The news that Capt’n Bob, aka Robert Parker Jr, is about to cede much of his coverage in The Wine Advocate brings into line an enduring debate about his style of wine. He has stated that he will continue with Bordeaux and the Rhône, which of course includes Châteauneuf-du-Pape. On hearing this news, Jancis Robinson was quoted in The Financial Times, where she is Wine Correspondent, thus: “It’s no surprise he’s retaining Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He’s probably the last person in the world who can take it.”
Vroom, Vroom, JR! The week before she was quoted, Jancis had tasted hundreds of 2011 Châteauneufs, and 2011 is a mild vintage there. Her eye was in, as they say in cricket.
Another interesting exchange occurred at the same time between me and Yves Gras, the owner of Domaine Santa Duc, at Gigondas. Yves for long has been a whole bunch, 6 week ferment, “everybody into the Police Van” winemaker. His wines have been Big, sometimes unremitting, sometimes lucid. Now he is going all out for finesse. “I am destemming and shortening my fermentations. Now we do “infusions” more than macerations. I am suppressing the use of 228-litre oak casks and moving to 36 hl Austrian barrels to respect fruit and freshness,” he told me. “The oak effect of small oak casks with alcohol when wines are at 15.5° to 16° is much greater than, for example, a Burgundy in its cask at 12.5°. I have had a frank exchange with Robert Parker about this, since he still insists that people want big scale, obviously flavoured wines. I don’t anymore.”
I am with JR and YG here, and of course have never deviated. Balance is what makes wine great. I was generously served a 2005 Domaine Giraud Les Gallimardes Châteauneuf-du-Pape red by young François Giraud at dinner the other day, in between wines from Clos du Mont-Olivet and Domaine du Grand Tinel. It was oppressive. At least 15.5°, its thickness of texture and sucrosity on both nose and palate made it hard going, a wine out of step with others at the dinner. You sip a tiny bit, then want something more refreshing. The sucrosity - consciously sought to my certain knowledge by some domaines, and zero to do with factors such as "global warming" or hotter summers, kills easy, pleasant table wine drinking. It is not just a question of degree, I must emphasize. Yves showed me his ROAIX LES CROTTES RED 2010 - a 15°-plus wine, but a tasty, balanced one, good and drinkable.
I am sure that history will look back and conclude that the chase for sweet, deliberately late harvested, high octane wines was an aberration at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, more than anything because they blurred the marvellous elegance and purity of fruit that this appellation produces. Never have I known such an extreme divergence between the palates of the USA, where sugar is mainstreamed into the diet from the earliest age, and the more mineral-appreciative tastes of Europe, and particularly Northern Europe.
A gradual crescendo is being reached on a topic that has not had widespread coverage as far as I can tell – the debate about the extension of planting rights in European appellation vineyards. The proposal by the EU in Brussels is that henceforth all land within an appellation zone can be planted with vines, the planting allowed at any time and in any amount. Take Crozes-Hermitage, for instance, where much of the plain of Les Chassis still produces fruit such as apricots, whose harvest in 2012 was a disaster, incidentally. This could be rapidly expanded at the drop of a hat, or a bureaucrat's pen.
Under the present system, planting rights are strictly controlled, with Grower A on the plain allowed a hectare or so, or Grower B up a hill at Côte-Rôtie just one quarter of a hectare. The quarter hectare would take more than 4 times longer to plant from a standing start, by the way, than the single hectare on flat ground: trees to be cleared, walls to be built, terraces to be constructed, versus a tractor banging in the new plants 10-4 along the flat lands.
The current system protects the integrity of the appellation, indicating that not all the land is suitable for vines (or it would have been planted in years gone by, before such strict new planting rules), and keeping a lid on supply: even in the Rhône there would be a fear of a €3 or €4 Saint-Joseph dumped into a hypermarket, for instance – a disaster for the image of the appellation. Think Beaujolais Nouveau, the Harvard Business School template for how to ruin a region’s reputation through a marketing stunt.
The opposing view held by some, often larger scale growers, is laissez-faire – let the market decide. The Brussels proposal is motivated by the intention for free competition, stating that the current system is anti-competitive. What it does is exclude anyone who has no planting rights. How do you obtain planting rights now? By having vineyards already.
Hence a fruit tree cultivator cannot switch his or her land from fruit to vine. A newcomer with money has no access, likewise. There is a blockage in the system that favours the incumbents to the detriment of anyone trying to start up. However, the new system would actually favour incumbents who sell brands and have access to capital to buy into hectares of land at one fell swoop. One cannot imagine the owner of a three hectare domaine dancing in the streets at the adoption of the Brussels proposal.
France being France, the body politique is up in arms about this, and December 11, 2012 has been set aside as a Day of Action in the Rhône. The tussle over this plan has been going on for three years now, and the final meeting of the ultimate Committee on this is to be held on 14 December, 2012 in Brussels. Things get tricky with the prospect of some countries wanting a free for all, while others, such as France, favour restriction. The French clearly fear being undercut by floods of mass produced non-French wines.
Meanwhile, hot on the heels of the 2012 harvest, the digging out of dead vines is seriously en route after the 10-20% losses of February, 2012. Trails of smoke indicate the sorry end of these vines, meaning that growers in appellations such as the CÔTES DU RHÔNE, RASTEAU and BEAUMES-DE-VENISE have much more work than they would wish this winter.