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2009 tastings in Chateauneuf - first stop: Grand Veneur

Day one proper of my from-the-bottle tastings in the Southern Rhone this season. With mixed reviews - is the 2009 excellent as my earlier impressions have suggested or merely extremely good as Parker has suggested - what will today bring? To be fair, I am not giving the region an even covering: in Chateauneuf I will be visiting Domaines Grand Veneur and Raymond Usseglio, Domaine Brusset in Cairanne and Domaine de Mourchon in Seguret. All, arguably, among the very best and certainly most consistent in these villages.

First stop, I met Christophe Jaume at Domaine Grand Veneur. Christophe is very tall, young and smiles a lot (he's the one in the middle of the photograph). He speaks excellent English so, whilst this visit didn't provide me with much opportunity to practise my French, at least I understood all the subtle nuances of the vintage! After we had said our hellos, we began with the tasting, starting with the whites in the relative warmth of the tasting room.

2010 CDR Blanc: a blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Clairette, bottled only three days before. In any case, it is fresh, flowery with some apricot character. Quite light and pretty on the palate and fresh acidity. An easy, pleasant drink. This was followed by the 2010 CDR Viognier which has an extremely youthful, almost musky nose with overtures of New Zealand Sauvignon (Christophe agreed with this suggestion). On the palate, this gives way to sweet Viognier fruit, quite full with some fat and good body. Nonetheless the wine is fresh with good length.

2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is a relatively light (these days) wine at 14% ABV. A blend of Roussanne and Clairette, it has deeper, richer fruit on the nose than the CDRs and more body but with a well balanced palate of fat and acidity. No oak used, even for the Roussanne so plenty of primary fruit characters coming to the fore, notably pineapple with hints of grapefruit and honey and soft flower aromas. Certainly a far more serious wine than the earlier ones but, as so often is the case, I think standard cuvees of white CDP don't offer the best value for money.

Far superior, and worth every penny, is the 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc "La Fontaine", a pure Roussanne wine aged in demi-muids. This has a powerful Roussanne nose (lots of citrus, honeysuckle, apricot etc) with some oak showing through and hints of the liquorice that will eventually come (anyone who has tried the fabulous 2002 vintage of this wine will know what I mean - 2002 was by no means a bad year for whites!). The nose carries through to the palate which is rich with the oak lending texture but not flavour. A very long wine to drink now or through the next six years in Christophe's view although my recent experience of the 2002 suggests longer, perhaps. Interestingly, we tasted the 2008 after this which is a much less forthright but fresher, more mineral wine. Apparently some prefer it - I can see why but for me the 2009 would win hands down every time.

After this, we tasted the 2009 Cotes du Rhone Reserve Rouge, a young, slightly hot wine which is decent enough but, I suspect, more tannic than most. A bistro wine, perhaps. Given what was to follow, not much point in dwelling here.

2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge is a GSM blend (70/20/10). I tasted VAT 64 which was instantly recognisable as a Grand Veneur Chateauneuf. A big cherry wine but no jamminess whatsoever, a cross between 2007 and 2003 perhaps but without the OTT characters of the earlier vintage. Grapes stayed on the vines two weeks longer than in 2007 (which explains why some other wines from the vintage were jammy and hot) and for the better estates this was advantageous as it gave maturity to the grapes and, consequently, to the wines. It must be stressed, however, that many estates were unable to take proper advantage of this condition. The barrel samples tasted were similarly recognisable as Chateauneuf with big, fleshy, rounded, sweet fruit. This wine is going to be very accessible from a young age although the Mourvedre, whilst more accessible than the Lirac Mourvedre (tasted before this, see below) is more muted now, providing body and structure to the wine.

Jumping about, we next tasted some Grenache which will form a part of the 2009 CDR Villages "Champauvins". A pretty nose, sweet fruit with noticeably less body than the CDP but big, nonetheless for a Cotes du Rhone. A second vat showed similar fruit but with sweetness and instensity at different levels. The Syrah is quite restrained at first, very black and tannic. Ageworthy. The raw materials of this yet-to-be-blended wine are extremely promising.

The 2009 Gigondas "Terrasses de Montmirail", a negociant wine is stunning: 85% Grenache about to be bottled. It has an intense nose of sweet dark fruits with savory notes, quite spicy with more grip than the other wines. It will age well.

The 2009 Vacqueyras seemed more refined than the Gigondas, more feminine somehow but with more wood showing at this stage and more tannin. For me, this was the only wine which showed any hint of jam but very enjoyable in any case.

I have become a big fan of the Jaume's excellent Lirac (I bought several cases of the 2007 for my own cellar whilst I was there). the 2009 Lirac "Clos des Sixte" Grenache is incredibly rich with sweet fruit but no jam despite its 15% alcohol. A little later we tasted the Syrah, first from the vat (a little of the same wine is oak aged) which would be a fabulous wine if bottled on its own. Rich and chewy, the barrel-aged version is stunning, almost the wine version of blackcurrant fruit pastilles, sweet and black with hints of vanilla. Almost drinkable now, perfect Southern Rhone Syrah! The Mourvedre for this wine is less forward on the nose at present and more structured with spicy, peppery characters. It is clearly a very long wine.

Lastly, the two prestige Chateauneufs: 2009 Origines is very refined and long with pure, sweet fruit. It has more Mourvedre than other wines so will benefit from longer ageing to let this shine. Quite a lot of black fruit here with good minerality too. It is at least as good as the 2007 at this stage.

The 2009 Vieilles Vignes has an unmistakable Chateauneuf nose. Wonderful barrel-aged Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah aged in new oak but you wouldn't know it, the fruit is so intense. The wine has a very smooth and rich palate, some cherry liqueur and liquorice coming through. A slow burner but a hedonistic wine so the only question is whether the bottles will survive into maturity.

A great start!

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