Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rolling the Dice in CdP

Avignon is overpriced and less charming than we imagined and so we are happy to be biking up the right bank of the Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Here, on the back roads, it is quiet and gorgeous. The hills to the west may not be high but they are scrubby, rocky, and dramatically pitched. On the flats is farmland. Hedges are cropped into fifty foot high windbreaks to protect the cherry orchards and the asparagus fields. Only the many small vineyards we pass are given exposure to the mistral. The vines are flowering and even here, in the sunny south, most are VSP-trained to maximize their sun exposure.

Some 2.5 hours later we are in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We have some time to kill before our appointment at Clos du Mont-Olivet; we will picnic up by the chateau ruins, but first, why not roll the dice and taste in some of the shops lining the streets? I want to want to explore more deeply the producers I know are good (like Mont-Olivet) but I am also here to explore and discover.

The first guy we visit is a hustler. He's dressed as if he's about to hit the nightclub circa 1992 and he whips out his price sheet to facilitate the hard sell. I ask questions, and the more questions I ask, the more uncomfortable he looks. "Biodynamie," he claims, and he sort of rustles around in his chair. Even if he's telling the truth, it doesn't matter: his wines are a forest of new wood and are as slick as he is and are completely uninteresting.

At the next place the woman cheerily admits she knows almost nothing about the domaine's wines, and the wines she pours are a swampy mess. Not tarted up so much as they're simply bad, poorly made.

We then hit the shop promoting Château de la Gardine. We are greeted by Danièle Brunel, whose husband Philippe is of the Brunel clan that's long owned Gardine. She is comfortable answering every question and sees no need to press us about anything. The wines are unabashedly modernist; they use only tank and barrique, not even a single foudre, and while they initiate fermentation with native yeasts they often finish with cultured yeasts. Set the preconceptions aside: I am responding to these wines, in some cases enthusiastically, as they show great mineral definition alongside the ample fruit.

The basic 2008 blanc, for example (50% grenache blanc, 30% roussanne) is very fresh, very lively, and shows good depth. The 2005 Vieilles Vignes blanc, the Cuvée des Générations Marie-Léoncie, is 70% roussanne and it's a knockout. I'm sighing over my glass. The texture is rich and gorgeous — and yes, this saw plenty of new oak — but there's plenty of acidity here as well as lots of rocky minerals. The 2007 CdP rouge is rich and refined but has the acidity, definition, and minerality that I look for. The téte de cuvée, the 2007 Gaston Phillippe, is made from 100 year old grenache and 40 year old syrah and mourvèdre. It's too concentrated to drink in the near term, but again, it doesn't feel tarted up.

The Gardine wines are not currently exported to the United States but they recently were. I'll be hoarding the Marie-Léoncie if I'm able to find it...

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