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July 2009

recently posted: many 2007 Northern Rhône reds from Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, as a prelude to the full 2007 vintage report on that region. One or two brand new domaines have come with that, notably Domaine des Pierres Sèches at Saint-Joseph and Domaine de Chasselvin at Crozes-Hermitage. Also Puyméras in the hills of the Southern Rhône near Nyons, the sound Co-operative and the also pretty decent Domaine Faucon Doré. Puyméras was one of the 4 new Villages recently promoted to that status, but suffers from a lack of profile - there isn`t much wine. The Co-operative only works about 130 hectares, and there is just a handful of small domaines whose main focus is on Côtes-du-Rhône, which can be produced in higher volume per hectare. They are good country wines, which I recommend notably to anyone holidaying in this area. Also added have been Florent & Damien Burle (STGT) and the very good Domaine Saint-Gayan at Gigondas, Domaine Les Grands Bois at Cairanne, several domaines at Costières de Nimes, Domaine des Banquettes and Grand Nicolet at Rasteau, Château de Domazan at Signargues on the right bank, the Gard département west of Avignon, and Martinelle at Ventoux. The 2006s and 2007s of leading domaines at Vinsobres were tasted in the spring, and comments on these have been posted. Report on 2007 Northern Rhôneto follow. 

PAUL AVRIL, 1937-2009

Châteauneuf-du-Pape lost one of its best, most elegant ambassadors and promoters of quality in mid-June 2009. Paul Avril, owner of the excellent Clos des Papes, had struggled with cancer for some time. Paul took over from his father Régis in 1963, and guided the domaine towards its current status as a top-class source of genuine Southern Rhône wines.

Clos des Papes has always remained faithful to the practice of making just one wine - no super-cuvées for them. In 1973, Paul told me: "The Popes used to receive their taxes in kind from the local vignerons, and so installed one giant cuve into which went all the different wine. They were always delighted to find that the assembled wine from this cuve was of a consistently high standard."

Paul was always a man ready to offer his time and abilities for the good of Châteauneuf. He was President of the Syndicat des Vignerons in the early 1970s, and told me then that one of his great struggles was to get more of the wine bottled within the appellation. For those of tender years reading this, it may come as a surprise to know that one of the great names for trafficked wine in the 1960s and 1970s was Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Only 20% of the wine was then bottled locally, with merchants from all over the world mixing nefarious hybrid wines in with it. It sold on its name alone, and yet "real" Châteauneuf was known to only a few lucky people well connected with dedicated importers - Frank Schoonmaker in the USA, Berry Brothers in England, for instance. Paul compared the situation to that of Alsace, and must have been very content to have witnessed the rise to genuine international prominence of his and his colleagues` wines.

In his later years, Paul was often on and off a train to Paris to put the view of the Rhône and to be present at INAO meetings. He could rest happy in the knowledge that his son Vincent had taken over the reins of the estate with confidence, and by the early 2000s had moved Clos des Papes on to a footing that received widespread international acclaim. The cellar was expanded, while the roof of Vincent`s flat fell in, something that buried a lot of white wine, but not Vincent.

Paul was a man of great charm, not the exciteable southern farmer - and therefore made many friends around the world, taking his confidence and sense of purpose with him. Like his wines, he was a man of finesse, and will be much missed in the local community, and among his many friends all over the world. As one of the oldest families at Châteauneuf-du-Pape - the Avrils were the village`s first consuls and treasurers between 1756 and 1790, and their house stands beside the fountain of the village - it is good to know that Paul-Vincent Avril has been handed a bright torch from his illustrious father. Salut, Paul - I drink to you.

JEAN HUGEL, 1924-2009

One of my favourite London tastings used to be in the days when Hugel and Paul Jaboulet Ainé shared the platform. This would be an opportunity to observe and enjoy Gérard Jaboulet and Jean Hugel at work - one might even say, at play. They were peas of the same pod, very precisely. Both exuded charm and a lively flair, both were compellingly enthusiastic about their wines and their regions, both were notable Ambassadors for Alsace and the Rhône. Jean, or Johnny as he was always called, had the harder task: he was born when Alsace had just returned to being French after the First World War - and then witnessed the invasion, and conscription of thousands of young Alsatian men by the Germans sixteen years later.

His escapades in the Second World War were many and varied, but throughout his life he retained a sense of drive and an energy that would have shamed many younger people. I first met him in the cold of a January day in 1974 when looking for an Alsace Maison that could export its wines for my old friend and then employer Melvyn Master to the USA. There were maybe half a dozen houses then working with the States - think about that - hardly any Alsace shipped to that now vast market. Dopff & Irion, Hugel, Pierre Sparr, Trimbach - and few others. Johnny Hugel was ready to give suggestions, to point me towards lesser-known houses, to encourager. His welcome was exemplary, incredibly open and generous - and was long remembered by me from that time in my callow youth.

His passing has greatly saddened the wine community, which he united with his tireless good humour. My own title - the man who made Alsace - fits him well. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family.