In the Shadow of Châteauneuf: Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Lirac
If you were marooned on a desert island with only a corkscrew and one bottle of wine, what wine would it be? For me, the answer depends on how long I intend to live on said island. If I’m there for only three seasons of prime time television, like the Skipper and Gilligan, then I’d settle on a first-rate Chablis — something refreshing to complement a fillet of raw coconut. But if I’m secluded like Robinson Crusoe for 28 years, then it makes more sense to have something to look forward to in the long term. If I needed to cellar a bottle in the cool sand of a Pacific atoll for a decade or two, I believe I’d choose a Château de Beaucastel.
Many oenophiles, myself included, regard Beaucastel as the finest property in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is itself the most prestigious sub-appellation in the Southern Rhône. I fell in love with Beaucastel after sampling it at a blind tasting in 2008. As I sipped, I wrote on my napkin that the wine was meaty and smelled like a forest floor — I also noted that it was “a little young.” When the host revealed that we’d been drinking the 1983 vintage, I felt foolish, but I also had a new benchmark for power and longevity. The 2007 Beaucastel ($89.95) was recently released in Canada — it comes from a perfect vintage and is built to last.The beauty of Beaucastel is no anomaly; the entire Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a well-deserved reputation for making some of the world’s best warm-climate reds — Grenache based wines blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre and other minor varietals. Most wine guides rave about Châteauneuf’s terroir, especially the delightfully infertile soil composed of fist-sized rocks (galets) that radiate the warmth of the sun back to the vines during the cold, cloudless nights. However, Châteauneuf’s strength is not merely a matter of land, since much of the southernmost end of the South Rhône Valley shares similar geography. The quality that makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape preeminent is willpower.
Unlike the rest of the Southern Rhône, which is dominated by large cooperatives and négociants, the estates of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are tiny affairs, many of which are owned by local families with generations of winemaking experience. These families are fiercely proud; they impose strict rules upon themselves and frequently quarrel with each other in longstanding rivalries. Yields must be the lowest in France. Grapes must be hand-picked. Alcohol must be high. Rosé must be outlawed. These families insist on being superior.
It’s difficult to find a bad Châteauneuf-du-Pape, especially in the last few years when the region has been blessed by great vintage after great vintage. It is also difficult to find an inexpensive bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Its reputation for quality has added a heavy premium to the cost of any bottle that bears the papal insignia (the region gets its name from Pope John XXII, who built his “new” summer house there in 1320). Fortunately for the thrifty wine lover, Châteauneuf’s ethic of hand-made quality has gradually disseminated to the surrounding properties of the Southern Rhône. Commercially, these vineyards may live in the shadow of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but by emulating the master, they are producing world-class wine at a modest price.
Vacqueyras is a great region to look at if you want one of these dark horses. Like Châteauneuf, it is at the very bottom of the Southern Rhône region. Both regions share a hot climate and a barren tableland composed of glacial rock deposits — indeed, Vacqueyras means “Valley of Stones.” The most desirable vineyards lie atop a highland called the Plateau des Garrigues. Garrigue is an indispensible term for lovers of fine Southern Rhônes. It both describes a type of land (so barren that only thyme, lavender and vines will grow there) and a flavour in wine (herbal and resinous). Although Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s wines exhibit some garrigue, Vacqueyras is maddened by it, making them edgy and wild.
One of the up-and-coming producers in Vacqueyras is Montirius, a family estate going back generations. The proprietors, Eric and Christine Saurel, cultivate several small vineyards using strict biodynamic practices, but their Le Clos vineyard is particularly noteworthy. This 8.5-hectare plot is on a pebble-strewn promontory at the end of the Plateau des Garrigues. The elevation gives them a slightly cooler climate, which they use to cultivate a lot of Syrah, a grape that grows muddy in too much heat. In fact, Montirius’ 2004 “Le Clos” ($29) is made up of 50% Syrah, which is an unusually high proportion. The result is a great combination of age-worthy structure and rustic character.
Another Rhône appellation that labours productively in the shade of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is Gigondas. Although they were once indistinguishable from the mass of other South Rhônes, in the 1960s, the winemakers of Gigondas reinvented themselves in the image of Châteauneuf and adopted their neighbour’s high standards of viniculture. In 1971 they were rewarded with their own appellation outside the more plebeian label of the Côtes-du-Rhône Villages.
The wines of Gigondas have their own unique character — a product of the fact that much of Gigondas is hotter than even Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As long as the yields in the vineyard are kept low, this supercharges the Grenache grape so that it bleeds an intense serum tasting of raspberries and raisins. The heat is also particularly good for Mourvèdre, a tetchy varietal that’s hard to ripen. This grape provides the spiritual core of many classic Châteauneufs (including Château Beaucastel). It imbues a wine with structure and aging capacity, but it also carries an animalistic flavour. A rich Mourvèdre is the principal foil to Grenache in many Gigondas wines, making them uniquely gamey.
Lirac is the third Rhône sub-appellation that shows signs of mastering the techniques of its papal cousin. It’s a large region — and a bit of a mixed bag — but on its eastern border it’s directly next door to Châteauneuf, on the other bank of the Rhône River. In places they both share a similar climate and stony terroir. Although many Lirac estates produce generic table wine, a few properties are working small miracles and leading the way for a general improvement in quality. For example, Alain Jaume, the proprietor of Domaine Grand Veneur in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, also makes wine in Lirac. The product of this, the superb 2006 Le Clos de Sixte ($27), demonstrates exactly how good Lirac can be in the right hands.
It’s becoming a blessedly common habit for Châteauneuf’s leading estates to buy small vineyards in the surrounding regions in order to produce a “second wine” at a lower price point. Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, which boasts some of Châteauneuf’s oldest vines, makes a carnivorous Gigondas called La Pallières 2005 ($29). Château de Beaucastel produces a Côtes-du-Rhône called the Coudoulet de Beaucastel ($29). This wine is so good that it often makes me question why I spend three times as much for the Beaucastel proper. Both Beaucastels share the same poignant complexity, a mixture of autumn, smoked meat and faded flowers.
The fanfare for these upstarts is gradually growing, but there’s no better way to get beyond the hype than by drinking blind. So I recently hosted a double-blind wine tasting in order to determine whether a sampling of half-a-dozen Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Lirac could stand up to some choice Châteauneufs, including a 2006 Perrin & Fils “Les Sinards” ($39). To add an element of danger, I also included a spoiler, a 2007 Chat-en-Oeuf ($12): could this cheap Rhône be as delicious as it is homonymic?
My blind tasters had a wide range of experience — some bona fide experts, others merely drunkards. Nevertheless, the results were surprisingly consistent. The camouflage of garrigue concealed the Châteauneufs and seamlessly blended them in with the other bottles — no one could pick them out. Clearly, the wines from outside Châteauneuf had the stuffing to go head-to-head with the real thing. However, there was one sore thumb: everyone fingered the Chat-en-Oeuf as dull and flatulent.
More importantly, the wine that everyone agreed was best was a Gigondas — the magnificent 2007 “Les Souteyrades” from Domaine Saint-Damien ($29). Later research demonstrated that my friends and I weren’t the only ones impressed by Les Souteyrades: the Wine Spectator gave it 91-94 and Robert Parker a 97/100. Coincidentally, St Damien’s proprietor, Joël Saurel, is the cousin of Eric Saurel at Montirius. Joël and his wife Amie are the fifth generation to grow grapes on their property, but they’re the first to make their own wines instead of selling their produce to négociants. This shift to small-batch, family-made wine is exactly what is making Gigondas great. Châteauneuf-du-Pape better watch its back.
94 Domaine Saint-Damien “Les Souteyrades” 2007, Gigondas ($29)
This wine is a masterpiece, full stop. Les Souteyrades is a terraced vineyard in the westernmost extremity of the Gigondas sub-region. Although it’s much closer to Châteauneuf than many other Gigondas properties, the geography of the vineyard is very different, being mainly clay with a very low stone content. This has given it an opulent character like a Black Forest cake topped with maraschino cherries. The complexity of rich fruit, caraway, herbs and anise is salted with an animalistic spice. 2013-2018 will be the optimal window to unleash the beast.
91 Montirius “Le Clos” 2004, Vacqueyras ($29)
This equal blend of Grenache and Syrah has a sinuous and herbal quality, especially on the nose, where briar, thyme and sage bristle out of the glass. It’s dense and juicy, with a core cranberry and currant fruit still gripped by slightly bitter tannins. There’s lots of classic garrigue character expressing the terroir of Vacqueyras. Although it’s 6 years old now, it shows no signs of slowing down, and will continue to evolve until 2014.
90 Montirius “Terre de Aînés” 2004, Gigondas ($35)
The Terre de Aînés is made with 20% Mourvèdre from vines that date back to 1925. This gives the wine a potent funkiness that integrates surprisingly well into the fruit that drives the palate. The end result is a sort of musky elegance. It reminded me of my Parisian roommate: beautiful but shy of bathwater. The palate is floral and sweet, with notes of lilacs, violet and blueberry. The grippy structure suggests that it can mature nicely to 2015.
93 Perrin & Fils “Les Sinards” 2006, Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($39)
This is a truly old-school Châteauneuf-du-Pape with a complex bouquet of sheep manure, cow patties and horse dung. I record this in the plus side of the ledger, but the last time I opened a bottle, not all my dinner guests concurred: de gustibus non est disputandum. The palate is also fairly horsey, displaying earthy tones within the mellow cherry fruit flavours. Hints of rosewater and cinnamon add complexity. It will be best from 2012 to 2015.
90 Domaine Grand Veneur “Les Champauvins” 2007, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages ($20)
Domaine Grand Veneur’s main vineyard straddles both sides of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s border. The grapes grown on the wrong side of the line are bottled as a humble Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, even though they benefit from the same terroir and treatment as a full Châteauneuf. Both wines are made with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, although there is slightly more Grenache (70%) in the Côtes du Rhône. It’s spicy, with a tight, intense jolt of raspberry, black cherry and blueberry fruit. It’s got lots of finesse and will age beautifully.
93 Clos de Sixte 2006, Lirac ($27)
The Clos de Sixte offers an array of precise and well-delineated flavours. The nose is piled with notes of fallen leaves, brambles and plum pudding. It’s still inky with tannin, but beneath this crust are fine flavours of tar and blackberry. The Mourvèdre shines through in this particular blend, giving it a whiff of cured meat and lots of structure. This is a wholly satisfying wine with smouldering intensity. It’s drinking well now but cellaring until 2018 will pay dividends.