2009 and 2008 Chateauneuf du Pape

It’s no understatement to say that Chateauneuf du Pape has been on a tear of high-quality vintages in modern times. With the exception of 2002 and 2008, every vintage from 1998 through 2009—and, from the looks of things, 2010 as well—has been almost uniformly very good to truly outstanding. The success of these wines in the marketplace created a huge influx of capital that the producers have invested in their infrastructures and it’s the rare cellar here that isn’t as efficient and clean as those in any other European region outside Bordeaux and Champagne. A generation ago, the majority of Chateauneufs betrayed rustic winemaking but obviously flawed wines are much rarer today, which makes shopping for Chateauneuf less risky than ever before.

The down side, traditional Chateauneuf enthusiasts often argue, is that the wines have been cleaned up and polished to the detriment of their character. But in my experience many self-professed traditionalists often confuse dirty wines with wines of terroir. I’d be the last person to shill for sterile wines, but I’m also loath to defend wines that have bacterial issues, excessive levels of volatile acidity or hard and dry tannins—or those that lack sweetness of fruit. It has recently become cool in some quarters to advocate for rustic, often flat-out flawed wines, usually in the name of "authenticity," while denigrating wines that can be perceived as too cleaned up, or, heaven forbid, "modern."

As prices for many top Chateauneufs have soared to levels commanded by classified-growth Bordeaux and even high-end Burgundy, winemakers have admitted to me that they feel pressured to produce wines that "make a statement," as one of them put it. "People say that they value finesse but the fact is that when people pay a lot for a wine they usually expect it to be dramatic, massive and a show-stealer," another Chateauneuf producer told me in November. "It’s great for business that we’ve had so many vintages that allow us to make that type of wine but it also means that elegant Chateauneuf is now almost an oxymoron. Two thousand eight, by the way, is a perfect example of a more elegant style," she added.

While few producers I visited on my annual late autumn trip made the claim that their 2008s match up to the ’06s or ’04s, which often share similar qualities with the best ’08s, they all told me that through a lot of hard work in the vines, late harvesting and draconian selection in the winery, they often achieved surprisingly good results. It was a damp, rainy growing season that brought mildew and slowed down ripening, which necessitated waiting until grape sugars could catch up with acidity. The weather turned dry, warm and windy at the beginning of September and conditions stayed favorable enough for harvesting to carry on until the second week of October for those without itchy secateurs. Growers who harvested on the later side were rewarded with what Marc Perrin of Beaucastel called "properly but not super-ripe fruit with good acidity and fairly low tannins. The wines can have good balance, with an emphasis on freshness. They are definitely wines to drink in the medium term, with rare exception." Those low tannins make many of the wines accessible right now, but acidity levels in ’08s can also be shrill. For many wines it will be a race to see if the fruit can hold on until the acidity softens. Chateauneuf lovers who have been disturbed by the extroverted, sometimes freakish ripeness of many 2007s are likely to enjoy a number of ’08s, I should add, because in many ways the two vintages are mirror images.

Speaking of 2007, 2009 is proving to be a very interesting vintage for Chateauneuf. While the wines tend to share a number of traits of their 2007 siblings, those qualities are usually played at a lower volume: concentration without thickness or viscosity, ripeness without a sensation of confiture character, weight and heft without corpulence, and so forth. "It was a very warm year, not quite as bad as 2007 and definitely unlike the oven of 2003," said Sophie Estévenin of Domaine du Marcoux. "There was almost no rain—it was a drought, really—and it was quite hot throughout August, which ripened the insides of the grapes quickly." Bruno Gaspard, the winemaker at Clos du Caillou, said essentially the same thing, noting that "the seeds ripened before the skins, in mid-August, so you had to wait until the skins caught up before you could harvest, otherwise you’d get dry tannins. People who brought in their fruit too early got hard and astringent tannins."

While that was not a danger with the ’07s, which are mostly velvety and seamless, many producers said that they prefer the firmer tannins and acid spine of their ’09s to the relative softness (some say shapelessness) of a number of ’07s. Most producers told me that their fermentations went slowly, which in a best-case scenario means steady extraction and subsequent complexity—assuming that the wines were able to ferment to complete dryness, which is often an issue in regions like this, where sugars run high. Yields were far below average because of the drought and Estévenin told me that for Marcoux, which always produces a low yield because of their percentage of old, shy-bearing vines, the yield was only 15 hectoliters per hectare. "For us it was also very small, around 25 hectoliters per hectare," said Nicolas Boiron of Bosquet des Papes, who compares the wines to the 1989s, by the way.