An evening tasting (alright, and drinking) a dozen Chateauneuf du Pape red wines might induce thoughts of a headache before they’re even opened. With a regulated minimum alcohol of 12.5% (none were as low as that, some hovered around 15%), which seems mighty low today, but is the highest minimum in France, these are considered full-bodied wines suitable for hearty winter dishes. Yet none of us – 13 tasters, comprising winemakers, a sommelier, MW, and writer colleagues – felt this a tiring experience. Why? The wines have a wonderful innate freshness and finish resolutely dry; they are full of life. Alcohol is part of the wines’ success, not an unbalanced negative.
There was much discussion how the French manage to achieve this effect, while similar South African wines at these elevated levels will taste sweet. According to the winemakers, it comes down to the type of sugar, a dominance of fructose in our case which gives this suggestion of sweetness, even when the wine is technically dry.
It was well into the tasting that Cathy van Zyl (the MW) noted the absence of new wood, or, if it was used, it wasn’t apparent. Neither were there intrusive tannins, though the wines didn’t lack structure.
What I and my friends were enjoying was traditional winemaking over vintages ranging from 1990 to 2010. We were a bit undecided whether the latter wine fell into the traditional or modern camp. La Roquète, a property owned by the Brunier brothers of Vieux Télégraphe (the 2001 La Crau was voted the evening’s favourite) had by far the most fruity profile, but youth and a great vintage could account for that; as far as vinification and oak ageing go, the approach is traditional. Grenache accounts for 70%, syrah and mourvèdre 20% and 10%. This and the other Brunier wines are available from the admirable Great Domaines.
My remaining two bottles of La Roquète won’t be opened for a good few years. This red was the last under the La Roquète label; future vintages have been incorporated into Télégraphe’s second wine, Télégramme and a new cuvée, Pied Long.
It’s worth noting the 1990 was Beaucastel in all its bretty glory and recognised by those who should know. What an enigmatic wine! I bought six bottles on release; some have been clean, others grim; this differed in that the brett was evident, but hadn’t stripped this still fleshy, flavoursome wine. There were those (me included) who dared ‘delicious’!
Grenache is a major player in Chateauneuf; often 70% or 80% but more important than that is vine age. Many are around 40 to 50 years and it is only with maturity that grenache, possibly more than any other variety, gives of its best. The oldest in South Africa I can find dates from 1952 and is all of 1.68 ha. The total plantings of red grenache over 35 years is 5.27 ha. We’ve a way to catch up on Chateauneuf.
If there’s one local red wine that emulates these Rhônes in being alive, it’s Eben Sadie’s latest Sequillo 2012; both Tim James and I agreed when we tasted it in a group of newish releases, that it’s the best yet. Unusually, it omits grenache (and carignan, not a Chateauneuf variety), which didn’t ripen sufficiently, leaving a blend of syrah, cinsault and tinta barocca. Also breaking the mold is just one year in oak, the other in concrete vats to preserve fruit. The result is very much along the lines of La Roquète: wonderful fruit, structure and ageworthiness.