wines while they are available at these superbly discounted prices.

Why 2014 is the White Burgundy Vintage to Buy
michelot-mersautA reasonable question for any Burgundy lover to ask: Should I buy extensively from the currently offered vintage or save some room for harvests yet to come. For the 2014s, here’s the answer to that question given by Burgundy’s foremost dedicated reviewer, Burghound: “I would again urge you to strongly consider buying the 2014s.”

Why? First, the wines of the best producers in general, and Michelot specifically, are outstanding in a classic (if ripe) white Burgundy style. Burghound’s overall assessment of the vintage applies here in spades:

“They are classic middle weight white burgs that possess excellent freshness, solid but not high alcohols and acidities along with terrific transparency to the underlying terroir. They are also exceptionally refreshing and energetic which makes them fun to drink as one sip invites the next…The 2014s are quite finely balanced as they combine reasonably good levels of dry extract that generally does a fine job of buffering the moderately firm acidities. As such they should be approachable young but should reward mid-term cellaring.”

Price Increases to Come
Second, while the jury is still out on the quality of the 2015s (which I suspect will be much better than Meadows projects) and 2016s, we know one thing for sure: white Burgundy prices will skyrocket over the next 24 months. While growing demand in Asia is certainly part of this story, the bigger issue is simple: vintage 2016 was nothing short of a disaster in terms of quantity produced.

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with multiple importers plus growers in Gevrey-Chambertin, Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, and Meursault. All have said the same thing. The quality of fruit in 2016 is superb. The quantity is down 30-80% – and for white Burgundy, losses of 70-80% are common.