Thursday, March 27, 2008

Getting Reacquainted with Château Calissanne

I first visited Château Calissanne in the fall of 2000, far too long ago to merit as much detail as my usual winery profiles. Besides, I wasn’t taking notes. It was my honeymoon. Aside from the romance of the occasion and of being in Provence in general, the visit stands out in my memory. It’s not so much the winery tour and tasting that I fondly recall; they were nice enough but pretty typical. What made the visit special was a tour around, and I do mean around, the property in winemaker Jean Bonnet’s farm vehicle, an Isuzu Trooper if memory serves. Driving up the single-track dirt path that climbs the cliffs to the north of Calissanne’s vineyards, we passed first through the farm, vineyards to one side and olive groves to the other. Continuing the climb, we saw a group of partridges scurry across the trail. A short distance further, we traversed the mud puddle, formed in the wheel ruts left by the occasional 4x4, where the local wild boars come to wallow.

We disembarked at the end of the road, atop the bluffs – starkly white limestone outcroppings streaked with red veins – that form the backdrop of the landscape surrounding Calissanne’s property. From the 360º vista those bluffs provide, one can see the entire estate spread out below. Mont St. Victoire looms to the near northeast. Immediately to the south is the inland sea, Étang de Berre, just to the west of which spread the fingers of the Rhône delta. The proximal influence of the saline sea air becomes apparent, as do the effects of the Mistral. Most of all, it becomes clear just how hot, dry and arid is this viticultural area at the southern reaches of the sprawling Coteaux d’Aix en Provence AOC. Immediately to either side of the property, we witnessed the ravages to the landscape caused by wildfires that swept through the area the year before, taking the lives of two local firemen (pompiers) and narrowly missing Calissanne’s vineyards. I think I learned more about the wines of Aix en Provence during that short journey than in all my years of tasting them, before and since.

Learning, though, never stops. I have not yet had the opportunity to return to Château Calissanne. However, I’ve been graced, through the draw of my workplace, with two visits over the last few years from Monsieur Denis Langue, Commercial Director for Calissanne. His most recent visit, just a couple of weeks ago, afforded the opportunity to reacquaint myself with many of the estate’s wines as well as to taste a few new entries in their lineup.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé, Château Calissanne 2007
A classic Provencal rosé de saignée, this is a blend of approximately 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Somewhere in there is a smidgen of Mourvedre, a relatively new entry to the estate’s rosé blend. Brilliantly silver-toned salmon pink in the glass. Explosively aromatic. Denis mentions that it’s considered “too dark” according to the current fashion for faintingly pale rosés in the south of France; nonetheless, it’s several shades paler than the 2005 and 2006 versions of the same cuvée. Totally dry, with refreshing acidity, snappy red berry fruit and a whiff of rosemary. 13% alcohol.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rouge, Château Calissanne 2005
Identical in makeup to the 2007 rosé, save the absence of any Mourvedre. Bright fruit with fine tannin delineation. Smoke, garrigue and blackberry, along with cinnamon bark. Juicy and at the same time briary texture. Temperature controlled pipes were installed in the winery in 2004, allowing fruit to be chilled to around 12ºC/52ºF before entry into the fermentation vats. The slower, gentler start to fermentation this enables has led to a wine that shows more boisterous, fresh fruit than in the pre-2004 years, when roasted fruit (not unpleasantly so) and more herbal flavors were not uncommon. In some respects, I preferred the earlier versions for their food-friendliness. (I even poured the 1996 vintage at my wedding just prior to our visit to the estate.) But the 2005 is hard not to enjoy, especially as it’s showing well now that it’s had some time in the bottle. 13% alcohol.

Retired industrialist Philippe Kessler acquired Château Calissanne in 2001. He is largely responsible for introducing temperature control and other technological improvements to the Calissanne winery. Apparently intent on expanding his reach, he purchased an estate in Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine des Relagnes, in December 2006. Along with the 7.5-hectare property, to which Kessler has already added another 2.5 hectares with plans for five more, wines at varying stages of completion were included from the 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintages. Jean Bonnet, longtime winemaker at Calissanne, will also be head winemaker and oversee the farming and production at Relagnes.

Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine des Relagnes 2005
With all wines from the 2005 vintage (as well as 2004) already finished and aging mostly in cement vats and about 20% old foudres, Bonnet was responsible only for the final assemblage and bottling of this vintage. 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. Detailed black raspberry fruit with firm, well developed tannins. Surprisingly restrained, at least in the context of an AOC not particularly know for restraint, especially from a fairly blockbuster vintage. Old school in its vinification as well as its style and balance. 14.5% alcohol.

Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine des Relagnes 2004
Same story here as with the 2005, same blend and same vinification. A touch more delicate in its fruit than the 2005, it’s also a touch more firmly tannic, with spicy, red berry fruit on the palate. Equally well balanced and drinkable now or later. Bonnet plans to add some new oak and smaller barrels starting in 2006, which will be the estate’s first full vintage under the new ownership and management. The introduction of more oak is a shame, I think. One can only hope the wines will remain as fine. 14.5% alcohol.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence “Clos Victoire” Rouge, Château Calissanne 2003
Switching gears back to Calissanne, “Clos Victoire” is the estate’s best vineyard site and has historically been their top wine. It’s also unabashedly modern in style. 70% Syrah, done in 100% new barriques, plus 30% Cabernet Sauvignon that is aged in barriques of one-to-two wines. The regulations for the Coteaux d’Aix AOC require a relatively even spread between Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet in the vineyard, and allow for small amounts of Mourvedre and Cinsault. In the cellar, however, those same regulations allow what essentially amounts to total freedom in terms of blending ratio. Even varietal wines are permitted. Chocolate and blackberry scented, darkly spicy. The oak, which is obvious on the nose, is better integrated on the palate. Tight and muscular. This was the last vintage produced before the upgrade to the winery’s temperature control systems. Labeled as 13% alcohol.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence “Rocher Rouge,” Château Calissanne 2003
Totally new to me, this is varietal Mourvedre from a 1.8-hectare plot near the red rock (rocher rouge) cliffs behind the estate. 2003 is the first commercialized vintage, with 2000 the first year it was produced on an exploratory basis. Big, deep impact, without being driven by big, rich fruit. Sauvage aromas, wild red berry fruit, bacon and ripe, savory herbs. Full, wide-grained tannins, good acidity and very long on the finish. This packs more finesse and delicacy on a less rich frame than the Clos Victoire. In Denis’ estimation, it’s like Burgundy crossed with Bandol. It’s not terribly like either, though obviously closer to its Provencal cousin, just with greater fruit freshness than in the average Bandol. Downright delicious wine. The question will be one of QPR, given the estimated $75 price point. 13.5% alcohol.

A man after my own heart apparently, Denis chose to end rather than begin our tasting with whites. I don’t often do this at home or when pairing with meals but when I open and taste in preparation for an event or class, I almost always start with reds and finish with whites. This serves double duty, both refreshing and literally cleansing the palate. The whites act as a tooth and tongue scrubber, clearing away at least a little of the purple stain left by the reds without destroying your palate as tooth brushing might.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Blanc, Château Calissanne 2007
Denis described the 2007 vintage as beautiful in the south. It shows in this wine, which I’ve found flabby and bland in many past vintages. 60% Rolle (Vermentino), 30% Semillon and 10% Clairette, with vinification and aging in steel and cement. Just bottled in mid-February. A little tropical but not overly yeasty, with peach nectar and white grapiness balanced by medium acidity and a hint of chalkiness. Not a bad choice for summer glugging and pairing with simple fish dishes. 13.5% alcohol.

Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc, Domaine des Relagnes 2006
An equal part blend of Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc, co-fermented and aged entirely in cement vats. No barrel at all. Bonnet was responsible for bottling only. Rich nose of peach and apple skins, with pear and pineapple on the palate. White stone minerality and wild honey cascade on the finish. Produced from 80-100 year-old vines, cropped at low yields of 30 hl/ha with each vine producing four-to-six clusters. Lovely wine, with good structure and backbone to spare. Built to cellar though plenty tasty now. 14.5% alcohol.


Wicker Parker said...

Such great notes! Thanks, David. Shame about the Rocher Rouge's price point; based upon your description I'd be a total sucker for it at half the price. Even worse, there are others I'm jazzed to try but it doesn't seem they are sold in Illinois; not so far as I can tell, anyway. Too bad, as I am itching for rosé season (wishful thinking as a spring snow flies).

David McDuff said...

Thanks, WP. Agreed about the Rocher Rouge. I loved the wine but will not be buying it at the price... a shame.

A quick look at Calissanne's website shows that Petit Pois is their only US importer. As PP is a regional importer, working only in NJ, PA, DE, NY and OR, the wines won't be available on the Chicago market, at least not without going through some serious bureaucratic contortions.

Brooklynguy said...

hey david - what an amazing post. i learned something, i understand you better as a person, i was inspired. thanks!

David McDuff said...

I felt inspired while writing the piece, particularly the intro, which brought back some great memories. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments.

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