Does Rosé Age? A Case Study with Vignelaure

outside roseWe often get asked, “Does rosé age?” And our answer: “no and yes!”

“No” because very, very, few pink wines are better at age four or five than they were on release. But “yes!” because almost all of the pink wine we buy gets better as it recovers from the shock of early spring bottling and shipment. I find that most good rosés peak somewhere between August and Thanksgiving and then hold nicely into the following year.

And if a pink wine has enough tannin and acid to protect it, it can keep right on improving for 24 months and is actually at its best in its second summer. The 93 point 2015 Vignelaure rosé is a perfect example.

Despite our eye-popping $9.98/ea by the case price (more on why that’s true later), this is not your typical, just-bottled and rushed to market rosé. But, then, Chateau Vignelaure is not your typical Provence wine estate.

A Top Site for Cabernet. Georges Brunet, owner of Third Growth Ch La Lagune in Bordeaux, discovered the Vignelaure site in the early 1960s. With soils perfectly suited to Cabernet and 1,300 feet of elevation moderating Provence’s intense sunshine, he planted the vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings taken from La Lagune. By the mid-1970s, Vignelaure – meaning “the vineyard of the sacred spring” – had gained fame as one of Provence’s best, agreeable, and distinctive reds.

In his benchmark 1987 book on Rhone and Provence, Robert Parker called Vignelaure “one of the showpiece properties not only of Provence, but of France…Chateau Vignelaure specializes in red wine, capable of ageing 15-20 years, produced from a blend of two great wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Vignelaure’s wines are elegant expressions of Provencal wine-making at its best.”

ch Vignelaure bottleAdding a Rosé. Starting in 1993, Vignelaure added top-flight rosé to the portfolio, too. They blend 40% Grenache and 30% Syrah – the region’s classic rosé grapes – with 30% of their stunning Cabernet Sauvignon to create a wine with authentic Provençal character plus one extra notch of richness, power, and ability to age. The Grenache, Syrah, and most of the Cabernet ferment and age in tank while a little of the Cabernet rests in barrel.

The result is a rosé that was good when it landed here last summer but has only gotten better in the past 10 months or so. There’s been no dimming of the aromas and flavors of red berries, tangerine and crushed herb. But the texture is even better, round and plush and mouthfilling but still light and fresh. Delicious right now, but no rush: save a bottle or two for Thanksgiving!

A Note about the Price. This rosé released last year at a $20 price (we offered it at $16.98 last year). Why so much less this year? It’s a combination of factors. Start with Vignelaure’s fairly late arrival last year (we didn’t get any until late July) so that the importer didn’t sell all they had by the end of rosé season. Then add in America’s obsession with drinking only the youngest, just-released pink wines from the most recent harvest. Put those together with a wine that’s actually better than it was last year and you get one heck of a deal!

Fine Wine, Fine Vintages in Beaujolais

chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThere’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past three vintages is the “greatest ever” in Beaujolais.

Vintage 2014 delivered classic, vibrant, elegant wines that capture the essence of Gamay’s juicy joy. Harvest 2015 added much deeper, riper, fruit and more density than usual, but with no loss of energy or minerality. And the 2016 harvest – while seriously reduced by hail and frost – may turn out to marry the best characteristics of 2015 and 2014 combined.

What will broach no argument is that Chateau Thivin made utterly brilliant wines in all three years, continuing to cement their place among the very best in all of Beaujolais – arguably, among the best in Burgundy as a whole.

Ancient Volcano, Modern Winery
Ch Thivin la_famille_geoffray The estate founded in 1383 and purchased by the Geoffray family in 1877. The chateau (yes, there really is one), winery and the estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly.

The volcano’s very steep slope – around 40 degrees in the heart of the vineyard – provides excellent drainage, fantastic exposure to the sun, and the platform for the Geoffray family’s modern gravity-flow winery.

When others in Beaujolais chased quick and easy cash in the Beaujolais Nouveau boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the Geoffray family just kept on making fine wine. Vineyards are plowed to create healthier soils, no insecticides are used, and grapes are harvested and sorted by hands.

Whole bunches of ripe, juicy Gamay grapes roll by gravity into tanks were fermentation starts naturally with no additions of yeast or enzymes or anything else. After a day, rosé tanks are pressed gently and finish fermentation in stainless steel. Reds soak for a week or so before pressing and racking into large, old, wood casks and bottling six months later. And for these wines, that’s it.

Ch Thivin was long well-known as one of Beaujolais’s great estates within France, but pretty much unheard of in the US until the 1970s. That’s when importer Kermit Lynch first visited the Domaine and made it one his earliest imports to the USA. And I think his description of Ch Thivin today is still the best summing up we can offer. Thivin’s wines, he says, are “a country squire who is not afraid to get his boots muddy. Handsome, virile, earthy, and an aristocrat.”

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

What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Champauvin, covered with the famous galet,  sits across a 10-foot path from Cheateauneuf

Champauvins 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 about 20 miles 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! It’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, 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.

Burgundy: What’s the Story on 2012?

Hail damage was just one of the 2012 vintage's woes

Hail damage was just one of the 2012 vintage’s woes

Burgundy’s roller coaster 2012 vintage has delivered small quantities of often impressive and delicious white wines. The best have the luscious ripe flavors of a warm vintage like 2009 with fine acidity and remarkably low alcohol levels (usually 12.8-13.4 or so). This creates a wonderful yin-yang of rich-seeming textures and fruit flavors without any heaviness or lack of zing.

While few will reward more than 10 years aging, most will be delicious as soon as they arrive in the USA or with, at most, two or three years of cellar time. They’re wines to take home and enjoy now while waiting for the 2008s, 2010s, and 2011s to develop a bit more. But with yields off 20-40 percent or more, soaring global demand, and a less inspiring 2013 vintage coming behind, prices are up and the little bit of wine to reach us will go very, very quickly. What happened?

Weather Problems and Woes
As more than one wag has said, the 2012 vintage was in great shape … until January 2. Celine Fontaine gave a very accurate summary of the vintage’s woes:

“It was a tough growing season that was at times depressing. There was a springtime frost on the 17th of May and all of the plowed vineyards in the lower section of Chassagne were badly damaged because the plowing released the humidity. We were one of those domaines that had plowed and in hindsight that wasn’t exactly a great start to the season. Yields were then further reduced by a very poor flowering in June. Following that were severe attacks of mildew and oidium that necessitated a very high level of vigilance. We then had a heat wave at the end of July that sunburned any exposed fruit. In Volnay and Pommard we were hit by the hail storm on the 30th of June and then again in Chassagne and Puligny on the 1st of August. I suppose that you could say that we suffered about every ill imaginable in 2012 except for botrytis. All in all, it was difficult as yields were tiny but at least the wines are good!”

Great Wine, Great Demand
Decent weather in September saved the harvest, but all the grapes lost due to poor flowering, hail and rot (plus a plague of wild boars on the upper slopes of Chassagne) and the thick skins and low juice levels of the grapes that survived meant that not much wine got made. I remember visiting Burgundy in January 2013, and being shocked at how empty most cellars seemed. Following short harvests in 2010 and 2011, the lack of wine to sell from 2012 left many Domaines worrying about their fiscal viability.

With a small 2013 harvest and soaring demand for white Burgundy in Asia, all producers have had no choice but to raise prices on the little bit of 2012 they have to sell. As Burghound (Allen Meadows) said, “The key challenges for us as consumers will be twofold: the first is simply to find the wines and the second will be paying for them as they will not, indeed cannot, be inexpensive.”

We had all of this in mind when John and Dominique Otterbeck of McLean-based JAO Imports offered to show us the 2012 Chassagne-Montrachet wines of Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard. We’ve always liked these wines (and carried their Grand Cru Criots-Batard-Montrachet over the years), but have never been able to get the price, quality, and quantity of wines all lined up to justify offering the full line. So we were thrilled to discover that not only were the 2012s the best wines we’ve ever tasted from Fontaine-Gagnard, but that John and Dominique were offering us a pre-arrival purchase opportunity and quite generous (for 2012) allocations. We jumped on the opportunity – come taste the wines, and you’ll quickly see why.

Among Chassagne’s Best
Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard’s history begins in 1982 when air force mechanic Richard Fontaine married Laurence Gagnard, a member of the tight-knit Chassagne-Montrachet Gagnard family that included her father, Jacques, of Gagnard-Delagrange. As so often happens, Burgundy worked its magic on Richard, who quit the air force, studied winemaking, and launched Fontaine-Gagnard in 1985. Having received a portion of the Gagnard family’s holdings over the years, Richard and his daughter Celine now farm about 20 hectares of vines in Chassagne, Volnay and Pommd, including the largest piece of Grand Cru Criots-Batard-Montrachet, a small piece of Batard-Montrachet, and a sliver of Le Montrachet itself.

The wines here have been very good from the beginning, but they really hit their stride in the great 2002 harvest and are now considered among Chassagne-Montrechet’s very best. The house style emphasizes minerality and precision over pure ripeness, a fine approach when working with Chassagne vineyards that tend towards chunkier, denser wines than you’ll find in neighboring Puligny.

Winemaking is fairly traditional, with all wines receiving a light pressing and going into barrel for fermentation and aging. While not afraid of new oak, Richard and Celine have settled on using about one-third new oak for their 1er Crus and a bit more for the Grand Crus. Wines always spend less than a year in barrel to avoid oaky flavors and protect fruit and freshness. As Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin said, “I am not one to pull my punches from overuse of new oak, but here at Fontaine-Gagnard, they have always had the knack of assimilating it into the wine so that it is barely noticeable.”

We are offering three of Fontaine-Gagnard’s 2012 Chassagne-Montrachet plus a very limited amount of their distinctive and delicious Grand Cru Criots-Batard-Montrachet. And – while not listed below – we also have access the ultra-rare Fontaine-Gagnard Le Montrachet. Two bottles of 2011 and 1 of 2012 are available at $600 per bottle (no further discount). The family has not presented either vintage to critics, but previous vintages have always scored 95 points or so. Well priced as these things go.

You’ll find all of the Chassagne-Montrachets delicious right now, although the 1er Cru Caillerets is still a bit restrained and will be better in 2016 or so. Just a few cases of each (and six bottles of the Grand Cru). Go for it.