Saturday, June 19, 2010

Visit to Clos du Mont-Olivet

Clos du Mont-Olivet 2000 Cuvee du PapetI regret not snapping a photo of David Sabon when I had the chance. But he's the vineyard manager at Clos du Mont-Olivet, and as we neared the end of the tasting at the winery in the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, he literally had to run out to a vineyard for some reason. I quickly got my camera in hopes of snapping a shot, but he was bouncing all over the place and then ah, alas, he was gone.

David, like many of the natural and/or traditionalist winemakers I would meet in France, is intelligent, warm, and clearly dedicated. His family (cousin Thierry is officially the winemaker, though several members of the family run the domaine) is concerned first and foremost with making wines of place that age well. In youth, their CdP reds are balanced and promising and searingly tannic; in most vintages you'll want to wait a minimum of six years before drinking, or better yet ten, at which point the wines really start to show their complexity and lovely texture in the context of a firm structure.

That said, the Sabons make a variety of wines and cuvées, each of which will tell their own story, and you can drink their Côtes-du-Rhônes and young vine CdPs sooner rather than later. The entry level Font du Blanche CdRs (2009 blanc is 60% clairette, 2007 rouge is 60% grenache and 40% syrah) are approachable and fresh, and I particularly like the spice and plum character of the red. The 2007 Varène, made from 100% syrah from rented vineyards, shows fresh bell pepper notes and a solid balance between the fruit, tannins, acidity and minerality, while the old vine 2008 Monteuil-la-Levade CdR is more unruly and complicated by the aging in concrete and the generous proportion of carignan in the blend. I like this wine every year (see also my note on the 2007).

Since the challenge here in the south is to make wines that show good acidity and are not overly alcoholic, David mentions that not only must they pick the grapes before they become overripe and soft, they must be careful with their oak regime — David says that too much oak really brings out the alcohol. Thus, they ferment and age the wines according to their need in inox, concrete, old foudre, and, in very limited amounts, used barriques acquired from Burgundian producers. For example, the roussanne they use in the flat out gorgeous 2009 CdP Blanc (20% of the blend) is aged briefly in the Burgundian barrels, while the clairette (30%) and the other grapes are aged in inox. Honestly, I can't get over this wine's beauty and vibrance, its combination of depth, richness, minerality, and weightless clarity.

David then begins pouring us the red CdPs. As I've never before had a vertical of any Châteauneuf-du-Pape this is the most instructive part of the tasting. David asks us how the 2008 vintage is perceived in the U.S. (I don't know; people still talk about 2007, mostly) because all the rain and fog in that September — "like London," he says — foster comparisons with the disastrous 2002 vintage. But unlike 2002, David says the winds came to save the vintage. And indeed, there's nothing diluted about the 2008s we taste. The young vine 2008 Le Petit Mont CdP, aged partly in wood and partly in inox, may be softly textured but it also shows a big licorice note. The 2008 Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge, fermented in concrete tank and aged in foudre, needs time and it shows good concentration and mouth-ripping tannins. Spicy strawberry notes accompany the acidity, while stronger, darker notes of plum provide a baritone note.

I'm glad I already have one bottle of the 2006 CdP rouge snoozing in my offsite cellar, for the acidity here is beautiful. It shows more depth than the 2008 but is still screechingly tannic; David thinks this will show great starting in 2015 or so. John Gilman noted an alcohol burn on this wine two years ago; this seems to have faded, for the alcohol is barely noticeable despite being at 15%. The 2004 CdP demonstrates how the tannins in the Clos du Mont-Olivet reds begin to turn supple over time, and it's a lovely, graceful wine, not a mere powerhouse.

We then leap way back to the 1994 CdP rouge, which is in full-on animale mode. David says that when he was a child, his grandmother would skin rabbits for dinner and remove the intestines and that the aroma of this wine takes him back to that childhood memory. It is strange to see this kind and I think gentle man gesture to convey the ripping apart of a small mammal. Since I've never smelled a freshly disemboweled bunny, I think of mushrooms, meat, tea, dried leaves, and barn aromas (but not quite barnyard). David says this is great with cheese. Hard cheese? I presume. No, he says, fresh soft cheese like camembert or chèvre.

We finish with two examples of the flagship Cuvée du Papet. This is made from the best parcels and from the oldest (100+ years) vines, and the end result is not only rich and voluptuous but also complex and elegant. The 2006, made from 80% grenache, 10% mourvèdre and 10% syrah, is incredibly smooth, much more so than the standard CdP. The 2000 Papet, with 60% grenache and coequal proportions of mourvèdre and syrah, is my favorite wine of the entire tasting, for at the age of ten it shows both great fruit and the secondary umami characteristics. The balance is effortless and the depth is striking, and it's another reminder that I should wait at least ten years from the vintage before diving into ageworthy CdP.

After David hops away I buy a bottle of the 2009 CdP blanc, all for a mere 16 euros if memory serves, which my friend and I will consume with sausage (good choice, that) a few days later. We have to get on our bikes so that we can return them on time to Provence Bike in Avignon, and we wave to David just as he is returning from the vineyard. I wish we'd had a bit more time here...

Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the ruined chateau

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