With the usual caveat that it's less than prudent to generalize about good and bad years for wine, I still have to say that I'm glad we're starting to put the very strange vintage of 2003 behind us.
As I've ranted many times over the past couple of years, that exceptionally hot summer in Europe with its record early harvest fostered overripe grapes that, in many cases, made "California-style" wines that <I>Wine Spectator</I> and Robert M. Parker Jr. may have loved but that - particularly in the continent's more northerly wine regions - were so far removed from the traditional styles that an unsuspecting taster might have mistaken them for Australian.
For those of us who don't always follow the usual suspects and who prefer wines of balance and elegance that speak of both earth and fruit, these wacky wines almost need to go into the record book with an asterisk, "Using Steroids."
Happily, though, Nature's pendulum swung back toward normal in 2004, and I've found most of the '04 wines from Europe that have been showing up here since last summer are much more "classic" in style. Today's featured wine, the excellent <b>Domaine Grand Veneur Côtes du Rhône Villages "Les Champauvins"</b> from Alain Jaume & Fils, is a case in point. One of my favorite Côtes du Rhônes, it comes from old vines in a vineyard literally just across a fence line from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and both that proximity and Jaume's wine making pay off in a very fine table wine that's no longer cheap but still a good buy. (For my report on the 2003 Les Champauvins, see the Oct. 17, 2005 <i>Wine Advisor</i>.)
<table border="0" align="right" width="165"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/vene0409.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Domaine Grand Veneur 2004 Côtes du Rhône Villages "Les Champauvins" Vieilles Vignes ($18.99)
Clear but very dark garnet, almost black at the center. Bright fruit aromas, plums and red berries, add a dash of pepper as an accent. Mouth-filling flavors follow the nose, shaped by pleasantly sharp acidity and abundant tannins. A classic Rhône blend of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre, it's a delightful return to normal after the hot vintage of 2003, and it fully lives up to Alain Jaume's reputation for "Baby Chateauneuf." U.S. importer: Kysela Père et Fils Ltd., Winchester, Va. (April 9, 2006)
<B>FOOD MATCH:</b> Fine with grilled meat from burgers to steaks; it made an excellent Mediterranean match with an Italian chicken stew with red wine over polenta.
<B>VALUE:</B> Up three dollars from the previous vintage at the same retailer, perhaps in tribute to the rising Euro; even so, the upper teens is not an unreasonable neighborhood for a top-rank Côtes du Rhône of this quality.
<B>WHEN TO DRINK:</B> Drinking beautifully now, with ample fruit and balance to hold up for a couple more years, but I'd be wary after 2008 because of the tendency of Rhône reds to shed their fruit in their fourth or fifth year.
Here's a link to the Domaine Grand Veneur Website, in English and French:
Click this link for a Grand Veneur fact sheet on the U.S. importer's site.
<B>FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:</B>
Find prices and online vendors for Domaine Grand Veneur on Wine-Searcher.com.