La Beaugravière, Rhône Valley

I have been recommending this restaurant for nearly twenty years. It has the finest wine list in the southern Rhône, and Tina and Guy Jullien's cuisine just gets better and better. This unpretentious restaurant is well worth the thirty minute drive north of Avignon. Even though it was not truffle season, Jullien, who may be the biggest truffle purveyor in southern France, does as fine a job as anyone I know in preserving these black beauties. His scrambled eggs with truffles, puffed pastry filled with foie gras and black truffles, and beef with black truffle sauce are stunning, brilliantly executed dishes that are perfect matches for the region's full-flavored red wines.

At both dinners, we started the evening with the magnificent 2000 Beaucastel Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, the Montrachet of the southern Rhône Valley, and, for me, a far more delicious wine than most Montrachets. However, in most vintages this Roussanne needs to be consumed within its first 10-15 years of life. My experience has shown it really should be drunk early (within its first 3-4 years) and then forgotten for a decade, until it re-emerges.

On the first evening, magnums of the 1998 Charvin Châteauneuf du Pape and 1998 La Nerthe Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée des Cadettes couldn't have been more different. The Charvin, a wine that never sees any wood, represents the unfiltered essence of a fabulous vineyard. Pure black cherry and berry fruit mix with pepper, garrigue, and spice box in this magnificently pure, full-bodied, fleshy wine. It seems to go from strength to strength, adding both weight and complexity in the bottle. The 1998 Charvin represents the essence of old vine Grenache. In contrast, the 1998 La Nerthe Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée des Cadettes includes abundant quantities of Mourvèdre and Syrah as well as Grenache. It is aged in small oak barrels, of which approximately one-third are new. The 1998 is the finest Cuvée des Cadettes produced since the blockbuster 1978. The color is an inky purple, and the wine is more structured and backward than the Charvin. It is fabulously concentrated, with a wealth of fruit and marvelous complexity, but still very young. There is no question that La Nerthe is hitting all cylinders these days.

The second evening we again began with the majestic Beaucastel 2000 Roussanne Vieilles Vignes. That was followed by a mini-vertical of the only three bottled vintages of proprietor Jean-Jacques Sabon's magnificent ancient vine cuvée (at least 90% Grenache) called Secret des Sabons. The 1998 is perfection in a glass. The lighter 1999 and sumptuous, forward 2000 are nearly as impressive. These are magnificent, dense-colored wines with huge body, great complex aromas of spice box, cedar, black cherries, blackberries, Provençal herbs, leather, and roasted meats. The 1998 Secret des Sabons possesses the highest extract level and most structure; the 1999 is the most elegant; and the 2000 falls somewhere in between. The reason for drinking these wines was that I was with a friend who lost his wife to brain cancer this year, and this was their wine of choice during the period her cancer was in remission. Tasting these wines was both exhilarating and emotionally draining.

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