Be Wary of 2003 Chateauneuf du Pape; They’re Getting OLD!
We’ve experienced a couple of very disappointing wines lately. We love Rhone wines in general and Chateauneuf du Pape in particular. At their best, a great Chateauneuf du Pape will exhibit all of the zeal, fresh, vivid, nervous fruit and spice of a typical Cotes du Rhone with a very special depth of flavor and lingering finish unique to this Cru. About 10-12 years ago, Alice purchased a half dozen Chateauneuf du Pape wines from the very warm 2003 vintage from what was then Chicago’s Wine Discount Center now renamed Vin Chicago. We sort of broke with our own advice which is “if you cannot afford at least a half case of a wine, you can’t afford it”. Well, being that we bought an assorted half case from the same Cru, maybe we were somewhat on the right path. Anyway, the beauty of having a half dozen of a single wine is that you can open a bottle every few years and watch it’s evolution. Of these, we opened the St Jean “La Combe des Fous” while it was still fresh and wonderful. About a year ago, we opened the Beaurenard and it was decidedly old, but, not over the hill by any means. Last night, we opened the Lesec “Pierre Dorees” and it was very old, definitely on the down side sliding toward “over the hill”. This was very disappointing indeed to have saved this once magnificent wine for just such a menu with grilled lamb chops and Milanese Rice.
I’m not sure if West Michgian became a hotbed of great Rhone wines because of the “Mayberry effect” or if both Robert and his wife Roz wielded so much influence due to our general love of this type of wine in these parts. We don’t normally make this type of wine here from our Michigan grapes. Bill Skolnick, former winemaker at Leelanau cellars in the 1990’s made a wine from Baco Noir grapes called “Sleeping Bear Red” that definitely resembled the Rhone style. It is still a delicious red wine, but, not quite as Rhone-like as it used to be. Today, it is decidedly much more of a wine that tastes like Michigan.
I recall a trip to the Rhone in 1994 when we spent a week driving the countryside visiting various Rhone producers with Robert Mayberry, one of the world’s top Rhone experts. He was concerned that many of the winemakers were allowing the grapes to be picked too ripe and aging the wine in too small, too new oak barrels. He felt it would compromise quality at some point if it went too far. I’m not certain which is the problem with these wines, but, certainly in a hot vintage like 2003, it is very possible that the grapes got too ripe raising the pH and diminishing the very fine soft tannins leaving the wines very vulnerable to oxidation. As you can read in the reviews by Robert Parker, these wines were full of life and strength when they were only a few years old. Without a bit more tasting of this vintage and these wines in other vintages, I’m in no position to criticize either Parker’s estimates as to when they should be at their prime nor can I criticize the wineries themselves without having a lot more track record to compare.
Fortunately, we do have a bottle of 2005 Domaine de Grand Tinel Cuvee Alexis Establet. This is a special bottling from a near perfect vintage in which the wines are still considered to be getting better by most experts. Unfortunately, Robert Mayberry has passed away and we’ll never again be able to tap into his wealth of knowledge regarding nearly every facet of the wines, terroirs and vintages of the Rhone. One of the wines we visited back in 1994 was the Domaine de Grand Tinel. We tasted many older vintages at the winery. All were in superb condition. Back in Grand Haven, a few years later, he shared a 1962 Domaine de Grand Tinel with us. The wine still showed vigor and complexity and not oxidized in the least. We’ll make a point of opening up that 2005 soon.
Just an aside; at my age and illness I’m less and less inclined to buy wines that need a lot of time to mature. We still have a dozen cases of 2015 Bordeaux futures that have not even arrived in the US yet. The beauty of Bordeaux is that for something like $150 - $200 per case, you can buy high quality (90+ point) wines that are delicious at about age 5 and will last indefinitely. Again, as you can see in the ten year old advertisement from Wine Discount Center (above), Chateauneuf du Pape prices have gotten way way out of control. I’m not buying them anymore. I’ll post an addendum to this column when we taste the 2005 Domaine de Grand Tinel.
Enjoy in Good Health, Brian Cain, the Michigan Vintner
BREAKING NEWS! Well, we couldn't just leave this column half written with no conclusion so we popped the cork on the 2005 Grand Tinel. The brilliant deep brick red color invites one to take a deep inhale to appreciate the nose. The vast expanse of the bouquet includes cedar, juniper, grilled peppers, marmalade and strawberry jam. On the palate, this big devil is silky smooth yet reaches every part of the mouth with more strawberry jam and toasty, peppery spice. So, I still don't have a large enough sampling of either 2003 or 2005 to know if 2003 was just too hot and ripe or if the winemaking style of many producers has changed for the worse as Robert Mayberry feared. In any event, it looks like Domaine de Grand Tinel was still making fine, long lived wines as of 2005. ABC
PS Another wine another disapointment. Tonight we opened the 2003 Patrick Lesec Cuvee Bargeton Chateauneuf du Pape. Not over the hill, but clearly sliding down fast. Sad that this once big muscular wine called a "blockbuster" by Robert Parker is now a frail old shadow of itself. This is really a surprise that most of these wines are too old. In the 50 years that I've been drinking and cellaring wines, encountering one that is too old had been a very rare occurance. ABC
PPS Added tasting notes 3/2/2019
2003 Clos Saint Jean “Deus ex Machina” Chateauneuf du Pape has held up better than most of the 2003’s but really showing it’s age still. The hue is a very dark rich burnt sienna with a nose that reminds me of roasted lamb and , dare I say shoe polish. Not in a bad was at all, actually quite captivating and heightens the very concentrated prune like dried fruit that permeates all of the senses. It is certainly and very enjoyable wine, but, I wish we’d enjoyed it ten years ago when it’s strength and fat fruit were still in evidence; clearly a waste of $80 back when $80 was real money.ABC