Jean Royer: From Pure Power to Powerful Purity

jean-royer-vinesJean-Marie Royer reclaimed his family’s vineyards (leased out after his father’s early death) and began making wine in the mid-1980s. With help from a former Rugby pal (now one of France’s top-tier consultants), Philippe Cambie, Jean-Marie made rich, bold flamboyant wines – in other words, completely typical Chateauneuf du Pape.

About 10 years ago, Jean-Marie realized that he wanted more elegance and freshness in his wines and less alcoholic heat and jamminess. With help from Cambie, he adopted an unusual farming approach, allowing the vines to grow very tall – most growers “hedge” the vine tops to force the vines to put more energy into ripening fruit.

Royer lets the vine keep growing on top while pulling leaves from around the bunches and then aggressively thinning the crop over the summer. He’s now able to hang his fruit longer (developing more flavor and supple tannins) while still retaining more acid and developing less sugar than his neighbors.

In the winery, fermentation temperatures were lowered substantially, allowing for slow, gentle, extraction of color and structure and flavor without blowing off the young wines’ perfume. Each varietal now ages in a mixture of old barrels and concrete tank before Royer and Cambie meet to taste and develop trial blends (and talk a LOT of rugby!).

The results are impressive – in fact, in some ways these are the most impressive wines I know of. They are complex and worth of cellaring and paying attention to. But they’re also utterly delicious and flat-out fun to drink. And while they are distinctively “Chateauneuf,” loaded with the ripe fruit, black olive and savory herb that defines this great Southern Rhone region, they are also open and accessible enough that even folks who normally only drink California wines love them too.

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It!
The critical praise for Jean-Marie Royer’s wines keeps piling up, even as the wines get harder and harder to find here in the USA. As Josh Raynolds explained when reviewing last year’s releases:

“The Châteauneufs of Isabel and Jean-Marie Royer have consistently been among the appellation’s most graceful and Burgundy-like bottlings for the better part of the last two decades…Their wines enjoy a strong local following and a growing list of private customers from across Europe, and finding the wines outside the Continent is no easy task.” Josh Raynolds, Vinous, April 2016

We first encountered Jean-Marie’s wines back in 2013 as the 2010s reached our market – and we were blown away. But, with very little wine allocated to our area (and with me taking home significant chunks of our annual allotment), we’ve never had the ability to promote them widely. A visit with Jean-Marie a couple of years ago seems to have fixed that, and our friends at Potomac Selections and broker Tom Calder have helped us get the wines to you at simply stunning prices. Get ‘em while you can!

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The Benchmark 2016 Vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape

Chateauneuf du PapeAcross the Southern Rhone, and especially in Chateauneuf du Pape, 2016 is clearly a great, great vintage. Now, to be honest, in the past 20 years, there have been only a couple of bad vintages (2002 and 1997) and not many “average” ones (perhaps 2008 and 2004?). But now that 2016 is in the bottle, Rhone lovers will be debating which of 1998, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2015 and 2016 are the “greatest” year of all!

I suspect 2016 will end up at the top of that exalted heap, possibly at the very top. Because it brings together the flamboyant richness and immediate appeal of a hot year like 1998 and 2007, the drought-driven intensity of years like 2005, and the purity, drive, and intensity of small crop years like 2001 and 2010. In short, 2016 has it all!

Four factors work together to make 2016 so special – and so unlike any other growing season in recent memory:

  • Generous, Even, Fruit Set – Fairly benign conditions during flowering let the vines set healthy – not excessive – loads of grapes (unlike 2010, say, when the small crop intensified the structure within each berry).
  • Very Hot, Sunny, Days – Rhone grapes need sunshine and heat to ripen, and 2016 delivered that in spades with multiple days exceeding 95°F, even in September.
  • Cool, Brisk, Nights – While days resembled hot years like 2007, low humidity and limited cloud cover meant that nighttime temperatures dropped quickly. As Dunnuck says, “This is what separates 2016 from other hot years like 2015, 2011, 2009, and 2003. This diurnal temperature swing is generally thought to preserve freshness in the grapes as well as contribute to more purity and freshness in the aromatics.”
  • Drought With Perfectly Timed Rain – After fruit set, the weather turned dry with extremely low rainfall until the arrival of light showers in mid-September. The drought kept berries small and intense and drove wonderfully dark colors. The refreshing late season rain gave the vines energy to finish ripening just in time for a traditional early October harvest.

What does all that mean in the bottle? Well, Josh Raynolds at Vinous says:

“If exuberant ripe fruit, harmonious tannins and an overall impression of generosity and lushness are what you’re after in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, then 2016 has plenty to offer. But the best wines also display real energy, making this a standout vintage. References to other great years such as 2010 and 2001 abounded during my visits with producers in mid-April, and while I concur with the comparison to 2001, the ‘16s show more flesh, more abundant fruitiness and rounder tannins than the 2010s did at a similar stage. At the same time, I believe that the wines will often be superior to those from recent hot years like 2009, 2007 and 2003 because of their greater freshness.”

And Jeb Dunnuck – formerly of Wine Advocate and now on his own, agrees:

“The 2016 vintage was truly extraordinary for the Southern Rhône and is a vintage that readers should buy with abandon. This is the greatest young vintage from the Southern Rhône Valley I’ve ever tasted, both in terms of quality as well as consistency. While these are ripe, concentrated, and exuberant wines, they also show an incredible purity of fruit as well as weightless, sensationally balanced profiles on the palate. They are complex, powerful wines that satisfy both the intellectual and the hedonistic parts of the brain. Rhône lovers will be comparing the 2016s, 2010s, and 2007s long into the future, and you will want these wines in your cellar.”

Sassetti Pertimali Brunello – from Brunello legend Livio Sassetti

Doug and Sassetti

Livio Sassetti and Doug on our Spring 2018 visit to Italy

Livio Sassetti and his son, Lorenzo, make Brunello di Montalcino that tastes like Brunello di Montalcino – not super-Tuscan Chianti or red-berried Napa Cab. It’s a celebration of Sangiovese Grosso, modest in color and redolent of dark cherries, roasted strawberries, juicy wild berries, crushed flowers, fresh leather, and a kaleidoscope of sweet spices. There’s amplitude to spare (even at just 13.8% alcohol) balanced by juicy acid and firm tannin – perfect for pairing with steak tonight and cellaring for 20 years.

Sassetti Pertimali Vineyard

The Pertimali Vineyard on the famed Montosoli Hill in Montalcino

In short, it’s pretty much exactly the kind of wine Livio Sassetti has been making in Montalcino since he took over the family farm in the 1950s. In 1967, Livio and 10 other growers came together to create the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino, creating the first legal “Brunello di Montalcino” labels. And, in the late 1970s, he sold the family farm and purchased a 35 acre farm – Podere Pertimali – on the southern part of Montalcino’s great Montosoli Hill.

Montosoli is arguably the finest place to grow Sangiovese in the world, and Livio’s southeast facing marl, clay and sandy soils at 900 feet elevation are among the very finest slices of the hill. Since he arrived, very little has changed. The vineyards have always been farmed organically, the vines tended and harvested by hand, and fruit picked at the apex of ripeness – but while fantastic Sangiovese freshness and structure remained locked in.

Sassetti tonneauThe wines were made inside the tiny stone farmhouse already on the property when Livio arrived, a warren of corridors and small rooms now bursting with cement and steel tanks and giant casks. While Brunello’s rules have changed to allow shorter times in cask and small barrels have become popular, Livio’s Brunello still rests a full 36 months in large Slavonian oak tonneau.

For the past decade or so, Livio’s son, Lorenzo, has been the primary winemaker (and Lorenzo is moving production to a more modern facility a few miles away for the 2018 harvest), but Livio remains a constant presence in the vineyards, winery, and client visits. And, like his wines, even in his 80s, Livio remains a charming force that demands attention and embrace at table.

Whether or not you find the history compelling, I know you’ll love the wine. And at a time when Livio’s contemporaries and neighbors on Montosoli regularly charge $75-$100 plus for their single-vineyard wines, both the $64.98 bottle and $54.98/ea case price are compelling indeed.

sassetti brunello and glass

Bodegas Borsao: Old Vines, Modern Quality

Bodegas BorsaoSpain’s Bodegas Borsao has been famous for delivering great values from the arid Campo de Borgia region for years. As Robert Parker explained a few years ago,

“This is a marvelous consumer resource for high quality wines selling at absurdly low prices. I often ask myself, if I had known wines like this existed when I began my career 33 years ago, would I have even considered trying to find great wines at low prices? This has been one of my “go-to” wineries for many years, given their relationship between quality and price. Once you taste these wines, you will probably ask the same question many people have – why do I need to spend more?”

The secret to Borsao’s success is a solid commitment by the 620 growers who own the co-op to grow and vinify the best Garnacha (called Grenache in France) in the world.

Small Crops, Intense Ripeness
Borsao windowTheir vineyards are all located on the chalky, stony soils of Campo de Borgia, where lack of rain and searingly hot summers force Garnacha to work hard to produce small crops of intensely ripe berries. Cool nights and old vines keep the ripe fruit balanced with fine acidity and a streak of refreshing minerality.

While the exact blend varies from year to year, the 2017 Borsao is mainly Garnacha – the grape the French named “Grenache” after it landed in the Rhone from Spain centuries ago. There’s usually a splash of Tempranillo and sometimes a dollop of Syrah, all coming from 15-25 year-old head-trained vines. The ripe fruit is fermented and aged entirely in temperature controlled stainless steel to capture the grape’s inherent freshness and vigor.

With Food, On its Own, or at Parties
borsao vineWhat does it taste like? Really, really good and with a touch more concentration, length and freshness than we’ve ever tasted here before. It’s a medium-bodied mouthful of dark cherries, raspberries, violets, and a touch of earthy licorice. There’s enough structure – mouthwatering acidity and fine-grained tannin – to make this a great “food wine” and allow it to blossom further for 2-3 more years.

But it’s round, rich, and just flat-out fun enough to open and enjoy anytime you want a guilt-free glass of red wine deliciousness.

And, if you’re looking for wine for a big party or a wedding, you’ll rest easy knowing that Borsao Garnacha is a crowd pleaser, bold enough for fans of “big reds” but finessed and easy enough for guests who want something lighter and softer. And, when you put it on the table with burgers, pork, lamb, or pretty much anything else, you’ll love how it opens up and complements most any food.

As critic Josh Raynolds said of the 2009 edition of Borsao Garnacha, at the $9 release price, “It sounds like a broken record, but this is another remarkable value from Borsao.” From $6.98/ea by the case, the value can’t be beat!