Showing posts with label Châteauneuf du Pape. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Châteauneuf du Pape. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Hold on - Do I Like Châteauneuf du Pape?"

That was the question I asked during a great night with friends, dinner, and lots of wine. I served three courses, each paired with a wine poured blind. I knew the wines - I selected them to pair well with the food I was serving. But my friends didn't. This is lots of fun, especially if it's not competitive, if it's about throwing out preconceived notions based on labels and prices and reputations. If it's about stimulating thoughtful discussion about wine. And it does, every time I do it.

My friend Asher drinks a lot of Rhône wine. I'm discovering a taste for the Syrahs of the northern Rhône, but I haven't had a Châteauneuf du Pape that I really like, never mind a Gigondas, or Vacqueyras. I'm just not a big Grenache fan I think. But I've had maybe 10 of these wines though, so there's not a lot to go on. Anyway, my generous friend Tista gave me the gift of a bottle of 2003 Château Rayas last time I saw him, and I figured that it would be nice with our cheese course. And how much fun would it be to serve this iconic wine blind to a Rhône nut? Lot's I guessed.

The wine was incredible, it lived up to the hype. The nose really bounced out of the glass with spicy raspberries, incredibly fresh and pure. There is some mint, some soil, and a great herbal undertone. A tremendously pungent nose that got more and more arresting over the half hour I savored it. The palate showed a teeny-weeny bit of alcohol heat, but was otherwise completely delicious, with silky smooth tannins, great purity, vibrant acidity, and an intense finish that really lingered. And this is a 2003, mind you - an outlier vintage of ridiculous heat that challenged many a vigneron's ability to create balanced wines.

People mostly thought this was a Burgundy, that's how delicate and translucent it was, and how fresh and spicy. When I unveiled the wine there were gasps of "No way, Rayas!" Asher declared it to be the Châteauneuf du Pape of the vintage, something I cannot comment on because I've had only one other from 2003. But everyone agreed - impressive wine, to say the least. And you know what - at about $135, it darn well should be.

Then it was Asher's turn. He opened a bottle that he brought, a bottle that was great fun, but that virtually ensured a hangover for all the next day. He served it to us, blind like the other wines. I could tell without even tasting that it was a Burgundy, a big and ripe example, with a heady fruity perfume. Perhaps it was also 2003? Tasting it made me reject 03 - too well balanced and controlled. Spicy orange notes on the palate to go with ripe dark fruit and finely grained dusty tannins that offered ample structure, very well balanced, and a lovely dark fruit and soil perfume on the finish. Some resiny pine notes with air. The wine felt mature, but the fruit was so fresh and youthful. I guessed it to be either a 2002, or perhaps a 2000 from a top producer and a top site. Since the wine had a masculine feel to it, and because it had that orange-spice note, I guessed that it was from Gevrey-Chambertin. I actually felt pretty confident about my guess, and I was thinking of how to politely accept the congratulations from my friends as Asher unveiled the wine.
It was another Châteauneuf du Pape, the 1999 Vieux Télégraphe la Crau. Hmmm. No congratulations for this Brooklynguy, as it turned out. Beautiful wine, though, really compelling. And hold on - Do I Like Châteauneuf du Pape?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Two Kinds of Ripe

Lars Carlberg recently left another informative and interesting comment on this blog, this time to the post on Domaine Tempier's 1994 Bandol. Lars, Mosel wine exporter, wine lover, and wine thinker extraordinaire, lamented the fact that alcohol levels are consistently higher now in so many wines from Bandol and Châteauneuf du Pape.

Alcohol levels are typically at least 14% now in wines from those places, regularly hitting 15%. Until a decade ago, alcohol levels were typically about 13%. That increase of 1-2% represents 10-15% more alcohol in the wine, a significant increase. Why has this happened? I do not have a definitive answer for you, but Lars talked about phenolic ripeness and I want to explain what I think he meant - it's an interesting and counter intuitive idea.

First of all, the amount of sugar (measured in Brix) contained within grapes determines the potential alcohol level of the resulting wine. Bandol reds and also those from Châteauneuf du Pape, like most red wines, are fermented until dry. If alcohol levels are higher now, then it seems clear that grapes are now picked at sugar levels that are higher than they used to be.

Why would there now be more sugar in Bandol and Châteauneuf du Pape grapes? Perhaps it was a collective decision to pick later, encouraging maximum ripeness. But I don't think that's the answer. There are wine regions in which the prevailing style is to leave the grapes hanging as long as is safe to do so, producing ultra-ripe grapes that in turn produce huge, fruity, high alcohol wines. I don't think that's what they're going for in Bandol or in Châteauneuf du Pape.

So what's else could be behind the increase in alcohol levels if it's not a conscious decision to pick later? Well, it turns out that there are two types of ripeness. Sugar ripeness, but also something called phenolic ripeness. As Jamie Goode's describes in an excellent article that goes into far greater detail than I do here:

Phenolic ripeness (also referred to as physiological ripeness) refers to the changes in the tannins that occur in grape skins, seeds and stems. Sugar ripeness refers to the breakdown of acids and accumulation of sugars.
The tannins in grape skins, stems, and seeds have to be ripe in order for wine to taste and feel right in your mouth. Under-ripe tannins can taste green and astringent, unpleasant. But sugar ripeness happens earlier than phenolic ripeness. So grapes that hang for a long time and achieve ultra-ripe sugars also achieve very good phenolic ripeness. Think of that California fruit bomb that exhibits loads of fruit and almost no structure.

It's warmer than it used to be, so shouldn't ripeness occur earlier? Sugar ripeness - yes. Phenolic ripeness, not necessarily. What if grapes achieve sugar ripeness before phenolic ripeness is achieved? The grower must then either pick early, perhaps making wine with astringent tannins and a green streak, or must allow the grapes to hang longer, achieving higher sugars and wines of potentially higher alcohol. This is what I imagine is happening in Bandol and in Châteauneuf du Pape, and in other hot weather wine regions too.

Global warming, as GW Bush said, is a load of hogwash spread around by environmentalist pagans. That wisdom notwithstanding, harvests that used to happen in late September and into October are now complete by mid September. In Bandol they're getting the right sugars, but they cannot pick grapes with unripe tannins. The wines are already notoriously tannic - imagine a big Bandol with unripe tannins. So they have to leave the grapes for longer than they'd like, and the wines are higher in alcohol.

Perhaps they will start making off-dry wines in Bandol and Châteauneuf du Pape, in order to bring the alcohol levels back down. Or perhaps they will plant different grapes that require more sun in order to ripen. Or perhaps, truly fine red wines made from Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and the other southern grapes, will in 30 years be coming from the more northerly climes of Beaujolais and Burgundy. Or perhaps producers in Bandol and Châteauneuf du Pape will be forced to start de-alcoholizing their wines, and using all sorts of other unnatural processes in order to make balanced wine.

None of this seems good. I'm buying hillside land with good exposure in Scotland and Greenland. Anyone want in?