Holiday Wine Reviews: Notes from the Rhône and Australia
Holidays are a great time to open hopefully great wine; they’re not always a great time to take great notes. I can’t say too much more, for instance, about the 1998 Châteauneuf du Pape Font de Michelle I opened on the stroke of a midnight at our house party while in the midst of DJing other than it tasted like a wine worth celebrating with. With other wines, I managed a little better. Here are some notes:
The Clos du Mont Olivet Châteauneuf du Pape 2007 was opened Christmas Day to try and get a sense of the much-discussed ‘07 vintage, and preferably with a wine that I’ve frequently bought over the last decade. A very dark red, the nose was overloaded with sweet ripe black fruits, the palate very bright and fruity, lacking the austere and herbal touches one might expect from a young Châteauneuf du Pape. Very approachable – passed around unsuspecting guests it was an immediate hit – but a glass held back and tasted later in the evening was almost overwhelming for its alcoholic ripeness. In general terms, it was more like what you’d expect from a young Napa Cab than a Châteauneuf du Pape.
A couple of days later, I decided to open up the Domaine Montvac Vacqueryas “Arabesque” 2007 to see how the hot vintage had fared in a “smaller” appellation. I’m a big fan of Montvac (see full winery profile here); the GSM “Arabesque” is their entry level wine priced around $20. A truly endearing purple color in the glass, it offered up meaty notes with violets and lavender lingering round the edges, solid red and black fruit flavors singing loudly on the palate, with some herbal and mineral textures lingering behind. Bold and muscular, it was simultaneously forward and friendly. Vacqueryas wines are typically good value, often surprisingly attractive, but this was still that much bigger than the appellation is known for; I resist the temptation to call it a “baby Châteauneuf du Pape” given that the incredibly ripe fruit was more than you’d expect from that appellation too. The wine was drinking perhaps better the second night, having softened a little while losing none of its fruit. Based on this succulent but atypical Vacqueryas, I’m going to be interested to taste the 07s from Gigondas, Cairanne and Rasteau before coming to any early conclusions on the vintage in the southern Rhône.
Alongside the Vacqueryas, I opened a 2008 Château de Montfaucon “Comtesse Madeleine” Côtes du Rhône Blanc, priced around $16. Dominated by Viognier (40%) and Marsanne (30%), and spending eight months in oak, this was exceptional. My notes read as follows: “Quite golden in color, nose of orange & crème fraiche/perfume, low acidity but very pleasant attack of orange and nuts, acidity comes through on back palate; well rounded and oak not overpowering. Just a little peach in there too. And a little bit of the weight that the Rhône can be known for.” Again, this was drinking better the second night. From an estate just down the road from Châteauneuf du Pape, this helps put paid to the myth that the southern Rhône does not do good whites.
On New Year’s Eve, I ended up opening three decent bottles in the post-midnight rush. One was the aforementioned Châteauneuf du Pape Font de Michelle 1998. Another was a 2000 Gigondas Domaine Gour de Chaule, which was dead, with that horrible taste of raisins and prunes and high alcohol. This came as a surprise as much as a disappointment: Gour de Chaule releases its wines much later than other producers, and typically I find Gigondas to have a decade-long drinking window. Maybe I need to know my individual producers better; perhaps I was expecting too much from the vintage. Oh well.
Unwilling to let the night go on that Gigondas downer, I switched continents and opened up a 1996 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. It was probably the winner of the holiday season: a gorgeously soft texture, like pure velvet, with dusty minty notes on both nose and tongue, delicate floral touches off at the edges, softened tannins, and just enough remnants of black currant and other dark fruit to suggest that it still had several years ahead of it. Truly exceptional, and all the more so for the fact that it only cost me $15 at a local wine store a decade ago (less, for example, than the Gour de Chaule). The people I associate with don’t tend to gravitate towards Australian wines, yet the ones that I bought around the time we visited for the Millennium celebrations have proven consistently excellent, and about the only criticism I could offer on any of them is that they were opened too early. I have a ‘97 Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon waiting for the right moment; I suspect I can give it a few more years.
I realized the next morning (well, later the same morning) that someone had bought a bottle of Jacobs Creek Reeves Point Chardonnay 2005, opened it, and stuck the rest in the fridge, presumably for my benefit. This is, after all, not your typical cheap Down Under Chardonnay – despite the screwcap. Rather, it’s an oak-raised, lemon-colored, buttery, apply but also (crucially), citrusy example of how the grape can reach exciting levels of quality in the right Australian hands. Taste wise (if not necessarily by quality) it fell somewhere between the refined Chards of Burgundy and the overly opulent examples the Californians were so keen on until recently. Was not totally surprised to find out that it retails for about $30. A fine wine.
Since settling into the New Year, there’s been another disappointment with a 2000 Rhône. The Rene Rostaing Côte Rôtie 2000 (the standard bottling, bought in Britain) initially suggested it would be on form, with a wave of smoked meat and sweet olives wafting out of the bottle, but by the time glass came to lips, the aroma had largely faded and I was disappointed by its lack of fruit and/or secondary notes. The wine was gentle enough, sufficiently noble, with some lively herbal touches and a soft and alluring texture, but it was light in body and not offering much by way of taste, other than the undeniable sensation that it was on its way downhill. I kept a glass back for a night and passed it on to the wife, who seemed more than happy: certainly, by the standards of the wine most people drink most of the time, it was gorgeous, but I’ve tasted enough good Côte Rôtie (typically courtesy of generous friends) to know that this was over the hill, assuming it had ever crested to begin with. Subsequently looking at professional writers’ notes on the vintage and the wine, it seems that the 2000 Northern Rhônes, perhaps like their southern friends based on my even more crushing experience with the Gigondas, are to be drunk sooner than later; I may just need to pay more attention to these matters, and put this down to experience.
Unfortunately, Côte Rôtie does not come cheap. However, when I bought the Chateau la Roque Coteaux Languedoc Pic-St-Loup Mourvèdre Vielles Viegnes 1998 a full decade ago, it was barely $10, and I was so impressed by this wine, from the sub-appellation of Pic-St-Loup in the otherwise vast (and varied) Languedoc, that I decided to lay one down for a while and see what it happened. Thankfully, it matured gracefully. Still an impressively dark purple in the glass, the fruit had faded somewhat, though there were still hints of cherry and plum poking around the edges, and what was left was soft and alluring, with just a little bit of bitter tannin in there along with plenty earthy herbal notes. That balance of rusticity and sophistication maintained itself throughout the wine’s subsequent life – all of a few hours, as it was simply too irresistible to let sit a second night.
I’d been reading Kermit Lynch’s memoir Adventures on the Wine Route in the bath earlier that day. Published in 1988, it is considered one of the greatest books ever written on wine, especially on the merits of traditional wine-making, and I can absolutely see why. Quite simply, it was so vivid in its descriptions, so enticing in its championing of old French values, that it sent me to the cellar. The fact that this Chateau La Roque turned out to be a Kermit Lynch import was partly coincidence (I didn’t notice as much until I pulled out the cork) and yet also no coincidence at all, because the name of a trusted importer on the back of a wine provides at least part of the assurance that a wine is worth buying. It’s thanks to people like Mr. Lynch that we still have such fine wine as this – and so inexpensive as well – reaching our American dinner tables. Cheers and a happy new year.