Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chateau Simone - Wine From Another Era

Last night I had dinner with a friend and we shared a bottle of 1999 Chateau Simone Palette Rouge, $48, Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections. I absolutely loved the wine and I was still thinking about it this morning. The wine offered so much visceral pleasure, and that's mostly what we discussed last night while drinking it. But today I've been thinking about where the wine is from and when it was made, and how it is so different from most other wines that we are likely to drink today.

Chateau Simone is about 15 hectares of vineyards in and around the village of Meyreuil, less than 10 miles east of Aix-en-Provence, further inland and to the west of Bandol. The same family has been making wine there for over 300 years. Different members of the family, of course - no one can live to be 300 years old. Except vampires. Anyway, this old estate has been making great red, white, and rosé wines for a very long time. The reds are made primarily of Grenache and Mourvèdre, and there are many other grapes added in smaller proportions, like Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, Petit Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and then local varieties such as Muscat Noir, Castet, Manosquin, and Brun-Fourca. If I ever again have cats, they will be named Manosquin and Brun-Fourca, and that is a promise.

If you aren't familiar with Chateau Simone, you might think of the estate as a wise and slightly eccentric uncle who is entirely old-world. These are wines that are highly prized by a small but lovingly devoted following. They are similar in composition to most wines from Châteauneuf-du Pape, which is not really that far away as the crow flies, but from my drinking experience, they don't taste anything like Châteauneuf-du Pape. To me, they don't taste like anything else that I know of.

I want to tell you what I think makes these wines so special, but before that I should tell you that I do not possess many facts about Chateau Simone. I read on the Wine Doctor's site that the wines are aged in foudres for 18 months and then in barrique for a year. Seems plausible, but the wine I drank last night, and all of the Simone wines I've had, taste and feel nothing of barrique. Then again, I've never had a recent vintage - I've drank only a few wines from the late 90's and a few from the mid-late 80's. Was the Wine Doctor writing about today's Chateau Simone, or about Chateau Simone in the early 90's? Perhaps the wines are made differently now - I heard that a father retired and a son or sons took over. But I honestly have no idea whether or not this is true. Another thing - as of a few years ago Robert Chadderdon no longer imports Chateau Simone. It's now a Rosenthal wine.

So now, let me tell you why I think these wines are so special. Most wines that are made today in Provence and in the southern Rhône are very big and extracted wines. Chateau Simone Rouge is made from well-muscled grapes too, but extraction is not a word that comes to mind. Somehow, this wine is a miracle of silky texture and wispy elegance. It can be stunning in its clarity and lavender flower detail, and in the intensity and pungency that emerge from its slender frame. Just think about the alcohol level - the 1999 is 12.5%, and that was a pretty warm and ripe year. There just aren't many wines anymore from this part of the world that are made this way, emphasizing delicacy and detail of expression, texture, and weightlessness. Who makes 12.5% alcohol wines in Provence nowadays?

And what a shame that is! Grenache, Mourvèdre, and these other grapes clearly have the potential to make great wines in a subtle style, and very few estates use them that way. And that number seems to be shrinking. There are still a solid core of Bandol producers making old school wines that although big, are modest in alcohol and quite expressive and detailed - Terrebrune, Pradeaux, Pibarnon, and Tempier come to mind. But wait - didn't things change even at the venerable Domaine Tempier in the past 10 years or so? Will the wines from the early 21st century, when mature, taste as the wines from the 1970's do now? Will the 2007 Chateau Simone Rouge in 8 years taste the way the 1999 did last night? I don't know, but I really hope so.

If you haven't tried a mature Chateau Simone, they are worth searching for, and although rare, bottles turn up here and there if you're looking. They are beautiful and unique, and of another era.

10 comments:

Barcewicz (aka Dusty Tannins) said...

The white '96 is my epiphany wine and probably the catalyst of my career in wine. And my first case ever was the white '98. I drank it all. Now I'm hooked on the reds.

Lars Carlberg said...

A local Luxembourg importer has carried Château Simone for years, but I've never purchased and drunk a bottle. Richard Olney wrote about these traditional wines from the Rougier family, who produce the only serious wines from the small Palette appellation. Back then (i.e., the '80s and early '90s), the reds were also aged for two years in foudres and a third year in barriques before bottling, just like the generations before.

According to Andrew Jefford, they've very old vines (some over a 150 years old!) on a rocky limestone north-facing slope in a wooded location. The red wine is primarily Grenache (50%) and Mourvèdre (25%), with a sprinkling of the other varieties that you mentioned, including Cinsault and your future cats' names: Castet and Manosquin.

Although the 1999 vintage was a very good year in Provence, I feel it was the last really brisk, lean year. For example, Gros'Noré, Pibarnon, or Bois de Boursan made such excellent wines that year. It seems from 2000 on (disregarding 2002), even among top classic producers such as Tempier, Clos des Papes, or Vieux Télégraphe, the alcohol levels increased. Growers simply have to wait on phenolic ripeness, otherwise the wines would taste unripe.

dfredman said...

About ten years ago I noticed bottles of Chateau Simone blanc and rosé in local (Los Angeles) closeout bins. Intrigued by the ornate label, I picked up a few bottles and upon tasting them was instantly a fan.

As a lover of the wines of Bandol, I have a similar affinity for the Palette rouge, but my preference lies with the white bottling. It's extremely food friendly and seemingly evolves very consistently - I've not yet opened a bottle that has seemed over the the hill. In general, I liken the Chateau Simone wines to those made by Eduardo Valentini in Abruzzo. They are wines inspired by their vineyard origins and the visions of the winemakers. They appeal to a small group of adherents but few people who taste the wines show any ambivilency toward them - it's either love or hate, with no ground in between.

I have mixed feelings about Chateau Simone's move to Rosenthal. On one hand, the wines will enjoy markedly increased awareness and exposure to consumers on a national basis. On the other hand, there's virtually no possibility whatsoever that I'll ever again find a bottle of Chateau Simone, be it rouge, blanc or rosé, ever again gracing the closeout rack of any of the retailers I frequent.

Anonymous said...

Cool. Do you have any experience with the aging curve of the rose? I sprung for a lone bottle (07 I think), and I've been trying to decide when to open it.

Many thanks.

Nathan

Do Bianchi said...

Those wines are so beautiful... last time I visited Le Bernardin, Aldo was pouring the 86 by the glass. It was stunning and so perfect with my red snapper...

great advice BrooklynGuy!

Brooklynguy said...

thanks for these comments. And Lars, for all of the information.

dfredman - I know exactly what you mean. only a few years ago i found a bottle of 98 blanc sitting there in a basket of closeout wines. i paid something like $25 for it. so it goes...

Nathan - I do not know about the aging curve, and in fact, I've never tried a Simone rose. Something that I will have to rectify. i imagine they age well, but there are others who are more qualified than I am to discuss this.

Dr J - wow that sounds good. you mean the blanc, or could you be talking about the rouge?!?

Sean said...

BG--I have one bottle left in my cellar of the 1999, which I bought at Chateau Simone. The wine is precisely what you've described, of course: a gorgeous relic. The chateau itself is even more so. This is the Internet, after all, so I don't really have the time & space to do the atmospherics of the place proper justice, but if your next trip should take you anywhere in the environs of Aix-en-Provence, a detour to Simone is a must.

Chambers Wines frequently carries the whites & rose, & periodically the reds.

Thanks for giving independent & eloquent confirmation of a personal passion...

Cliff said...

My favorite caviste in Aix insists that the white is far superior to the red. I don't have a broad enough sample to say. I like both.

jason said...

I love that wine. I was turned on to it about 12 years ago.. It has never been inexpensive, but has gotten way to expensive now.

Cliff said...

I love that wine. I was turned on to it about 12 years ago.. It has never been inexpensive, but has gotten way to expensive now.

Yikes, I was just in southern France, in their general vicinity, and it was going for around €30! That means, what $70 in the States? It's good, but, apart from Champagne, I can't think of too many whites I'd be willing to spend that on.