Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Wine of the Week: 2005 Les Cailloux Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc

In my former life as a student of literature, I spent much of my time contemplating the relationship between canonical and marginal texts (or, rather, resenting I had to divert my attention at all from Shakespeare and Donne but nevertheless wading through travel journals, diaries, and the "voices of the oppressed" in order to engage in the "professional conversation" -- but I digress). And it's an interesting exercise to apply that paradigm to the Old World - New World divide and dynamic in the wine world. Indeed, it's worth contemplating for a moment that European vineyards are in many ways a post-colonial legacy of the Roman Empire -- and, in another scholastic parallel, that the tradition of vinification survived largely through the work of devoted monks during the Middle Ages.

While I won't even begin to sketch out what such a thought experiment would conclude, I would like to turn my attention to the historic Rhone varietals, which have found their way into all parts of the New World as the next big thing (or rather things -- there are something like twenty-two individual varietals). This week's Grape Radio segment broadcasts a seminar from the 2007 Hospice du Rhone that features Viogniers and Syrahs from such exotic locales as Chile, Baja California, Italy, and Southern Oregon. These are grapes that, in many cases, have replaced the traditional Bordelais varietals in New World vineyards. Host Patrick Comiskey opines that "these varieties tend to seek out the fringes ... because their terroir expression in exotic locales ... never fail to surprise and delight people." These are hot growing regions that often have much more in common with the South of France than with Bordeaux or Burgundy. And the tradition of blending these varietals in the Rhone lends itself to the sense of creativity of a young winemaker seeking to put a New World vineyard or winery on the map.

Of course, the conversation works both ways, as Eric Asimov observed in a recent article on Condrieu. It took the attention and ingenuity of New World producers of Viognier, who revived interest in this long languishing varietal, to resuscitate demand for wine from the grape's traditional home in the Northern Rhone. I must admit that I've never had a satisfying Viognier that wasn't a Condrieu (of course, I have absolutely fallen in love with many other New World expressions of Rhone varietals) and comparisons to Old World benchmarks will always be made. These wines (unless graced by genius marketing) will always be defined in relation to those from the historic estates of France. The marginal only exists because of the canonical. The labeling of wines with varietal names, as opposed to only an AVA or another geographical designation, and all the talk of "varietal correctness," make even more inevitable the backward glance to Europe.

All this is a long-winded way of introducing our third "Wine of the Week": the 2005 Les Cailloux Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc ($30; Bobby Kacher, importer). Having made my own inclinations clear at outset, I thought I'd turn our attention back to the canonical -- but to a relative rarity in the French canon. Ninety-seven percent of the wine produced in Chateauneuf du Pape is red, making the white wines from the appellation both rare and expensive. Yet the best efforts are undoubtedly worth seeking out, as they offer great character and presence and are unlike most other whites on the market.

The 2005 Les Cailloux Blanc, made by Andre Brunel, is a relative bargain at $30 (two benchmark wines, the 2005 Clos des Papes and Beaucastel whites, cost around $60 and $80, respectively) and is an outstanding white Chateauneuf, irrespective of price point. Pale gold, with a slight greenish tinge, the Les Cailloux Blanc has a delicate floral nose and is far less extroverted than the more typically heady whites dominated by notes of peaches and apricots. Blended from 80% Roussanne and 20% Clairette and vinified in tank, the wine is full-bodied, with great weight and undeniable class. It has good acidity, yet it manages to be both lively and poised on the palate and makes for a good food wine. When the Les Cailloux is served at the proper temperature (around 50-54 F, warmer than most whites), the wine's relatively high alcohol content (a stated 13.5%, but probably a bit higher) peeks through slightly on the finish. Yet this doesn't disturb the overall balance too greatly, and the wine's fruit undeniably sings at the warmer serving temperature. A wine of truly distinctive character. Ah, back to France.

No comments: