In February I had the opportunity to taste the current releases of the Chateau la Nerthe family of wines. This Chateau, dating back over 800 years, produces wine throughout the southern Rhone Valley. Besides the Chateau La Nerthe label, they also produce the Domaine De La Renjarde, Prieure de Montezargues, and La Petite Fontaine wines. As such, La Nerthe is both a producer and negotiant. The portfolio of Chateau La Nerthe is imported by Pasternak Wine Imports of New York.
The tasting, held at Mitchell Wines in Portland, featured seminars by Christian Voeux, winemaker, and Christophe Bristiel, export manager. The first seminar was led my M. Bristiel, discussing the southern Rhone's history, soil types, grape varieties, and production levels. It was informative and hopefully people left the seminar with a greater appreciation for the diversity in the Rhone Valley and specifically, the southern part.
M. Voeux took the stage next and begun to discuss the wines we would be tasting that afternoon. The tasting was comprised of nine wines, ranging from a rosé to white Chateauneuf du Pape through to multiple vintages of the red Chateauneuf du Pape. A Gigondas was also thrown in by the folks at Mitchell, to give some context.
2011 Prieure de Montezargues Tavel Rosé:
Very fresh, off the boat that is. Beautiful pink tinge with a clear meniscus. This is comprised of white and red grenache, cinsault, clairette, syrah, mourvedre, and carignan. It's the proverbial kitchen-sink blend and in this package, the grapes harmoniously join to create a wonderful rosé. Aromas of wild raspberry and strawberry, bananas, and minerality carry through to the palate. Bracing acidity and the textural impact of grenache blanc create a delicious and refreshing wine. Why can't more domestic rosé be as deliciously refreshing as this?
2010 Chateau la Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc:
This is the entry level white Chateauneuf du Pape, though at over $40 a bottle it's not cheap. White Chateauneuf du Pape accounts for only a fraction of the total production of the AOC, contributing to the higher prices compared to other white wines of France. This example is surprisingly pale, almost like a Sancerre. A blend of grenache blanc, roussanne, clairette, and bourbelenc. The bouquet erupts with pear, apple, and citrus peel scents along with a whiff of briny air and wet stone. At once both rich and drying, the Chateau La Nerthe is smooth and carries the flavors of pear, golden apple, and melon along for the ride.
2009 Chateau La Nerthe Clos de Beauvenir Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc:
I'll get right to the point: This is a stunningly good wine. Yes, it's over $110 a bottle, but the blend of roussanne and clairette blanc create a gorgeous bouquet of wood-tinged cream, honeysuckle, rocky minerality, and orange pith. The palate is focused with notes of oak, lees, peach skin, white flower, and a lifting acidity that tapers off exquisitely. Comparable in complexity to white Burgundies, this wine will only get better with age.
2010 La Petite Fontaine Cotes du Rhone:
There's a reason wine geeks eschew a lot of sub-$10 California red wines. It's because of wines like this. At around $10 a bottle, this blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre, and carignan is jam-packed with aromas of spice, wood smoke, bramble, and mint leaf. It's a friendly, everyday red wine that has great notes of tar, black cherry, raspberries, and earth. Finishing with a clean, quick note of cedar and spice, I was left admiring what the French can do that California seemingly can't.
2009 Domaine de la Renjarde Cotes du Rhone Massif d'Ucheaux:
Hailing from the 250 hectare appellation of Massif d'Ucheaux, this is 50% grenache, 25% syrah, 15% cinsault, and 10% carignan. Slightly more expensive than the La Petite Fontaine, it brings focused aromas of berries and spice, pepper, and tar. The mouthfeel is medium, with some tannin framing black fruit, red licorice, and finishing with a burst of white pepper. At around $15-20 on store shelves, this too showcases the continued Old World charm of sub-$20 wines.
2007 Domaine Santa Duc "Les Garancieres" Gigondas:
Thrown in to give some context, this decidedly "rustic" blend of 80% grenache, 15% syrah, and 5% mourvedre reeked of Brettanomyces contamination. Major fail.
2008 Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge:
The first of two vintages of the base Chateauneuf, this from a cooler year. It pours a dark, inky garnet in the glass and unleashes a gorgeous bouquet of savory, dark red fruits, spices, and earth. The cooler year's effect on the palate doesn't go unnoticed, with this CdP veering towards riper red cherry and spice that's strangely restrained. The finish is quick and evaporative, leaving you wishing for more. I suspect this will improve with some aging, though it's a tough sell at over $40 per bottle.
2007 Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge:
This vintage is considered the better of the two, thanks in part to an Indian Summer around harvesttime. Similarly colored to the '08, a beautiful dark garnet. The nose is all spicy red fruit, green olive, and pepper, proportioned nicely and interwoven very well. Initially I was struck by the simplicity of the red fruit notes, but after a few seconds the tannin showed up along with a stony, spicy mix of flavors that carried through to the finish. I think this is drinking beautifully right now and will get better over the next five to ten years.
2005 Chateau La Nerthe Cuvee Cadettes Chateauneuf du Pape:
Talk about ending on a high note! From a 1.2 ton:acre farmed vineyard, this is a wine that is only made in the best years and always held back for additional barrel and bottle aging. It's well over $100 a bottle on store shelves and is one of those "collectible" French reds. A blend of grenache, mourvedre, and syrah, this is classic Chateauneuf. A whiff of Brettanomyces on the nose adds intrigue to the green olive, black cherry, baking spice, and dusty minerality present. The mouthfeel is deep and profound, seemingly never to end. More of the olive and Brett notes, pepper-dusted red cherry, flashes of oak, and a round, smooth tannin that creates a finish which lasts for a full minute. Outstanding wine, if you can find it. This will continue to get better for another 10-15 years.
Attending this tasting was a great experience for me, as most of my Rhone education has come relatively piecemeal up to now. Being able to listen to the winemaker, M. Voeux, discuss each wine was very educational and helped me understand each wine that much more. I have knocked the 2005+ Rhones for being too extravagant, too alcoholic, and too ripe. Tasting these wines reminded me that it's dangerous to make such generalizations, and wines with balance, power, AND finesse exist in every vintage.