by William Kelley - August 12, 2013

Estate Past & Present in Châteauneuf du Pape: a visit to Henri Bonneau

Henri Bonneau crafts some of the most distinctive and legendary wines in Châteauneuf du Pape in a cellar where times seems to stand still. To visit this Domaine is to be transported back a century or two in time, to a different era of winemaking. Bonneau's magisterial wines are an essential reference point for the appellation. 

  • Past & Present in Châteauneuf du Pape: a visit to Henri Bonneau
  • Past & Present in Châteauneuf du Pape: a visit to Henri Bonneau
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Henri Bonneau's washing machine whirrs into life as we stand in the hall, waiting to be introduced. This man, who made his first vintage in 1956, embodies the patrimony of Châteauneuf du Pape, so we are all conscious that this is a special moment. Fragile but lively, decked out in his trade-mark dungarees and cap, the glint in Bonneau's eye gives no indication that he has only recently emerged from a prolonged stay in hospital. Indeed, he jokes from the very beginning: ‘students from Oxford? Oxford, that's good. I studied at HEC: Hautes Etudes Communale'he puns on the name of France's leading business school, the HEC, Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris. Talking about his time in hospital, he complains that the food was rotten: he'd have starved if a friend hadn't brought him woodcock. And referring to a perennial theme, the Algerian War, he observes, ‘Combatant Bonneau was well-known in the regiment. He drew the most blood. Every ten days I had to butcher a cow at the very least'for he was the regimental cook. Alongside the Algerian War, gastronomy is actually a more popular topic with Bonneau than winemaking. 


But Bonneau is more than a character: he is the custodian of a tradition. Since the death in 1997 of his friend Jacques Reynaud, the notoriously eccentric proprietor of Château Rayas, Bonneau is now the solitary standard bearer for a unique style of wine-making that harks back to the nineteenth-century. There is nothing whatsoever modern about his cellars, and his methods are almost the antithesis of scientific oenology. His family have made wine for twelve generations, but the death of a nephew who had been initiated into the mysteries of Bonneau's way of working has imperilled that tradition, and exactly how it will be preserved for future generations is unclear. What is notable, however, is that while Bonneau commands unanimous respecteven reverenceamong the vignerons of Châteauneuf du Pape, very few seek to emulate his methods. In style, it is probably at Domaine du Pégau that Bonneau's school-mate Paul Féraud and his daughter Laurence craft wines that most resemble Bonneau's bottlings.

These warren-like cellars, located opposite the church in the village of Châteauneuf du Pape, are legendary. Robert Parker compares them to the ‘biohazard room in a video game', and they upstage even Château Rayas in dirtiness. Aromas of dried ceps and funky animal smells fill the air; slimy-looking minerals seep from the walls and ceilings, dripping into small stalactites. The steps are carved out of the rock, and wooden planks patch up holes in the floor excavated during an archaeological dig long ago. As we move from chamber to chamber, tasting Bonneau's different wines, we encounter vessels of all kinds: enamelled steel tanks, glass demijohns, and barrels of various sizes-the latter all of indeterminate age, but mostly very old and crusty. Old bottles sit in plastic crates, enveloped in mould. Everyone spits on the floor and walls, while Bonneau perches against barrels, holding his walking stick and tastevin, and comments on the wines and their vintages.

There must be few wineries where so many different vintages and cuvées are still in cask undergoing their élevage. And at this domaine, élevage really does mean raising the wine to maturity: the wines are racked from vessel to vessel, from cask to tank and back again, as they move between oxidation to reduction, refining their tannins and developing their flavours, until Bonneau thinks they are really ready to bottle. Everything is labelled with a chalked letter, either P or G: P designating that the grapes came from the famous plateau of La Crau (and will probably be included in Bonneau's top cuvée, the Réserve de Célestins) and G indicating that the grapes grew in Bonneau's other parcels in the appellation (and are probably destined for his second cuvée, the Cuvée Marie Beurrier). When we visited in May, the oldest wine waiting in cask was the 2005 Cuvée Marie Beurrier-and the 2005 Célestins had been bottled only a few months earlier. Bonneau's art is to draw out the complexity of his wines and refine their texture during their long upbringing, all the while preserving their amazingly vivid fruit. These are not wines that will taste like cask samples when you pull the cork.  

It is alarming to think that Bonneau's ways of working, may not outlive the master who employs them.

Everything in Bonneau's cellar will challenge your preconceptions. For a start, the wines are strikingly pure-there are no rustic, funky aromas to be found. Bonneau's barrels, of course, are impeccably clean on the inside: he and his assistants use a device made of chains to scour the casks, removing lees and tartartes, before flooding them with fresh water. Bonneau seems to know every one of his barrels, and how they will influence the evolution of the wine inside. And for such broad-shouldered, high-alcohol wines, all of Bonneau's bottlings also display remarkable freshness; perhaps because, as Julien Barrot of Domaine la Barroche tells us, Bonneau encourages small amounts of volatile acidity in his Châteaneuf du Pape, arguing that it augments the naturally low acids of ripe Grenache. That is certainly not a lesson that you will be taught in Davis or Bordeaux, yet Bonneau's wines make a persuasive argument for his methods.

That argument is persuasive because Bonneau has such an impressive track record. His wines have time and again demonstrated their capacity to age for decades. His Réserve de Célestins is always one of the wines of the vintage, not just in strong but also in weak years. And his wines, for all their power and intensity, are an admirable complement to cuisine-as one might expect from a noted gastronome, who cooks his famous bœuf au carrotes, he tells us, with his 1992 Châteauneuf and a dash of very old cognac. Many of the newer domaines in Châteauneuf have yet to demonstrate that they can do all this. Perhaps that is one reason why Bonneau is revered by many of the region's young winemakers. His way of working is an essential context for any conversation about ‘traditional' and ‘modern' styles. It is alarming to think that Bonneau's methods, and with them an important part of the heritage of Châteauneuf du Pape, may not outlive the master who employs them. 

Tasting notes:

2012 [Réserve de Célestins] The 2012 from the plateau of La Crau, labelled with a P, composed of about 80% Grenache, is fresh and juicy, retaining substantial volumes of residual carbon dioxide. It exhibits lots of dense berry fruit, and seems to have great potential, but has not yet gone through malolactic fermentation.  

2011 [Cuvée Marie Beurrier] This cask, probably destined for the cuvée Marie Beurrier, displayed a deep red colour and fragrant aromas of orange peel, griotte cherry and ripe redcurrant fruit, along with plenty of freshness for this vintage. (92-94)  

2011 [Réserve de Célestins] While a similar colour, the 2011 P is significantly deeper in its aromatic profile, showing darker berry fruit-even some jammy blueberries at this unevolved stage-with a rounder, more voluptuous texture. It will be fascinating to see how this wine evolves. (94-96+)  

2010 [Cuvée Marie Beurrier] Another probable Marie Beurrier cask, this 2010 offers up beautiful, fragrant aromas of cherry and lavender, but a slight hint of sulphur suggested it had been recently racked. With its density and serious tannic structure, this seems to be a wine that will profit from its élevage. (92-94+)  

2010 [Réserve de Célestins] This wine was a real Behemoth, dense and excruciatingly tannic, but with such depth of deep black cherry fruit that it was still a pleasure to taste. In the glass, some complex scents of truffle and herb began to emerge. The finish is nearly endless. This is clearly going to be a great Célestins! A remake of the 2005? (95-97+)  

2009 [Cuvée Marie Beurrier] This wine blew me away with its startlingly creamy cassis and kirsch aromas and flavours, complemented by complex sou bois and red berry. At this stage, this wine has an aromatic exuberance that is almost New World in style! If this showing was representative, could this be among the best examples of Bonneau's cuvée Marie Beurrier ever made? (95-97)  

2009 [Réserve de Célestins] Showing a close kindred with the 2009 G, this barrel was even more stunning, and more voluptuously textured, with abundant but smooth tannins. Perfectly balanced. And what amazing flavour intensity and persistence! This was the most striking wine of the tasting, and every wine lover should pray that Bonneau lives to finish its élevage: he could hardly leave a more profound legacy than this wine, which it is hard to imagine being less than pure perfection when it is bottled. (98-100)  

2008 [Cuvée Marie Beurrier] Unsurprisingly much more evolved than its counterparts from 2009, 2010 and 2011, the 2008 proto-Marie Beurrier offers up lots of blood and herbs, along with some dark currant fruit. It is a success in this difficult vintage. (90-91+)  

2008 [Réserve de Célestins] The 2008 P shares many of the same characteristics with the G, but its aromas and flavours are more plumy, along with a lifted, fresh, black raspberry character. This will probably be one of the longest-lived wines of the vintage. Interestingly, a bottled rendition of this wine is already on the marketplace, but I didn't have the opportunity to inquire about this. I should add that I have tasted the bottled 2008 Célestins, and it didn't seem to be different from this cask sample. (92-93+)  

2007 [Cuvée Marie Beurrier] Another profound wine, this barrel, almost certainly destined for the 2007 Célestins, is stunningly dense, long and round-all the while retaining amazing freshness and poise. Aromas of kirsch, ceps, roasted herbs and meat juice are all there in its striking bouquet. Some fine tannins on the finish will be rounded out by a few more months in cask, and then Bonneau plans to bottle this in summer. (96-98)  

2007 [Réserve de Célestins] Not unlike its 2009 counterpart, though not quite so aromatically precocious or long on the palate, the 2007 probable-Marie Beurrier shows off lots of griotte cherry and some enticing balsamic notes that lift and freshen its aromatic profile. It will probably spend more time in cask than the 2007 Célestins. (94-96+)  

2005 Marie Beurrier The final blend (or assemblage) has been made, but this wine is still is barrel, and still notably tannic, so it's easy to understand why Bonneau has taken such a long time to bottle it. Fining may help to soften its texture. It offers up a bloody, evolved nose that suggests it is moving towards an oxidative stage, so Bonneau will probably soon transfer it to tank. Like the 2007 Célestins, this is likely to be bottled in the summer. (90-92+)  

2005 Réserve de Célestins This wine, recently bottled, has much more fruit and baby fat to conceal its serious, long-term structure. Aromas of kirsch, redcurrant, blood, truffle, ceps, lavender explode from the glass, along with a slightly volatile / balsamic note that lifts the bouquet and is actually reminiscent of some of the old-style La Mission Haut Brion vintages from the 1950s and ‘60s. Length, freshness and balance-this wine has it all! 98+