I had a vigorous online discussion last week with none other than Robert Parker on the relative merits of traditional versus modern wines of the Southern Rhone. Unlike Parker and others, I am a firm believer in traditional methods for the Grenache-based wines of the Southern Rhone. That basically means use of large old oak foudres or concrete vats rather than new oak barriques for aging the wine. In some cases, it also means use of whole bunches, including stems, in fermentation, although that practice varies from estate to estate and, in some cases, from vintage to vintage. The ideal scenario, as I have mentioned many times on this blog, is for a son or daughter to get a wine-making degree and return to the ancestral estate to blend science and tradition.
This bottle of Domaine des Amouriers Vacqueyras illustrates, it seems to me, both the strengths and weaknesses of my traditionalist arguments. As RMP might point out, the wine has flaws that might have been corrected with a new oak barrique. It also has powerful aromas and flavors that, for me, more than make up for these flaws.
The color is a deep ruby red, no signs of advancing age. The nose, however, does offer up some stale scents of tired fruit along with licorice, pepper, spices and Vacqueyras dark-toned minerals. There's no reason to expect a Vacqueyras to be singing at age 11; the primary fruit smells and flavors have given way to the mineral and earth elements. As I continue to drink the wine, however, the flavor elements become increasingly blended and enjoyable--rich and expansive like a beef burgundy dish that has been bubbling in the oven all afternoon. The old vine fruit for this wine is so powerful that, at least for me, it covers up any wine-making flaws.
Let me say, however, that wine-making flaws and traditional wine-making are by no means synonymous. At Domaine des Amouriers, Jocelyn Chudzikewitz returned from oenology school in 1985 to take over wine-making duties from her father, and I remember many of her Vacqueyras wines that aged beautifully for 10 to 12 years...with nary a trace of tired or stale fruit. When Jocelyn died (age 47) after a tragic accident in 1997, wine-making duties were taken over by Patrick Gras, her second husband and an employee of the winery up until that time. 1998 was apparently the initial vintage for Mr. Gras, and it certainly lacks the refined touch I had come to expect from this estate. I suspect the wine was left too long in concrete vats, allowing the fruit to dry up prematurely.
I haven't tasted any recent vintages of Domaine des Amouriers; nor have I tried the cuvee imported by Robert Kacher. For wines he brings into the United States, Kacher insists on new oak barriques that he buys himself because he feels this is what the American wine-drinking public expects, even if it adds a few dollars to the price of the wine. The wine I prefer is the traditional cuvee imported by J et R Selections of Mount Clemens, MI, not because it is less expensive but because I feel it preserves more of the special qualities of the Domaine des Amouriers soil.