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.

 

2015 CHATEAUNEUF UPDATE

These are the ‘best of times’ when it comes to the southern Rhone.  Yes, we have sold through a number of great vintages before.  But we don’t ever remember a back-to-back quite like 2015 and 2016 in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Yet it’s hard to know even how to approach the current all-star lineup on the floor.  We could quietly hum ‘these are a few of our favorite things’ because this lineup is stocked with a number of offerings that truly are favorites.  Bosquet des Papes, Cristia Vielle Vignes, Saje and Bastide la Dominique all predominantly showcase gorgeous, sappy old-vine Grenache laced with complex spice and mineral unlike anywhere else on the planet.  They remind one of a richer version of great Burgundy.

The still Grenache-heavy Pegau, Mayard Crau du Ma Mere, and Cristia Rennaissance offer variations on that theme with higher proportions of the other varietals like Mourvedre and Syrah that add lift, darker fruit notes, and different nuance to the mix.   We could echo the campaign of a certain gas station snack area that claims ‘too much good stuff’, but this is so far beyond that.  Let them eat nachos.  We truly are proffering some of the best you can buy in an elite category from top producers in an excellent year.

If you are into reviews, this lineup has them in spades.  If you haven’t seen an overall vintage report, here is an excerpt from Vinous’ Josh Raynolds entitled 2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Power and Balance, “…While the 2015s are definitely on the rich side, they’re much more in the style of the 2009s than the superripe 2007s or the frequently roasted 2003s. Broadly speaking, I view 2015 as a cross between the richness of 2009 and the energy and structure of 2010, with the overall personality of the wines leaning closer to ’09 than to ’10. The best examples show serious depth along with very good definition and back-end vivacity, and little in the way of cooked-fruit character…”

In other words, what you have here is very tasty Chateauneuf from top producers.   This lineup is also in the sweet spot, elite efforts where the prices aren’t crazy.  The one thing that is difficult here is to make a mistake.  This lineup is ‘all killer and no filler’, the only mistake being not grabbing some to enjoy now and ten years on.

If this is the toughest choice you have to make today…it’s a pretty special day.  Here are some quick notes with full reviews below.  Don’t miss these and good hunting!  Quantities are definitely finite…

Bosquet Des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape Gloire De Mon Grand Pere 2015- “… Made from mostly (60-70 year old vine) Grenache… another beauty that’s up with the crème de las crème of the vintage. Kirsch, strawberries, dried flowers and spice notes give way to a full-bodied, supple, sexy red that has sweet tannin and a great finish. While it’s a big, rich wine, it glides across the palate and is never heavy. It should keep for 10-15 years. 95 points-“  Jeb Dunnuck

Bastide Dominique Chateauneuf du Pape Secrets De Pignan 2015- From vines planted in 1920, “…Coming from the Pignan lieu-dit, … just beside Rayas …it offers a beautiful, singular style in its blackberry, currant, leafy herbs, thyme, and olive scented bouquet. This carries to a full-bodied, sexy Grenache that has loads of fruit, terrific purity and a blockbuster finish…95 points”- Jeb Dunnuck

Cristia Chateauneuf du Pape Renaissance 2015-This has an intense core of crushed plum, raspberry and boysenberry fruit flavors, draped with melted licorice notes and backed by a wave of warm fruitcake. Hedonistic for sure, but accents of anise, violet and singed apple wood dart around, adding extra facets of intrigue to hold your attention. Grenache (60% from 100-yeaar old vines) and Mourvèdre (50 yr. old vines). ..96 points – Wine Spectator (also WA 95, JD 95)

Cristia Chateauneuf du Pape Vieilles Vignes 2015- “…This delivers a lush, enticing blast of cassis and raspberry and boysenberry preserve flavors, carried by a silky structure that lets the fruit play out at length, giving adequate time for black tea, singed apple wood, dried anise and fruitcake notes to fill in throughout. Dreamy. Grenache (80-100 year old vines). –97 Points.” Wine Spectator (also JD 95)

Mayard Chateauneuf du Pape Crau De Ma Mere 2015-  “… fabulous notes of strawberries, black cherries, saddle leather and garrigue. Full-bodied, impeccably balanced, concentrated and layered, it’s a terrific cuvée and is certainly one of the standouts in this vintage. It’s also the finest wine I’ve tasted from this estate…95 points– Jeb Dunnuck

Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee Reservee2015- “…A vintage compared to 2010 by Laurence, the 2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape looks to be one of the big successes in the vintage. Possessing a ripe, rounded, sexy style backed up by solid density and concentration, it offers classic Pegau notes of currants, pepper, and cured meats. Big, rich, concentrated and beautifully textured, it offers a rare depth of fruit and richness in the vintage…95-97 Points“-Jeb Dunnuck

Saje Chateauneuf du Pape Marquis Anselme Mathieu  2015- “I enjoyed all of the wines from this estate, but I was blown away by the complexity and purity of the 2015 Chateauneuf du Pape Marquis Anselme Mathieu … Not only does it show beautiful cherry and stone fruit notes, it layers on hints of clove, allspice, garrigue and green peppercorn. There’s ample weight and texture on the palate, with the plush tannins drawing to a silky, spicy finish that lingers for minutes…96 Points!”  – Joe Czerwinski, Wine Advocate

BEST CAYRON IN A LONG TIME

When we first got into Rhones in a big way back in the early 90s, Domaine Cayron was certainly one of, if not the ‘standard’ in the appellation.  Always very big, bold and expressive, the wines were loaded with blackberry and black cherry fruit that could best be described as a walk on the wild side.  Lots of well infused gravel, anise, roasted herb or dark chocolate nuance could pop up in any version, but they did all share a certain jump-out-of-the-glass fruit component.  They also, in those early days, sported a fair bit of chewy tannin, as did most Gigondas.

For many years Cayron was marketed by Kermit Lynch.  Not sure if his leaving the Kermit portfolio, or a bit of a slump in his winemaking was the cause, but Michel Faraud’s wine kind of dropped out of sight for a while.  The current purveyor referred to this estate, founded in 1840, as the ‘benchmark producer in the region’.  Not sure if we buy into that entirely.  Domaine des Bosquets and Saint Damien have been doing some outstanding work and there are a number of rising stars in the region as well.  But with this particular vintage, Cayron is definitely deserving of the limelight again.

The 2015 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas has collected a nice range of reviews including ‘over 90’ barrel scores from Wine Advocate, Jeb Dunnuck and Vinous Media and we can see why.  That bouncy, gregarious, in-your-face herb-laced fruit component is back with a vengeance.  While everybody’s enthusiasm is clear, the writers’ descriptors have quite a range from plum to boysenberry.  We’ll borrow the prose from Vinous’ Josh Raynolds as a reference, “Dark ruby. Potent mineral-and-smoke-accented cherry, boysenberry and garrigue scents pick up a sexy incense nuance as the wine opens up. Sweet, seamless and penetrating on the palate, offering intense red and blue fruit, spicecake and lavender pastille flavors and a hint of smoked meat. Concentrated yet light on its feet, playing power off finesse with a smooth hand and finishing impressively long, sweet and youthfully tannic…”

While he commented on the wine’s ‘youthfulness’, we would point out that this tasting note was based on a barrel sample from a region not exactly famous for its polish.  Michel Faraud’s three daughters are at the helm now, under his watchful eye of course.  However we sense a little more seamlessness to the back half of this wine and a less rough-and-tumble demeanor.

All of that put together makes for the best Cayron in some time. They do all the right things here…hand harvesting, indigenous yeasts, and bottling unfiltered and unfined.  As you would expect, Grenache is the workhorse here (78%) with the balance from the ‘usual suspects’ (14% Syrah, 6% Cinsault, 2% Mourvèdre), all finished in large older barrels.

Is Cayron back or is this outstanding, mouth-filling red just the result of a sensational vintage?  Can’t answer that just yet, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying this one for what it is…big, bold, and delicious.

 

‘Little’ Wine from a Top Dog, Northern Rhone Style

So years ago (2000 actually), we attended the first InterRhone exposition in the Rhone Valley, an event dedicated to presenting Rhone wines in groups during presentations within the various appellations.  One of the most memorable days was the ‘show’ in Hermitage, with a large number of who’s who producers.  It was in a bank building and the various growers were stationed behind teller’s windows presenting their wares.

The majority of the wines were from the outstanding 1999 vintage, there were three producers whose wines stood out even among the power lineup that was presenting that day.  One of the three was a house we had read about but had never yet seen in our part of the world, nor had the opportunity to taste.  That was Domaine Sorrel.  That event made a lasting impression and we spent the next few years trying to find a viable source for Sorrel’s wines.  We got a couple of scraps in the European market but were generally unsuccessful in our effort to solidify a steady source.

About a decade later, the Sorrel wines showed up at a local importer and it was a pretty happy day for us when we snagged the tail end of Sorrel’s 2010 Hermitage.  A  beautiful wine that encapsulated Sorrel’s distinctive style to a tee,  it showed depth and presence but also an uncommon elegance.  This wasn’t the biggest or jammiest example of the genre.  But it did not lack for stuffing and was impressive for its balance and polish.

Fast forward to today and the 2015 vintage.  We had never seen Sorrel’s Crozes Hermitage before but the house style was in full array.  The Marc Sorrel Crozes Hermitage 2015 showed plenty of dark fruits with insistent undercurrents of minerality, but the wine also had a harmony and presence that set it apart from the rank and file from this ripe, weighty but sometimes California-like vintage. Crozes can be a little curious from the standpoint of quality because the appellation extends from the hillside to flatter areas near the highway.  As we say here, hillside Crozes is better than ‘freeway’ Crozes.  In the hands of someone like Sorrel, the equation only gets better.

The reviews indirectly speak of the value in that the score was very close to the Hermitage but the Crozes costs about half as much.  Josh Reynolds of Vinous saw it this way, “Deep vivid ruby. Ripe blackberry and cherry scents are energized by cracked pepper and smoky mineral accents. Fleshy and open-knit, offering sweet dark berry and violet pastille flavors and a touch of salty olive paste. The peppery note recurs on a long, blue-fruit-inflected finish that’s given structure by mounting tannins…91 points.”  The wine definitely has an upscale feel to it, but at a touch over $30 its pretty wallet-friendly for what it delivers.

 

A Dandy Andezon in 2016

The Cotes du Rhone from Andezon has been on our radar for a long time.  It was on the front cover of our old printed newsletter at least once (maybe even a rare second time come to think of it).  So given our experience thus far with the ‘little’ 2016s in the southern Rhone, we were quite anxious to see how this Eric Solomon staple for more than two decades fared.

The brief background story for those that don’t know this one by now is as follows.  Back in 1994, Eric Solomon visited the Vignerons d’Estézargues Co-operative winery and met a young, passionate director/winemaker named Jean-François Nicq.  By the end of the day, they had decided on a custom bottling of old-vine Syrah (30-60 year old vines) from one of their best parcels, Andezon, that had been previously sold in bulk to a “very famous producer in the Rhone Valley”.  The rest, as they say, is history.

To repeat, unlike most Cotes du Rhones, the Andezon is predominantly  Syrah with a little Grenache (up to 10% depending on the vintage, though some will claim it’s all Syrah), unlike the typically Grenache-dominated cuvees from this part of the world.  It sees no oak, they use no cultured yeasts, no filtering, no fining and no enzymes during vinification or aging, and only add a small amount of SO2 at bottling. Les Vignerons d’Estézargues has begun to practice ‘natural winemaking’, for those interested in that sort of thing, and have to be one of the only co-ops in the world to do so.

As for the wine itself, the Les Vignerons d’Estezargues Cotes du Rhone Andezon 2016 is certainly the best example of this cuvee we have tasted, and that is saying something.  The signature of the vintage is here…deep, riveting fruit, uncommon richness yet with energy and lift.  We could go on but the prose of Wine Advocate’s  Joe Czerwinski certainly makes the point, “The 2016 Cotes du Rhone Andezon is 100% Syrah, aged entirely in tank. It’s a lush, medium to full-bodied wine bursting with ripe blackberries and blueberries. No, it doesn’t have the peppery spice of Syrah from the northern Rhône, but it does have enough cola-like spicy complexity to warrant an outstanding rating…91 points

In closing, it is important to make another point we refer to as the ‘theory of relativity’.  When a vintage this spectacular comes along, there is a tendency for reviewers to calibrate reviews between wines, and not necessarily factor in the vintage itself.  That’s not necessarily a criticism, but it is a fact.  People don’t always account for the fact that the whole category is working far above the norm.

The salient point is that better wines in lesser vintages often get higher scores than they should and, in outstanding vintages, the wines don’t necessarily get their due within the broader historical perspective.  Pull out this ’91-pointer’ and put it up against similar ‘performers’ from other vintages down the road and this will dominate.  The 2016s are that good, and this one will outperform the ‘number’ in the glass.  Good times, 2016 continues to look like one of the best vintages we have ever sold .

Rhone 2016: ‘A Little Something’ from Burle

We have been preaching the gospel about the southern Rhones in 2016, a vintage that thus far has not ceased to surprise and amaze us from the big gun Chateauneufs (tasted recently in Europe) to the littlest Cotes du Rhone.  The ongoing problem, however, is that the wines are concentrated thanks to super low yield.  So you have very compelling wines, just much less of them.

Think of this knockout little Cotes du Rhone, from one of the Rhone’s grand old families, as something you would have seen an email offer on except for that one, small issue.  As we often do when we run across something this compelling, we try to corral as much of it as we possibly can.  Sadly this time there simply wasn’t much to be had.  Hence this modest, if no less enthusiastic piece.

Looking at the facts, you have an estate that isn’t very big in the first place (they only produces around 500 cases each of three different wines in a good year) and you have a vintage that was woefully short anyway thanks to Mother Nature.  The fact that it is brought in by a small, relatively new importer may have also come into play, but probably not.

As to the wine, the Domaine Burle Cotes du Rhone 2016 might be the most impressive thing we have yet had from the Burle domaine.  Like some of the other 2016 Cotes du Rhones we have featured, this wine has an uncommon power and grace.  The vintage was very successful overall, with the wines showing deep, almost glowing mulberry color and unprecedented power thanks in particular to the Grenache (the wine is 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah from 40-50  year-old vines).

What makes 2016 special is not only the size and concentration of the wines, but the harmony and fine tuning they show from top to bottom.  Enter Burle, an estate that typically makes muscular, if sometimes a little rustic wines, here showing like it is dressed in its Sunday best.  Organic farming, bottled unfiltered and unfined, we suspect in this case they aren’t just going with the current trend.  They have always done it this way.

Rich, lifted, uncommon verve and balance, you’ve likely had Chateauneufs that aren’t this compelling, and you certainly paid more than $15 for them.  A must while it lasts, the ‘little’ wines in the southern Rhone in 2016 are special, even if the label here looks like it is some sort of ‘sun’ vision from the 70’s.  The media hasn’t really picked up on it in a big way and the ‘buzz’ hasn’t started…yet.  Take advantage while you can, but with 2016s you’ll likely need to move a little faster.

MO’ LAFAGE

The eye-popping values from Jean-Marc Lafage have been coming at a prolific rate.  If we did full emails on the every one of them, which would be easy to do given how good and how well priced they all are, we’d start looking like some sort of Lafage-of-the-Month Club.  So every now and again we’ll publish a little something on the ‘down low’, with the caveat that it could eventually be its own offer at some point.  Don’t confuse this smaller format with a lack of enthusiasm.  What Lafage has been doing of late is some sort of unprecedented run of ‘hits’ and this is simply one more.  Our task is to keep you informed.

There are so many different and exciting cuvees, it’s hard to keep them all straight.  We counted over 50 different wines reviewed by the Wine Advocate, some only with a single writeup.  The 2015 Domaine Lafage Cotes du Roussillon Villages Lieu Dit La Narassa is only the second in this particular series, an admirable followup to the 93-point 2014 and we think even a little more substantial.  Visually it is markedly different than the majority of the bottles in that it comes in a weapon-ready, super-heavy Bordeaux styled bottle with a black label (most others are Burgundy shaped and ‘dressed’ in white).  We aren’t sure what the message is, but the wine is definitely an attention-getter in the glass as well.

Grown in the typical black schist soils of the Roussillon, the 60 to 70-year-old vines of Syrah and Grenache are farmed organically, hand harvested, and brought up in 80% concrete and 20% large neutral barrels.  The harvest regimen is a little different for this bottling.  It is made in a semi-ripasso style by harvesting the Grenache in successive passes picking only the ripest clusters. Once at the cellars the fruit is destemmed and only the best berries are chosen for fermentation after a short pre-fermentation maceration.  The blend is 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah.

This one is bold, full, flavored and definitely expressive of this unique terroir near the village of Maury and will stand up to the heartiest of fare.  The Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck was glowing again in his ‘barrel’ review stating, “Notes of cassis, toasted spice, chocolate and licorice all emerge from the 2015 Cotes du Roussillon Villages Lieu Dit La Narassa…This hedonistic, downright sexy, ripe and layered beauty will drink nicely right out of the gate…91-93 Points.”

Barrels scores tend to be conservative and, in 2015, almost everything was outstanding so you don’t get as much ‘separation’.  So we suspect if it gets a final review, it will finish on the high end.   We think the 2015 Narassa has even a bit more muscle than the 2014, and definitely a riper profile.  Once again the magic is that this is an expansive, engaging wine that only costs $15 a bottle.  How does he keep doing it?

THE ‘SUD’ ALSO RISES

Back in the early-to-mid-90s there was something of a ‘modest’ period for potentially great vintages of red Rhone wines. Perhaps coincidentally, we started seeing a ‘new breed’ of wine emerging from the South of France. About that time a number of vignerons came to the realization that, with the warm climate, Mediterranean breezes and old vines, they had a shot at making some pretty serious juice if they employed more meticulous viticultural and winemaking practices. In our minds, that was when the ‘Sud’ as we affectionately call it (the south of France) was born.

In the latter part of the 90s, the Rhone went on an unprecedented run of vintages and people didn’t pay as much attention to the ‘new wave’ of producers emerging down south. It was tough getting the spotlight away from the more established appellations like Chateauneuf and Gigondas. Still, certain estates in the south persisted and grabbed a piece of the marketplace by virtue of a number of distinctive, full flavored wines that delivered remarkable value. The labels you have become accustomed to for both great value like Bila Haut and Lafage and elite performance like Gilles Troullier simply weren’t visible or didn’t exist yet back in those early days. But they are pretty darned important now.

Domaine des Aires Hautes was one of the early players we saw back in those ‘pioneer’ days. We remember selling a breakthrough bottling called Clos l’Escandil from them over two decades ago. But we really hadn’t seen much of them since until one day this little jewel rolled into the office.

Meet the new Aires Hautes, same as the old Aires Hautes, only better. For those who aren’t familiar with the region, Minervois is a sub-region of the Languedoc, and La Liviniere is a more specific ‘sweet spot’ of the Minervois, sitting on a chalky plateau facing the Mediterranean and protected from the Atlantic weather influences by the Massif Central. The Chabbert family owns 28 hectares in this lovely spot and Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre are the components in this wine, pretty much in that order. Hand-harvesting, destemming, concrete tanks and used oak are the practices, and the vineyards are farmed at a low 28 hl/ha.

While our memories are still fond of those breakout efforts so long ago, the Domane des Air Hautes Minervois la Liviniere 2015 is clearly a serious step up and a fantastic beverage for its sub-$20 tab. While it has the classic pepper, garrigue, lavender and floral notes one associates with this very distinctive village, they play a complex but subtle role in support of a big rush of glossy blackberry fruit that is rich and polished but never ponderous. It can play to a much wider audience than most Languedocs you have likely tasted. The 2015 vintage clearly dealt the family Chabbert a winning hand and they brought it home in style.

While the tasting notes from Jeb Dunnuck, writing for the Wine Advocate at the time, were based on the barrel tasting, it is clear to us this wine got into the bottle exactly as it should have. His prose was enthusiastic, “It’s a textbook, perfumed, full-bodied and incredibly sexy 2015 that offers notes of blueberries, flowers, lavender and jammy blackberries. It could be a true superstar and is loaded with potential…92-94 points.”

From our perspective, as you may have guessed, ‘potential’ achieved and this truly is one of the best efforts from the ‘south’ we have tasted this year. We’d dare say if Jeb went back to score the finished wine another time, it would rate at the higher end of the range. It is a ‘beaut’ and we bought every last box. Sadly, it was only 50 cases.