Conclusions from the the Tasting:
Two recent tastings in Wellington, New Zealand, have focussed on Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and related Southern Rhone Valley wines.
The first was retrospective, a look back at the 1998 wines, a sunny warm year, now they are 20 years old. The second tasting a week later explored some current vintages available for purchase, mainly the highly-rated 2015 vintage, to see if they offered good prospects for cellaring. And in particular to see if they would cellar as well as the 1998s.
The conclusion for the 1998s is, firstly tasters noticeably enjoyed the wines, and secondly, the wines are slowly making their way to full maturity, but many still have tannin to lose. At the same time, it was noticeable that wine-making was a good deal more permissive then, than now. Maybe half the 1998s were affected to greater or lesser degree by the fragrant wild-yeast Brettanomyces. The spicy and savoury notes in the brett aroma marry particularly happily with the garrigue and fruit aromas and flavours in Southern Rhone blends, and make the wines magical with food, but many wine people now like to affect the view that traces of brett are intolerable.
So many of the 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Papes were good, it was difficult to know how many to illustrate. Any of the top half dozen would have given all but the most fastidious much pleasure. From the left, the Charbonniere Vieilles Vignes showed beautiful red-fruits grenache-led complexity, 18.5 +; the Beaucastel a little more forward yet still surprisingly fresh and red-fruits in style, considering the cepage, 19; Brunel's Les Cailloux extraordinarily fragrant, complex and burgundian in a bigger, spicy way, 19; and the Mordorée Cuvée de la Reine simply magnificent as it has been since day one, the new oak now reasonably concealed, 19 +. More detail in the individual reviews.
Those who have written the 1998 vintage off are in my view making two big mistakes. Firstly, they are not allowing the Southern Rhone Valley, a warm and sunny place, to make the wines it is famous for. They are imposing inappropriate cool-climate judging criteria on the wines, as if pinot noir were the absolute and only judging standard (for wines packed in burgundy-shaped bottles). This is a nonsense. Secondly, they appear to not know enough about wine to realise that in a sunny year, the wines may have high grape-tannin loads. Mourvedre in particular brings beautiful velvety fine-grain tannins in quantity to Rhone blends. Therefore in tannin-rich years the wines must be cellared until those tannins polymerise, and the wines crust in bottle. Then and only then, will the wines reveal their charms. And this is exactly what the 1998 wines showed. Some are nearly ready, and would be beautiful with food now. Others need still more time, to soften.
There is some debate about how good the Southern Rhone Valley wines from 1998, a sunny year, are nowadays.
Robert Parker's vintage chart in 2018 continues to rate the 1998 vintage 98 and 'Early maturing and accessible', and likewise Wine Spectator, producers of the most thoughtful vintage chart in the business, currently says of the 1998 vintage: 97, 'Dense and rich; superb Grenache harvest led to blockbuster reds with ripe tannins.' The American Wine Enthusiast magazine in its on-line vintage chart updated 2017, rates the vintage 96 and 'Superb'. Antonio Galloni of Vinous considers: 'In the South, the '98 vintage was a great one, a year in which the area mainstay grape, grenache, could reach glorious ripeness despite the hefty crop size.'
Across the Atlantic in London, Steven Spurrier, the highly-regarded British wine authority, was at the time of the tasting offering a Masterclass of certain 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Papes vs 2007 (at £350, and fewer wines than the tasting below), for which he said: Since the immense vintage of 1998 - which was the best of the 1990s ... ', and later Spurrier was happy to quote Robert Parker thus: 1998 stands out as one of the great vintages of the last 30 years in Chateauneuf-du-Pape ... '. And for another English voice, Neal Martin has this to say on the 1998 Vieux Donjon: 'the Vieux Donjon '98 is a scintillating wine ...'.
Can they all be wrong ? As has been the case before, the dissenting voice is Jancis Robinson, based on an article she presented in 2005, titled: 1998 Rhones - not so glorious, alas. The selection of wines she tasted for the article was good, but not exactly comprehensive. But nonetheless those who derive most of their wine knowledge from labels and books rather than critical blind tasting now like to damn the vintage ... despite the continuing almost universal approval for the 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Papes elsewhere in the world.
Here is your chance to disregard the experts, and make up your own mind. Where else in New Zealand (or indeed many other places) could you be offered a tasting of ten 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Papes, plus two 1998 Gigondas ? The point of the two Gigondas is to have one with traditional large old oak elevation, and one with small new oak, in the modern way. This will help us understand the Chateauneufs. Incidentally, many now rate 1998 Domaine de la Mordorée Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée de la Reine des Bois the wine of the vintage. It is included.
Background information to the Tasting – Vintages in the Southern Rhone Valley:
Only four times in the last 46 vintages 1970 – 2015 has Robert Parker / The Wine Advocate allocated a score of 98 to a Southern Rhone vintage. 1998 is one of them. Wine Spectator is a jump ahead of The Wine Advocate, and already has a rating posted for 2016, but their ratings start with 1988. They are a bit more conservative, having allocated 98 once only, to 2010, but with 2015 and 2016, they have now gone to 97 four times, and 1998 is one of them. So we have an exciting tasting. There is no doubt that 1998 heralds a golden era for the southern Rhone Valley, with relatively few vintages in the preceding 20 years rating 90 or more (in the American view), but many reaching that level since. Yet with the relative strength of the New Zealand dollar until this year, prices throughout this timespan have remained accessible to New Zealanders, for wines of absolute world quality.
The handout for people attending the tasting included a large vintage Table summarising recent vintages. Rather than repeat the same tabulation in two articles published in the same week, in the accompanying article on the 2015 vintage wines I have compiled a summary Table of the more interesting Southern Rhone Valley / Chateauneuf-du-Pape vintages since 1970. It is presented here, scroll down. It summarises the thoughts of Michael Broadbent, Robert Parker / The Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, and the current Rhone Valley authority John Livingstone-Learmonth. A summary of their thoughts for our vintage, 1998, is: Michael Broadbent: 'the best since 1990'; Wine Spectator: 'dense, rich, superb grenache, ripe tannins'. All too often, the odd-voice-out in discussions about Southern Rhone Valley wines is (as noted) Jancis Robinson. The warmer, higher-alcohol, and sometimes more tanniny winestyles of the South do not appear to be her favourites, with her more subtle cool or temperate-climate palate-preferences. This is particularly the case in 1998.
Cepage: the Main Grapes:
The main red grapes of the district are grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsaut and carignan. Some appellations permit whites in the red. Few winemakers use them. Grenache is far and away the dominant and traditional variety of the region. It is thinnish-skinned, is characterised by aromas of raspberry and cinnamon, and in a sense produces a kind of spirity pinot noir. Unlike pinot noir, it hides alcohol freakishly well, such that wines up to 15% may be quite acceptable. Either syrah or mourvedre is the next most important in quality terms. Both add darker berry notes and complexity, and (from syrah) perhaps hints of black pepper / spice though the climate is against the more subtle characteristics of syrah. Mourvedre is more finicky, and harder to ripen, but in the great years is the more noble of the two, particularly in its tannin structure. Wines with a higher percentage of mourvedre cellar well. Of the lesser varieties, cinsaut is a pretty pale early-maturing variety reminiscent of pinot meunier, and carignan is a robust productive well-coloured grape making hearty wines which are great in youth but don't age well. Its best use is in vin de pays and the like. More information on the grapes of the district is available in my review of a 2010 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Library Tasting, presented here, scroll down.
Wine style, and Buying:
For the 1998 vintage, the big challenge then for the antipodean wine-lover was to find clean wines. Traditionally French winemakers and European winewriters have to varying degrees been blind to sulphides, which even in small amounts have the unfortunate effect of making the whole wine dumb. This is exacerbated by many wines being made and held in concrete vats, where aeration is difficult. Nowadays, switched-on winemakers (and winewriters) are much more conscious that these Southern Rhone grapes are gloriously fragrant when neither over-ripened, or reductive. The goal is to find wines redolent of floral notes such as sweet william / carnations / wallflowers / dark roses, lavender, rosemary (the so-called 'garrigue' note) sometimes with a touch of cinnamon spice (from grenache) or white or black pepper spice (from syrah).
Many wines are still made in concrete, a number now in stainless steel, supplemented by big old wood. The trend now for some is to be 'modern', with varying use of new oak. The varieties scarcely need it, due to their intrinsic tannins – especially in mourvedre. All too often, the Reserve bottlings with more new oak are intrinsically less fragrant and complex wines than the straight ones, but appeal to the American market where bigger, more obvious and heavier is favoured over lighter and more beautiful. The point of including the two Gigondas wines is to see essentially the same cepage raised in vat and big old wood in the standard Gigondas, whereas for Valbelle the elevation is mostly in barrel, then perhaps 50% new, the balance relatively new.
The other factor to be on the lookout for is our fragrant wild-yeast friend Brettanomyces, which traditionally has been a part of the complexity in many Southern Rhone wines. This is due to the prevalence of old oak, and the reluctance of many proprietors to sterile-filter to bottle. The latter approach was mistakenly strongly endorsed by Robert Parker, before he became attuned to brett in wines. There are two keys issues about brett: The first is that no two bottles in a case will be the same, unless the wine has been sterile-filtered, so do not give up on your resource, because one bottle is a bit too bretty. And the other is, some people are hyper-sensitive to brett, or wish to be seen so, and like to make a fuss about it. In formal tastings, all too often this can detract from the pure enjoyment of the wine by more tolerant tasters. The simple fact is, most people like a little bit of savoury brett complexity in wine, and it makes the wine superb with main-course foods.
Broadbent, Michael 2002: Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine. Harcourt, 560 p.
Broadbent, Michael 2003: Michael Broadbent's Wine Vintages. Mitchell Beazley, 223 p.
Parker, Robert, 1997: Wines of the Rhone Valley. Simon & Schuster, 685 p.
Robinson, Jancis 2005: 1998 Rhones - not so glorious, alas www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/1998-rhones-not-so-glorious-alas
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, subscription needed for reviews
www.erobertparker.com = Robert Parker and Jeb Dunnuck, vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
www.winespectator.com = vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
ww.drinkrhone.com = John Livingstone-Learmonth, subscription needed
Acknowledgements: I particularly valued being able to talk these wines over with Michael Parker, a long-term devotee of Rhone Valley wines. That is not to say he agrees with my conclusions.
THE WINES REVIEWED:
This is the most complete collection of 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Papes I have so far presented. 'Prices' shown below are the current wine-searcher value. Where known, the original purchase price is in the text.
Reserve wines: It seeemed important on this occasion to have a good range of back-up wines, to optimise the tasting. They were 1998 Domaine de la Charbonniere Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Vieilles Vignes; 1998 Domaine de la Charbonniere Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Hautes Brusquieres Cuvée Spéciale; 1998 Domaine Saint Benoit Chateauneuf-du-Pape La Truffiere; 1998 Domaine de Nalys Chateauneuf-du-Pape ... the key interest for Nalys being that Maison Guigal in mid-2017 bought this entire domaine, all 50 ha including parts of La Crau, and all 13 authorised varieties. Soon there will be a 'grand cru' Guigal Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Ruby more than garnet, the deepest of the wines. Bouquet epitomises modern Chateauneuf-du-Pape, nearly floral, clearly fragrant, the new oak seeming to intensify the syrah component of the cepage, thus adding cassis notes to the red fruits fragrance. This is a sensational bouquet, defining one kind of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in a sunny year. Palate shows beautiful fresh aromatic fruit, the oak to a max but acceptable, cinnamon-spicy grenache now dominant, the fruit nearly succulent at one point, yet there are still tannins to lose. This is glorious ripe-year Chateauneuf-du-Pape, now embarking on its plateau of maturity, yet with more softening to come. There is already quite heavy crusting in the bottle. Totally pure wine. The most favoured wine for the group, 11 first places, two second. Cellar 5 – 20 years. GK 07/18
Glowing garnet more than ruby, the third to lightest wine. Bouquet is again glorious: this is one of those Chateauneuf-du-Papes where in maturity, the wine can be confused with a ripe-year Cote de Nuits grand cru burgundy. The depth of near-boronia and lilac florals, plus garrigue complexity, is wonderful, backed by rich red fruits and some hints of grenache cinnamon spice. Palate is approaching full maturity, the tannins softening attractively, long fruit flavours and great complexity, and the florals continue right into the palate. A sensitive taster might detect a savoury brett note in the spice, but it is vanishingly subtle positive at this level. Quite heavy crusting in bottle correlates with the tannin observations. The second-most favoured wine, four first places, five second. Probably at its peak right now, but will be fine for 5 10 years. GK 07/18
Ruby more than garnet, a lovely colour, midway in depth. As for the Charbonniere, this wine too epitomises Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There is beautiful freshness and ripeness, in a complex bouquet in which red fruits dominate, but there is a depth to the bouquet bespeaking the mourvedre and other varieties Beaucastel includes. On palate there is suppleness and charm indicating the wine is approaching its peak, but yes there is a hint of raisin reflecting the warm year. This seems a totally pure wine, now with only a little tannin to lose. There is some crusting in the bottle. One first-place ranking, but seven second places. Cellar 5 15 years. GK 07/18
Ruby and garnet, the lightest wine. This note must be indicative / provisional only, since in assembling, proofing, and sequencing the tasting beforehand, this wine had to be rejected for some TCA. It was replaced by the Charbonniere Vieilles Vignes. A 60 ml sample held in XL5 with 100 mm² of Gladwrap® allowed probable assessment of its rank in the field, on following evenings. After 48 hours the bouquet opened up, becoming ripe and rich, with blending varieties evident. Fruit richness and length of flavour in mouth is classic Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and tannin seems sweetly in balance, the wine starting to soften. There is little or no suggestion of new oak. Given J. Livingstone-Learmonths perfect score, something he is sparing with, I await the next bottle eagerly. It seems brett-free. Cellar 5 15 years. GK 07/18
Ruby and garnet, just above midway in depth. In one sense, this is the most perfect / typical Chateauneuf-du-Pape bouquet in the set, recalling that the Mordorée has new oak, and the Les Cailloux is unusually complex and burgundian. Here there is perfect varietal grenache, red fruits and raspberry browning now, the associated cinnamon spice, and wonderfully fragrant subtle oak, just a trace. Palate like the Brunel shows a suppleness that hints at great burgundy, but it is not as floral and complex as that wine. Somewhere under the sunshine in this fruit, you feel you can taste a whole bunch component, which freshens the palate delightfully. This wine too still has a little tannin to lose, virtually no crusting at all in bottle, so far, so cellar 5 15 years. Like the Les Cailloux, but a little less so, there is subtle brett complexity here. One first place, two second. GK 07/18
Ruby more than garnet, just below midway in depth. On bouquet this seems almost in contrast to most in the field, it being a relatively small wine, but it is exquisitely fragrant, beautifully fresh, and totally pure. As John Livingstone-Learmonth says, this wine exemplifies what Chateauneuf-du-Pape should smell like. It also has a freshness which is near-burgundian. It is no surprise when you find there is no de-stemming here. Flavours are gently spicy red fruits browning now, clear-cut grenache cinnamon spice, a little freshness hinting at stalks, but all too sweet / fragrant to be called stalky, all lingering delightfully despite it not being a big wine. All these tiresome people who harp on about the 1998s being too ripe and too heavy and too tannic there seems no end to their criticisms (and largely because in the first place they did not know enough about wine to keep the 1998s for their appropriate time, that is, until they had lost their tannins) simply need to share a bottle of this over dinner. There is some crusting in the bottle, but there is still tannin to lose, so cellar 5 10 years. Those who liked this wine rated it highly, but tasters (in general) did not share my enthusiasm for it, perhaps because of its smaller size, no first or second places, but four least votes. GK 07/18
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth. This is the first of the wines in my ranking to give a clear hint on bouquet that it is the wine of a hotter year. There is a furryness of the tannins you can smell. It is not unattractive, blending attractively with the cinnamon of grenache. Again there are red fruits browning now, and very long flavours extended on those furry tannins, which again you can taste: they seem more grape tannins than oak, given the attractively light and fresh aftertaste. This seems a particularly pure wine for the times, which will soften delightfully in cellar 5 15 years. The bottle shows only light crusting, which correlates with the tannin observations. One second place. GK 07/18
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth. Bouquet is complex in a more traditional / classical Chateauneuf-du-Pape style here: fragrant red fruits browning now, clear cinnamon spice from grenache, but also some savoury complexity from brett. The whole bouquet is piquant and appetite-stimulating. Palate is firmer than expected, clearly significant whole-bunches / stalks, still a quite strong tannin structure relative to the medium weight of the wine. You feel there is some new oak in the fragrant flavours on palate, but it may simply be the grape tannins, in what is after all, a warmer viticultural zone. Though not a big wine, the palate is long and pleasing. As with nearly all these wines, it would be great with food. Only light crusting in bottle. A well-regarded wine, four first places. Cellar 5 10 years. GK 07/18
Garnet is creeping up on the ruby, the third deepest wine. Like the Domaine Charvin, this is a more classical / traditional rendering of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but in a much bigger wine. Bouquet is rich, deep and spicy, red fruits browning now, piquant and again saliva-inducing and savoury, indicating a little brett complexity. Flavours in mouth are big, firm and tannic, the fruit very ripe with hints of raisins and prunes creeping in, and a lot of tannin. It couldn't be anything but traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape, finishing very dry. It needs another 10 20 years in cellar, to encourage the tannins to polymerise / crust, but the risk is meanwhile that brett will increase. I for one will take that risk. There is quite heavy crusting already in the bottle, but there is much more to come I'd say. It must have been a massive wine in its youth. Check again in 10 years. One second-place vote. GK 07/18
Ruby more than garnet, above midway in depth. This wine has a simply huge bouquet. To a quick sniff, in a blind tasting you would say it was clearly fragrant slightly stalky yet quite big Cote Rotie, the syrah seemingly being accentuated by the new oak. There is nearly cassis and browning red fruits, and clear carnations florals. Palate is not as rich as the Chateauneuf-du-Papes, but it still has lovely fruit, pleasing richness, and great freshness. It doesn't taste like the average 1998 Southern Rhone at all. It also seems totally pure, which not all Saint Cosmes of the era are, and about at peak maturity now. Tannins have softened beautifully, with quite heavy crusting in bottle. It could be marked higher. One first-place vote. GK 07/18
Garnet more than ruby, in the middle for depth. This wine breathed up noticeably in the glass, so decant it vigorously. It gradually reveals fragrant red fruits browning now, cinnamon from grenache, and some complexity from blending varieties. As with the Valbelle, palate is smaller than the Chateauneuf-du-Papes, the wine at full maturity now. The tannins are falling out delightfully with quite heavy crusting in bottle, and the flavour is now harmonious and reasonably long. There is a suggestion of whole-bunch / stalks adding freshness, and a savoury suggestion hinting at trace brett. This is ready for drinking now and in the next few years. GK 07/18
Ruby and garnet, the second deepest wine. There is a lot of bouquet, but top notes are the highly fragrant, savoury, and here nearly pharmaceutical qualities of a quite serious level of brett infection. With air, stables / horsey notes creep in. Below is big browning fruit, very ripe, with some prune-y qualities creeping into the red fruits. The palate is a total contrast, absolutely remarkable. You almost want to forgive it any defects on bouquet, for it is wonderfully rich and saturated with dark browning fruit, raisiny and best-prune-y. You can scarcely taste the negative bouquet attributes at all. It would be great with the right dark spicy casseroled meat, but this wine is living dangerously, on the brett level. I nonetheless must point out to the brett-Nazis, that the secondary market does not subtract one cent, for the brett. It is so rich it will probably cellar for years, but some bottles will end up less-than-pleasant over the next 10 20 years. Only light crusting, so far. No favourite votes, but interestingly, 10 second places. Even more interesting, only one least vote. Thank heaven for tasters who look for virtues in wine, rather than for ever seeking faults. GK 07/18
Garnet more than ruby, the second lightest wine. An immediate caveat: I do not know if this is an inexplicably oxidised bottle (the cork seemed perfect), or if it reflects the average of all bottles. The wine in this bottle has a clear baked / oxidised quality on the fruit, jam tart a little too browned rather than jam itself, a character which so marries in with the character of hot-vintage fruit, raisiny and prune-y notes etc, it is impossible to know if it is typical. Palate shows rich fruit and good length, in its raisiny / prunes / hint of licorice style, still with a lot of tannin but seemingly no new oak at all. The wine is otherwise clean, no brett. I look forward to the next bottle, to advise on holding or drinking up. Only trace crusting in the bottle. This was clearly the least-favoured wine for the group, seven least votes. But it would still be pretty good with a roast beef dinner. GK 07/18