Thursday, January 31, 2008

Les Calades Clos Saint Jean Vin de Pays de Vaucluse, 1998

A 10-year-old Vin de Pays should by all rights be dead. This one is still kicking and resembling a baby Chateauneuf du Pape. The crimson color is becoming lighter and showing signs of maturity while the nose is more powerful than it ever was in its youth--with scents of grilled lamb chops, dried flowers and Provencal herbs. It's definitely a bit funky but deep and concentrated. The palate is similar but even more powerful with haunting flavors typical of old vine Grenache--dried cherries, fresh strawberries and sea salt. Concentrated and full with a silky texture.

With artisan wines, sometimes you take a little bad with the good. For Les Calades, which I've been buying regularly in bulk for about 15 to 20 years, a bit of rusticity often covers up a hidden treasure of old vine fruit. I paid $5.99 for this bottle; earlier vintages were priced as low as $3.39. Consumers who are used to drinking over-oaked and over-cropped California and Australian wines probably turned up their noses when they encountered this bargain on the shelves. At certain stages of their evolution, some vintages of Les Calades were indeed a bit stinky, perhaps because of old fashioned wine making or vineyard methods. When this happened (as it did with the 1994 and 2000 vintages), I put the wine aside for six months or longer and the ugly duckling always turned into a beautiful swan. This is the first time, I've aged Les Calades for as long as a decade, but I think the 2001 has the power to last at least 15 years.

The grapes for Les Calades come from old vineyards that are only a few kilometers away from land that qualifies as Chateauneuf du Pape. As the name suggests, the soil is very rocky, as it is in some of the best Chateauneuf vineyards. Clos Saint Jean also makes a Chateauneuf du Pape that is very good, and I have bought it regularly over the same period that I've been buying Les Calades--often for as little as $8 to $12 a bottle. Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate, when he reviewed the wines, gave them ratings in the low 80s, declaring that they were old fashioned and rustic. All the better for those of us wishing to buy quality wine at a low price.

All of this changed in 2003 when the Maurel brothers, Pascal and Vincent, (who took over the property when their father Guy died), hired oenologist Philippe Gambie to assist in making the wines. New oak was brought in to age the Syrah and Mourvedre (the Grenache continues to be unoaked) and two prestige cuvees were created. Marketing also became internationalized, and Robert Parker gave these wines high ratings, ranking them among the best of the vintage. Prices followed the ratings straight up. Some bad always goes with the good.

I won't be reporting on Clos Saint Jean wines from recent vintages, but I have plenty of good old fashioned wines in the cellar that will provide pleasure for years to come.

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