Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Pair from the Rhône, Ten Years After

Eight or more years ago, I was still buying a lot more Rhône wine – and California wine, for that matter – than I do today. It’s not that I’ve lost my taste for the Rhône; in fact, I still really enjoy the wines of southeastern France that show the character of their place without being buried by today’s prevailing trend toward higher alcohol. But I digress. Today’s topic is not a slamming of high-octane wine but rather a look at a couple of wines that have had some time to grow.

One of the benefits of the contrast between my old shopping habits and current drinking patterns is that I have a decent handful of Rhône wines stashed away that are now coming of age. The picture tells part of the tale; as one wine was pulled from my cellar, complete with scuffmarks that bear witness to its rubs with other bottles over the years.

Gigondas “Le Grand Montmirail,” Domaine Brusset 1998
I bought several bottles of Brusset’s 1998 “Grand Montmirail” on release, opened one immediately and the others at progressive intervals. Sadly, it wasn’t until the last of my bottles, enjoyed recently, that it started to show much of its potential. Earlier bottles had always seemed ungiving. Not hard or tight, just mute. Finally shed of its baby fat and showing its inner structure, this was a good example of the elegant side of Southern Rhône wines. Medium bodied and supple, with subtly spiced red berry fruit, gentle tannins and a well-developed bouquet of bacon, dark spices and garrigue. Its overall impact conjured images of a smooth white rock, like the galets in the Gigondas vineyards, covered by spiced raspberry confiture. Warm and reservedly fruity on the exterior, cool and stony at the core. $23 (on release). 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: New Castle Imports, Myrtle Beach, SC.

While there’s always the chance that the time and space devoted to cellaring won’t pay dividends, it’s a much greater risk to buy old wines on the standard retail market – especially when they’re on closeout. Nonetheless, I’ll occasionally run into just such a wine that presents a combination of factors that will make me, even if against better judgment, pick up a bottle or two on the off chance that I’ll land on the up side of the risk/reward spectrum.

Cornas “Cuvée des Coteaux,” Robert Michel 1998
I do still look for and buy a reasonable amount of Northern Rhône wines, so when I spotted this Cornas recently, tucked away in an odd corner at a local shop, I did a double-take. It passed my usual visual inspections: clean labels, a capsule that spins freely, no sweet or sour aromas emanating from under said capsule, a good fill level – in short, no outward appearances of abuse. It also passed the rear label test: a Rosenthal Wine Merchants selection, one of the members on my short list of “just buy it” importers. When a quick price check came up $17, I did a triple-take. Immediately suspicious of malfeasance, I nonetheless found it hard to pass up the prospect of mature Cornas for a mere pittance relative to its usual price point, which starts at around $40 for current releases of most producers’ regular cuvées.

Closeouts like this are risky. In many shops, they’ll indicate a wine that’s been collecting dust on the shelves, ignored, unwanted and – most significantly – abused for years until, after repeated markdowns, they finally beckon to unsuspecting bargain hunting, price driven shoppers. Equally likely, it’s been lost in the corner or under a pile of other wine at a distributor’s warehouse. The chances of abuse are just as high there as at your corner liquor store, so buyer beware. Worse yet, and this happens regularly, the wine could have been returned by one shop, where it languished through a hot summer (or five), only to be re-inventoried and resold to another retailer at rock bottom prices. The apparently pristine condition of this bottle, however, suggested that it had most likely been lost in the shuffle at its original US source, Rosenthal, and then sold at significant reduction to the PA system just to move units out of inventory. This still begs the question as to why it hadn’t sold upon release. But all things considered, I was willing to chance it.

The bottle turned out to be in solid shape. Fully mature but not at all tired or worn, its tannins had softened to yield a wine of gentle texture and developed aromas. That said, it wasn’t very exciting, which may help to explain why there were bottles left unsold ten years after its vintage date. Shorter and simpler than I would have hoped, the main flavor impression it left was of a red berry fruit rollup that had been used as a saddle blanket during a warm day’s horseback ride. A minor issue with brettanomyces might be another reason for its remainder status. Given the mere $17 chance, this was a risk well played. It didn’t leave me entirely disappointed, as I drank it happily with a simple dinner of grilled sausage and peppers over brown rice. But I won’t be rushing back for the remaining bottles. $17 (closeout). 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchants, New York, NY.


Joe M. said...

I agree, David - the right southern Rhone wines can be elegant and balanced with some bottle age, and it is very difficult to find such wines from the Rhone these days. I bought some today though, so we'll see what happens in a few years.

Have you hat Vincent Paris Cornas? It's Robert Michel's nephew. His wines are quite good.

David McDuff said...

Hey Joe,

I'm curious as to what you bought recently. Let me know if you stop back by. I've had good luck in general, btw, with wines from the various Brusset properties in the Southern Rhône, though I haven't kept up with them in recent years.

I have some goodies from Voge, Courbis and Allemand in the cellar but I've yet to try Paris' Cornas. I'll be sure to keep on the lookout for it. I also won't write off Michel; the '98 was simple but still interesting enough to warrant a try in other vintages.

Wicker Parker said...

I was planning to open my first bottle (of two) of 2005 Brusset Grand Montmirail in 2010. Seems I should wait considerably longer.

I'm a big fan of many Gigondas wines and I've heard that five years is a good age... And I've had very good experiences with some three year olds. But other than this Brusset, what's your recommendation?

David McDuff said...

Drinking the first of two bottles in 2010 still sounds like a good plan, WP. What applied for the 1998 won't necessarily apply to the '05 (which I haven't tasted) as well.

One of the most appealing aspects of Southern Rhône wines is that most can be enjoyed in their youth, at mid-life and with greater maturity. The wines that need many years to be tamed seem to be the exception more than the rule. I tend to like them at mid-life, when they're still showing the forward fruit of youth but have also developed more interesting aromatic characteristics. Given that, the five year rule you mention is pretty sound. However, even humble Côtes du Rhône from a good producer can live well beyond that in a well-balanced vintage.

Joe M. said...

Thanks for the tip on Brusset - I'll keep in mind next time I come across the wine.

I bought 2005 Chateau Montfaucon CDR. Considering buying '05 Lucien Barrot CdP and for northern rhone maybe a few '05 Domaine Belle 'les Pierrelles' Crozes Hermitage.

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