1998 was the year Chateauneuf-du-Pape finally got some respect. Don’t me wrong, the wine had maintained a loyal following for years, but more often than not the wines were described as rustic, earthy and in quite a few cases, dirty.
1998 was the turning point that changed that impression in consumers’ eyes, or at least those consumers who had yet to enjoy Chateauneuf. It was declared to be a watershed vintage when the wines of the appellation entered the era of modern winemaking. By modern winemaking I do mean cleaner winemaking, but there was another angle to that statement aided by the vintage.
1998 was a very warm vintage, allowing the Grenache that the region relies on, as well as the Syrah and many other grape varieties, to ripen perfectly.
I’ve spent enough time in the past arguing that perfect fruit off the vines may not truly translate into the best wines, but in the case of Southern Rhone wines in 1998, the combination of the more modern approach to winemaking coupled with this super ripe fruit produced breakthrough wines.
On release these wines were unusually fruity, rich and powerful, and they bowled over the critics. Accounts from back in the day touted the “dark, rich, ripe, thick red Chateauneufs,” proclaiming them the best since 1990, another warm vintage though one that may have stood the test of time better than 1998.
1998 happened to be a fortuitous time for Chateauneuf, not only in the region, but in the world marketplace as well. There was a bit of a wine boom going on, fueled by dotcom money and the various bubbles of the early years of the 21st century. Baby boomers were coming of age and they wanted to appreciate the best that life could offer. Chateauneuf, not to mention wine critics ready to curry favor with both consumers and producer, went on an ego-stroking spree resulting in unprecedented demand for these wines. This demand would ultimately push the prices up, up and out of the reach of most consumers.
What was once a solid, distinctive, gutsy bottle of well priced wine fairly quickly became just another overblown (not difficult in a region as warm as the Southern Rhone where alcohol above 14% was not uncommon), gloppy mess of slicked up wine designed to impress the sip and spit crowd and then sell for ridiculous sums.
This is no doubt a rather harsh characterization, but it does seem to be true. Today’s Chateauneuf-du-Papes are often noticeably marked with toasty oak and are certainly richer, cleaner and purer than their predecessors. And yet at the same time they manage to be less interesting, all while doubling and tripping in price. To add insult to injury, many producers also introduced so-called super cuvees over the past years, reserving their best juice (juice that used to form the heart and soul of their traditional bottlings) for fancy bottles and impressive labels. All of these are constructed to garner as many points as possible and then sell for hundreds of dollars. Not only have the basic cuvees increased in price, they don’t even include the best wines anymore!
I‘ve digressed, though this is where 1998 has brought us. Consumers responded positively to the wines, they loved the explosiveness and exuberance of the fruit soon after release. But as with any wine that costs a pretty sum, collectors hoped that there would be more; that the wines would age and develop nuance and complexity that sets them apart from simple table wines, intense or not. It’s easy to get plenty of fruit in a bottle, but the elegance, finesse and complexity that comes with time is a limited commodity.
It was with this in mind that I stocked my cellar back in the day, taking full advantage of the glory of 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Papes. The wines were, without a doubt, the most intense, rich and polished Chateauneufs I ever had, but did that really make them the best? Does the wine with the most fruit simply win?
Over the intervening years I’ve had ample opportunity to sample these wines at various points in their development, and it has seemed that for the most part the wines simply didn’t evolve. Yes, they aged, the tannins softened and the fruit faded, but the wines did not get better. In fact, they began to reveal the unfortunate side of a super ripe season. Porty notes began to emerge on the nose and as the red fruit faded, dried fruits and pruny notes became more prominent in many of the wines.
The growing season had fully ripened the grapes used in most of these wines, and it left them with slightly low acids in some cases and very gentle tannins in others. Structurally the wines were on the softer side, and without the defenses of acid and tannin. Many of the wines have seemed to age rather quickly, perhaps putting the i.e. to the theory that this was one of the greatest vintages ever.
On the other hand the performance of these could just as easily persuade one to enjoy Chateauneuf differently, earlier. Maybe they’d appreciate the wines more for their youthful fruit than any anticipated complexity, though it is a bit hard to reconcile that approach with the increasing prices that even these back vintage wines command.
From my perspective, it is time to re-evaluate my approach to these wines. While Chateauneuf never required extended cellaring, it did often benefit from it. If these 1998s are any indication, today’s wines simply don’t need much time to hit their peaks and probably will be at their best for a shorter window than many wines from the past.
Of course there are exceptions. A handful of exceptional producers have stayed true to their roots, even if that means that their wines are sometimes derided as rustic or old school, a compliment in my book.
I recently tasted some 1998 Chateaunuefs with mixed results. I had to look back at my last tasting of similar wines to gather a more representative sampling on which to opine. In truth these wines, now 14-years-old, have every right to be aging, but sadly for the most part they are not aging well. I would advise people with these wines in their cellar to consider drinking them over the next two or three years. With one or two exceptions, they will only get worse.
While 1998 was an impressive vintage, it really does not seem to be one of the top vintages in my book. Most flamboyant? By all means. But top? I don’t think so.
Photo courtesy of Kwong Yee Cheng via Flickr/cc
Domaine Font de Michelle Cuvee Etienne Gonnet
This offers up a classic nose of red cherry fruit accented with an Herbes de Provence nose, red candied licorice tones and a savory sun-dried tomato top note. Still youthful on the palate, this really captures the richness and brightness of the vintage with a smooth, slightly dense texture. Though not quite full-bodied, it is packed with sweet red cherry and toasted spice notes that seep out across the rather long finish. Really well balanced with good depth of flavor though if one wanted to nitpick, it does lack some complexity. 92pts
Le Vieux Donjon
Funky nose, decidedly leathery with plum, damp cigar, blackberry and cocoa. Youthful, rich and deep with a very aromatic inner mouth profile showing off green peppercorn and a lightly vegetal accent to the red cherry and slightly exotic pomegranate fruit. Finish is long, showing remaining tannins and a bright, acid-driven strawberry snap on the finale. 91pts
Very ripe and a bit Porty on the nose with prune elements, hung game, barnyard, sea salt and terry notes accenting the base of roasted red and black fruits. In the mouth this is rich yet smooth, with the power of the vintage in evidence. And yet the wine is very well balanced, delivering jammy red berry fruits without tremendous weight. The finish does show off a certain candied note before fading into dried herb and spice notes. Very successful for the vintage even though this strikes me as over-ripe. 91pts
Clos du Mont-Olivet
Black olive, licorice and herbs frame the black cherry and plum fruits of the nose here, and the flavors remain quite consistent on the palate as well. Rather deftly balanced, this remains on the elegant side of the spectrum and is firmly medium-bodied, with a soft base of tannins and fairly bright acidity helping to showcase the fruit. This is lovely and exhibits finesse that is hard to find in 1998 Chateauneuf, though it does lack a bit of complexity. Finishes with fine length and a return of savoriness on the finale. 91pts
Tight and clean, smoky, mineral, floral, oleander, balanced, reticent, finesse, elegant tannins, lithe mouth feel, hinting at black cherry. This requires air. A hint of chocolate, lovely length. Smith Brothers black cherry cough drops. This lacks the explosiveness of previous bottles, perhaps it’s closed or the wine is past peak. Having had so many great experiences with this wine over the past few years, this is a let down. 90pts
1998 Domaine Fortia
Smoky, strawberry, resolved nose, nice thyme and bit of stem, bacon and pork fat. Soft, fairly opulent, lovely acid and mineral notes, this still has plenty of strawberry fruit and bright acids on the moderately long finish. Crisp and still snappy, lovely fruit. I really love the brightness here. The tannins are dusty and just under the fruit at this point. A bit of a one trick pony but nicely done, gets better with air, more red fruit emerges. 89pts
1998 Paul Autard
Fleshy, lightly sweet red fruit, herb tones, little red licorice. Rather soft on the palate with fully resolved tannins and nice acid. A bit light with a nice mineral aspect on the back end, then it frays just a touch finishing with decent length and some chocolate notes. Quite aromatic, fleshy, round and very giving with a nice green spice thing on the finale. 87pts
1998 Domaine du Banneret
Tight, sweet nose with lovely herb stem, soil, mineral and light dried red fruits. Hint of Band-aid. A bit tannic but still nicely round up front. Lovely texture. Licorice and spice seeds develop a touch of leather on the nose. A bit stern and traditional, this needs some air. A bit short, solid but uninspiring, touch of heat on the finish. Simple and four square. 86pts
1998 Chateau Pegau
Classic nose, brett, garrigue, confiture of red currant and cherry, smoke, this finally shows some classic cndp body. There’s nice cut on the palate and a solid core of fruit, with good persistence on the palate. Lovely bitter cherry notes on the finish, then some added complexity with spices and herbs. Fully resolved and ready to go with a certain black gloss to the fruit. A bit chunky. And it turns dry with air. 88pts
1998 Clos du Mont-Olivet Cuvee Papet
Hard on the nose and assertively mineral and bloody. Meaty quality over a base of tarry, roasted leathery black fruits. On the palate this is rich yet rustic with a pronounced pepper attack, followed by somewhat coarse tannins all wrapped in black plum and cherry fruit. The mid-palate gains more focus but the flavors here remain roasted, brooding and dark, with a finish that sees the structure emerging on the finale. This does develop some nice, nuanced spice tones on the finish but it is ultimately rather tough and dark. 87pts
1998 Les Cailloux
Oxidized, celery seed, smoke, herb. Complex but very savory, smells like a frog. Really fine balance, lovely tannins and acid integration but this is cooked. With seaweed notes and bitter cherry fruit, this tastes like a frog too. 65pts
1987 Edmund St John Les Cotes Sauvages
Smoky, herbal, mineral, bit of mint, lovely garrigue, roasted strawberry, bright acids, intense, gently faded fruit, mineral notes. Still has fine raspberry and strawberry fruit, elegant. A bit short and jaded but still fun to drink with good length. Tastes like gravel on the finish. 84pts
1997 Charles Melton Nine Popes
Very ripe, tarry, herbal. There’s licorice, a nice underlying Big Red cinnamon spice, white flowers and tangerine peel. Big, a bit hard, still quite tannic with barely a covering of fruit. Viscous and rich, though the fruit has faded leaving behind leather, roasted fruit and toasted spice tones. Some fruit on the finish but it’s accompanied by lots of alcohol and dried fruit tones. No mas por favor.