Why I (Still) Store Wine: Southern Rhônes 1998

Having finally completed my home cellar and retrieved many of my wines from storage, I’ve recently been opening up some of my Southern Rhônes from 1998, a particular warm and acclaimed vintage, here in this colder-than-cold Catskills winter. As I embark on the calculated guessing game of figuring out which ones are ready, which ones can sleep on, and which ones should have been devoured by yesterday, I’ve come to understand why people buy cases of single wines – so that they can take some of the risk out of the process. Oh well. Naturally, these are all Grenache-dominated wines, and given that they’re also from the same region, there’s an inevitable repetition of tasting notes: ginger(bread) is the telltale aroma, and there’s likely a degree of earthy leather to be found somewhere on the palate, too. And yet, for all that, I’ve been experiencing a marked difference in development, and ultimate joy.

I wouldn’t typically expect Vacqueryas to improve for a decade, except that I tasted this wine when it was young and had the feeling that it was probably the best of the vintage for this village. I was thrilled then to have those expectations confirmed. The color was an almost impenetrable dark red, with no softening of color whatsoever and only the lightest of bricks around the rim. The nose was very powerful, a gorgeous medley of spice, ginger, leather and earth and just a little raisin touch that gradually wafted away; while most of the fruit had disappeared, this was certainly not old or drying out. Rather, the wine had developed gracefully into muscular middle-age, exuding confidence and character. In the mouth, the wine kicked up a dusty set of smoothed-out tannins, with a creamy quality to the mid-palate, and a remarkably long, vibrant, rich and enduring finish, again all leathery spice. I’m picturing James Bond – preferably Sean Connery around the Dr. No period – looking at his reflection in the shaving mirror and saying: A handsome man and no mistake. Probably the best Vacqueryas I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve had a few), a highly sophisticated and rewarding wine showing near to, but not necessarily yet at, its peak. And, I’m glad to say, I have another bottle. (I also had a rewarding experience with the Les Sang des Cailloux Vacqueryas 1998 a couple of months back, which was, likewise, singing loudly, though possibly on the way down.)
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Now this one I did buy a case of, and after an early period dominated by sweet oak, it’s settled into a comfortably reassuring wine, warm and cozy, just the thing for a cold winter’s night and easy-going food. The color on this GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre) blend is now a dusty red, and starting to show some a little brick. There’s a fuzzy ginger-bread aroma, a dusty spicy texture going on, still some bright acidity and an endearing and fulfilling finish. Medium-bodied, medium strength, comparatively understated for the vintage and the village, nothing spectacular but a lovely wine all the same. I’ll drink up my remaining bottles soon.

The cork was nearly run through with wine on this one, but not sufficiently so that the wine had yet started to escape. Both the dusty red-brown color and the visible brick indicated some ageing. Surprisingly bright and acidic, this one quickly opened up with aromas of lavender, raspberry and blackcurrant. Much more vibrant and primary than the Brusset, and absent the kind of chewy, bulky heft I’ve experienced before from this quite austere and old-fashioned winemaker. Relatively youthful, certainly still approachable, and still a ways to go. (I’ve subsequently come across a tasting note of a 20-year old Goubert still apparently in absolutely perfect shape.) Great stuff. Wish I had more.
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Onto what should have been the big guns. The Les Galets Blonds, a negociant wine, was unfortunately fizzy. What do we call this fault and what we do about it? The Grand Veneur, produced by Alain Jaume, followed on from the Brusset over dinner last Saturday night and, I realized to my cost, would have benefited from decanting, or at least longer exposure to air and greater opportunity to open up, for the nose initially gave little away. The color was a thick purple, still clearly very ripe, and only over time – and there wasn’t really enough of it given our guests’ thirst – did some smooth leathery, mushroom-like aromas escape out of the glass. Suitably full-bodied, but reticent, it eventually came around and revealed some of its secondary intentions as it wore down through the bottom of each glass. I wish my notes here were a little more intensive; never easy trying to make them in the middle of dinner, especially in a wine that develops while it’s in the glass; my conclusion from this initially brooding but ultimately happy camper was to allow my other Châteauneuf du Papes from 1998 plenty more resting time and lots more opportunity to breathe.
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Arguably the most famous controversial non-Châteauneuf du Pape southern Rhône wine of the vintage. Robin Garr at the Wine Lovers Page web site effusively reviewed the 1997 a long time ago and suggested that “It may inspire insiders’ jokes about “Helen Turley meets the Rhône.”” This comment has stuck with me, for that might still be the best description of a wine that was so overwhelmingly concentrated and extracted, even after almost a decade in bottle, that I had to double decant it and leave it several hours before it stopped barking like a feral dog and started wagging its tail a little. (Helen Turley, to fully explain the reference, makes some of the “biggest” of Californian Zinfandels.)

Everything about this wine was heavyweight, from the double-thick bottle to the double-thick grape juice inside. The color in the glass was so dark red that it was almost black. No brick whatsoever. Incredibly long, slow-moving legs advertised intense alcohol and glycerin. The label claims 14%; I’m no expert, but I’d be surprised if it was less than 15. Made, I gather, from 100% old vines grenache, it gave off some of that grape’s characteristic ginger(bread) aroma, but most of what I got initially was saddle leather, mushroom and bark – albeit with some roasted nuts trying to poke out through its open fire. My initial taste resulted in an extraordinarily rich attack, like a sucker punch to the tongue, with dusty tannins quickly coating the cheeks. A long, long, long, warm, rich, mildly spicy finish confirmed the wine’s ferocity at rear end as well as up front. This was all sampled late Sunday afternoon in a warm après-ski bath after one of the coldest days on the slopes I’ve ever experienced, but the effect, rather than warming me back up (and rewarding me) as intended, was like skiing off piste and smack into a tree. It was all I could to stay conscious.

One cup of coffee and a couple of hours later, I poured from the decanter into two different Riedels – the large high-end Syrah glass and the more everyday Chianti-Zinfandel glass. The Syrah started to show some Burgundian dark cherries in amongst the earth and tar; the Zin glass, to be honest, did much the same. This wasn’t a wine about to change its form for shape, if you get my drift.

Back on the palate, the wine had settled down enormously, pun fully intended. Still peppery, spicy, with those dusty tannins and an almost inpossible power, but with more pronounced fruit up front and a much softer finish. By the end of the evening, accompanying a Portobello mushroom pasta and some hard cheese, it had come into its own, revealing a complex character underneath all the brute strength, with that milky smoothness that I look for in an older Châteauneuf du Pape. Never a wine to gulp, it gradually became one to savor.

All in all, an intriguing wine – though not entirely unique: I had a similarly brutal experience with Domaine La Soumade’s Rasteau Cuvee Prestige 2000, which I opened last summer in the UK. That one was almost undrinkable, it was so port-like, even with dinner. The Gourt de Martens, especially given the aeration, was ultimately more forgiving.

I find it endlessly fascinating that the wines from Rasteau can be so full-throttled that they could easily pass for heavyweight Châteauneuf du Papes, and yet those from Cairanne, around the corner, rarely go more than five years. Such is the thrill of terroir. I have another bottle of the Bressy ’98, but I’m in no rush to drink it. Five years, I figure, will do nicely. And when that occasion comes around, I’ll make sure I’ve built up my fighting capacity.
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2 Comment(s)

  1. tom ferrie

    29 January, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Post a photo of the home cellar!

  2. 31 October, 2021 at 4:09 pm

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