When they want a vintage review, editors say "go light on the weather and all that stuff." Given that there is now an unholy rush to be the first in print on a new vintage, then I suppose words about flowering being difficult, or hail falling in the north seem to be a waste of space. However, when I look back through my notebooks (Rhodia 14, the orange Bloc Notes), the origins of the vintage are extremely important ten years on, as the wines hit a first level of confirmed maturity.
1998 has been a somewhat perplexing vintage for fans of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Hailed at birth as a WunderKid, an anthem to the Grenache, it hasn`t really delivered that promise in a straightforward, consistent way. I recall The Wine Society running a retrospective tasting at their offices in Stevenage in 2005, when I was busy with The Wines of the Northern Rhône, so couldn`t attend. Jancis Robinson, for one, found it disappointing, with the wines pushing along faster than expected.
I certainly have found that 1998s exhibited a grainy, mineral nature early in their lives - around the 6 year mark, 2004-05 or so. For such an acclaimed Grenache vintage, that surely was a strange step to take. What had happened to its fabled richness and secure, sweet depth? Weren`t the wines likely to remain constant for many years before that sort of change took place - after all, ripe Grenache ticks over at a most gentle pace, or has done in previous great vintages?
Those great vintages were often not destemmed, though, and if growers were more savvy about ripening of the polyphenols in 1998, they were also entering a phase when Big was Good - extraction was the name of the game, and the March of the Oenologues (not the Toreadors - sorry, Bizet) had got under way.
With no editor to rein me in, I will now revert to the weather profile of 1998, and reconstruct what happened in the vineyards. The first word to remember: Drought.
Jean Abeille of Château Mont-Redon: "1998 has been a year of drought in the summer, all over the region, with very high heat. The drought is similar to 1989." (Note drought comparisons then were with 8-10 years previously, not the previous 2 to 3 years, as would be the case these days).
Mike Rijken of Château de Beaucastel: "flowering went very well. There was no rain in June, July, and August. The grapes very dense and compact this year - there`s a lot of Grenache, with a very high degree in some of them." François Perrin of Beaucastel: "We finished picking our Grenache by 2 October. I noticed this year that the Mourvèdre has very hard pips, lots of them in a vat of that, and very hard stems, whereas the Grenache stems are very supple."
Bruno Le Roy of Château Fortia, who uses a lot of Syrah and loves the Counoise, was nevertheless very happy with his Grenache in October 1998: "1998 says it all for Grenache - suppleness, power, pepper on palate and nose. I find 1998 easy to taste all the time, a bit like the 1995," he stated in February, 2000. "1998 was also very good for the Counoise - its stems are harder than the Mourvèdre`s," he continued. "What was strange this year, was that with this very dry weather, the different grapes, including the Mourvèdre (usually the last to ripen) arrived at maturity at the same time. Very little discarding was needed, so we could harvest at speed for our 30 hl/ha, which is what we achieve most years now."
What set off the ripening, and unblocked the vines was rain in early September, around 7 to 13 of that month. The frequent Saviour of Châteauneuf, the Mistral wind, then rode to the rescue. At Beaucastel, they had 40mm of rain (1.8 inches), while across at Domaine de Grand Veneur, also northern zone, Alain Jaume had 25 mm (1 inch). "We also had two falls of 10 mm each (0.4 inch) in early August, but the early September rain was what unblocked the ripening," the latter stated.
At the time, everyone was pleased with the Grenache, even those domaines that do not major on it. Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes found the acidity levels of the vintage good: "we are very content with the Grenache this year - we stopped harvesting it for a week, which was the clincher. Once we got the Grenache to 14°-14.5°, we had the base to go with the Mourvèdre and Syrah coming in at 12.5°or so," he told me." "We gained 1° in a week when we stopped after the rain. Our pH is 3.40 or so - unusually good for here - usually it is 3.80 or 3.90; in 1995 it was 3.65, which was considered to be good for that vintage."
From the north of the appellation, Jean-Paul Daumen of Domaine de la Vieille Julienne also highlighted the acidity in 1998: "the paradox for 1998 was the good acidity - given the ripeness of the crop. This year our Clairette was 12.9° versus 13.2° to 13.5° usually." Franck Mousset of the Domaine des Saumades was also harvesting his Clairette late in 1998 - on 4 October, along with the usual tardy ripener, the Bourboulenc - so these grape varieties did not rush into extreme maturity as has been the case in recent vintages, 2009 included.
Jean-Pierre Boisson, Mayor and owner of the modernist Domaine du Père Caboche, regarded 1998 as a rare vintage because of the very high degree - but with a large harvest. "There was a rapid evolution in vineyard," he recounted - "the degree shot up after the early September rain. That was a reaction after the drought, with the sugars blocked before then. I still consider 1988-89 as years of greater drought, though."
The leap in degree was echoed by Michel Lançon of Domaine de la Solitude: "my Syrah went from 12.5° to 13.6° in just 4 days after the early September rain," he said. "The harvest started OK, but the regular rain meant big differences between our vats." Laurent Brechet of Château de Vaudieu regarded 1998 as pretty similar to other vintages in terms of the harvest date: "we started 15 September, like most years. There may be one week of variation on our harvest dates over the years," he added.
"We pick what we eat - that is our harvesting policy," Laurent told me at the time, but he was also then taking steps to be more precise with his crop: "we have green harvested since the late 1980s or early 1990s, since our target is 30 hl/ha, not more. But he also admitted that the style since the mid-1990s had been to seek a little over-ripeness in the crop, something echoed by Pierre and Jean-Claude Sabon of the excellent, traditional Clos du Mont-Olivet: "low yields and over-ripeness are what you need for the best Grenache," they told me; "for me," said Pierre, "a good Grenache of 30 to 40 years` old, well vinified, operating around 20-30 hl/ha is the best answer."
Now, let`s go back 11 years. The mentality of many growers had been forged to some extent by the heat and dry conditions of 1988, 1989 and 1990. Châteauneuf had then experienced modest vintages - four in a row, starting with 1991. 1995 had been a beacon year, if a little tough, while 1996 with high acidity and 1997 rather dilute, flat, and hail-affected in some areas, had not set the world alight. A big year - big in quantity and quality - was badly needed.
The harvesting custom was often then still one of seeking a mix of high degree (waiting) and harvesting with safety (pull the trigger, get picking) - the former conflicting with the latter. Growers had not got used to really high heat, as came along in 2003 and later years, including 2009.
I wonder if some picked a shade early, therefore. Looking up my notes, though, I see that Bosquet des Papes and Beaucastel finished on 2 October, Mont-Redon towards the end of September, while I was in the vineyards on 1st October chatting to Emmanuel and Françoise Reynaud of Château Rayas when they were picking 6 year old Grenache planted by the late Jacques, who had died the year before. The names quoted are all good ones, but this practice of waiting may not have been widespread.
I also wonder if the jerky nature of the ripening - the drought, the blockage, the late release of the sugars, the tannins lagging behind them, was ever going to behove a balanced year, and therefore an even, steady evolution. At first appreciation, the wines were full and generous, with noticeable tannins. Growers were aware of the apparent strength of the vintage when vinifying, too. Michel Gonnet of Domaine de la Font de Michelle: "we usually ferment, macerate for 18 to 20 days, but because 1998 was powerful, we did it a bit longer. We will do easily 35 hl/ha, and have no crop yield worries, whereas 1995 wasn`t very big in quantity. Our 80 to 100 year Grenache on La Crau whose fruit we use for the Etienne Gonnet cuvée actually yielded 25 hl/ha this year, against 18/20 hl usually," he informed me.
Vaudieu also extended their vat-only raising (as it was then) from the 6 months of the average quality 1997 vintage to 12 months for 1998. In April 1999, a vat of their Tradition wine (80% Grenache, 20% Syrah) showed a lot of richness - very good, plump Grenache and plenty of fat, with a silky tannin texture. At Domaine de la Roquette of the Brunier family, a 100% Grenache vat was also well packed, with tannins present, but not assertive, so well fused were they. The Bruniers only practise pumping overs, no cap punchings, so their vinification was largely laissez-faire.
At the Bruniers VieuxTélégraphe in April 1999, the clear winner from 3 vats tasted was the Grenache pure: "plum, quince on nose; really voluptuous palate, a fab amount of fat, well constructed wine. 15.2°- but you wouldn`t know it at all. Daniel added "we didn`t have to harvest late to get this degree - that`s the mark of 1998." Alongside, the 50-50% Grenache-Mourvèdre just shaded the 50-50% Grenache-Syrah vat, the former dense, ripe and warmly upright with good, positive tannic length, the latter rich, and marked by tannins on the finish. 1998 was a year when the brothers made a glorious 100% Grenache Hippolyte from 1920s to 1940s vines - a pure Grenache version of that wine thanks to the excellent quality of the Grenache. When tasted with them in March 2007, Daniel Brunier found it to be "advancing quite fast."
Another factor was the then still occasional penchant for carbonic maceration, to achieve bright fruit. Such a domaine was Chante Cigale, and Alexandre Favre, then a teenager, thought that some of the 1998 crop had been fermented in this way. Carbonic maceration was urged upon the growers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape by none other than the venerated Dr Philippe Dufays - the village Salon des Fêtes next to the Bouledrome is named after him - so the wines could be freshened up, and not made in too heavy and oxidative a style. Dufays` involvement with the Domaine de Nalys made that estate, along with others such as Domaine de la Solitude under the free-thinking Pierre Lançon, exponents of these techniques, that I always felt robbed the wines of typicity and depth.
Mentions of 1990 and 1995 featured among the growers . Alain Jaume of Grand Veneur: "1998 is better than 1995 - we also had good Mourvèdre at 13° plus this year - which is unusual. And we achieved a good crop of 35 hl/ha." When tasting a very young Clos des Papes in April, 1999, I noted, "maybe it is nearer 1995 than 1990 - hidden fullness." Sophie Armenier at Domaine de Marcoux, who likes to make balanced wines that do not need great extraction and "impressive" weight, observed to me in November 2002, "I find 2000 more balanced than 1998 - it is less exaggerated," she stated. That word "exaggeration" - an interesting take on this "manly" year.
Jean Lançon of Domaine de la Solitude also struck a note of realism, nay caution, when discussing 1998 with me in Februaury, 2000: "we vinified 10-15% by saignée - bleeding juice off the skins - which was less than we did for 1999. I reckon 1999 could have a more regular, and sustained level of quality, and that the renown of 1998 is ahead of the reality." Renown: a truly elegant mot français for hype!
The oenologue attached to the main Growers` Syndicat, Roch Lauriol, also drew some vintage comparisons in April 1999, while the wines were still setting out: "1995 does not have the total richness of 1998," he asserted. "It is like 1990, but I think the tannic structure is better than 1990," he said. "Finishing the fermentations for the reds was the challenge, especially as they were so high in alcohol," he opined, drawing poor comparisons with the whites - "dodgy balance, high alcohol, but some may live." I was tasting blind at the Saint Marc village Festival, and placed two 1998s ahead of the best 1995; I wrote in my note book - "there is no doubt that there is more in the 1998 in structure and generosity, and stamina . . "
On the whites, Monsieur Lauriol`s view was backed by Sophie Armenier at Domaine de Marcoux; she found 1998 "difficult for the whites because it was so hot, and the whites took their time to complete their fermentation - three weeks for the Bourboulenc, 2 weeks for the Roussanne. 1999 was certainly easier. Our reds took until summer 1999 to complete their sugars, so even by February 2000, we hadn`t decided what the blend would be for our Tradition wine."
In tasting and drinking a selection of 1998s over the past eighteen months - my dateline for "review" is 2008 onwards - I find that the vintage comes across well, without being stunning. There are a few STGT wines - the Les Cailloux is absolutely a benchmark for mature, vrai Châteauneuf-du-Pape - while some, such as the Vieux Télégraphe and the less Grenache-inspired Cuvée des Cadettes of Château La Nerthe, remain top-class performers. The latter, incidentally, held a very high 37% Mourvèdre, and only 39% Grenache.
I note also that some of the modern style wines have lived and fared well, more than the more traditional Grenache-intensive wines. Their fruit is clear, but they still do not necessarily come across as very local.
But I also reflect on 1998 as being a vintage when more domaines were flexing their muscles with Prestige Cuvées, and my notes in early 2000 reflected that hard reality - the Tradition wines being simply appealing, nice and filled, while the Prestige wines in their early days were often hard, extracted, tough. Examples - Domaine Autard, de la Vieille Julienne, Château Maucoil - all of whose Tradition wines I rated ahead of their vastly more expensive, "special" wines.
Levels of acidity were relatively high, with some wines showing burnt edges towards the finish, their tannins rather stern. Thus for many, the advice was to leave them until around 2004 or so.
1998 stands as a proud year for Châteauneuf, but its interest also lies in the undercurrents of its time. There are several of these. There was the move to impress through expensive, special wines - this had worked and made other domaines rich, so growers were encouraged to join in, too. It changed their mentality from letting the vineyard lead their action, into one where what was perceived as market taste and market acclaim played a prime role: "I make the wine that drinkers will like" rather than "I make my own wine, and hope people like it", in other words. This was a complete reversal of what I was brought up to hear when first visiting vineyards in the early 1970s.
It tells a tale, also, of changing vineyard practices, and vinification techniques. The word "oenologue" - an adviser outside the person attached to the Growers`Syndicates - had entered the local vocabulary. What had thus been a passive role had become an active role. This could well serve to help in the vineyard, with growers urged to wait a little longer for a full ripening. But in the cellar, one could always play catch up, if in doubt about the crop`s maturity. Extraction, the word "intense", were à la mode.
There were also growers still exercising some whole bunch vinifications; these days, think vintage 2007, very few domaines leave any stems. The wines of today appear more readily accessible, can be given good scores, mystery evaporates. Bang - on to the next vintage. 1998 also expresses the stop-go weather of its year, where "marvellous" Grenache, was perhaps not quite so secure in its ripeness as seemed the case at the time. Many of the better 1998s recently tasted hold 40% to 65% Grenache - not high 80%s - note.
Now, in 2009, 1995 is moving quietly along, a vintage that received less fanfare, perhaps a vintage from a marginally more innocent time. A 1995 versus 1998 comparison would indeed be an interesting tasting exercise. The flashy 1998 versus the steady, slow developers of 1995. That is for another day.
The leading wines tasted since early 2008 have been - I emphasize that very good wines that are not here, such as Beaucastel, Bosquet des Papes etc, have not been tasted in this recent time period:
****** 1998 Château La Nerthe Cuvée des Cadettes: not a typical Châteauneuf, but an absolutely delicious, refined wine that blends southern depth with impressive streamlined elegance. A great achievement for a wine of 30,000 bottles. 39% Grenache, 37% Mourvèdre, 24% Syrah this year. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2028-30. Previously Nov 2006 ******
****** 1998 Le Vieux Donjon: STGT hits town, good, and w.o.w. - how can that be? The second vintage of destemming. In rugby terms, this is a wine from the scrum, not a running back line wine. It is glorious, notably persistent, a chunky Châteauneuf of yore, but cleanly delivered. This and the 1995 are both Real Operators, Vieux Donjon on top form. 75% Grenache. Tasted June 2008. To 2026-30. Previously April 2008 *****
****** 1998 Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe: this is indeed the South in a Glass, one that assaults the senses. 65% Grenache. "There is more tannin and balance, more going on than with the 1990, " Daniel Brunier told me in November 2008. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2030-32. Previously March 2007 ******
***** 1998 Clos des Papes: starting to yield, and become more supple, after the usual estate reserve in its early years. The Clos des Papes these days are higher in alcohol as a rule, a shade more heady, which probably reflects the hotter years we live in. 65% Grenache. Tated Nov 2008. To 2026-28. Previously April 2008 *****
***** 1998 Domaine de la Charbonnière Cuvée Vieilles Vignes: this was easily the best of all the Charbonnière reds when they were all tasted in February, 2000, for the first time. Its full southern character, and the fact that it contains 90% Grenache (1900s and older) earmark it as a truly benchmark wine for this vintage, one that shows the Grenache in its very best light. Tasted June 2009. To 2022-24. Previously Nov 2008 *****
***** 1998 Eddie Féraud: STGT wine with typical 1998 Grenache that now shows mineral with core power. The fruit is pure, and this is a domaine with the STGT touch - see his 2001 also. 80% Grenache from the 1930s. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2017-18.
****(*) 1998 Domaine Font de Michelle Cuvée Etienne Gonnet: its freshness late on indicates the good level of acidity, and it is also from a higher than usual yield off the 1900s Grenache on La Crau. Not really awake when last tasted, plenty of life to come. 65% Grenache. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2023-25. Previously Nov 2007 ***(*)
****(*) 1998 Domaine du Pegaü Cuvee Réservée: the clarity in this wine is another testament to the acidity of the vintage. The early September rain played a role, no doubt. This wine`s fruitiness is more cleanly cut than many 1998s that went quite funky early on. 85% Grenache. Tasted April 2008. To 2023-25.
****(*) 1998 Les Cailloux: STGT wine, arriba! A real home favourite, since I bought two cases of this. It has reached a stage where it represents all the best virtues of maturing Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with the compelling appeal of an evolved bouquet from a very good vintage. 2 hours of air render it more grainy, so I would open and drink, rather than decant and leave. Tasted Sept 2009. To 2022-23. Previously March 2006 ****
**** 1998 Château de la Gardine, Cuvée des Générations: very old Grenache, modern handling. The oak seems to have aided its evolution, not allowing it to be rushed, but still marks it out as not local. The Brunels` use of oak is often more polished than other domaines. 65% Grenache from the early 1900s. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2021-24.
**** 1998 Château La Nerthe: I am struck by this wine`s freshness. 49% Grenache. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2017-19.
**** 1998 Domaine de la Janasse Vieilles Vignes: touch of extraction felt here to supply a Big Wine by design - that is the house trade mark. But the raw material - very ripe Grenache from the hot lands of the North-East of the appellation - is very true. 85-90% Grenache from the 1900s to 1940s. This held a higher than usual aclohol level. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2019-20.
**** 1998 Domaine de la Solitude: the sometimes rather overlooked child in this stable - with Prestige wines taking the front seats of the auditorium (word from Lit Ed: excuse the mixed metaphor). Genuine child of the vintage, though, and way better than their weak 1997. So - if this vintage is good - this can be good. Otherwise, take a raincheck. 50% Grenache (around 50 years av age). Tasted Nov 2008. To 2023-25. Previously March 2008 ***(*)
***(*) 1998 Cuvée du Vatican Réserve Sixtine: modern, oaked wine. Can be more local from late 2009, around now. The oak has helped its length, and allowed to stand up straight for longer than otherwise. 50-55% Grenache (1902-1987). Tasted Nov 2008. To 2017-19.
***(*) 1998 Domaine Font de Michelle: a wine that retains laife, animo, and even a little reserved. Right in the drinking zone now and for the next half dozen years. 70% Grenache (av age 50 years). Tasted Nov 2008. To 2019-21.
***(*) 1998 Domaine de la Mordorée La Reine des Bois: modern approach, old Grenache. Made when they produced only one Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine (unlike 2003, 2005). It is juicy, unlike many 1998s, and clear in tone. Aided by sound oaking. 80% Grenache (oldest 1900s, also 1929). Tasted Nov 2008. To 2017-18.
***(*) 1998 Domaine des Relagnes: true, honest, STGT wine. This is certainly from the Trad school, white coat drinkers not allowed on the premises. 80% Grenache. 14.5° on the label. Tasted Nov 2008. 2015-17
*** 1998 Domaine Pierre André: from the direction of Courthézon, the label reads 15°. Very Trad school wine, I possibly sense a little Brett in this, which on this showing was a little flat. Its previous rating was ****(*), so this was rather disappointing, unless it was down to a temporary dip or bottle variation. 80% Grenache (1900s-1970s), large old barrel raising. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2016-18. Previously July 2005 ****(*)
*** 1998 Domaine Chante Cigale: this may have been partly vinified by maceration carbonique, so the fact that it retains juice and richness on the finish is interesting - not the first time I have witnessed that evolution. Its acidity is a bit uneven. 60-65% Grenache (1960s). Tasted Nov 2008. To 2015-17, its horizon being lowered as it ages. Previously Nov 2007 ****(*)
**(*) Domaine du Galet des Papes: Trad wine that is now showing itself to be susceptible to air. I don`t think 1998 was a vintage that was friendly to any imperfections in the oak raising, so large old barrels that weren`t spotless punished the wine. 80% Grenache. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2010-11.
**(*) 1998 Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils: having bought two cases, this has disappointed me as it has aged. A lot bottle variation, and a fast evolution mark it out. It was also obviously stripped of grapes that went into their Prestige wine - 1998 was the first vintage of their Cuvée de mon Aiëul (No Deux Frères until 2000). 80% Grenache of mixed ages. Tasted Aug 2009. To 2017 or so. Previously Nov 2008 **(*)
** 1998 Domaine de Saint-Paul: not as clear-cut as it should be, also reductive. 80% Grenache from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Tasted Nov 2008. To 2016-17.