When my daughter MARINA proposed the visit of some of her young friends for the weekend recently, expressing their wish “to taste and learn about some nice wine”, my thoughts turned to what could be served. There were to be three meals, a Friday night dinner [salmon en papillote with shredded leaks, cheese such as Comté, Jarlsberg, Camembert], a Saturday night session [home logs barbecued chicken cuts and sausages] and a Sunday lunch [roast beef with Yorkshire pudding].
The opener was themed on WHITE RHÔNE, young and mature, from the SOUTH. This was a chance to serve wines that they would not normally encounter on wine lists in LONDON, and to show the wines’ suitability for being drunk with food, à table, rather than solo in a wine bar. To illustrate the evolution of these multi-varietal wines, there were two 2017 LIRAC BLANCs, followed by two 2009 CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE BLANCs from across the RIVER RHÔNE, a path of no more than about five or six miles if your average crow flew in a straight line, with similar galet stone soils involved in both instances, and pockets of sand, as well.
There was a vintage association as well: 2017 – dry and hot, 2009 – baked sunshine, drought also. The one shift between the two vintages was greater sophistication in the farming of the vineyard [canopy management to preserve leaf cover rather than slavish dropping of leaves to achieve ripeness, before realising that ripening was in excess], the timing of the harvest, its execution [night-time versus the day] and in the cellar with more exact temperature control, more attention to minutiae, including inert conditions for bottling. In broad terms, growers these days work for greater and more obvious freshness than they did in the 2000s.
The LIRACs were set up to show two different styles, based on the varieties involved. Hence the 2017 CHÂTEAU BOUCARUT, 75% ROUSSANNE, 25% VIOGNIER, was supple, rounded, fat, low in acidity, a joli do, while the 2017 CHÂTEAU MONT-REDON, 45% GRENACHE BLANC, 25% CLAIRETTE BLANCHE, 20% ROUSSANNE, 10% VIOGNIER, was more solid thanks to the GRENACHE and the CLAIRETTE, carrying well along the palate, capable of living longer than the BOUCARUT. Steamed fish for the former, the latter capable of going well with pork, white meats, for example.
Next came the 2009 CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE DOMAINE SAINT-PRÉFERT, 85% CLAIRETTE ROSE & BLANCHE, 15% ROUSSANNE: bearing in mind the high heat of the summer, this was remarkably fine, held excellent length, was stylish, even resembling a mature white Burgundy, its freshness delivered with a pitter patter of detail. Grand Vin, a notch ahead of the 2009 CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE DOMAINE DE LA RONCIÈRE, 60% GRENACHE BLANC, 25% CLAIRETTE BLANCHE, 15% ROUSSANNE.
The latter, the RONCIÈRE, was another testament to the wholesome nature of the two varieties that best sum up SOUTHERN RHÔNE whites down the years, the GRENACHE BLANC and CLAIRETTE BLANCHE. Rich, oily, more reserved on the palate than the slightly advanced bouquet, the vintage in a nutshell thanks to its close-packing, solid foundation. Touches of sherry, Amontillado were accompanied by good spine, shape. This was not a straightforward wine for the young team, but once it was alongside the cheese, the lights came on.
The Saturday evening was NORTHERN RHÔNE night. Pointing out that all these wines were made from a single variety, the SYRAH, it was time to present a glimpse of the hierarchy of soils, and evolution of wines across a span of 20 years, the chosen vintages all very high quality. First off was the 2015 VIN DE PAYS DES COLLINES RHODANIENNES of ANDRÉ PERRET, derived from 1980s SYRAH grown on sandy soil on the plain close to the SAINT-JOSEPH hillside appellation. We then ascended the hills to granite soils via two vintages of VIN DE PAYS DES COLLINES RHODANIENNES with more age, these from STÉPHANE PICHAT, the 2010 and the 2009, so a foray into 2004 SYRAH on the CHAMPON site at CÔTE-RÔTIE a little way north. Next, a step up to the 2010 SAINT-JOSEPH DOMAINE FAURY LA GLORIETTE to indicate more noble terroir and older vines [1949, with 1981], ending with the majesty of terroir and origin, the 1995 HERMITAGE LA CHAPELLE, observing that this was an extremely vintage-faithful wine, and one blended from different plots around the mighty hillside.
A little step up at a time in terms of complexity and profundity was taken, the coursing black fruit of the 2015 PERRET giving way to the more mature, cool, mineral tones of the 2010 VIN DE PAYS PICHAT, and the savoury, slightly meaty sun-filled notes of his 2009. All three were excellent examples of their genre, allowing the observation that buying the “small” wines from a good domaine affords value and rewarding drinking, as do the BOURGOGNE Village-level wines from top growers such as GHISLAINE BARTHOD or SYLVAIN CATHIARD.
The 2010 SAINT-JOSEPH was broad, long, fulfilling, with the wonderful 2010 balance and freshness streaming through it like little sparks of a shooting star, a young wine, full of running. The 1995 LA CHAPELLE is a wine I adore and respect, way better than most of the 1990s in LA CHAPELLE, outside the 1990, of course. It still carries its dry vintage imprint, with lithe content and fine fibre tannins along its sides. While the bouquet offered a free run of changing prompts, including meat stock, cinnamon, raspberry coulis, the palate carried some vintage reserve to this day, derived from the dry conditions of the year, a vintage when, if the rain had fallen three weeks before the start of September, when it finally came, “could have been exceptional” according to GÉRARD CHAVE: this was a CHAPELLE still more strict than generous, but intricate and provocative.
Sunday lunch was the chance to go straight into exceptional bottles in their category, starting with the 2010 CÔTES DU RHÔNE LIEU-DIT CLAVIN of DOMAINE DE LA VIEILLE JULIENNE, where the vineyards lie across a track from CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE – the same principle as the selected VIN DE PAYS wines. A great vintage at a very competitive price here, a wine that is young and vibrant, with the cool, sustained tenor of organically worked vineyards.
Then the contrast and compare moment, served blind, the 1999 MARGAUX CHÂTEAU RAUZAN-SÉGLA, followed by the 1998 CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE PIERRE USSEGLIO & FILS. The silken pathway and nobility of the BORDEAUX, so different, so svelte, so polished beside the more rugged, spice-laden box of tricks of the robust, mature CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE: the Atlantic alongside the Mediterranean.
Droplets of enthusiasm, streams of reflection, and caches of understanding were my hopes for the young generation by the time the weekend concluded. BONNE DÉGUSTATION!