When vintage matters
Thanks to a combination of weird weather patterns across Europe in recent years and wine distributors' response to the falling dollar, wine lovers these days have unusual access to a broader-than-usual "vertical" selection of wines that allows us to compare and contrast several successive vintages - especially from the Southern Rhône.
Let's take a quick look at this phenomenon today, followed by a couple of random but representative tasting reports.
Importers have been doing what they can to cushion the blow, including conducting as many transactions as possible in European currency, and keeping older vintages on the market as long as possible. Thus, it's no coincidence that - along with more recent vintages at higher prices - we're still seeing wines from the 2002, 2001, 2000 and earlier vintages on the shelves.
Having these vintages side-by-side sheds light not only on the increasing price but the significant difference that weather makes in the character of wines from year to year.
Bearing in mind that vintage summaries are only generalizations and that individual exceptions can almost always be found, let's illustrate this point with a quick thumbnail sketch of four recent vintages in the Southern Rhône:
2003: Spring frost, drought and hail got this vintage off to a rocky start, but the big deal across much of France was scorching, torrid summer heat. Yields were way down, but ripeness reached remarkable levels, making it easy for producers who chose to do so to make high-alcohol, fat and fruity wines more akin to California or even Australia than France. See the Chateau Grande Cassagne report below for an overt example of excess, although there's plenty of more balanced 2003 around.
2002: As we've discussed in recent columns, this was a disastrous vintage in much of the region, with heavy rains and severe flooding that all but wiped out the vintage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and generally yielded thin, tart and unattractive wines throughout the region. A vintage to avoid, as my recent report on Vieux-Telegraphe's 2002 Télégramme suggests.
2001: This may be the go-to year for current consumption in Côtes du Rhône and other Southern Rhône reds that don't need aging. The summer was warm and mostly dry. Hugh Johnson praises its "good density and lively fruit," and that pretty much sums up my experience, today's Domaine Catherine le Goeuil Cairanne, featured below, serving as delicious testimony. What's more, unless local retailers marked up stock to match later vintages, many of these wines were purchased at pre-Euro-inflation prices.
2000: Another decent year - better than decent for Chateauneuf-du-Pape - and priced before inflation. But take care, as the simpler wines may be fading and the cellar candidates moving into a "dumb" stage that's best left untouched for several years.
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Domaine Catherine le Goeuil 2001 Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne "Les Beauchières" ($16.49)
From Cairanne, one of the named Côtes du Rhône Villages, and billed as being made from certified organically grown grapes, this is a clear, dark reddish-purple wine with an exceptionally appealing scent of perfumed, floral fruit with a pleasant, restrained back note of "barnyard" that will please lovers of "earthy" wines. Full, "sweet" red-fruit flavors are shaped by tart acidity; drying tannins emerge on the mid-palate, but beautiful fruit and earth linger with good balance and acidity in a very long finish. An exceptional wine, an early candidate for my annual Top Ten list for value. U.S. importer: Kysela Pere et Fils Ltd., Winchester, Va. (March 25, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Calls for red meat or even a pizza, but it went remarkably well with a light dinner of nothing more than warm baguettes and a simple, creamy soupe verte of watercress, parsley and potato. Its affinity with the subtle wheat and caramelized crust flavors of a fresh home-baked baguette was little short of amazing.
VALUE: Given current exchange rates, it tops the competition in the mid-teens.
WHEN TO DRINK: Not meant for cellaring and drinking beautifully now, but it shouldn't start to fade for a year or two at least.
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California Wine Club
Special Edition coming up!
The California Wine Club has an upcoming Special Edition shipment!
Club members are periodically offered the opportunity to take advantage of these special offers in addition to their regular selections. Don't miss this outstanding double red offering from Sonoma Valley, featuring Pedroncelli 2000 "Dry Creek Valley, Alto Vineyards" Sangiovese and Pedroncelli 2000 "Family Vineyards" Petite Syrah.
These are hand-crafted, limited-production wines from the Pedroncelli family, who have been producing Sonoma Valley wines for more than 80 years. These reds have won nine medals between them! Take advantage of this great offer by calling 1-800-777-4443. Just $32.95 plus shipping and handling.
Chateau Grande Cassagne "G.S." 2003 Costières de Nîmes ($11.99)
This is a very dark-garnet wine, black at the center. Its rich, warm aromas of cherry and raspberry are so fruit-forward as to seem almost "grapey," with a whack of raw new oak. Just as big and ripe on the palate, it's a bit of a "fruit-bomb," although there's plenty of acidity and an edge of drying tannins to back it up. The torrid summer of '03 fostered an over-the-top, jammy wine with a distinct California accent, a wine that seems almost consciously manipulated as a ratings-point grabber. A blend of Grenache and Syrah (thus the "G.S."), it likely drew raves from Parker and Wine Spectator, and it's an imposing wine if you like 'em in this style; but it's very atypical of the Rhône. U.S. importer: Robert Kacher Selections, Washington, D.C. (March 23, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Needs robust, hearty fare; it's fine with leftover braised lamb shanks.
VALUE: Assuming you like this style, this low-teens price is hard to beat in the age of the booming Euro.
WHEN TO DRINK: It's hard to tell where age will take this wine as the exuberant fruit fades, but I doubt that it's got anywhere to go but down; it's a bit more awkward and oaky now than it was when tasted last October. Drink up over the next year or two.
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French Wine Explorers:
Speaking of the Rhône, won't you join me there in June?
Among all the wines and wine regions of the world, I can't help feeling a special affection for the Rhône Valley. Scenic country, historic cities and villages, friendly people and great food and wine - few wine regions can match the Northern and Southern Rhône, and I would boldly venture to say that none exceed it.
My annual tour with French Wine Explorers is coming up soon - on June 6-12 - and we do still have a few spaces remaining open. As 30 Second Wine Advisor readers, I would love to have the opportunity to meet and share wine and fellowship with you on this memorable seven-day, six-night tour.
This is a first-class tour, featuring meals at several Michelin-starred restaurants, including La Vieille Fontaine at l'Hotel d'Europe, which is one of the best and most elegant restaurants in the region; another exceptional meal will be at Le Grand Pré, which is one of the author Patricia Wells's favorite local restaurants. Accommodations will be similarly first-rate, including several days at l'Hotel d’Europe, offering the height of old-world charm and elegance in the historic center of Avignon, close to all the major sights, restaurants and shopping.
We'll be enjoying VIP visits to some of the best wine-producing estates of the region in the prestigious appellations of Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and Châteauneuf-du-Pape; and in a very special event that few wine-loving visitors are privileged to enjoy, we have an invitation to the Echansonnerie dinner, a private, gala dinner and dance for the wine makers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and their families and friends, in the historic 14th century wine cellars of the Papal Court at Avignon.
For U.S. tourists, the tour is priced in dollars, not Euros, and the price is all-inclusive, protecting you from the weak dollar exchange and ensuring full value for this once-in-a-lifetime tour. And please be assured that the tour will be first-class and VIP but never stuffy ... we're looking forward to an exciting, friendly and casual week of touring the Rhône as an intimate group of wine-loving friends. If you love wine and love the Rhône, you'll find this a truly unforgettable experience, and I do hope you'll join us.
If you have any questions at all about the tour, please feel free to get in touch with me personally at email@example.com.
For more information, visit French Wine Exporers' Northern and Southern Rhône tour page,
The Literate Wine Lover
Christy Campbell's The Botanist and the Vintner
I'll confess right up front that I don't fully understand how the book-publishing industry and its public-relations machinery works. When I wrote a brief review of this intriguing wine-history book by British journalist Christy Campbell book last December, I noted with some puzzlement that it wasn't slated for publication until March 2005 but that a British edition, bearing the slightly different name "Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World," had been in print for more than a year and was already available to U.S. readers on Amazon.com.
Now it's March, the American edition is finally here, and - inscrutably - both The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle have reviewed it this week as if it were brand-new, with no mention that the same book has been available for 14 months and that its American publisher has been hawking it since autumn.
For those who haven't already read the earlier edition, though, the American hardcover version is worth a look. Well and thoroughly told, it covers the story of phylloxera, the root-gobbling aphid that was accidentally exported to France in a shipment of American grapevines in 1862 and that all but wiped out Europe's vineyards within a generation.
While it may not be a book for beginners - it goes into quite a bit of advanced detail about botany, vine cultivation and wine production, introducing just about every character on either side of the Atlantic who was involved in tracking down the problem and coming up with the solutions that saved the industry - Campbell does an excellent job of spinning it all into a gripping, if almost scholastically thorough, tale about one of the most important chapters in the history of wine. A few slip-ups in the "translation" from British to American English - a reference to Napa vine rows being a remarkable 10 meters apart where the editors clearly failed to convert meters to feet, for instance - don't diminish the enjoyment of a good historical read.
The following link-to-buy from Amazon.com will get you Christy Campbell's The Botanist and the Vintner for $16.47, a 34 percent discount from the $24.95 list price, and will return a small commission to WineLoversPage.com:
This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles that I think you'll enjoy:
QPRwines: 2000 and 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon
Randy's World of Wine: The Acid Test - Sauvignon Blanc
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: Study says French "terroir" is a myth. Discuss.
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Last week, however, we went on a vacation schedule because of my travels, skipping the usual Wednesday Wine Advisor and Thursday FoodLetter. Here's the index to last week's columns:
Raising a glass to Karl Haas (March 25, 2004)
Wine haiku (March 23, 2004)
Voting Booth: Wine and your health (March 21, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Ossobuco bianco (March 24, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, March 28, 2005