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Monday, November 25, 2013

Select Opportunities For Early Drinking And Great Values Amongst 2011 S. Rhone Wines

Beautifully constructed wines from Alain Jaume et fils provide great value in an awkward (2011) vintage.
I’ve been giving some thought to what wine I might taste for my first post since officially joining Bill on Cuvée Corner.   Should it be an elite Californian Cabernet or a value play from Spain? Should I look for something that personifies the incredible efforts of Aussie winemakers to reinvent their wine culture and their brand, or should it highlight the investments being made by old world winemakers in South American wine-making?

These are some of the many topics I want to touch upon but for the first few notes, I want to explore some of what the Southern Rhone Valley has to offer from a vintage that truly kept vineyards on their toes throughout the growing season (2011).

By all accounts a series of less than predictable/desirable events, including somewhat unseasonal temperatures and poorly timed rains served to increase the stress and workload of vineyard management.  A warm spring brought early bud break and robust flowering that promised great production and potentially early harvest. The hot spring was however, followed by a cool June and July, retarding the anticipated harvest. Worse still were the heavy rains that soaked vineyards in August and prompted additional steps to keep yields and concentrations in check.  September thankfully provided relief with warmer weather that facilitated late-season ripening.  Although some were challenged by rot, those vintners who had luck on their side and got their timing right were rewarded, and now it is our turn!

For the astute and the fortunate, the spoils of a busy growing season are proving to be elegant and pliant wines that offer great early drinking.  In fact the 2011 vintage looks like the perfect follow up to the ripe, extracted 2009 and the more elegant, sinewy 2010, both of which, though outstanding, will necessitate some additional bottle age to realize their full potential.  By contrast, although they are undoubtedly less extracted, many of the 2011s are wonderfully and gently structured and retain more than enough acidity to provide great accompaniment to food.

In this, first of two pieces, I want to introduce you to a vintner whose wines have enchanted me from my first taste in 2009 (2007 Clos Sixte, Lirac). The portfolio is packed with beautifully constructed wines and incredible values produced under two labels - Alain Jaume et fils and Domaine Grand Veneur. The former is home to their négociant productions and the latter, home to their estate wines.

The negociant label produces a wide array of quality wines from Cotes du Rhone (CDR), CDR Village, Lirac and Vacqueyras – all at exceptional QPR. Similarly Domaine Grand Veneur produces exceptional CDR Village and Chateauneuf du Pape (CDP) wines. In their CDPs, they appear systematically to find synergy in the marriage of a contemporary style of wines/winemaking (including aging in barrique) with the retention of the wines’ Rhone heritage and identity – freshness and purity of fruit and character that reflect their terroir.  

The Jaume philosophy is to respect and preserve the health of soil and vine through the implementation of organic practices (Grand Veneur and Clos Sixte Vineyards), in the pursuit of powerful and balanced wines with character and cellar potential. They believe every great wine should drink well young, and evolve to provide something more. 
S. Rhone appellations - pictured on the website of Alain Jaume Pere et fils

Alain and his sons manage to achieve this goal with astonishing regularity, but the fact that they achieve this goal at almost every price point may be the greatest surprise of all. If you have not yet experienced their wines, you are in for a real treat.  Few winemakers can maintain such elevated quality to price ratios across their portfolio – year after year. 

 So let me set this in context. The US importer Fran Kysela (Kysela Pere et fils; @Kysela) kindly provided the samples tasted in this report. They span three of the many terroirs in S Rhone from which Jaume produces (Lirac, Vacqueyras and Chateauneuf). All had been opened at least an hour prior to their delivery. I sat down to taste through everything and then, about 30 minutes later, dinner arrived.  I had ordered portabella mushroom pizza from Toss Pizza (Portabella mushroom, herbs, roasted red pepper, baby spinach and feta cheese) – some of the earthy notes that predominate in Rhone wines.

2011 Domaine du Clos de Sixte, Lirac Rouge (50% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre).  This was the first Alain Jaume’s wines that I ever tasted, and I fell in love instantly. Four vintages later, I still love it. Poured into the glass it showed bright bing cherry and red currants on the nose. It’s a medium bodied wine with a lively initial attack. The palate is flooded by red fruits and currants, and edged with mushroom and black tea. In mouth the experience lingers revealing white pepper, cinnamon, and finishing with wonderful nori-like minerality and stone-dust, earthy fruit tannin. 

Wow! - In prior vintages Sixte has required a more air-time or a little more bottle age before showing this breadth of complexity. If this was the entry point to a four wine and pizza night – it was going to Rock! Importantly, this is a beautiful, balanced and complex wine with the potential for further cellaring but no need for it. I will be enjoying the 2011s long before I break into my 2010s, and at under $23USD/btl – one can do so relatively guilt free!  This wine very comfortably makes the 90 point meridian with room to spare (+) and I may be tempted to push it higher just because I do not have to wait (90+ points).

 2011 Alain Jaume, Vacqueyras, Grande Garrigue (60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre, 10% Cinsault)This wine was new to me but it took no time at all for us to become fast friends. It pours deep ruby into the glass, releasing dark cherry, kirsch, black and red currant nose with spice and vanilla. The theme persists on the medium bodied palate with red and black fruits married with garrigue, provençal herbs, white pepper, clove and anise.  A focused stream of currant and cherry, linger with the pepper and herb in a long finished framed by fine-grained sweet tannin. At under $22USD/btl this is easily a 91+ points just edging out the Sixte on flavor profile and price.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CDP) 
Stepping up a notch in price, construction and elegance, it is not unreasonable to expect a little more from the vineyards around Avignon.  Alain Jaume makes an outstanding range of CDPs, some extending over the $100 retail mark we normally allow ourselves to review. So – I wanted to show you some real values in CDP looking at a retail price window of between $47USD and $65USD/btl.

2011 Grand Veneur, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CDP) Rouge (70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mouvèdre and others) – The color here is deeper and the wine less translucent. Poured and instantaneously the air above the glass is filled with the sweet perfume on fresh, raspberry sorbet and market fresh cherries. On the palate, the depth and complexity of flavors draws you in. Herbs, garrigue, clove, cinnamon meld with black and red fruits in a broad and palate-coating rush of sensory stimulation.  All the while it retains a great mid-palate core with a kick of kalamata olive and pepper on a significant finish. At under $50USD/btl – this is a steal.  It’s a serious CDP with no need to wait. Pleasure-driven but sufficiently restrained to preserve the appearance of propriety and class. I loved this and by now the pizza is begging to be devoured but there is one more CDP before I can fully relax into the wine with food. Again this is easily a 91+ point wine. It edges out the Grand Garrigue on flavor profile but for the price I see them as having the same quality:price ratio (QPR).

2011 Grand Veneur, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, Les Origines  (50% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 30% Mouvèdre) - Now we have stepped up into another league entirely!  Blackberry, red currants, black raspberry sorbet, maraschino cherries, crème de cassis flood the air. Every sniff brings a new experience. Provençal herbs, white pepper and mushrooms join the dance.  All are represented on a wonderfully focused palate, with hints of mocha, licorice and toasty vanilla bean. The spine is sinewy, muscular and pliant/supple, showing dusty, sweet fruit tannins that persist on a finish that seems to outlast my ability to delay taking another sip. Plush and polished with no hard edges, this is undoubtedly the star of the night and still comes in under $65USD. This has to garner 92-94 points, almost on shear harmony and synergy of the many component parts of the experience.  I gave the 2010 Les Origines 96 points but they are in the cellar to remain untouched for five years – just sayin’.

Now I can relax - Starting to tuck into the pizza, I know I have made the right choice tonight. 

Portabella mushroom, herbs, roasted red pepper, baby spinach and feta cheese - A great, herby, earthy, cheesy mouthful cut and complemented by the wonderful acidity, fruit and salinity of these wines. Each one serves as an excellent complement and food-friendly companion. I know these wines are more commonly enjoyed with more robust, hearty and red meat-driven meals but this works perfectly for a Friday night.

I hope that in the process of introducing you to, not one but four, beautiful wines available from a single great Rhone producer, I have convinced you that 2011 in S Rhone will allow phenomenal, guilt-reduced (if not guilt-free) sipping without the need for cellaring or extensive airtime.  In doing so, I am priming the pump for one of my next challenges, to introduce you to a few more 2011 CDPs with exceptional, early sipping potential that may still be bought without significant injury to your wallet.  This tasting certainly got me fired up to buy and taste some more from the 2011 Rhone vintage. I hope it prompts some exploration for you too. Just remember - pull the cork on a great wine and you will never Rhone alone!

Santé à tous

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Robert Joseph said...

Nice post Andy, and I particularly appreciated the image of the pizza. Far too many wine blogs fail to mention food at all - or focus on pretentious dishes that are irrelevant to most normal mortals.

Anna Savino said...

amazing blog! I have some 2010 CDP in my cellar... when should i open them ideally? maybe you have inspired me to try one tonight!

Andy McCallion said...

Robert - thanks for the kind words. Wine is an organic part of how we live our lives, just as are friends and family. I think most frequently, we tend to enjoy wine with food/friends/family or all three. I can't imagine discussing wine without thinking of the context in which we all enjoy it. I hope you continue to drop in, read and enjoy. Santé!

Andy McCallion said...

Thanks Anna - it depends on the CDP but many 2010 will benefit from 5+ years of cellar age to allow them to fully evolve. That said, I enjoyed a 2010 Domaine de la Mordoree Chateauneuf-du-Pape 'La Reine des Bois' tonight and it was exquisite. It will only get better over the incoming years but it gave a wonderful insight into the evolution of a beautiful wine.

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