ROCKIN’ RASTEAU FROM AN OLD FRIEND

Every so often we stop and think about just how many wines have come through these doors in the last 37 years. Many labels are gone, many new ones are popping up all the time here, and new (or maybe just unfamiliar) names are making their way here from distant shores because the world is far more accessible these days. Every day it seems there’s a lot more information to digest, so much so that we forget some of the grand labels we used to sell. Sometimes we catch a break.

As we were going through some open market offers in Europe, we ran across an offer for a Winex favorite from years past, Domaine de la Soumade in Rasteau. “Hey, we know those folks,” we said, “they used to make pretty impressive juice. Wonder what they are up to these days, and why no one is bringing them in.” Our research showed us two things. The wines were supposedly imported by someone in New York, but there was no New York outlet offering the wine for sale. Even now, wine searcher only shows four people that have the wine in the U.S., again none in New York.

We also noted that Domaine de la Soumade’s 2016s received the highest reviews that they ever had, and this is an accomplished producer. Our course was clear. We were big fans of Rasteau long before they received the official A.O.C. upgrade (with the 2010 vintage), and Soumade was among the crème of the appellation.

Domaine la Soumade was established by André Roméro in 1979. Since 1990 the whole production has been bottled at the domain. In 1996 when his son Frédéric Roméro had earned his BEPA Diploma in viticulture and oenology, he returned to the domain to join his father. These days André is dialing it back, essentially semi-retired, and the reins are now in Frédéric’s capable hands. The domain covers 27 hectares, one of which is Gigondas and the rest is situated in Rasteau. They make nine different wines including four selections of Rasteau. The trend here is to use larger foudres (really big barrels) with the idea of keeping the star of the show, the super ripe Grenache, as fresh and bright as possible.

This domaine has always played above their appellation, but the 2016s are another level. The reviews are more akin to top Chateauneufs, but the prices certainly are not. The star of today’s offer is the Domaine la Soumade Rasteau Cuvee Prestige 2016 made from 70% Grenache Noir, 20% Syrah, and 10% Mourvèdre harvested from 30-50 year-old vines. It is done 50% in 4000-liter wooden barrels (those are the foudres) and 50% in concrete for 18 months. They do get a little help from a friend, the talented Stephane Derenencourt who is mostly associated with Bordeaux but is clearly comfortable letting the Rhone be the Rhone.

The results speak for themselves and we could enlarge on our ‘stop and smell the Grenache’ but the scribes provided more than enough print for the quantities we have. Joe Czerwinski of Wine Advocate offers, “…it starts with aromas of crushed stone and ripe black fruits. Full-bodied and richly concentrated, it picks up hints of cocoa and garrigue on the long, dusty finish…94 points.”

That is the highest Wine Advocate score ever for this illustrious bottling.

Jeb Dunnuck raises the bar a little more, “A rock star in the vintage, the 2016 Rasteau Cuvée Prestige offers more cedary garrigue, graphite, earth, and chocolate-laced dark fruits. It’s big, rich, beautifully concentrated, with a medium to full-bodied mouthfeel, and will have 10-15 years of prime drinking…95 points.”

That is the highest Jeb Dunnuck score ever for this illustrious bottling.

Getting the picture?

Rasteau as an appellation offers some of the prettiest reds in the region, with plenty of weight but a bit more elegance and tenderness, and a little less rusticity. We have ours and you can rest assured we are going to enjoy getting reacquainted with these wines (We have the 2016 Confiance as well). You need to get yours. Brilliant stuff!

A GENTLEMEN’S COTES DU RHONE

You can’t stop Bernard Magrez, you can only hope to contain him.  The guy built a formidable business, sold it and started buying Bordeaux chateaux.  He owns four Grand Cru classes in Bordeaux including the jewel, Pape Clement, as well as several other properties in the region.  But that wasn’t enough, so he now has a world-wide enterprise that includes efforts from Napa Valley, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Morocco, as well as other areas of France.

His enterprises have been very successful because he has a good eye for terroirs and has Michel Rolland on his speed dial.  Perhaps the most significant aspect that ‘all things Magrez’ seem to have is a well measured, supple, engaging profile that one can count on in everything they produce. Bernard realized a long time ago that people liked to drink smooth, fruit driven, supple wines and that style has been the common theme through all of his wines no matter where in his far flung portfolio they come from.

He also had the vision to market his wines under one important branding umbrella.  He goes about marketing his juice more like Louis Vuitton sells designer goods than the typical corporate alcohol purveyor.  He made sure that his name on the bottle meant something and the Magrez has come to be synonymous polished, integrated, elegant wines emphasizing sleek, tender fruit and well integrated, ripe structure.  We have even kind of coined the verb ‘to Magrez’, meaning to take something vinous and refine it to an exceptional degree.

Apparently in need of a new conquest, Bernard took his talents to the Rhone Valley and ‘Magrezzed’ a couple of parcels of Grenache and Syrah into a Cotes du Rhone Villages that can play to a crowd of folks wearing Ferragamo shoes and Hermes ties.  We’re pretty sure there has to be some credit given to the marvelous 2016 vintage.  The quality of the fruit matters even to a magician like Magrez and, as we and others have said repeatedly, 2016 is something special in that regard.  But the level of integration and harmony to this wine, particularly given the sometimes more rustic origins of the Cotes du Rhone, are definitely a consistent and significant part of the ‘house style’ of Magrez.

The Bernard Magrez Mon Cotes du Rhone Villages 2016 is the first go-round we have seen in the Rhone for them, and we have been dealing directly with the company for some years now (which also helps us save on the price as we direct import it).  The Magrez stamp here is unmistakable.  Plush, sleek, fresh and smooth, Magrez even puts ‘mon’ (French for ‘my’) in the name, further putting his personal touch on it.  This is the ‘Magrez experience’ and, believe us, it works as well in this part of the world as everywhere else.

The nose billows subtly integrated notes of plum, violet, mulberry, and an insistent minerality.  As it enters the palate, it is sweet, supple, expansive, harmonious, and beautifully proportioned.  The descriptors and texture are curiously closer to a weighty, mid-range Burgundy than your typical, chewy “Cotes du Rhone”, but that is the Magrez way.  As such, it is also a consummate value at a mere $14, definitely a wine that plays above its station.

Magrez is pretty tight-lipped about sourcing or winemaking, preferring that the results speak for themselves.  That it does that eloquently now, and likely will five years from now.  There were few scraps of commentary, though this piece from James Suckling makes the point quite well.  “Attractive aromas of plums and dark berries with hints of violets and burnt orange. Medium body, lightly dusty tannins and a juicy, flavorful finish. A satisfying and delicious Rhone red. Drink now. 92 Points!” 

“Satisfying and delicious”, indeed. This is a classic example of why one of our chief operating philosophies is to seek out ‘little wines’ from top flight producers.  Such folks simply have higher standards and work at an elite level on everything they do.  They don’t know any other way, and the results show.  Bernard Magrez is certainly one of those people.  Supplies are finite so make your move early.

CHATEAU L’OU: “REMINISCENT OF MANFRED KRANKL’S SQN (SINA QUA NON) SYRAHS” (and under$40!)

We are nothing if not persistent.  Sure we sold a bit of this in an email a while back but nowhere near what we should have.  Here’s a $40 wine that was compared to one of the icons of California wine, SQN, which folks are lined up to throw $300-400 bottle at.  Yes we get the whole ‘I got something that you don’t have thing’, but the math is pretty convincing when you can get a wine that carried a 96 point tout, and you could buy 5-7 bottles for what you’d pay for a single bottle of SQN, provided you even got the chance to buy that one bottle at all!  L’Ou is a fantastic bottle of Syrah for the fare and we though it definitely deserved another mention.  Here is a streamlined (sort of) version of the original piece…

“…We started promoting what we affectionately call ‘the Sud’ (French for ‘south’) about a quarter century ago, though admittedly a lot of the area’s potential ‘thunder’ was stolen by the Rhone which had an unprecedented string of exceptional vintages not long after the ‘Sud’ started breaking on te scene.  Even given its long history, when one considers the remoteness, lack of flagship wineries, and association with ‘industrial volume’ production, it probably was predictable that buyers wouldn’t flock to the Sud right away.

Still when people in the region realized they had everything they needed to produce wines that could compete on the world stage.  Unique soils, lots of sunshine, mediating influence from the sea, it was a pretty special place to grow grapes.   All one had to do was drop a few clusters from the vines so the remaining grapes could be more concentrated and voila.

Séverine and Philippe Bourrier were pretty early to the party that started around the mid-90s.  In 1998, they bought the estate of 30 hectares in one piece planted with 26 hectares of vineyards and 4 hectares of olive trees in the town of Montescot in the Pyrénées-Orientales, 10 km south of Perpignan. They immediately converted the entire property to organic farming. At the time, only 3 properties in the Roussillon were practicing organics. In 2009, Séverine and Philippe decided to expand their terroir options by purchasing 8 hectares of vines in Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet and 7 hectares of vines in Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes.

They are meticulous here.  Beside the practicing organics, the grape harvest of Château de L’Ou is exclusively manual and they are specific about picking between sunrise and noon to help the grapes retain freshness. The grapes are harvested into crates of about 10 kg so as not to be damaged during transport and to facilitate handling in the cellar. The date of harvest is determined by tasting a sample of berries with particular attention to the fineness of the skin and seeds.

In our minds it is important for the region to establish a few successful estates to lend credibility to the region.  Look what wineries like Booker and Saxum did for Paso Robles.  We think the Chateau de L’Ou Secret de Schistes Rouge Cotes Catalanes 2015, an opaque, deeply colored, powerful and pure Syrah, can run with the ‘big dogs’ of the New World, though for all its extraction and presence, it doesn’t sit heavily on the palate.  It also has the added bonus of the unique minerality from the black schist soils that are here and in Priorat to the south.

Jeb Dunnuck is making quite a statement in this piece about the Chateau L’Ou, “Saturated black in color, the 2015 IGP Côtes Catalanes Secret de Schistes is reminiscent of Manfred Krankl’s SQN (Sina Qua Non) Syrahs with its deep, unctuous, layered profile. Cassis, chocolate, licorice, smoked herbs and ample minerality all emerge from this full-bodied, sexy beauty that just begs to be drunk. Possessing ripe tannin, a stacked mid-palate and a great finish, it will be better in a year or two and keep for a decade…96 points” – Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Advocate.

We’d make the point that Chateau L’Ou, at $39.98, literally can be had for a fraction of what things like Saxum and Sina Qua Non cost!  Enough said.”

TASTY ‘HOUSE’ RHONES FROM FERRATION

We sell all manner of wines great and small, and everything we present here we believe has a good reason to be here.  We can launch a treatise on virtually any vinous subject, but don’t think we always should.  A quiet word or two should be sufficient or some wines, and just because we didn’t generate a tome doen’t mean we didn’t like it.  If we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t buy it at all.  With that in mind here are a few words on the newly released Cotes du Rhones from Ferraton.

There are two key things to know.  First, Ferraton is an accomplished house with a long history dating back to 1946.  Second is Michel Chapoutier, who started working with the property to convert to organic and ultimately biodynamic viticulture starting in 1998, and buying the place outright in 2004.  With Chapoutier at the helm, things are definitely on the upswing.   These are both outstanding value performers at their modest fares and both come from excellent vintages for their respective hues.

The Ferraton Cotes du Rhone Samorens Rouge 2016, a half and half blend of Grenache and Syrah that is brought up in concrete, shows an ample, supple core of berry fruit laced with spice and floral notes.  Jeb Dunnuck calls it “… Rounded, sexy and even voluptuous, with terrific purity in its black raspberry, violet and incense aromatics, this medium to full-bodied beauty has no hard edges, silky tannin and a great finish…90-92 points’

Perhaps even more of a surprise, because the southern Rhone isn’t necessarily known for crisp, engaging whites, is the  Ferraton Cotes du Rhone Samorens Blanc 2017A blend of Roussanne, Viognier and Clairette, all done in stainless steel to retain the freshness, it shows lovely, subtle tones of citrus and yellow stone fruits.  Again from Dunnuck, “…It’s fresh, vibrant, and crisp, yet has plenty of heft in its peach, tangerine, and citrus aromas and flavors. With bright acidity, outstanding balance, and a great finish, drink it over the coming 2-3 years…91 points.”  Both play well for their $10.98 tabs and are in a likeable, easy drinking style for the category.

Domaine du Gour de Chaule Gigondas 2015

Given how long and extensively we have worked with the Rhone, and the southern Rhone in particular, it’s a little surprising that this is only our second go around with this stylish Gigondas estate.  Our first foray, the 2010 Gour de Chaule Gigondas was a huge hit and lot of boxes disappeared from the old location.  This is actually the first volley in the newer spot, and the price is a little bit more than it was five years ago (that’s to be expected), but we are big fans of what this estate is doing.

The fact sheet reads something like this, with deference to the importer’s extensive and accessible information.  The Domaine du Gour de Chaulé, situated in the heart of the village of Gigondas, was founded in 1900 by Eugene Bonfils, the great-grandfather of the current proprietor, Stephanie Fumoso. All the wine produced at the estate was sold in bulk to negociants until 1970 when Madame Rolande Beaumet, Eugene’s daughter and the grandmother of the current owner, Stéphanie, began to bottle a small percentage of the estate’s wine for sale to private clients.

Madame Beaumet’s daughter, Aline Bonfils, took the reins of the domaine in the early 1980s and it was she that broadened the tradition of estate bottling significantly.  Stephanie was at the helm when we flipped over that 2010, and we were immediately captivated by a wine that, while it had all of the moxie one would expect from a Gigondas, it also had a polished presence that was considerably less ‘rough and tumble’ than most of the other ‘local produce’.

Were going to go out on a limb and suggests that a woman’s touch is clearly evident here (are we allowed to say that any more?) as the wine has the size and substance to stand among most Gigondas, but without the gritty tannins that are so often a part of wines from this appellation.  Dark berries, stony minerality, pepper, and garrigue here, typicite is not an issue but this is a more white tablecloth version of the genre.

This Grenache based cuvee comes from three separate plots with the average vine age approaching age 60.  Yields are most and the grapes are hand harvested, never destemmed, and sees no new oak.  The wine is put into large foudres for 18 months before it is bottled unfiltered and unfined.  Bottom line, this is a classy example from an often rustic area.

This is still kind of an under-the-radar property in the broad market, but the media is starring to take notice.  Wine Advocate’s  Joe Czerwinski had this to say, “Still in foudres and concrete, the 2015 Gigondas Cuvee Tradition is incredibly creamy, ripe and fresh. This full-bodied wine is bursting with ripe Grenache fruit, while the finish displays plush tannins. It’s not hugely complex—or maybe the fruit is just covering some of that complexity right now—but it sure is delicious…90-92 points.”  He got the delicious part right, but that review was posted in Oct., 2017, which means it was tasted well before that.  A lot can change in a year and a half (or more).

Even more upbeat was the prose from Josh Raynolds of Vinous, “Brilliant ruby. A heady bouquet evokes ripe red and blue fruits, Indian spices and smoky minerals, along with a hint of candied lavender in the background. Deeply concentrated yet energetic black raspberry, boysenberry and spicecake flavors unfold slowly, picking up a licorice quality that expands on the back half. Shows excellent clarity and mineral cut on a sweet, seamless finish shaped by smooth tannins…92-94 points.”

We know a lot of folks out there aren’t necessarily convinced by ‘barrel scores’.  We tasted the Domaine du Gour de Chaule Gigondas 2015 out of the bottle.  It’s delicious, complex and all we can say is ‘you go, girl’.

BILA HAUT: AN UNCOMMON VALUE ONCE AGAIN

Not everything in the wine business makes sense (in fact a lot of it doesn’t).  Take for example Michel Chapoutier.  Here’s a guy that makes some of the most compelling single vineyard wines in the world from iconic sites on Hermitage.  Yet we can’t remember the last time we got really excited about one of the other bottlings he presents under the Chapoutier label.  You rarely see these on our shelves as they are serviceable but not compelling.

Enigma?  You bet.  Yet this guys makes some of the best values in the wine world.  He just doesn’t do it in the Rhone.  His Bila Haut program in the Roussillon has been an iconic source of value since Michel bought the property in 1999.  Yeah they have put out a number of memorable specialty bottlings during that time, but it is their bread-and-butter entry level offerings that amaze the most, vintage in and vintage out.

The beautifully appointed Bila-Haut (Chapoutier) Cotes Du Roussillon Villages Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Rouge 2017 hits that mark again.   Since it is one of the first 2017 reds to hit the floor we can’t make any sweeping statements about the vintage.  But if this wine is any indication, it’s looking good.  The fruit component suggests red and black fruits, some white pepper, tea, and a subtle underpinning of slatey minerality.  There’s plenty of energy and urgency to the fruit and an underly lift comparable to the 2016.

While we aren’t necessarily in agreement with Jeb Dunnuck’s suggestion that this is a doppelganger for a Saint Joseph, and see more of the higher toned Grenache in the mix, he got the rest right, “The 2017 Côtes du Roussillon Villages Les Vignes de Bila Haut reminds me of an impressive St Joseph (despite having lots of Grenache in the blend) with its black raspberry, white pepper, and leafy herb aromas and flavors. It’s seamless, elegant, and balanced, with both acidity and richness. Put this in a blind lineup of Northern Rhônes and shock your friends. ..92 points.”  As always, a fine buy at $12.98.

VTV Cotes du Roussillon Villages Tautavel Silex 2015: Poster Child for the New Roussillon

We marvel everyday and try to understand why some things we expect to be big aren’t and others for which we have no expectations are.    The VTV Cotes du Roussillon Villages Tautavel Silex 2015 falls into that first category.  Yeah, the name is a little long and even after a couple of decades there is still rather limited awareness of the Roussillon.   Beyond that all of the descriptors are ‘aces’.  From Jeb Dunnuck, “… The 2015 Cotes du Roussillon Villages Tautavel Les Vingt Marches is a hidden gem in this vintage. Made from mostly Syrah, with 20% Grenache and 10% Carignan, this full-bodied, deep and voluptuously textured red is loaded with notions of plums, violets and spice, with some Syrah meatiness developing with air. Completely destemmed and aged all in tank, I’d enjoy bottles over the coming 4-6 years. 93 points.”
You’ve got all of the right stuff here…old vines (the original review mentioned 50 year-old vines), unique terroir, an outstanding vintage, and a talented winemaker.  Everything you would expect out of a wine with those parameters is there and then some.  At $25 it can give a lot of Chateauneufs a run for their money.  Is the market so saturated with great wines that something like this can be invisible?  The wines emerging from the Roussillon these days are the best to ever come out of the region, and this powerhouse red is a poster child for that.  You can buy a great Roussillon or a mediocre Cabernet for this kind of price…easy choice for us.

MAGIQUE: TARDIEU-LAURENT COTES DU RHONE VILLAGES BECS FIN 2016

It’s a bit of a mixed bag for us from the standpoint of history.  We were heavily involved with this dynamic duo of winemakers a decade ago, only to barely see them at all for a substantial stretch of time since then.  The story here makes for a great instructive tale on what a difference an importer can make in the marketplace by virtue of their ‘marketing’ regimen and pricing.  That, however, is a story for another day and we mainly want to make the point that we are glad to have this house as an option once again.

Even though this isn’t a new brand label (in fact it was one of the most talked about labels during the 90s and early ‘oughts’), we are going to treat it as if it is because we are pretty sure a lot of people new to Rhones, or to wine in general, have little awareness of who these guys are.  So we are going to do the quick ‘cliff notes’ version to get everyone caught up.  It’s a pretty interesting story that gives great insight into why this is a negociant house unlike any other.

It is the partnership of two important wine entities.  Dominique Laurent, who we met in the mid-90s, was one of the People Magazine stories of the time.  A producer of Burgundies, with a style that showed a modern flair and new school philosophy, gained a lot of notoriety during those formative years for his use of ‘200 % new oak’ on his top bottlings.  Simply stated, it was said that he would put certain wines in a new oak barrel and then, after a period of time, put the same wine in another new oak barrel.  Whether or not that was the literal goings on, that was the buzz.   But the result was a style of Burgundy that had a unique sheen of well-integrated vanillan oak tones.  When we asked Dominique how it was done, he said simply ‘magique.’  Magic.

Michel Tardieu was a Provencal local who knew his way around the vineyards of the Rhone and South of France.  He was a former state employee that had a passion for people, wine and a nose for sniffing out important vineyard sites with distinctive characteristics and old vines.  The mantra was always to use the oldest vines from the best parcels in the Rhône, work with organic and biodynamic farmers, and establish long-term relationships with the growers they work with.

Together Dominique and Michel established quite a reputation for meticulous winemaking, polished wines and a rather modern flair for the genre.  The reviews were consistently enthusiastic and we were huge fans as well, as their wines offered a unique choice stylistically for the genre.  In all honesty though, they didn’t fly off the shelf back then because the prices were at a bit of a premium for the category.  Subsequent ‘marketing arms’ sadly only added some additional tariff but little in the way of significant exposure in the market.

Since 2008, when Laurent decided to dial things back, the Tardieu family has been in control of the operation with Michel’s son, Bastien, at the helm of the winemaking.  While they have apparently backed off the wood elements, the wines still have that distinctive textural ‘polish’ no doubt in part as a result of more experience with this particular site and having worked so long with a ‘Burgundy guy’.  In other words, they still have the ‘magic’, and this is still a very sophisticated ‘Cotes du Rhone Village.’  Also note the price is about what it was ten years ago, which means that they have a more realistic approach to pricing and have found a new distribution scenario that doesn’t add excess to the fare.

The vineyard is comprised of 60-year-old Grenache and 30-year-old Syrah, with the Syrah the star of the show (it makes up 60% of the blend) while the Grenache wraps around and gives the wine a sexy mouth feel and an outgoing fruit component.  The Tardieu-Laurent Cotes du Rhone Villages Becs Fin 2016 is no ordinary ‘Cotes du Rhone. ’ It plays well above its ‘station’.  The fact that 2016 was a special vintage was not lost on these folks either.

As the esteemed MW Jancis Robinson summarizes, “Very ‘serious’, savoury, dense nose for a wine with this appellation. This tastes so much better than many a Châteauneuf I have had from less irreproachable sources! This is the first ambitious 2016 southern Rhône red I have tried and I am knocked out by the quality and concentration. No heat on the end. It would be a shame to drink this too young.”  Sorry Jancis, that ‘early drinking’ is likely to happen with this one.

Jeb Dunnuck echoes Jancis, and us for that matter, in saying, “The 2016 Côtes du Rhône Les Becs Fins is slightly more forward and charming, with a modern style in its cassis, vanilla bean and blackberry jam aromas and flavors. Possessing both richness and elegance, it’s going to a delicious red that drinks well above its price point…90-92 points.  We’re glad to have Tardieu-Laurent back in the house!

DOMAINE LA ROUBINE: ANOTHER RHONE ‘SLEEPER’

The southern Rhone is home to a number of small estates that do great work in relative obscurity.  We have made it our mission to look into as many as we can and that process has turned up a few hidden gems.  While we can tell stories about a number of domains that we have been working with for a long time, or discovered before they became famous, La Roubine isn’t one of them.  In fact we didn’t first see this house until the 2010 vintage.  We bought some Gigondas from that vintage based not on press, or fame, but because it was simply a delicious, soulful bottle of wine.  Crazy, huh?

Even though we have a small cache of that wine probably thanks to the media-centric world we live in (it did get a rather low-key 91 from Spectator in a vintage full of 95s), we are still going to sing the praise of this stylish small domaine.  The domaine itself isn’t all that old in a place where some families can trace their roots back centuries.  It was only 1990 when Eric Ughetto took over the family vineyards located in Gigondas.

he was joined by Sophie in the late 90s and the two of them decided to make wine with their own grapes. They defined the estate “La Roubine” in 2000 with the first bottled vintage of Gigondas. Today the company is still a family run business.  Eric works at the wine cellar, while Sophie manages both the cellar and the business. They both do vineyard work.   Though the estate has expanded via inheritance, purchase, and lease (which the couple farms), it is still relatively small with 15.5 hectares of vines (38 acres) spread over four appellations.

They bring it ‘new school’, which these days is actually ‘old school’.  They use no chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, are agriculture biologique (organic) certified, and, because of their modest size, can wait on harvesting individual parcels until they are optimally ripe.  The harvests are by hand, as is the first and second sorting, only natural yeasts are employed, fermentations takes place in concrete, and everything is bottled unfined and unfiltered.  These are reds that speak of their origins, but also provide plenty hedonistic pleasure via their open, round, ripe, tender fruit.

Our focus today is on Eric’s sub-$20 duo, Sablet and Seguret, both appellations located in the higher ground near the base of the Dentelles de Montmirail.  Both areas have enjoyed status as an appellated Cotes du Rhone Villages for over 40 years.  Their higher-ground locales provide cooler nights that allow the wines to retain a certain freshness, but there is plenty of charisma to these efforts.

The Domaine La Roubine Cotes du Rhone Villages Sablet 2015 comes from 30-year-old vines, this particular assemblage being 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Cinsault.  Plush kirsch and blackcurrant fruit is the center of attention, with underpinnings of spice and a subtle streak of stony minerality.  There are also some savory elements as the grapes are not destemmed.  The acids are tame in this vintage and the tannins are ripe, the wine itself layered and tasty, and very true to the region.

Domaine La Roubine Cotes du Rhone Villages Seguret 2015 has a somewhat cooler edge, no doubt thanks to the 30% Mourvedre (the rest is Grenache).  The kirsch tones here are front and center with the Mourvedre providing pepper, garrigue and some earthy cocoa that add dimension.  A little closer to the vest than the Sablet but there is plenty to like here too.

Some of you might wonder if we have any convincing scores that validate these wines.  In truth, we don’t.  La Roubine doesn’t get a lot of media attention in the first place, and what it does receive is on the Gigondas and Vacqueyras, not these.  That’s OK as these punch well above their weight class, delivering pretty serious yet engaging wine for rather modest fares.  We have been impressed the few times we have had Eric Ughetto’s wines.  Numbers are all well and good, but delicious matters, too.  You can’t brag about a producer most folks have never heard of from somewhat obscure appellations.  But you can sure enjoy the heck out of them, and that’s what matters most.   We even have a few bottles left of that 2010 La Roubine Gigondas if you want to see where these are headed or drink a mature bottle.

‘Special Purchase’: Masterful Chateaunef, WS Top 100 #22 at Age 20

No wine region has had a better run than the southern Rhone over the last 20 years.  We have tasted copious examples of Chateauneuf over that time frame.  While there are numerous outstanding vintages (2015, 2010, 2007, 2005), in our minds  1998 still reigns supreme.  In every great vintage there have been great examples of the genre, but a few that were perhaps a little over the top.  One of the exceptions is 1998.  Virtually everything we have had the opportunity to taste from the vintage has been impressive for both richness and balance.  Sadly, we drank most of our 1998s a fair bit ago though we never stopped looking for that rare opportunity to grab another example of this wonderful vintage.  As they say, ‘seek and ye shall find’, and we found a gem.

We saw the 1998 Chateau La Gardine on a European suppliers list and could not wait to explore the possibilities further.  Of course given that the wine was twenty years old, we wanted to make sure the juice was in great shape.  We requested a sample from the European purveyor and they sent one.  Ignoring our own rules of letting bottles settle down for a few days after being shipped, we pretty much opened the bottle as soon as we could get it out of the box.  The wine showed beautifully literally right off the truck, which caused to scramble to secure every last bottle we could.

Chateau La Gardine was one of our house favorites early on in our formative years with Chateauneuf, and we fondly remember this from when we sold it the first time around.    The wine was round, and well proportioned (still is), with a definite leaning to darker red fruits in its profilewith a surprising elegance that few Chateauneuf vintages that were this ripe possessed.  The distinctive bottle also made the wine memorable, or a least immediately recognizable.  The story goes that when Gaston Brunel first wanted to expand his cellar, while he was digging in the ground, he found a mouth-blown bottle. He loved its distinctive look and decided to use a similar shape for all his wine. At the beginning, he had to go all the way to Italy to find a glass supplier that was able to make it. Since 1964, all of their wines have come in the unique ‘La Gardine’shaped-bottle.

The Chateau La Gardine Chateauneuf 1998 itself shows a lovely mulberry color with a pure nose of black raspberry, spice and hints of pepper.  In the mouth there are additional streaks of earth, meat, and chocolate along with the insistent, polished fruit.  The finish shows a bit of minerality as well as coffee/chocolate component.  The weight and impression lean more towards a riper Pinot Noir as opposed to the almost oppressive jamminess that occurs in some wines in warmer vintages.  It is a captivating experience and an example of a Chateauneuf that has aged beautifully and can still go a bit longer (though it is in a lovely place right now).

There’s pedigree here, too, as well as a flurry of scores including 92 points from Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck  (also listed on his own website) from a tasting done in 2015.  He suggests the wine still has 5-7 years of life ahead.  The original Wine Spectator review from 2000 was most enthusiastic and the wine not only got a 94 point review and a Spectator Selection nod, but was #22 in that year’s Top 100.  The review said, “A wonderful, masterful wine. Both firm and opulent, it displays a nice dig into the Rhône terroir as it brings out wet earth, mineral and an interesting, chewy tannin structure. A high-voltage drinking experience, with lots of fruit, spice and mocha. Best from 2003 through 2020.”

It’s all of that.  As to the wine lasting 5-7 more years, it certainly can.  The question is whether one can leave it alone for that long.  It is a rather spectacular drinking experience at its peak, with some 20 years of age already done for you.  This is a rare opportunity for Chateauneuf lovers, a refined and beautifully poised example from a notable producer from one of the best vintages ever.  As you probably guessed, quantities are finite.  Good hunting.