Tall Vines and Terroir: Jean-Marie Royer’s Chateauneufs

Vintage 2017 is yet another in a long string of fine Chateauneuf du Pape vintages, a growing season that matched the Rhone’s usual ripeness and power with a touch more restraint. It was a season that that lined up especially well with Jean-Marie’s Royer’s winegrowing style.

Jean-Marie Royer reclaimed his family’s vineyards 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, at first he was making completely typical Chateauneuf du Pape. But about 10 years ago, Jean-Marie realized that he wanted more elegance and freshness in his wines.

An Unusual Farming Approach
jean-royer-vinesWith 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!).

And Attention to Terroir
Doug and Jean Marie Royer in Le CrauLast winter we toured Royer’s Chateauneuf vineyards as Jean-Marie helped us understand how each of his wines reflects a very specific terroir. The Chateauneuf Tradition comes from mainly sandy soils to the north of the town, giving Tradition uncommon levels of silky smoothness, floral accents, and a touch of sweet spice.

Doug and Jean Royer in Prestige vineyardIn contrast, the 80-100+ year-old vines for Chateauneuf Prestige grow on gentle slopes completely covered with the rounded stones and pebbles known as galets. As much as a foot deep in some spots, these smooth stones heat up during the day and then radiate heat up onto the grapes, pushing development of intense ripeness and thick skins. Even in a more elegant year like 2017, Prestige reflects the power, depth, and grip of this rocky site.

A Special Site in La Crau

And then there’s the Chateauneuf Les Sables de la Crau. La Crau is Chateauneuf’s most famous vineyard, a plateau rising about 100 meters above the otherwise flat plain. All of La Crau’s vines are fully exposed to the beating summer sun, drain the regions meager rainfall very quickly, and are regularly pounded by the whipping Mistral winds. And most is covered in galets and gives a deeply earthy, powerful, grippy style of wine made famous at Vieux Telegraphe.

Dom Jean Royer Chateauneuf Du Pape Sables De La CauJean-Marie’s very old Grenache vines experience all the brutal exposure of the rest of La Crau’s vines, but grow on the plateau’s one sandy-soiled corner – the “Sables” in the name – with no galets in sight. Which gives his red all the bold richness, ripeness and depth of a great La Crau wine but also a remarkable sense of silkiness, finesses, and more floral perfume.

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It!
The results are impressive – in fact, in some ways these are the most impressive wines I know of. As Vinous wrote last year, Royer’s wines “always lean towards the more elegant, finesse-driven end of the spectrum, yet have tons of fruit, sweet tannin and sensational Provençal characters.”

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.

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 weren’t able to widely promote them.

For the past five years, we’ve used a couple of visits with Jean-Marie and some heavy lobbying to acquire one of the biggest allocations of Dom Jean Royer wines you’ll find anywhere in the USA. And to bring them to you at the best prices you’ll find in the USA, too.

 

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