Southern Rhone: A Visit to Meet L’Avion’s Parents.

We met our friend Gabrielle in front of Vieux Telegraphe in Chateau Neuf Du Pape (CDP) . Telegraphe boasts vineyards that average 55 years of age, and their La Crau vineyard is at the highest elevation in the area. While relatively flat, I’ve long heard about the 3 foot layer of stones covering CDP that absorb the suns heat and radiate the warmth back towards the clusters throughout the night. Naturally, the stones came up first in conversation as we walked around the winery, but now I learned that the Crau vineyard sits upon fertile, water retaining clay subsoils that feed the vines through the hot, dry summer.

After our quick walk around the winery, Gabrielle, Jessica, and I saddled up to the bar to try the wines. The typical blend of Vieux Telegraphe Rouge is 65% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, and about 5% Cinsault. The 2000 and 2001 softly seeped through my mouth and showed their old age, while the 2010 burst brightly and lightly with glorious balance. From this look at Telegraphe, I prefer the wine young and fresh! The Telegraphe Rouge spends its first 10 months of life in concrete, and checking them out got me even more amped to take delivery of our 6 new 4-ton fermentors just in time for the 2012 harvest!

The Telegraphe Blanc is comprised of 40% Clairette, 30% Grenache Blanc, 15% Bourgogne Blanc, and 15% Roussanne (only?!) aged in 15% new French Oak for 11 months. The 2010 was all pears on the nose, with richness and deep stone fruits in the mouth; pretty darn yummy! While I enjoyed the Blanc, we had come to the Southern Rhone to try Roussannes and 15% wasn’t going to cut it! Furthermore, because the 2010 Rouge wasn’t labeled yet, Telegraphe wouldn’t let me buy any, boohoo! We politely said our goodbyes and hit the road!

With our high-profile (on my best behavior) appointment over, we headed over to the village of Gigondas for our umpteenth breathtaking outdoor meal before our afternoon appointment. Up-and-coming winemaker Adrien Fabre toured us around Saint Maurice and Visan Cote du Rhone Villages in his work truck. We checked out higher elevation vineyards with beautiful white and tan stones, similar to Chateau Neuf du Pape.

Returning to Adrien’s winery to taste, we found further proof of the greatness of the 2010 vintage; folks in the southern Rhone love their cooler vintages when the sun, intensified by the retained heat in the stones, doesn’t totally scorch the fruit. The 33 year old winemaker, who makes wine under the Domaine de l’Eschevin and Florian labels, studied at Montepelier, the second most prestigious enology school next to Beaune. Armed with a world-class education, his wines pack great structure with complexity; especially when compared to many of the simple, ordinary Grenaches found in the area. AND, the best news yet, the bottles are dirt cheap compared to Chateau Neuf du Pape!

The wines all contained a smoky flint character, and Adrien confessed this flavor component was a new development in the wines. I’ve become accustomed to the evolution and changing personalities of unfiltered wines in pouring Stolpman week in and week out in different elevations (Denver), Humidity levels (Atlanta), and Latitudes (Boston); natural wines can be moody, especially when young! So when I asked Adrien where the hint of gunfire smoke came from, he responded “you know, I just noticed that too, we’ll see if it’s still there tomorrow”. We brought a few bottles home, but I’ll wait a while to pop them and check again!

Afterwards, Gabrielle guided us to our charming B&B near the medieval hillside town of Siguret. After enduring the heat in the vineyards all day, Jessica and I both dove into the pool for a pre-dinner revitalizing swim. And thank god we did turn up fresh for one of our most stunning French meals yet, just a mile or so down the road at a restaurant called Grand Pres. 1990 Chateau La Nerthe Chateau Neuf du Pape Blanc showed gorgeously with deep golden color and a pink rim. The 22 year old white wine didn’t show much, if any, signs of oxidation as if the fresh fruit had been dried and vacuum sealed. When our raw tuna 3-ways arrived at the table, Jessica and I toasted to pretty much the most magical paired course of our lives. We rushed home to bed as the next day, we were going to visit the mother vines of our L’Avion Roussanne at Chateau Beaucastel.

Before Beaucastel, Gabrielle thought it would be good for me to travel to a high-elevation Syrah vineyard to taste what is possible with the varietal far South of its Northern Rhone homeland. Down here in the sun-drenched South, we might as well be in California as far as similarities to Cote Rotie go! We climbed the mountain above Beaune du Venise Cote du Rhone Village to an elevation of 550 meters to reach St. Amant winery. Founded in 1995, the women who run the young winery feel that the cool air and breeze high above the hot stones of Chateau neuf du Pape give them a unique shot at making Syrah. I tried to joke with our host, Madaleine Nosworthy, the granddaughter of the winery’s founder; that their rebel theme song should be Nine Inch Nails “I was up above it”, as because they are located above the appellation, they don’t have to follow the rules of the vineyards below them. Not surprisingly, Madaleine hadn’t heard the particular 1990s Industrial-Rock song.

The Syrahs showed appealing tobacco-sweetness I associate more with Bordeaux varietals on the front of the palate but then came around to salty graphite and gripping tannins. We took in the view one last time before descending the mountain for lunch in Le Barroux and then on to arguably the most famous winery in all of the Southern Rhone, Chateau Beaucastel.

Upon arriving, we headed out into the vineyards with 5th generation Beaucastel vintner Cesar Perrin, who is currently one of nine family members working at the winery. Once out into the Roussanne field, Cesar explained that the beautiful stones had drifted down from Switzerland to rest on the flat delta. Along with the clay found underneath Vieux Telegraphe, there is also Limestone; soil that the Perrins obviously love as they searched throughout California for it. Cesar’s father placed an offer on Stolpman Vineyards in 1987, and then finally bought and planted on the white rock of Tablas Creek. The gnarled Roussanne vines from which we purchased cuttings for our Roussanne were head pruned low, and the un-trellised, wild vineyard block looked nothing like the precise, symmetrical L’Avion runway, with its straight fruiting wires of even, tiny clusters. The flat vineyard with the Peage Autoroute off in the distance made the difference even more pronounced. Maybe the L’Avion block will be that gnarled when my great grand children show visitors the Roussanne when it’s 98 years old!

It was great to have Cesar as our host, because he spoke about his grandfather frankly, and I feel like I got the real story, not marketing BS. Back in the day, everybody had Grenache planted, but Grandpa’s best friend was Tempier, the most famous Mourvedre producer in the world, so in order to differentiate himself, in 1930 he planted cuttings from Bandol. The same thing happened with whites, everyone loved Grenache Blanc because it was so easy to farm and deliciously fruity, so Mr. Perrin focused on the more finicky Roussanne instead, a true contrarian!

Over almost 100 years of bottling wine, the Perrins have settled on some interesting methods. They have 50 full-time workers to farm 100 hectars with only spaying and discing done by tractor. Secondary Fermentation occurs totally naturally, which means that some years, malic acid remains in the wines. Cesar explained that the Chateau Neuf du Pape stones create wines of lower acid than California, even with the limestone content in the subsoil. Finally, the Perrins bottle according to the lunar calendar on full moon fruit days.

Once into the winery, Cesar showed us the concrete fermentors for oxidative Grenache and Cinsault and the large Oak tanks for Syrah and Mourvedre. He proudly showed us giant 10,600 liter concrete tanks that are beautifully tiled inside. The Perrins employ the ceramic tiles because the surface doesn’t need to be chemically washed, pretty cool!

Down in the stunning cellar, we launched into our tasting and at the risk of becoming a broken record, the 2010 Ch. Neuf du Pape Rouge was yet another 2010 show stopper. Deep wild berry and silky tannin structure. Cesar pulled out a 2008 so we could try a much more difficult vintage where they labor intensively removed 50% of the crop on the sorting table. The 2008 showed bramble, brush, and red lipstick and will certainly age into a beauty, but didn’t have the “stunner” appeal of the 2010. We worked back through 2006, 2004, to 2001 which all showed dynamic red fruit, the 2006 with more meaty, animal qualities, the 2004 with hints of tar behind the red, and the 2001 starting to show softness. I’m not sure how much longer I would age any vintages older than 2001.

Trying these great wines, and knowing how many thousands of liters don’t make the cut for the delicately balanced Chateau Beaucastel, I realized what a high-maintenance princess Mourvedre is; to her servants she is a total bitch, but to the prince she charms at the ball, she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. One false move in the winery or one bad day of harvest weather and the servant’s viewpoint of over-ripe flaws will be portrayed in the wine. Catch it perfect, and well, the Perrins still blend in 40% of other supporting grapes into Hommage a Jacques Perrin to make sure she is beautifully made up for the dance. (Hommage a Jacques Perrin is their best, most exclusive Chateau Neuf, an ode to Cesar’s Grandfather who planted the Tempier cuttings)

And then it was time for whites, and by this point I was jumping up and down with excitement. Gabrielle rolled her eyes at me, as she is a typical Burgundy-Loire-Riesling high-acid snob and says she “doesn’t get” the lower acid, rich Rhone whites. I could kind of see her point with the 2011 Ch. Neuf du Pape Blanc which is 80% Roussanne. However, once we came to the 2010 Vielles Vignes (old vines) I looked at her like “how can you not like this?” Jessica was on my side. Overwhelmingly delicious pear at the perfect juicy ripeness with firm grains yet gooey, lasting texture with a zesty verve and peach fuzz; the wine is lavish, luxuriously rich; it’s like ‘sipping pampered vacation’.

The best of the Chateau Neuf du Pape blancs define white wine hedonism. What’s more, the fact that the Perrins’ best of the best white wine is made from 100% Roussanne while their favorite red varietal, Mourvedre, is still blended, proves (to me, at least) that Roussanne is the Queen of Chateau Neuf du Pape. I’m happy to let Grenache be King (the core grape of Telegraphe accounts for 80% of all Chateau Neuf du Pape vineyards) and Princess Mourvedre (7% of Ch. Neuf du Pape plantings) can fight daddy for Red wine supremacy. All I know is I took home three bottles of VV Blanc!

Before we left, Cesar pulled out an unlabeled half bottle of red and poured it for us. Jessica guessed it was 1990 CDP and because of hints of mustiness, I guessed 1982. It turned out to be a 1991, the vintage after Wine Spectator gave Beaucastel the Wine of the Year Award and forever changed Cesar and his family’s life. Cesar looked around at the stacks of thousands of bottles in the beautiful archways of the cave and stated, “before that we couldn’t afford to keep any of these bottles, and now we have this beautiful cellar”. It was pretty cool to see this humbleness, similar to Olivier Clape’s in Cornas, coming from the heir of what has become the most prestigious winery in the Southern Rhone.

By now we had exhausted our host and translator Gabrielle, so Jessica and I dined at Beau Grevier alone, our last night in the Rhone. In four days we had met 8 totally different winemakers and seen an array of operations: from Renee Rostaing’s rules, Clape’s moldly cellar, Adrien’s undiscovered stone vineyards, to Cesar’s big, beautiful modern winery. All of these wineries were making captivating, delicious wines in different styles and with different outlooks on their role as businesses and as bearers of tradition. All of them were proud of their craft but humble, and together, made me extremely excited to by carrying the torch as a Californian Rhone Ranger.