Friday, May 9, 2008

A Rhone (Rhône) Valley Wine Trip

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity at the end of a business trip to visit the Rhone for a few days. Prior to leaving, I made arrangements to visit a few Northern Rhone producers, and thanks to the generous help of Alain Jungeneut with Wines of France, a number of visits in Chateauneuf du Pape.

I'll tell the tale in three parts, first the Northern Rhone, then Chateauneuf, and then dinner at Beaugravier in Mondragon.

We arrived in Condrieu on Friday, 11/5 at Beau Rivage. With dinner, we had an eclectic selection of wines, starting with the Veuve Cliquot 1990 Rose, then the Vogue Musigny 1971 and Guigal La Mouline 1985 with our meal. While we fought the fruit flies (literally) for our dessert, we enjoyed the Trimbach Gewurztraminer 1983 SGN.

Saturday morning we drove to Domain Chave, where Jean Louis Chave hosted us for a tasting and discussion in the cellars below where his parents live. We started with the '98 Blanc, tasting from two different tanks of pre-blended wines, as well as a barrel sample (unblended, and I didn't note the vineyard). This was followed by the '97 blanc in bottle. Hard at this stage to evaluate the '98 blends, as they were both different, and even more so the barrel sample, which had a very distinct pear note.

On to the reds. We were privileged to get to taste the 1998 vintage from barrel, before any blending had been done. Les Bessardes Peleat Les Beaumes Les Diognieres Le Meal--over the top, high alcohol, powerful wine Les Rocoules L'Ermite--my favorite of the bunch, the best balanced of all the wines

After the barrel samples, the Rouge 1997 final assemblage in bottle, wound very tight, as you would expect. I'm anxious to try this again now that it's arrived stateside.

We wandered through the cave back to the 'old' part of the cellar, and tried the 1978 Hermitage Rouce only feet from where it had been resting for the past 20 odd years. I'd had the wine recently in Seattle, but this bottle showed much brighter fruit, and was a real treat. On our way out, we sampled a bit of the '96 1996 Vin de Paille from barrel (only two barrels made, will be bottled in the spring).

This was an amazing way to start our trip; the Chave family history is amazing, and Jean Louis sees himself as part of a long tradition of making wines in the style that has always been Hermitage: red, white and vin de paille. He feels very strongly that blending is the key to getting the best expression of the vintage, and doesn't understand (or agree) with the trend towards single cuvee bottlings. I hadn't realized that the family has been making wine since 1481. Their current facility was occupied during World War II, and fortunately the Germans didn't discover the entrance to the cave, and all of their old stocks of wine survived intact. The oldest bottle that they can accurately date is 1929; there are older bottles, but because of several moves without good records, they don't know vintages.

Almost three hours later we tore ourselves away and left to get some lunch. Jean Louis recommended Le Chaudron in Tournon. With a salad of wild mushrooms and a cut of Biche also served with mushrooms, we had a bottle of the 1978 Jaboulet La Chapelle.

After driving around the hills above Tournon to get a good view of Hermitage Hill, we drove across the river to Tain l'Hermitage, where we sought out the Compagnie de L'Hermitage, a wine shop that had been recommended by several people. We were welcomed by the owner, George, and his nephew Mikus (they are Greek). While I shopped, we sipped the '90 Perrier Laurent Brut. A while later, Jean Louis Chave showed up (for the France/Australia Rugby finals), and our short visit turned into an afternoon and evening of Rugby and more wines.

George opened first the 1975 Chave Hermitage Rouge, which showed pretty well, but it's clearly past its prime. That was followed by a 1981 Domaine de L'Hermite Hermitage Rouge; this domaine is no longer in existence since Gerard Chave bought the vineyards and facilities in 1982, and Jean Louis lives in the old winemaking building which has been converted into a house.

After a long afternoon/evening of tasting, we opted for a simple meal at Le Cote Rotie in Ampuis.

Sunday morning we had planned to drive up into the vineyards and pay homage to Jaboulet's famous Chapel on the hill. Jean Louis had invited us to call when we arrived, and he turned out to be home, so we met him at his house and then went on a short walking tour of the vineyards, where he pointed out the geological features that make each parcel on the hill unique. Hearing that the vineyard sites were determined by geology and soil type was one thing, but being able to walk from vineyard to vineyard and actually see the soils and rock types change was very cool.

After our walk, we were invited inside where we shared a bottle '88 Chave Vin de Paille. This wine was never released commercially, and was, as all Vin de Paille seems to be, an exotic nectar of apricots and peaches. A most memorable way to end what turned out to be an incredible visit at Domaine Chave.

We finished off the day at Chapoutier back in Tail l'Hermitage, where we tried much of their red Hermitage line. Needless to say, the corporate tasting room paled in comparison to the perspective we gained on Hermitage through our discussions with Jean Louis Chave.

After that, it was off to Chateauneuf du Pape and points south...

Rhone Valley trip, Part II Chateuneuf du Pape

After Hermitage, we headed south to Gigondas, making the lovely hotel Les Florets our base of operations for two days of tasting in Chateuneuf du Pape. After settling in at the hotel, we had dinner in the hotel (being a Sunday, little else was open). A nearly empty dining room, but a great meal of seared Foie Gras, Magret de Canard with apple slices (the biggest duck breast I've ever seen), and Creme Brulee for dessert. With dinner we had Gosset Grand Reserve Brut, a '96 Domain Santa Duc Reserve Haute Garriques (way too young, not quite as over the top as the '95, but still...) and a lovely 1990 Domaine Les Goubert Cuvee Forence Gigondas (made by Pierre Cartier). This was the best wine we had off their list in the two nights we ate there. The Cuvee Forence was perfumed on the nose, soft on the palate and very enjoyable.

Monday was a marathon of visits to producers in the area. Here are the producers we saw in order, with limited notes on the tastings (sorry, I could have been more disciplined...):

Domain Des Relagnes A short visit with Henri Boiron, mostly conducted in pidgin French as we spoke little French and he little English. My notes on the wines are incomplete, I'll see if I can get notes from one of the other guys. Les Vieux Donjon Hosted by the Marie Jose at the family house, which contains a small, old cave formerly used for wine production, this was a most pleasant visit. We tried the '97 blanc, and '96, 95 and '90 rouge. The '90 was a great wine, too bad they don't do wine sales. We then drove out to their production facility where we'd hoped to find the winemaker, but he'd already left. Le Vieux Telegraphe This appointment was made at the last minute from the tourist office, so we were pleased be there. One of my traveling companions is a huge fan of VT, so this visit was for him. We initially met with someone off the bottling line who gave us a taste of the current bottlings, the '98 Blanc (just good) and the '97 rouge (just ok). After the tasting we got to visit briefly with Daniel Brunier who came out to sign Peter's copy of Remington Norman's the Rhone Valley (amazing what an icebreaker that turned out to be...). Chateau Fortia Hosted by Bruno Le Roy, a wonderful, humble man who was most gracious during our visit. A short tour of the facilities (lots of room for expansion here), and a memorable tasting that included a barrel sample of unblended Syrah from '99. The '98 Blanc, '95 rouge (terrific), 1996 (just OK) and the '98 rouge (wonderful). Great wines, this producer is clearly an up and coming place to watch. We tried to buy a few magnums to take home, but he refused to let us pay, and even agreed to sign the labels. Watch for the '98 when it comes to market! Clos des Papes We started out tasting, trying the 98 Blanc, '97 red and the '94 red, which was the best of the lot. We could hear corks popping in adjacent room, and partway through our visit Vincent Avril emerged and proceeded to chat with us, and then take us on a tour of the facility. A great man, very similar in philosophy to Jean Louis Chave, in that the wines represent a tradition, they don't believe in special cuvees or single vineyard bottling. The wines are handled as little as possible, and the are setup to do as much gravity fed transfer as possible. At the end, he signed Peter's book, and introduced us to his father, Paul, who also signed the book.



We started the day with a visit to Beaucastel, where we were hosted by Mike Rijen, their current director of PR and official voice of the chateau. I'd arranged the visit only a week prior via email using their web site, and the appointment went off without a hitch. A short tour of the production facilities, including the cave lined with racks and racks of bottles, and then we proceeded to the tasting. We had the 1998 blanc Cotes du Rhone, 1998 blanc Chateuneuf du Pape, Coudoulet rouge 1997, and the Chateuneuf du Pape 1997, ending with the 1989 rouge fantastic, and the CdP blanc 1989 (incredible, fantastic, wow). A fun tasting and visit, worth the time. They have several other operations run by the family, and we didn't have time to visit the other facilities.

Bosquet des Papes At Bosquet des Papes, we were hosted by the son of Josette and Maurice Boiron (I didn't write down his name). Young guy, very friendly, and a rugby player to boot. He was rushed, so this was a short visit. We tried the blanc 1998, 1997 red, 1996 red (good), 1996 Chantemerle (a single vineyard bottling, which was great) and the 1995 rouge, which was also very good.

Pierre Usseglio

Our last visit of the trip was at Pierre Usseglio, where we were hosted by two brothers (I didn't get names). The facility was spotless and well organized, with some nice touches like hand hammered copper drip sheets nailed underneath the valves of the foudres. We tried the blanc 1998 (excellent), red 1997 (good), 1996 (better than 97), 1994 (great), and two barrel samples 1998 traditionelle blend terrific, 1998 Cuvee de Mon Aiuel fabulous. Rare Wines in CA (800-999-4342) had this wine for sale, and if they have any left, I'd snap it up.

Now it was time to head North a bit to Beaugravier, but first we needed to deal with the growing stash of wine in the trunk. I'd researched an importer who could transport the wines from France to the US, but first needed to get the wines to Beaune from Chateauneuf. The solution was surprisingly simple, as we just found the local Ziegler shipping warehouse just outside of town, drove into the warehouse (after a short conversation with the manager), loaded the wines onto a pallet, shrink wrapped them and gave him the shipping information. Voila!

To end an incredible four days in the Rhone valley, we'd arranged to have dinner at Beaugraviere in Mondragon, just a little north of Orange. We chose this restaurant on several recommendations, and in addition, they had three rooms (just three) available, so we planned to spend the night and finish our drive to the airport the following day.

The only thing we really knew about the restaurant was that the chef was renowned for his truffles, his sweetbreads, and the wine list. After being seated, it didn't take long for us to end up with three separate wine lists at the table as we perused what must be the best wine list in the world for Rhone wines.

As there was a large seating happening that evening (turned out to be a group of doctors), our waiter was anxious for us to order, so we stopped drooling over the list and made our food order. Then is was back to the business at hand, narrowing down our selections from the list to a manageable number.

We decided to start with the Roederer Cristal 1990 to go with our Foie Gras. We then ordered the 1978 Guigal La Landonne and the 1961 Jaboulet La Chapelle to go with our main courses. I've been searching for a bottle of the '61 La Chapelle for several years, and couldn't believe that it was on the wine list. A few minutes after we ordered the wine and it was delivered to our table, the chef, Guy Julianne, appeared and informed us that he was taking over our menu, and doing something special to complement the wines we'd chosen.

The first course remained largely unchanged, though Mark's order of artichokes was cancelled and replaced by Foie Gras with truffles, which is what we were all served. It went well with the Cristal, as well as with the La Landonne, which we opened near the end of the first course.

The '78 La Landonne was spectacular. A nose of pure syrah, with coffee and fresh dark raspberries on the palate. Round and supple with a very long finish. Two hours later it was still going strong, though fading a bit to a more oxidized/raisin nose.

I could scarely contain my anticipation as the 1961 La Chapelle was opened. This bottle had been delivered by the Jaboulets to Beaugravier some five years earlier; the fill was almost to the cork, and the glass showed the residual mold from the cellar with fresh labels on the bottle. Guy had traded a case of 1990 DRC Romanee Conti for six bottles of the '61 La Chapelle.

The first pour in my glass (they brought out Riedel Hermitage glasses), a couple of swirls revealing an amazing bouquet of blood and spice. The color showed a little rust at the rim, still a deep violet in the glass with great clarity. What an experience. Over the next three hours the wine continued to evolve in the glass, never fading, just changing. In the end it showed a nose of candied or jellied currants.

Our main course of beef tenderloin with, what else, a truffle sauce was served with some herbed vegetables on the side. A very simple dish, but it went very well with the wines, which were the focus of the evening, anyway.

By this point in the evening the other diners had arrived, and had been served, and had started...smoking. Sacre Bleu! We decided to move to a different table at the other end of the dining area for our final course of cheese (we opted to skip dessert).

With the cheese course we'd ordered the 1929 Chave Hermitage that I was astounded to find on the menu. A rare opportunity (it turned out to be the last bottle in the cellar), and a fitting homage to our host at the beginning of our trip. My notes read 'rusty on the pour, but excellent clarity in the glass with; a nearly transparent amber/rusty lens'. The oldest non-fortified wine I've had, it retained adequate fruit (for 70 years old...), and a good finish, though a bit short. No oxidation noted on the nose, just pure syrah.

At this point in the evening we moved into the area between the kitchen and their living quarters, sort of an office with a big dining table. The smoke and noise in the dining area was detracting from the experience. We'd saved a glass of each of the wines for the chef, and once things settled down a bit Guy joined us for a quick tour of the wines, told us about how he'd acquired them for his cellar, and then left us to return to the kitchen to finish the final course for the party of doctors.

We'd opted to skip dessert so that we could fully enjoy our dessert wine, a 1961 Chave Vin de Paille, from a 750 ml bottle. Another wine that I was astounded to find on the wine list, but that fully met our expectations. Young still, much more complex and layered than the younger Vin de Paille that I've had. I could smell it as it was poured in my glass, oranges, lemons and apricots. A little residual bitterness on the palate.

Guy Julianne returned from the kitchen about midnight, and we stayed up until 2:30 or so finishing the bottle, talking about his experiences in the restaurant business, wine producers in the area (he was good friends with Jacques Reynaud). As the evening wound down, he offered us a glass of 1945 Chateau Rayas Vieux Marc Liquoreux, a dessert wine made from late harvest Roussane (I think) with fermentation stopped by the addition of a marc made from Chateauneuf du Pape blanc. This wine was never commercial, it came from the private stock of Guy Julien.

A once in a lifetime experience!

Then it was off to bed and then up early to make the drive to our flights in Lyon, and the return to reality (and the rowing machine) in Seattle.

1 comment:

bon viveur said...

Dear Friend,
Your diary from your trip dwon the rhone valey is amazing and also very informative. I was impressed by all these great wines you tasted. Actually I am planning to do the same trip (gastronomic-wine tasting theme) with my wife this august. I would really appreciate any advice and tips. All the best.
Yannis from Greece