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.