Perhaps the region's worst
vintage of the last decade, 2002 was not an auspicious year to begin making
wine in Châteauneuf du Pape: but it did not deter the Maurel brothers. The
estate they inherited consists of some of the finest terroirs in the region: 43 hectares of vines, some over a hundred
years old, in the famous lieu dit of
La Crau. Yet the immense potential of these vineyards had never been fully
realised, as extended ageing in foudres and the practice of bottling the wine
over an extended period left the wines rather desiccated.
A revolution in the cellar took place, which sees Clos Saint-Jean's Grenache aged in tanks (which preserve its magnificent fruit) and Syrah and Mourvèdre aged in smaller one- or two-year-old oak barrels. A new winery, built in 2009, gives Vincent Maurel even more control over the wines' upbringing. And these changes were complemented by great dedication to attaining maturity in the vineyard; and by labour-intensive triage, where bad grapes are separated from good by hand before the wine is made. The emphasis is on preserving the character of the terroir, and Vincent is a passionate advocate of the specificity of his techniques to the lieu dits in which the grapes are grown: they would not apply, he says, elsewhere in the appellation where conditions are different.
The results are there in the bottle. For our tasting, Vincent presented three of his cuvees. The regular Châteauneuf du Pape is a Grenache-dominated blend, with Syrah in a supporting role. The cuvée ‘Combe des Fous' is made from old Grenache vines in Clos Saint-Jean's southernmost holdings, where sandy soil gives softer tannins and what Vincent describes as a feminine style. A ‘combe' is a gently sloping valley, and when Vincent's grandfather planted the vines in 1905, people declared that only madmen (‘fous') would grow vines on a site where huge stones make for backbreaking work in the field. ‘Deus ex Machina', a more macho cuvée, contains 60% of Grenache from old vines in the colder, northern part of the estate, and 40% Mourvèdre. The latter variety attains remarkable richness and ripeness in the Maurels' hands. These two cuvées are very different wines.
Vincent presented these three cuvées from three vintages: 2004, 2006, and 2009. The comparison gave a great sense of how the two top cuvées differ: the succulent and hedonistic Combe des Fous showing great delicacy and lightness for such a powerful wine, and the Deus ex Machina more monumental, worthy of more time in the cellar. But it also underscored the merits of the regular cuvée, a good rendition of the ‘house style': ripeness, substance, and typicity.
Over dinner, thanks to Vincent's
generosity, we were able to enjoy three of the greatest wines produced at Clos
Saint-Jean, all from magnum. We began with the 2005 Deus ex Machina, a silky
and expansive wine that is close to maturity, and amazingly endowed with aromas
of black cherries, liquorice and spice, the flavours go on and on. We followed
up with 2007 Deus ex Machina, which exhibits all the merits of the 2005 but
surpasses it in depth of flavour, with layer upon layer of fruit overwhelming
the palate. And we concluded with another extraordinary wine, the 2009 ‘Sanctus
Sanctorum', a special cuvée of which only 700 magnums are bottled each year
(350 for the US market, and 350 for the rest of the world) from a single demi-muid of old vine Grenache. This
wine, still very young, exhibited amazing aromas of incense, kirch, and
aromatic herbs that reminded me of some of Manfred Krankl's Sine Qua Non
bottlings (not inappropriately, because the Maurel's are collaborating with
Krankle to produce a 100% Mourvèdre wine by the name of ‘Chimera'). All these
wines won perfect scores from Robert Parker, and it easy to see why. Watching
their evolution over four or five hours was a fascinating and memorable
Given the profundity of these wines, it is worth noting that Vincent believes 2010 is his best vintage to date!