What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Champauvin Vineyard

Champauvin, covered with the famous galet, sits across a three-meter-wide 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-Roussillon 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
Cdp and Champauvins MapAnd 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).
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 “only” Cotes du Rhone and cannot command Chateauneuf prices, they craft it to be open, supple, savory, and delicious right now.

 

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Stunning Sancerre from Bernard Fleuriet

The international wine press is beginning to catch on to what’s happening at the Fleuriet estate. I guess it’s possible that there’s a better winegrower working in Sancerre today than Bernard Fleuriet. There certainly are bigger, better known, higher-production estates. But I can’t imagine that there’s anyone making more brilliant white and red Sancerre with this kind of intensity, depth and utterly captivating complexity. Whether you’re a diehard Sauvignon Blanc lover or adore the kind of powerfully pure Pinot Noir you normally only find in 1er Cru Burgundy sites, you really simply have to try these wines.


The Fleuriet brothers established their estate in 1991 and over the years have accumulated about 50 acres of vineyards in 35 different plots across Sancerre. Their sites capture all of Sancerre’s mineral diversity, with about 10% of the vines growing on silex (flint), 40% on white Kimmeridgian limestone marls, and the rest on soils covered in chalk pebbles (Caillottes).

Mineral Diversity, Prime Locations
What all the sites share is prime locations – all face south or southeast to receive the warm sunshine needed to fully ripen Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in this northerly winegrowing region.

They work their vines as naturally as possible with minimal pesticides and no herbicides. Both for quality and reflecting the many steep slopes they farm, all Fleuriet grapes are harvested by hand and sorted to ensure only perfectly ripe, flavorful, grapes are used. And, from first pick to final bottling, Bernard Fleuriet takes extreme care to ensure the juice and wine are protected from oxygen beyond what they absorb from barrel and concrete tank.

Concrete … and Oak
For fermentation, Bernard generally prefers concrete to stainless steel, allowing very small amounts of oxygen in through the walls of the tank to accentuate texture and depth. Increasingly he is using egg-shaped fermenters which promote a constant, gentle, movement of the lees to add still more texture without having to open the tank for stirring.

And then there’s the oak. For the whites, as I said last year, I have never encountered a finer use of French oak barrel with Sauvignon Blanc (and, yes, I’ve tasted Didier Dagueneau’s much more expensive Pouilly Fumes). For the whites that see barrel, the oak is perfectly gauged to accentuate Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc’s inherent minerality and add fantastic depth and precision of texture without covering the ripe fruit in wood flavor. Seriously – it’s not possible to do a better job of matching wood to Sauvignon Blanc.

Revelatory Reds
The reds have been an equally impressive revelation. The “basic” La Magie des Cailloutes red is a more intense and ripe version of what you hope for in Sancerre rouge – a very Pinot Noir fruitiness with touches of earth and spice and a texture that invites enjoyment with everyday foods. The Sancerre Rouge Anthocyanes 2015 is something else entirely. Imagine Burgundy’s Jean Michel Guillon growing and making Pinot in Sancerre and you’ll be on the right track.

All of these wines are delicious today – as you’ll see when you come by Saturday, June 23,  from noon-4pm to taste them with importer Olivier Daubresse. All will get even better over the next few years. And all are terrific values at our mix/match prices.

As you’ll see when you look at the wine descriptions, reviewers are beginning to realize what’s going on here, and the wines are earning big scores as they are tasted by the critics. Before the rush is on, come, try, and secure some for yourself.

Aglianico – The Best Grilling Grape You Don’t Know (and a grilled ratatouille recipe)

AglianicoGrown in the steep hills of Italy’s Basilicata, inland from Naples, Aglianico is the best grape in the world that nobody knows (or, if you know it, don’t drink enough of). Wine writers try to get drinkers to pay attention to it by calling it “the Barolo of the South.” Because, like Piemonte’s Nebbiolo, it’s wonderfully aromatic, full of bracing acidity, laced with sharp, firm, tannins, and can live and gain complexity for decades.

But “Barolo” it ain’t. It’s much more fun than that, especially when grown on the old lava flows of the extinct volcano, Monte Vulture. For one thing, it’s darker, fleshier, and more powerful than Barolo, serving up fine concentration of black raspberry and blueberry fruit to Nebbiolo’s fine cherry and strawberry.

Mt VultureAnd it’s wilder than Barolo, with a direct, assertive, ready to party by the grill, boldness and layer upon layer of summer-friendly wild herb, black olive, violet and earth notes. And while Aglianico from more famous Taurasi needs years in bottle to be much fun, many Aglianico del Vulture (like this one!) are delicious and ready to rock out on the deck as soon as they arrive in the USA.

While this is fun to hang out with and drink, growing fine Aglianico is serious work – work no one has done better over the last 40+ years than d’Angelo. Lucio d’Angelo’s ancestors had grown Aglianico for centuries before he started his winery in 1971. And Lucio and his children, Rocco and Erminia, almost single-handedly created the DOCG and set the standards for what great Aglianico del Vulture is all about.

The hard work starts in the vineyards, where the Basilicata’s high altitudes and low latitudes mean days can be brutally hot and nights chilly to frigid. Aglianico can’t really be grown successfully under any other conditions because it buds very early – when frost is too likely in lower sites – and needs to hang for months and months to develop flavor and soften fierce tannins. By the time the d’Angelo family harvests their Aglianico in late-October/early November, essentially all of Italy’s Sangiovese, Nero d’Avola, Bordeaux varietals, and even Nebbiolo are already bubbling away in their fermenters.

Once the grapes are painstakingly picked by hand – as they must be on these mountain slopes – they are crushed and ferment warm and vigorously to extract color and flavor to match naturally high acids and tannins. Then comes the wait: 20 months in huge, old, oak casks to allow the tannins to soften and full, fleshy, flavors to emerge.

d'Angelo Aglianico del Vulture

And, when all that’s done…the wine still releases at just $25 vs the $50-$150 Barolo gets. Which makes this gloriously fruit-filled, complex, powerful red a steal all the time, but especially from $17.98 this week.

Come on by and try it – we’ll keep a bottle of d’Angelo Aglianico Del Vulture open to try this week through Friday’s free tasting. And if you want to taste Aglianico’s perfect match, check out my recipe for Grilled Ratatouille. We think you’ll enjoy them both!


Doug’s Grilled Ratatouille

Grilled RatatouilleSauternes and foie gras. Ribeye steak and Napa Cab. Meursault and lobster. Fine Bordeaux and roast lamb. Every wine has a perfect pairing, a match that elevates both the food and the wine. And for Aglianico, my perfect pairing is anything laced with salty/savory olives, roasted peppers, basil, and/or capers.

You and make that match happen with something as involved as a hearty southern Italian lamb stew or as simple as an antipasto platter of olives, peppers, cured meats and cheese. But with summer’s bounty starting to arrive at farmers’ markets all around town, my favorite pairing with southern Italy’s Aglianico is a riff on a classic from the South of France: Grilled Ratatouille.

This started off as a somewhat fussy recipe from Cooks Illustrated, but now it’s more of an approach than a recipe per se. Sometimes I have more eggplant, sometimes less. Sometimes I grill everything until it’s mushy, sometimes I leave things more crisp. And sometimes I leave it rich and dense and other times add a big jolt of lemon juice for freshness. It always seems to come out great, though, and as long as you make sure to have enough capers/olives and basil, I promise it will taste great with Aglianico!

Ingredients
Note: This makes about 6-8 servings as a side dish. I usually double it, but you can futz with the mix anyway you like and it will still come out great.

  • 1 red onion peeled and quartered, leaving enough stem to hold the quarters together
  • 2lb eggplant sliced about 1 inch thick
  • 1.5lb zucchini sliced in half or into thick planks (depending on how big your squash is!)
  • 2 bell peppers cored and quartered (yellow or red are fun)
  • 1lb tomatoes cut in half along the equator (more is good, too)
  • ¼ cup chopped basil (more is ok)
  • 1 tbsp chopped thyme
  • 1 tbsp capers or 2 tbl chopped black olives (or both – just watch the salt)
  • 3 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic grated or mashed into a paste
  • ¼ cup really good olive oil plus more for tossing/brushing
  • Salt & pepper
    Lemon juice

Directions

Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with a little oil and sprinkle with a little salt.

Put the other veggies in a large mixing bowl (in batches) and toss with oil to coat; lay out on baking sheets and salt lightly.

Get your grill hot; with charcoal, do a two-level fire; with gas, leave one row/side off

Get grill marks on the onion over direct heat and then move to other side of grill to cook until soft

Put the eggplant over the direct fire and grill, turning frequently, until they are softening (your choice of still a little toothsome or full on mushy)

Put the bell peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes (in batches) over the hot side of the grill, turning until both sides show grill marks; either continue turning over direct heat or move to other side until they are as soft as you want them.

When the veggies have cooled, rub the skins off the tomatoes and peppers (don’t worry if some stays on – no one will care).

Chop everything up to the size you like – I go pretty chunky, but it’s up to you – and put everything in a big bowl with the olives/capers, thyme and basil

Make a dressing of the sherry vinegar, ¼ cup olive oil and garlic (I use an immersion blender but you can go old school and whisk it together), and pour on the veggies and toss.

Taste and add more salt and pepper if you like and a squeeze of lemon juice if that’s your thing. Serve warm or room temperature with Aglianico!