Red alert: Rhone does it again

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: Barrel samples of 1999 Chateauneufs show the vintage is a worthy successor to the classic 1998s.

April 04, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

The law of averages hasn't been repealed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It just tastes that way at the moment.

So brilliant were these robust red wines in the 1998 vintage that the 1999s seemed bound to let down fans of this southern Rhone region.

Some letdown.

Barrel samples of 1999s brought by importer Alain Junguenet to the Washington, D.C., International Wine Festival last month showed that the newly released vintage of Chateauneufs is a worthy successor to the classic 1998s. If Junguenet's wines are representative, the region has produced back-to-back great vintages for the first time since 1989-1990.

And, according to the French-born Junguenet, whose credibility is among the highest in the import business, 2000 will also produce a great vintage in one of the few premier French viticultural regions whose wines remain relatively affordable.

The news of this triple triumph should prompt serious wine collectors -- if there are any left after the current stock-market debacle -- to reconsider their buying strategies. Many excellent Chateauneufs sell for $20-$30, and all but a few of the rest come in under $50. That compares quite favorably with wines of comparable quality from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italy, the northern Rhone and the Napa Valley.

They might not age as long as some of these wines, but aging is overrated. One of the best things about Chateauneufs is that they seldom take a long time to become enjoyable. So what if they only last 25 years instead of 50?

Certainly the wines Junguenet presented were quite accessible, though most will not be released until autumn.

Wine enthusiasts who have steered clear of Chateauneuf-du-Pape because of ugly memories from decades ago would be well-advised to give the region's red wines another try. They are still quite robust, but they have gained in sophistication and elegance as new generations of winemakers have improved vine-growing practices, cleaned up dirty cellars and have thrown away filter pads.

"Rustic is no longer a word in Chateauneuf-du-Pape," said Junguenet.

Chateuneuf-du-Pape can be made from a single varietal but in most cases is a blend of up to 13 approved varieties -- some of them quite rare and obscure.

The most important of these are grenache, mourvedre and syrah. Most producers rely most heavily on grenache, a varietal that can be brilliant when its crop levels are kept down.

Junguenet, who has been importing Chateauneuf since 1982, said grenache had a phenomenal success in 1998, while mourvedre shone in 1999. The result is that properties that use a high proportion of mourvedre could have an exceptional showing in 1999.

The New Jersey-based importer poured 10 wines in his tasting and had a few more available for sampling as part of the Washington show. They ranged from very good to brilliant.

If I were forced to choose one, it would be the 1999 Bosquet des Papes, a gorgeous and intensely flavorful wine that seems to be bursting with flavors of black raspberry, spices and black cherry. It's a complex and multilayered wine that combines power and elegance.

The lush, ripe, meaty 1999 Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils ran a very close second. Its spicy, peppery flavors and generous blackberry fruit were nothing short of sensational. Junguenet credits the Usseglio sons with taking over the operation three years ago and rapidly improving quality.

Le Vieux Donjon is a well-known and well-respected estate that lives up to its reputation with a monumental 1999. It's a relatively tannic wine that will take several years to become truly enjoyable, but its generous fruit, herb, smoked meat and chocolate flavors suggest a classic in the making.

For a particularly elegant, beguiling Chateauneuf, keep an eye out for the 1999 Mas de Boislauzon. It isn't a blockbuster like the Vieux Donjon, but the Chambord-like flavors are so penetrating and linger so long that you're bound to be charmed. Of all the wines in the group, it comes closest to the style of a great Cote Rotie from the northern Rhone.

Deferred gratification will be advisable with the 1999 Cuvee du Vatican, a dense, peppery Chateauneuf that could require five years of cellaring to open up. The concentration and intensity are impressive, and this could be a sleeping giant.

Gripping flavors with a dash of black pepper distinguish the 1999 Domaine des Relanges La Cuvee Vigneronne, the better of two wines from this estate. If spiciness is a quality you enjoy in a red wine, put in your order for the 1999 Chateau Fortia. It's an elegant Chateauneuf with flavors of smoked meat, black pepper, minerals, Asian spices and herbes de Provence. Equally impressive, if somewhat less spicy, is the 1999 Domaine de la Cote de l'Ange.

Those are the excellent 1999 Chateauneufs in Junguenet's portfolio. What remains is merely very good: Domaine Pontificale, Domaine de Boisdauphin, Domaine Moulin-Tacussel, Domaine des Relanges Cuvee Tradition, Clos des Pontifs.

The tasting underscored the dedication, high standards and tasting ability the affable and witty Junguenet brings to his business. Readers should know that when he's not bringing them exquisite Chateauneufs, he's importing an impressive portfolio of moderately priced wines from lesser-known producers in the south of France. You won't go wrong either way.

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