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Dead-blogging: Viret 1999 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Saint-Maurice “Maréotis”

[winery interior]Clos du Paradis “Domaine Viret” 1999 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Saint-Maurice “Maréotis” (Rhône) – It’s never easy to decide when to open a bottle of ageable wine. It’s even less easy when the wine has little track record and even fewer peers. Even for the winemaker, questions of ageability are rarely more than an educated guess.

So it’s with a bit of trepidation that I open this bottle, hand-carried from the winery back in 2001. It was an intriguing visit for a number of reasons. First was the domaine’s singularity, as it was at the time (and may still be) the only grower-producer in the appellation, the rest of the production of which is provided by cooperatives. I tasted a few of those, and they were fine in an anonymous but flavorful generic Rhône-ish fashion, but Viret’s wines were an entirely different matter: highly ambitious, if not always – at that very early date – completely focused.

But the second reason was even more compelling: the winery’s wholesale investment with a philosophy known as cosmoculture, a practice tailor-made for those who think biodynamism is a little too conventional. I spent a lot of time tasting wine, but even more listening to lectures on circles of force and dowsing, examining the alignment of Stonehenge-like monuments in the vineyard, and marveling at the cathedral – a fairly literal one – constructed to serve as the winemaking facility. And while the Virets were both very nice and extremely sincere, I spent much of my time vacillating between wondering if they were completely nuts, and marveling at the qualitative triple-jump their wines achieved vis-à-vis the cooperatives’ versions. Ultimately, I decided that it didn’t really matter if they were nuts or not. The wines spoke for themselves.

Anyway, enough background. What about the wine? It’s a grenache-syrah blend (more of the former than the latter) from grapes that have undergone a little passérilage (desiccation) on the vine, made and matured in a mix of cask and stainless steel. At the time, these vines were barely over a decade old, and my original note expressed concern that too much might have been asked of these very young vines.

That fear hasn’t been realized, and the wine is aging better than I would have guessed. It’s powerful right from the start, and heavy, but not so weighted-down that it’s imbalanced or ponderous. Aromas are classic if one imagines a blend of Southern and Northern Rhône characteristics (given that there’s no modern basis for Saint-Maurice typicity on which to judge this wine): meat, leather, Provençal herbs, dark soil, underbrush, sun-leathered dark fruit that has lost its “fruit,” and so forth. As the wine airs, more and more smoked meat emerges.

Texturally, it presses against the palate without being overly oppressive, in waves of leather than alternate between an animalistic fuzz and a harder, more mineralized expression. There’s still quite a bit of tannin (though it’s supple and fully ripened), and just enough acidity to hold everything together, but not a hint of intrusive alcohol anywhere. Structurally, every indication is that this wine is just past the midpoint of its evolution, with nothing but excellent prospects for the future.

I wonder, though. The “fruit,” if one can call it that in wines of this type, seems a lot more resolved than the structure. I’ve no fears that this will decline anytime soon…even if it is mature, the plateau is going to be exceedingly long…but I think a strong argument could be made that it’s not going to get better in the future, though there will certainly be changes. (In fact, I appear to be making such an argument.) Given its current makeup, I’d expect more soy and old meat as the structure recedes, but also more angularity from that structure, which would disjoint the wine somewhat. But please note that I’ve been wrong about this wine’s future before, and might be again in this instance. It makes a very compelling argument for itself, in any case, and whether or not it requires more time to develop that argument may be no more than minor quibbling at this point.

The wine changes little over the course of the evening, aside from an escalating appeal for vinous carnivores, and traces left at room temperature and unprotected from oxygen for a full day are still quite drinkable, albeit much less interesting than the previous day’s liquid. I serve it with pork from the grill, dry-rubbed with alder-smoked salt and smoked paprika (among other, less important spices), and somewhat further smoked by the addition of rehydrated chipotles to the coals during the grilling. The match is just about perfect, though I think any low-acid style of barbecued cow or pig would find favor with the wine…and conventionally grilled meats would hardly be amiss, either. (4/09)

Dead-blogging: Galhaud “Collection” 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes Viognier-Muscat

Time for an experiment. Also, an effort to get some content up here that doesn’t take three days (punctuated by naps) to read. So: a kinda-sorta live-blogged tasting note. “Kinda-sorta” because I’m not posting the live-blogging until I’m done. Dead-blogging? …and there’s our title!

Galhaud “Collection” 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes Viognier-Muscat (Roussillon) – 12% alcohol, which is probably a vague approximation. It’s in a fat, heavy bottle…which is a little unusual for a relatively inexpensive wine (around $10 or so).

The varietal composition – 70% viognier, 30% muscat – pretty much promises a world of perfumed soap in the glass, the deliverance of which I’m not sure is a promise I want kept. And I admit to some surprise at the blend. I’ve had an occasional viognier of quality from around the world – there was a Passage Rock from Waiheke Island in New Zealand that comes to memory, and a few Californian versions from Edmunds St. John, Alban, and Domaine de la Terre Rouge have been worthy – but it’s a grape that really, really seems to need its famous “home ground” of Condrieu to develop any superlatives. And even there, it mostly underachieves, especially given the usual quite-high tariff. Elsewhere, it seems to provide more of a sticky, soapy texture than much complexity or site-reflection…which, I guess, makes it the cilantro of the wine world. If every viognier in the world not made by Christophe Pichon were to disappear tomorrow, I can’t say I’d be overly sad about it, and I actually claim to like Condrieu. Maybe I should revisit that notion.

Then, add to one perennially-underachieving grape some muscat, planted absolutely everywhere to more or less OK-ness (it’s a hard grape to ruin), and rarely enjoyed other than at some level of residual sugar. Its role in blends…well, it tends to dominate them, which is why it’s rarely a good idea to employ as a partner. It’s just too perfumed.

I know nothing about the producer, and the web is no help. That right there is a little unusual, and often indicates layers of ownership, some sort of shadowy négociant, or a cooperative. The wine’s an Alain Blanchon import. I don’t get the sense from the packaging and presentation that there’s much else to know, but I could be mistaken on that score.

As for the place, it’s hard to say what it brings. The Côtes Catalanes are becoming a fairly reliable source of good value, fruit-forward wines. Perhaps there’s not much complexity in most (though I understand that an occasional old-vine carignan can bring the noise), but there’s a lot of drinkability. However, there’s no uniformity to the terroir – it is a vin de pays, after all – and so who knows where or how this was grown? At $10 in the States, I doubt we’re talking viticultural fanaticism at any stage.

It might be my own failing, but I don’t care much about color unless it’s unusual, and this wine’s light, washed-out sun hue seems completely normal. Aromatically, it’s actually not all that muscat-y. In fact, the dominant aroma is that of a soap. Not soap itself, but the sort of semi-anonymous blend of laundering aromas used to aromatize soap. And maybe some banana? It’s vague, if so. The wine’s still a little cold, so we’ll see what happens later, but I’m surprised at the lack of aromatics. It’s not corked, but it’s awfully shy for the grapes used. They definitely weren’t pushed to the limits of concentration before harvest.

A sip, a swirl. Texturally, it’s viognier – that stickiness again – with a sort of soda-like prickle that I often find in muscats, even those without any pétillance. There’s enough acidity, which can be a problem with both grapes. And there’s some alcoholic burn, too…even in the wine’s well-chilled state. That’s likely to be a problem as it warms.

…OK, it’s later, and the wine’s at temperature now. The aromas are a little more pronounced, but I still think they’re viognier-dominated. Such as they are, and they’re still not much. Now there’s a bit of banana-skin bitterness to the finish. The wine’s very wet, even watery, and that heat hasn’t quite gone away, though it’s no more intrusive than it was at the outset.

There’s just not much to be impressed by here. Neither of the grapes are used to potential (and the general lack of muscat character suggests a sort of shocking indifference; I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted a more wan and insignificant muscat), nor is the wine fun or fruity enough for its lack of character to be ignored. It just sort of sits there, growing increasingly bitter and more watery to little purpose. I’d suggest avoidance.