Late April 2009 was the time for Michel Chapoutier to give the world its first inspection of his single plot red and white wines from the undoubtedly tricky 2008 vintage. Michel compares 2008 to the last difficult vintage of 1991 - another wet, cold year. He referred briefly and sardonically to the actually much worse vintage of 1993, when a big fuss was kicked up at issue time. To remind you of this kerfuffle, The Sage of Maryland decreed the Chapoutier wines to be exceptional, whereas the European and notably British press disagreed with some violence (I kept a low profile, and was rather grateful to be on the outside of this squabble). The Rhône burst its banks and there were flooded cellars in the late summer of 1993, by the way.
Michel pursues a definite low yield policy with these vineyards, all of which are cultivated under biodynamic principles. The figure is around 15 hl/ha. On the whites, he stated that a warm vintage can hide the bitterness of the Marsanne, whereas a wetter year gives a more salty tang to the wines. He added that he had performed no chaptalisation on the reds to boost their degree.
The pleasing aspect of these wines for me was that there were some good examples of terroir present. The cooler year, the late ripening, the higher acidity levels helped to bring forth a very true example of the Crozes-Ermitage red Les Varonniers, an STGT wine, bang. This Syrah is cultivated on a windy, south-westerly site close to the extreme west end of the Hermitage hill.
Do not be lulled into thinking that at Hermitage a blanket statement of "West is Best" applies. Les Bessards, the emblem of the west end, and the provider of Le Pavillon Ermitage red for Chapoutier, is turned towards a more southerly facing exposure than the rugged outcrops of the extreme west of the hill - the Varogne site being that point (Varogne . . Varonniers, geddit??), and it also lies in the lee of the North Wind, the Bise. The Crozes comes from the more raw, high, exposed site just beyond Varogne. It is also worlds away from the southern sector of Crozes, the old fruit growing plain of Les Chassis, as my term used in "the Wines of the Northern Rhône" refers - the northern zone is snow, the southern is snakes.
Another terroir-related wine was the Côte-Rôte La Mordorée, the northern schist influence prevailing for now. Among the Big red Ermitages, Pavillon reflected a Bessards of a quiet strength - not a really snappy, big vintage backbone wine this year - all in tune with the vintage weather. The L`Ermite red, as usual, was a complex wine in the making, its fruit more open and prominent than that of Pavillon. These two were the leaders according to my tasting.
The Méal lacked that south-facing site`s usual full and sweet nature, but can gain over time, while Les Greffieux, which I have always found to be a friendly but not inspiring site (in disagreement with the nineteenth century chroniclers) gave what I term to be a good lunch wine, suited to the restaurant trade from around 2011, but one that lacked the stature of the other three.
The two Châteauneuf-du-Papes, Barbe Rac and La Croix de Bois, were quietly promising, the former more filled than the latter, and both likely to need time to get together. Remember that these are mere children, still in vats.
As can be expected in a less ripe vintage, the Marsanne whites have done well, with good life ahead thanks to sound levels of acidity and very satisfactory ripening. They can all live for 20 years and should have a splendid middle age stretch, a great treat when they are around 8 to 12 years` old. Once again, Chapoutier show their prowess with these wines, based around old vines, great sites, and careful raising.
***(*) (cask, London, malo completed, to be racked soon) pear tone, opaque robe; sweet, honeycomb, banana aromas - the bouquet has an intrinsically fat air, the longer it is open the more it reveals hazelnut, and obvious Marsanne connotations. The palate has had a dose of CO2 to keep it fresh, so starts on that texture. There is a good, elegant mid-palate, before it tightens, and the classic Marsanne grip or bitter comes through. Has a direct shape for now. On the outside it is a light touch wine, but there is definite content within, even a little heat. The finish is clear. From 2011. 2025-27 April 2009
**** (cask, London, malo completed) bonny, crisp yellow colour; the bouquet has an apricot, smoky top air, with oak vanilla and still live acidity; there is a touch of white jam or bonbon sweets in it as well. The palate has a pretty, subtle mid-moment, before it lengthens discreetly on its oak for now. There is nice gras or richness in this, it is a very orderly wine. There is a clear, secure finale - a certain firmness, notably, and also density. Expect a slow, steady evolution. From 2012, but this will close down. 2029-31 April 2009
**** (cask, London, malo completed) bright, uplifted yellow robe; pear, even a hint of Viognier on a reserved nose, also pineapple. The aroma is deeper than that of de l`Orée - it is broad, rather fat, very much in the Méal vein. The palate has a glycerol, rather fat start - it is all in its own ball of richness for now. The palate is wide and unformed as yet - it works more on texture than flavour, ends tightly and closed, with a glimmer of hazelnut there. Pretty wine - a pleasing combo of the gras and the elegant bitterness of the Marsanne. Plenty of time ahead. To 2030-32 April 2009
****(*) (cask, London) strands of gold in the full yellow - a pretty robe here. There is a compote of fruits such as apricot on the front aroma, with the delicacy of honeysuckle hovering and a light air of banana, flan or vanilla - as if cool breezes have been through the vineyard. There is a tight, mineral start to the palate. This has a very different texture to the more sunswept Le Méal blanc - it gives a live early flourish, then streams away to the finish, with a tight, low-level tannic firmness there. There is a wee apricot/hazelnut influence at the end. A classy wine that needs time. There is good style here, a really elegant sinew, and a very fresh aftertaste. From 2012 for an early look, but this can only gain in middle age. 2031-33 April 2009
*** (cask, London) bright robe, light purple in the red. Has a herbal, even baked vineyards nose - it is tight, has more to unfurl over time. For now, there is red berry fruit. The palate is a wee bit slim at the start, with a little sweetness, a gentle red berry fruit. This is indeed a good, typical northern zone attack, with a very true grain and red fruit to the fore that also persists quietly. It ends with quiet firmness, a white pepper dash. A fine wine that can fill out. From 2012-13. STGT - very true to its place this year. 2020-22 April 2009
**(*) (cask sample, London) a little brightness in the red colour - this red is more upfront than the Crozes Varonniers colour from the dusty granite across across the river. The nose is also a shade softer than the Crozes - this is a south facing slope, whereas the Crozes is windswept and more westerly. There is a red fruit air with a hint of jam about it, fruit that has been lightly mulled. The palate has an early red fruit dance -it is gourmand in a low register, rounded, before it quietens down. It is rather solid, also a bit local peasant on the palate - there is no tickle of nuance here. Some late reduction is evident. From 2011. 2019-21 April 2009
***(*) (cask, London) steady red robe; toffee, oak-flecked aroma with a smoky or smoked bacon accompanying air, also "dark", even raisin or meat stock notes. The fruit seems to be raspberry. The palate presents red fruits that have a low-key sweetness all through - a pretty feature already. There is a hint of reduction. The length is OK. You notice the final stages are aromatic, but not especially full, broad, deep = 2008 in a nutshell. There is a little schist clarity towards the finish - the northern zone expressing itself. From mid-late 2011. 2023-24 April 2009
**(*) (cask, London) brighter, more obvious red than Le Méal. There is a slightly herbal, lateral air to the bouquet - thyme, baked stones, brioche bread here. The palate has a cautious, low-key start, releases acidity late on, with its red fruits well tucked in. This is a light vintage wine, with its drinking starting early, say from 2011, its style Burgundian. Will make a pretty lunch wine, good for the CHR trade. Aromatic style this year. 2022-25 April 2009
***(*) (cask, London) fair red colour; there is the typical curve of Le Méal on the nose - that classic ripe shape, but this year it comes in a pretty float, it is of the air more than being profound and jam-like as is often the case. The palate displays measured red fruits with a lucid texture, a clear red cherry fruit roundness. This floats more than being grounded. The length is correct. From 2013 - this may well close down, and I feel we are only lightly knocking on its door for now. Improvement, more muscle to come. 2025-27 April 2009
****(*) (cask, London) full robe - red plus black - the darkest of the Big 4 Parcellaire wines. Has a blackberry fruit aroma with a sweet top note - it is very primary and fruited with no extras for now, comes with a little earthiness. Intense black fruit flashes along the palate - a series of moments rather than one sustained event. There is some licorice in the flavour and pockets of clarity, and a definite suggestion of complexity to come along. The end is fine and textured. This holds more imposing, obvious fruit (raspberry) than the Pavillon. From 2013-14. 2028-30 April 2009
****(*) (cask, London) pretty, full red robe with a minor trace of purple. The bouquet reflects herbs, a little baked berry fruit tart - its quietly solid Les Bessards nature is in tune with the 2008 character. There is a good balance of content on the palate, which is restrained in depth, and ends on a peppery, bustling note, with pockets of red jam present. Bessards wins over Méal and Greffieux this year here at Chapoutier. The red berry fruit resurfaces handsomely on the finish. From 2013. 2030-33 April 2009
***(*) (cask, London) has a broad aroma - there is quiet heat and depth, a toffee and classic sort of red jam aroma, plus herbs, red plums, weight. The palate holds wide, well-knit red fruits with a ripe tannin content, a toffee or caramel enclosure around them. It retains its knit nature all through. The red plum flavour gives way to a murmur of tannin on the finish, where it is still raw, almost disorderly. The elements are here, its length is pretty sound. From 2013. 2025-28 April 2009
*** (cask, London) the red is ruby-tinted, a modest depth to it. Has a fine, slightly vegetal-flecked nose - the shape is upright, fine-boned, and it is very vintage expressive. The red fruit on the palate is very Grenache - fine, clear, white peppered - without the supple notes of the warm years. There is a gradual gain in width and depth as it goes. It ends on herbal, cinnamon notes. This can amplify, blossom as it ages - patience will be rewarded, it may surprise. From 2012. 2025-27 April 2009
OUTSIDE THE RHÔNE
*** (casks, London) bright, black and purple robe; the bouquet has a blackberry fruit top air with a spirity interior - a combo of violet and kirsch. It is broad and right now uncompromising - but there is sweetness and implies game airs as well. The palate leads with red berry fruit, is more refined than the bouquet suggests, then it straightens, frees up and runs on prettily. The finish is rounded. From 2011. 2018-19 April 2009
**(*) (casks, London) dark robe, all the way up the glass. The bouquet leads with blackberry, the top air is lucid, has a brief snappy moment, plus licorice and a small hint of game. The palate is measured, with tight black fruit that is encased by a close-knit set of tannins and oak. The length is steady, the fruit is young and has life in it. From late 2011. 2019-21 April 2009