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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)