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France’s wine officials are often infuriatingly diplomatic. Not so Michel Chapoutier, vice-president of the generic wine organisation Inter-Rhône and head of the eponymous wine producer. When presenting his company’s top 2012s in London last year, he was asked by the buyer for The Wine Society whether he really thought the future of Châteauneuf-du-Pape could lie with the Grenache grape when it makes such high-alcohol wines. Chapoutier impishly suggested the best course would be to allow producers to add water to their wines.
Pausing briefly to consider the signature grape of the northern Rhône, he volunteered: “The southern Rhône is too warm for Syrah. Of course, we don’t want to reduce the alcohol by physical means. If you use reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, you sacrifice some of the aromas. When you physically concentrate the grape must, you concentrate everything – including less desirable aspects. So how about simply adding back the water lost by evaporation? If you harvest on the basis of the ripeness of tannins in Grenache, you risk having wines at 15.5 or 16 per cent alcohol at least. We experimented and found that adding water did actually result in better wines.”
There was an audible gasp in the room full of wine professionals for this is, strictly, against the law. And, indeed, Chapoutier added, referring to the overarching French wine organisation in Paris, of which he is the Rhône representative, “but the INAO said ‘what will the wine writers say?’ Wines with 17 per cent alcohol just don’t make sense though. I’m the only one to actually talk about it. Lots of winemakers do it, and I think we should make it legal and bring it out in the open. It’s the future of wine. We can’t make Châteauneuf with 16 per cent alcohol. We must have the courage to defend this point of view.”
And this is the problem for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the southern Rhône’s most famous wine. Being made so far south and substantially from a late-ripening grape whose phenolic ripening is often blocked by summer heatwaves nowadays, so that sugars soar and acids plummet while tannins ripen, it is in the vanguard of climate change effects on French wine.
The regulations for Châteauneuf may not (yet?) permit adding water but they do allow a dazzling cocktail of different grape varieties and some producers such as Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes have been choosing to increase the proportion of Mourvèdre in the blend because it ripens at lower alcohol levels, and can help the wine taste fresher. His final blend for Clos des Papes 2012 will be 65 per cent Grenache, 30 per cent Mourvèdre and 15 per cent Syrah – and he produces a wine that is nearly 16 per cent alcohol but tastes beautifully balanced. Avril has a demonstration cask in which the Syrah component is deliberately increased to show how much less successful it is than the high-Mourvèdre blend. The rather tough Syrah somehow suppresses the sweet delicacy of the Grenache while the Mourvèdre (known as Monastrell in Spain) complements it with a sweet, lively aroma of blackberries and bonfires. But, says Avril, Mourvèdre vines have to be at least 20 years old before they produce really exciting wine. Viticulture is a long-term proposition and the vine growers of Châteauneuf, who have for decades been dependent on Grenache grapes, cannot simply switch to other varieties according to whim.
Besides, Grenache is an integral part of the pale sweetness of a great Châteauneuf such as those made by Clos des Papes and Château Rayas, whose Emmanuel Reynaud picks even later than Avril, apparently waiting until the tannins of his Grenache grapes have ripened to such an extent they are almost imperceptible when his wines are drawn from the apparently prehistoric grey casks in which they are aged in his primitive winery.
Châteauneuf producers may be worried about ever hotter summers – in very high temperatures the ripening process can simply stop, pushing harvest dates into October and so encouraging some growers to pick while tannins are still uncomfortably drying and underripe – but most of them are particularly pleased with the 2012 vintage. It may be a little low in acidity but 2012 has brighter fruit than 2011, more freshness than 2009 and riper tannins than the truly long-term vintage of 2010. According to Avril: “2012 has the potential of 2010 with the finesse of 2005.”
But whereas in cooler times the outlying areas of the southern Rhône on ground higher than Châteauneuf used to be at a disadvantage, making much thinner, lighter wines, today some of them are feeling rather smug. Ventoux, on the slopes of the often snow-covered cone of Mont Ventoux east of Châteauneuf, is a relatively new appellation but top producers there such as Fondrèche and Pesquié, growing vines up to 450m altitude, hundreds of metres above the varied soils of Châteauneuf, see their cooler climate as a positive advantage.
For Frédéric Chaudière of Pesquié, 2012 was “very, very good in Ventoux, with the finesse of 2010 and the power of 2009”. The Ventoux wines made today are almost unrecognisably different from the pale ferments made in the last century. As in Châteauneuf, Grenache is the most-planted grape variety but at these altitudes, Syrah can also thrive. This may be France’s southernmost point for successful Syrah but the cool nights help mitigate overripeness in this temperamental variety. Similarly, many of the cooler, higher villages around Châteauneuf making Côtes du Rhône are making better wines than ever, whereas some of the wines from the hotter, lower-lying ones are producing some rather soupy reds. Cairanne seems a notable beneficiary of warmer summers. Some Cairanne 2012s nudged 15 per cent alcohol but still tasted agreeably fresh. I tasted a number of excellent 2012s from the villages of Vinsobres and Chusclan too.
But these outlying villages share a characteristic with Châteauneuf-du-Pape: their Grenache-based blends are no great friend of small, new oak barrels, responding far better to larger, generally older, oak casks. Most of these wines have so much intensity of fruit and structure that new oak can sit rather uneasily on top, like badly applied make-up.
See tasting notes on JancisRobinson.com
2012 southern Rhône bargains
Of the 535 southern Rhône 2012 reds tasted, a total of 109 Châteauneufs and 21 wines from other appellations scored at least 17 out of 20. These are the ones offered by UK merchants that seemed best value. Prices are per case of 12 bottles in bond.
• Clos du Caillou, Les Safres, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, £250 H2Vin, 020 3478 7376
• Tardieu Laurent, Vieilles Vignes, Gigondas, £175 Corney & Barrow, 020 7638 9308
• La Ligière, Vacqueyras, £99 H2Vin
• D & D Alary, La Font d’Estevenas, Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Cairanne, £98 H2Vin
• D & D Alary, La Jean de Verde, Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Cairanne, £115 H2Vin
• Tardieu Laurent, Vieilles Vignes, Vacqueyras, £160 Corney & Barrow
• Dom de Mourchon, Grande Réserve, Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Séguret, £126 Averys, 0843 224 1224