What About Now? (Vertical tastings of famous Châteauneuf du Papes)

All of the following tastings were conducted over the last eight months. The Clos des Papes tasting was held at the domaine's cellars. Tastings of the Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin were done both at the cellars as well as in Baltimore. All of the other verticals were from bottles purchased when they appeared on the market and subsequently stored pristinely at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 80% humidity. None of the wines were decanted. For each vintage, generous pours of 4-6 ounces were provided, with the opportunity to go back and re-pour so a single vintage could be observed over a period of several hours.

The Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape's primary blend is 30% Grenache, 30% Mourvédre, 10% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Cinsault, and the rest Vaccarese, Muscardin, and other permitted varietals. Obviously, these amounts can vary. For example, the 1998 included more Grenache, and vintages such as 1999 and 2000 have more Mourvédre and Counoise. Like the Jacques Perrin cuvée, it sees no new oak, spending 8-18 months in large oak foudres. It is bottled without filtration. Since the estate is enormous (272 acres), and production ranges from 15,000-25,000 cases, reports of bottle variation can occur. However, since 1980, the entire crop has been bottled at the same time in order to prevent such variation. I suspect most bottle variation noted is not from Beaucastel, but is attributable to poor shipping and/or storage problems some place in the distribution chain. Another allegation often heard about Beaucastel is that many of the vintages are too animal-like, and are plagued by the spoilage yeast, brettanomyces. However, one of the characteristics of wines with high percentages of Mourvédre is an animalistic, earthy, leathery, meaty character. The opaque ruby/purple-colored 2000 offers a profoundly sweet perfume of melted licorice, blackberries, and black cherries backed up by loads of glycerin, full body, and moderately high but sweet, well-integrated tannin. There is a seamlessness to the 2000 that makes it not only accessible early, but absolutely delicious already, and thus atypical for Beaucastel. The 1985 behaved in this manner when young, but the 2000 possesses much more stuffing and power. A brilliant Beaucastel! Anticipated maturity: 2007-2025. It is a classic blend of 30% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre, 10% Syrah, 10% Counoise, and the balance other permitted varietals.

1998 is unquestionably one of the great modern day Beaucastels, but because of its high Grenache content, it is different from some of the other classics. Still closed and tannic, the 1995 requires an additional 5-6 years of cellaring. It should keep well through 2020. The 1994seems less successful than my early tastings indicated. The high percentage of Mourvédre (40% versus the normal 30%) has given it an earthy, leathery character with hints of mushrooms and tree bark. Although dense and chewy, it remains tannic and firm. It will keep for two decades, but it is not a hedonistic example and how much pleasure it will provide remains to be seen.

Two great back to back vintages are the 1990 and 1989. The more developed 1990 boasts an incredible perfume of hickory wood, coffee, smoked meat, Asian spices, black cherries, and blackberries. Lush, opulent, and full-bodied, it is a fully mature, profound Beaucastel that will last another 15-20 years. The 1989 is inkier/purple in color, with an extraordinarily sweet, rich personality offering up notes of smoke, melted licorice, black cherries, Asian spices, and cassis. Full-bodied and concentrated, it is one of the most powerful as well as highly extracted Beaucastels I have ever tasted. It requires another 3-4 years to reach its plateau of maturity, where it should remain for at least two decades. (Many purchasers have reported bottle leakage (due to a cork problem) with this vintage. I purchased two cases of this wine, but none of my bottles reveal any sign of leakage. A good friend of mine, Dr. Jay Miller, owner of Bin 604 Wine Sellers in Baltimore, has consistently had a problem with "corked" bottles of the 1989, but no leakage.) 1988 is firmly structured and elegant, with sweet, sweaty horse/old leather notes that may or may not be brett. Medium-bodied, earthy, firm, and vigorous, my instincts suggest it has reached full maturity, but I suspect it will always remain a firm, muscular example of Beaucastel without the charm, depth, and intensity of either the 1989 or 1990. In many ways it behaves along the lines of the 1995. One of the most charming Beaucastels since it was first bottled (and still holding on today), is the gorgeous 1985. Its medium ruby color reveals considerable amber/pink at the edge. This offering demonstrates that a wine does not need a lot of tannin and power to age well; it's all about balance. Velvety-textured, opulent, sweet, and appealing, this remains a classic Beaucastel. An example that possessed considerable brett from its inception, as well as plenty of beefy, sweaty horse smells is the 1983. This effort, while slightly in decline, still offers impressive aromatics (if you like your reds meaty and kinky), but the tannin is beginning to poke through at the back of the mouth. Rich and medium to full-bodied, the 1983 is undoubtedly spectacular out of larger formats, but from regular bottles, it is beginning to show some fatigue, even from my cold cellar. Drink it up. One of the all-time great classics, the 1981is fully mature and should be consumed. It's a big, sweet, candied fruit bomb offering notes of smoke, pepper, dried herbs, truffles, leather, cedar, as well as black and red currants. Full-bodied and opulent, it is one of the most delicious, complex, and stunning Beaucastels ever made. Anyone who has magnums of this wine has the equivalent of liquid gold. Out of regular bottle, I would recommend consumption over the next several years.

The 1979 has always reminded me of an Italian Barolo with its melted asphalt, soy, tobacco, and earthy personality. It is medium to full-bodied, somewhat sinewy and tannic, but vibrant, dense, and chewy. Although not the most complex Beaucastel, it is still vigorous and alive. A Beaucastel that has always perplexed me is the 1978. Immediately prior to and after bottling, I thought it had a mid-ninety point potential. While still intact, with a deep ruby/garnet color to the rim as well as a sensational bouquet, the flavors are slightly austere, angular, and tough. It could easily last another 15-20 years, but I don't think it will ever be opulent or charming, or provide the great pleasure I seek in a fine wine. Lastly, the 1972 was beginning to crack up and fade. This was gorgeous during its first 12-15 years of life, but it has been in decline since. Importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL; tel. (205) 980-8802

This 5,000-6,000 bottle cuvée was inaugurated in 1989 as a tribute to the late Jacques Perrin, who died in 1978. It is one of the planet's most profound wines. I had the good fortunate of doing a vertical tasting at the estate, and several months later, I was able to do a virtually identical tasting in Baltimore with my wine group, Les Oenarchs. Every vintage except for the 1998 has been a blend of 60% Mourvédre, 20% Grenache, 10% Counoise, and 10% Syrah. In 1998, because of the extraordinary quality of the Grenache, the percentages of Mourvédre and Grenache were reversed. This is a wine for connoisseurs as it often needs 7-8 years of cellaring, and lasts for 2-3 decades or more. A brilliant achievement, it is unquestionably a worthy homage to Jacques Perrin, whose name remains synonymous with high quality, traditional Châteauneuf du Pape of great longevity. The 2000 is the typical blend cited above. It possesses an impenetrable black/purple color as well as a sumptuous bouquet of melted licorice, creosote, new saddle leather, blackberry and cherry fruit as well as roasted meats. Sweet and full-bodied, with great intensity, huge power, and a finish that lasts for 67 seconds by my watch, this is an amazing tour de force in winemaking. Even in a flattering, forward-styled vintage such as 2000, it will need 7-8 years of cellaring, yet this is the most accessible Jacques Perrin I have tasted. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2040.

The 1999 is closed and less expressive than the 2000, and perhaps more elegant and less weighty. Nevertheless, it is an enormously endowed effort revealing notes of licorice, blackberry and cherry fruit, melted asphalt, tapenade, truffles, and smoke. Chewy, with more minerality than most vintages of this wine possess, it requires a minimum of 6-8 years of cellaring. It should last 35-40 years. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2035. The 1998 is an extraordinary effort, and from a purely hedonistic standpoint, probably my favorite Jacques Perrin (no doubt because of the high percentage of Grenache). It is an intense, full-bodied wine filled with notes of kirsch liqueur as well as an incredibly silky, expansive mouthfeel. It is one of the few vintages that was ready to drink within 3-4 years of the vintage, yet it is capable of lasting for three decades. It may not represent exactly what brothers François and Jean-Pierre Perrin are seeking (they mean this cuvée to emphasize the greatness of Mourvédre), but it is an incredible wine. The 1995 remains tight, backward, and far less evolved than the 1998. The dense inky purple color is accompanied by a floral, blueberry, mineral, and licorice-dominated bouquet. Huge and formidably endowed, but closed, tannic, and backward, it will be at its apogee between 2010-2030. 1994 is the odd man out in this mini-vertical, revealing an animal-styled personality with notes of beef blood, animal fur, wet dog, mushrooms, tree bark, licorice, spice, black currants, and cherries. Medium to full-bodied and rich, but slightly awkward compared to its siblings, it should be drinkable between 2006-2020. Hindsight suggests this might not have been a vintage in which to produce a Jacques Perrin

Both the 1990 and 1989 are perfect, albeit completely different styled Châteauneuf du Papes. The perfection of the 1990 is based on a seamless, classic, harmonious concoction of flowers, melted licorice, blackberries, kirsch, blueberries, and Asian spices. An enormously full-bodied, sweet, expansive, amazing wine with a finish that lasts over a minute, it combines the extraordinary hedonism of the 1998 with an unbelievable intellectual appeal that makes it so hauntingly great. Even though it remains youthful, it can be drunk now or cellared for another 30 years. The less evolved 1989 boasts an even inkier purple color. The most massive, biggest, concentrated, and structured of any of the Jacques Perrins, but is still 5-10 years away from full maturity. It has great intensity and is extraordinary to taste, but it is not a lot of fun to drink ... if you know what I mean. In any event, this is a potentially perfect wine. The only question is, when will it hit its plateau of maturity? My guess is around 2010. Importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL; tel. (205) 980-8802

The last living legend in Châteauneuf du Pape is Henri Bonneau, a bigger-than-life Provençal character who produces (at his own discretion) about 1,500 cases of wine from ancient vines, mostly Grenache. As I have recounted numerous times, a visit to Bonneau's cellars, assuming you can get in, is a special treat for any wine lover. How superlative wines can emerge from such a hodge-podge of ancient barrels, foudres, and who knows what else (in conditions that would appall modern day oenologists), is one of winedom's great mysteries. To push the envelope even further, the wine is kept in this assortment of containers for up to 4+ years before Bonneau decides to bottle them. The 1998 Réserve des Céléstins, which might be a candidate for perfection, will be bottled (maybe) in 2003. As always, the proof is in the bottle, and this is where the magic begins. Life's too short not to have several bottles of Réserve des Céléstins, or the second offering, Cuvée Marie Beurrier. A recent mini-vertical made me realize that I can never have enough of this man's wine. Sadly, I will never have enough given the tiny quantities produced.

Although the 1995 remains tight and closed, it reveals classic Bonneau characteristics of roasted herbs, beef blood, cherries, cassis, licorice, and earth. These wines often taste as if someone took one of the old Grenache vines, threw it a Cuisinart, liquified it, added a bit of brandy, and then bottled it. This is classic Châteauneuf du Pape, the likes of which are increasingly difficult to find. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2025. The 1992 is unquestionably the "wine of the vintage." How Bonneau managed to produce such an amazing beverage continues to boggle my mind. It did not show that well when tasted from the various containers in the cramped cellars, but out of bottle, it's the real deal! Aromas of grilled meats, barbecue spices, lavender, smoke, cedar, and kirsch liqueur soar from the glass of this dark plum/ruby-colored wine. Its power and richness in a vintage such as this are hard to believe. Long, chewy, and close to full maturity (unusual for a 10-year old Réserve des Céléstins), it can be drunk now and over the next 12 years. One of the greatest wines ever produced ... anywhere ... is the 1990. Having consistently merited 100 points (if my scoring system went higher, it would be there), it continues to perform like a young wine, yet is accessible enough to be appreciated for its extraordinary combination of power, complexity, and majestic layers of flavor. The color is a dark plum/ruby to the edge. The monumental bouquet offers up aromas of liquified charcoaled beef intermixed with pepper, smoke, crème de cassis, kirsch liqueur, truffles, and new saddle leather. This full-bodied, viscous, prodigious Châteauneuf du Pape must be tasted to be believed. It is more like a food than a beverage. Anticipated maturity: now-2030.

Inching closer and closer to the celestial 1990, is the 1989. This cuvée was fabulous when tasted in Bonneau's cellars, but it closed down after bottling. Possibly even more powerful and tannic than the 1990, as well as more backward, the 1989 looks to be a great classic. It is a Réserve des Céléstins to forget for another 3-8 years. It possesses all the characteristics of the 1990, but everything is packed into a more linear personality. Amazing stuff! Anticipated maturity: 2009-2035. Beginning to throw off its cloak of tannin and start its evolution is the 1988. A dark plum/ruby color is accompanied by a sweet perfume of mushrooms, tree bark, black cherries macerated in brandy, and the tell-tale beef blood, lavender, cedar, and tobacco aromas. This full-bodied, powerful yet structured Réserve des Céléstins does not reveal the pure breadth and depth of flavor found in the 1989 and 1990, but comes across as a mature example of the 1995. Anticipated maturity: now-2025. Another miracle vintage is the 1986. Few Châteauneuf du Papes from this vintage turned out well, and the few that did required consumption during their first decade of life. Bonneau's 1986 is just hitting full maturity. It offers a concoction of jammy, concentrated licorice-infused black cherry fruit, with hints of tobacco, cedar, beef blood, smoked herbs, and Asian spices. As the wine sits in the glass, aromas of licorice, Peking duck, and other exotic scents emerge. An amazing effort, it may be the only Réserve des Céléstins I own that can be classified as fully mature. Anticipated maturity: now-2020. Importer: Alain Junguenet, Wines of France, Mountainside, NJ; tel. (908) 654-6173

Les Cailloux's regular cuvée has evolved into a blend of 65% Grenache, 20% Mourvédre, 10% Syrah, and 5% miscellaneous varietals aged both in barrel and foudre. The 2000 is pure sex in a bottle. A fragrant bouquet offers up aromas of spice box, cedar, pepper, jammy cherries, and a hint of plums and prunes. Dense, full-bodied, and evolved, but gorgeously succulent, this is a seamless, voluptuous Châteauneuf du Pape. Its fragrance, tactile mouthfeel, and explosive finish make for a sumptuous Châteauneuf du Pape to drink now and over the next 10-12 years.

The classic 1998 represents a blend of traditional and progressive winemaking techniques. A southern Rhône nose of garrigue (the Provençal earthy/herb aroma), pepper, wood spice, and gorgeously sweet black cherry and plum-like flavors are intense as well as alluring. Once past the bouquet, this dark ruby/garnet-colored wine offers a full-bodied, powerful, layered impression, with impressive levels of glycerin, ripe fruit, and extract. Tannin is present, but it is sweet. This 1998 will easily drink well for 10-12 years. The traditional cuvée of 1990 is stunning. Fully mature, it offers up a delicious perfume of Asian spices, cedar, leather, black cherries, plums, and prunes. Luscious and viscous, it is a terrific effort. Anticipated maturity: now-2010. The backward 1989 appears to be fully mature. More narrowly constructed than the 1990, it offers up notes of soy, seaweed, lavender, black cherries, figs, and plum-like fruit in a medium-bodied, structured, but delicious style. Anticipated maturity: now-2010. Importer: Robert Kacher Selections, Washington, DC; tel. (202) 832-9083

From this impeccably run estate, André Brunel produces 7,000 cases of a traditionally made regular Châteauneuf du Pape, and, when possible, about 500 cases of Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée Centenaire. The Cuvée Centenaire emerges from 114-year old Grenache vines (about 80-85% of the blend), which is combined with younger-vine Syrah and Mourvédre. Approximately half of the blend spends time in new oak casks, and half in neutral foudres or vats. Brunel, who is one of the most articulate spokespersons of Châteauneuf du Pape, continues to fine tune his winemaking, always trying to enhance the fruit and texture. That has been apparent over recent vintages, although some of the old classics are not to be missed. The heady 2000 is more evolved than either the 2001 or 1998. Extremely full-bodied, with low acidity, and a knock-out bouquet of blackberry and cherry jam intermixed with licorice, pepper, and dried Provençal herbs, this sexy, voluptuous, enormously concentrated 2000 possesses a huge, silky, seamless finish. Drink this irresistible effort now and over the next 12-15 years.

The 1998 Cuvée Centenaire is an awesome Châteauneuf du Pape. Made from extremely old vines, this is the essence of both Châteauneuf du Pape and the Grenache grape. The wine boasts a deep ruby/purple color as well as an extraordinary bouquet of melted, jammy black cherry, raspberry, and currant fruit mixed with pepper and spice box. In the mouth, it is rich, full-bodied, and unctuously-textured, with extraordinary purity, and laser-like definition for a wine of such massive concentration and depth. The finish lasts for nearly a minute. This spectacular, youthful, amazingly accessible offering is a tour de force in winemaking, and a tribute to just how great Châteauneuf du Pape can be. Anticipated maturity: now-2025. 1995 was a powerful vintage for Brunel. The Cuvée Centenaire remains a young, promising wine offering notes of licorice, cedar, vanilla, and sweet black currant/cherry fruit presented in a full-bodied, virile style. Anticipated maturity: 2007-2018. One of the greatest vintages for André Brunel, aside from his extraordinary succession of vintages from 1998-2001 is 1990. The perfect Cuvée Centenaire is still dense ruby/purple-colored with a sumptuous nose of white flowers, raspberry and cherry liqueur, smoke, and mineral scents. The gorgeous aromatics are followed by an unctuously-textured, pure wine that combines the best of Châteauneuf du Pape with the floral, earthy complexity of a great grand cru red Burgundy. This is a riveting tour de force in winemaking. Don't miss it. Anticipated maturity: now-2020. The 1989 remains a young, tight, difficult to penetrate wine that is loaded with potential. Licorice, black fruits, Asian spices, and vanilla emerge from the dense, saturated purple color. Closed, firm, and powerful, with abundant tannin as well as extraction, it is a candidate for another two decades of cellaring. Anticipated maturity: 2008-2025. Importer: Robert Kacher Selections, Washington, DC; tel. (202) 832-9083

One of the superb single vineyard offerings in Chapoutier's portfolio is their 500-700 case cuvée of Châteauneuf du Pape Barbe Rac. There are approximately 600 cases of it. The deep ruby/purple-colored 2000 boast a fabulous perfume of kirsch liqueur, licorice, ground pepper, and a hint of Provençal herbs. Ripe, full-bodied, and concentrated, with huge quantities of glycerin as well as a finish that lasts for nearly 50 seconds, this spectacular Châteauneuf du Pape possesses a sweetness and endearing accessibility that make it hard to resist. It should be drinkable during its entire 20-year evolution. It's a wow, wow wine!

The 1998, which comes from a parcel of Grenache vines planted in 1901 in the western sector of the appellation. A dark plum/purple color is accompanied by a smoky, kirsch, roasted meat, and saddle leather-scented bouquet. The wine took a full year to ferment dry. The result is a blockbuster, full-bodied, super-concentrated Châteauneuf du Pape with multiple nuances of spice and Christmas fruit cake, as well as a lusty, heady, alcoholic finish nicely balanced by abundant quantities of glycerin and dense, layered fruit. Don't hesitate to drink it now as well as over the next two decades. Although closed and backward, the 1995 exhibits a promising, muscular, virile style. A sleeper vintage, the dense ruby/purple-colored, extremely concentrated1993 offers a gloriously heady concoction of melted licorice, seaweed, black cherry liqueur, and smoke. It is a candidate for the "wine of the vintage" in Châteauneuf du Pape. The sweet, rich, fully mature 1992 is not far behind. A great success for this vintage, it is best drunk over the next 8-10 years. Another blockbuster, the 1990 is just now approaching full maturity. It possesses a dense ruby/purple color as well as a gorgeous bouquet of prunes, kirsch liqueur, balsam wood, incense, and fruitcake. Full-bodied, with a viscous texture, and a long, concentrated finish exhibiting admirable purity and balance, it can be drunk now and over the next 17-18 years.

A classic for the vintage, the tight, muscular, tannic, saturated ruby/purple-colored 1989requires another 3-5 years of cellaring. The bouquet offers up scents of Provençal herbs, pepper, garrigue, licorice, and gobs of kirsch liqueur. Full-bodied and powerful as well as extremely tannic, it will be drinkable between 2008-2020+. Importer: Paterno Imports, Lake Bluff, IL; tel. (847) 604-8900

As I have indicated in other reports, the blend at Clos des Papes tends to include less Grenache (about 65%) and more Mourvédre (20%), along with 10% Syrah and 5% Counoise than many other estates (which generally have 80%-100% Grenache in the blend). Unlike many of its peers, it is typically a long-lived wine that requires 5-7 years to shed its tannin and begin to strut its stuff. Big vintages do not hit their prime until age 10-12, then evolve beautifully for two decades. The exception may be the 1978, a wine that seems to get better and better every time I taste it. The 2000 reveals 14.6% alcohol, and is stylistically similar to the great 1990. The 2000 is open-knit and fat, with higher levels of glycerin as well as a more corpulent style than the structured, backward 2001. A deep ruby/purple color is followed by sweet, black cherry/kirsch liqueur-like notes presented in a voluptuous, full-throttle, intense style. It is already revealing such secondary nuances as pepper, garrigue, and truffles. Chewy, full-bodied, and moderately tannic, this cuvée is accessible, but not ready to drink. Why is it that every time I drink this wine, a grand cru Burgundy from Vosne-Romanée comes to mind? Anticipated maturity: 2007-2025.

While the 1999 performed better than the 1998, it remains firm and closed, offering plenty of sweet kirsch and blackberry fruit, licorice, spice, and floral aromas. Structured, medium to full-bodied, and moderately tannic, it should be at its finest between 2006-2020. Although the 1998 is not one of the vintage's top successes, it is outstanding. It exhibits a certain hardness and austerity, along with sweet fruit, a layered palate impression, and a closed, firm finish. Anticipated maturity: 2006-2018. 1995 was a very good, but firmly structured, tannic vintage for nearly all Châteauneuf du Pape producers. The wines do not display the generosity of the 1998s or 2000s, but the finest examples are admirably concentrated. Clos des Papes' closed, spicy 1995 exhibits more animal-like notes than the sweeter, more fruit-dominated vintages of 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. Nevertheless, it is big, full, and promising, but cellaring is warranted. Anticipated maturity: 2005-2020. The 1993 is an excellent effort in this more challenging vintage. One of the pleasant surprises of recent tastings has been how many fine 1993 Châteauneuf du Papes there are. This vintage is over-looked today, but well-stored examples are beginning to drink beautifully. Clos des Papes' dense ruby-colored1993 exhibits plenty of kirsch, soy, and Asian spices along with a bit of shortness and toughness in the finish. Although fully mature, it will keep for another 8-10 years. From a fabulous vintage, the 1990 is one of the greatest offerings from Clos des Papes. This was the last vintage vinified with 100% stems, and the result is a full-bodied, opulent, sweet, multidimensional, expansive Châteauneuf du Pape. It has hit its plateau of maturity, where it should rest for 10-15 years. Terrific!

Like many of the best wines from this vintage, the 1989 remains a big, muscular, virile, closed Châteauneuf boasting an impressive ruby/purple color displaying no signs of degradation. Still young and vibrant, with hints of saddle leather, roasted herbs, licorice, and black fruit, as well as excruciatingly high tannin, this vintage may behave like the 1978. The only concern is when will these wines reach maturity? Anticipated maturity: 2008-2025. Fully mature, with a sweet attack and firm tannin in the finish, the dark ruby/purple-colored 1988 exhibits notes of underbrush, compost, dried herbs, licorice, and kirsch. This elegant, refined effort can be drunk now and over the next ten years. From a difficult vintage in Châteauneuf du Pape (it probably had as many problems as 2002), the medium-bodied, pleasant 1984 reveals pepper, spice, and vegetal characteristics along with sweet currant and cherry fruit. It will last another 4-5 years.

The virtually perfect 1978 still possesses a dark, dense plum/garnet color to the rim. An extraordinary nose of black tea intermixed with licorice, figs, truffles, black currants, and cherries is to die for. The wine is full-bodied and dense, with melted licorice and truffle flavors dominating the palate. Powerful yet harmonious, this is one of the modern day classics of Châteauneuf du Pape. Anticipated maturity: now-2012. Importer: Alain Junguenet, Wines of France, Mountainside, NJ; tel. (908) 654-6173

Catherine and Sophie Armenier continue to fashion one of France's greatest wines. There are 750 cases produced from 80% Grenache, 10% Mourvédre, and 10% miscellaneous varietals. The vines average 50+ years in age. The 2000 carries its 15% alcohol well. A compelling, magical offering, it is uunquestionably one of the wines of the vintage. I would be thrilled to drink it anytime ... anywhere! The floral component of white flowers intermixed with melted licorice, blackberry liqueur, plums, and prunes is followed by an expansive, sexy, silky-textured, full-bodied Châteauneuf with great depth, purity, and lusciousness. The finish lasts for nearly a minute. It is a singular expression of Châteauneuf du Pape that is totally different than its peers. Strikingly rich, dense, and opulent, with a breathtaking array of complexity and flavors, its low acidity, ripe tannin, and wealth of glycerin suggest drinking it now and over the next 15-16 years.

The profound, dense ruby/purple-colored 1998 reveals tell-tale blackberry liqueur aromas and flavors are present, as well as a formidable level of glycerin, admirable richness, and a soaring bouquet of black fruits, minerals, lavender, and exotic spices. The finish lasts 50+ seconds, and the wine's purity and multiple dimensions are staggering. This is a dazzling, full-throttle Châteauneuf du Pape that is unbelievably concentrated, unctuous, well-balanced and silky-textured. There is not a rough edge to be found. Anticipated maturity: now-2020. Unlike many wines from this vintage, the 1995 is approaching full maturity. It exhibits a deep plum/purple color as well as a sweet bouquet of figs, prunes, black raspberries, and blackberries (always a hallmark of this old vine cuvée). Full-bodied and unctuous, with high tannin, glycerin, and richness, it will provide immense pleasure over the next 17-18 years. The funky, kinky 1992(which I loved early in life) is in a weird stage, smelling of animal fur and mushrooms intermixed with tell-tale kirsch liqueur and blackberry fruit. Some of the musty, mushroomy characteristics have dissipated, resulting in a concentrated, remarkable effort for the vintage. Sweet and unctuous, but still a bit bizarre in its aromatic profile, I would opt for drinking it over the next 5-8 years. It is a great wine ... provided you hold your nose. The 1990 has been a consistently perfect wine for much of its life. However, it appears to have turned the corner and lost some of its most profound aspects. It is still an immortal Châteauneuf du Pape, with a dense ruby/purple color in addition to a gorgeous nose of licorice, white flowers, blueberries, and blackberries. The wine is heady, with high alcohol, an unctuous texture, and an extraordinary ripe, concentrated finish. However, some bottles tasted seem far older than others. I don't know whether it is a bottle variation problem or a question of improper storage. Nevertheless, pristine bottles remain candidates for perfection. The 1989 is essentially equivalent to the 1990, with a more muscular, backward personality as well as enormous concentration, density, and length. It offers up a tell-tale bouquet of melted licorice, crème de cassis, blackberries, and blueberries. Like the 1990's, the finish lasts for 60 seconds. The 1989 requires an additional 2-3 years of cellaring. Anticipated maturity: 2006-2020. Importer: Importer: Eric Solomon, European Cellars, Charlotte, NC; tel. (704) 358-1565

The top cuvée of the most majestic estate in Châteauneuf du Pape, Château de la Nerthe, the Cuvée des Cadettes is only made in the finest years. The ideal production desired by administrator Alain Dugas is 1,000-1,500 cases. The blend changes from year to year, but it generally includes a high percentage of Mourvédre. The 2000 is a blend of 38% Syrah, 35% Grenache, and 27% Mourvèdre. This blend was modified from the core blend first tasted, and includes the highest percentage of Syrah used in any Cuvée des Cadettes to date. It exhibits a dense ruby/purple color as well as a sweet, concentrated, opulent style with plenty of power, loads of sweet blackberry liqueur notes and a touch of toast as well as vanilla in the background. Sweet, chewy, plush, sexy, and voluptuous, it may not be the longest-lived example, but it is undeniably charming and disarming. Anticipated maturity: 2005-2016.

The 1999 (39% Grenache, 35% Syrah, and 26% Mourvédre, all aged in barrel) does not reveal the fat of the 2000 or 1998, but it is an elegant, well-delineated effort with copious vibrancy, freshness, and cedar, black cherry and cassis fruit. Medium to full-bodied with a moderately muscular personality, it will benefit from 4-5 years of cellaring, and keep for 15-18. The 1998, which has put on considerable weight since I first tasted it, is a blend of 39% Grenache, 37% Mourvédre, and 24% Syrah. It possesses a dense purple color as well as a glorious bouquet of blackberry liqueur intermixed with aromas of white flowers, licorice, and hints of minerals and garrigue. Full-bodied, chewy, and thick, its enormous wealth of fruit and glycerin conceals substantial tannin. To my taste, this classic is the greatest Des Cadettes made to date (but watch out for the 2001!). Anticipated maturity: 2006-2025. Fashioned from 44% Grenache and equal parts Mourvédre and Syrah, the ruby/purple-colored 1995 offers tight but promising aromas of red and black fruits, scorched earth, wood some, and vanilla. Medium to full-bodied, tannic, and tightly knit, it requires another 4-5 years of cellaring (as do many 1995 Châteauneuf du Papes). Anticipated maturity: 2008-2016. The 1990, a blend of 40% Grenache, 40% Mourvédre, and 20% Syrah, displays some bouquet development, but remains a firmly-structured offering without the generosity, richness, and texture found in all Des Cadettes produced between 1998 and 2001. The deep ruby/purple-colored 1990 was filtered, which may have pulled out some of the texture and sweetness. Nevertheless, it is a strong effort that can be drunk now and over the next 12-15 years.

Fashioned from a blend of 60% Grenache, 30% Mourvédre, and 10% Syrah, the 1989 is dense and firm, but it never seemed the same after an aggressive fining and filtration partially denuded this cuvée. Dugas admits that these earlier vintages were intensely filtered, and the percentage of new oak utilized was higher. Since the late nineties, filtration has been eliminated and the amount of new oak reduced, both encouraging developments. Both the 1989 and 1990 reveal a more international as opposed to souther Rhône style, but they are still very good wines. The fully mature 1989 needs to be drunk. Importer: Clicquot Imports, New York, NY; tel. (212) 888-7575

The 2,000 cases that emerge from the sandy, cool-climate (in a torridly hot zone) nothern-exposed Rayas vineyard may be the most eccentric wines of the appellation. Everything at this estate has been in transition since Jacques Reynaud's death in January, 1997 and his replacement by his nephew, Emmanuel Reynaud, who told me he preferred to make wines like Jacques' father. The jury is still out on Emmanuel's decision, but the 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001 have not been as profound as the 1995 or 1990. However, he's a young man, and he's replacing a legend. In most vintages, Rayas never possesses the intense color of its peers. Hence many tasters who judge wines by their inky/purple colors will write it off as a light Châteauneuf. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only Rayas vintages that have possessed deeply pigmented colors are 1995 and 1990. This wine seduces the taster based on an extraordinary smorgasbord of aromas, including kirsch liqueur, strawberries, tobacco, and licorice. That said, the 2000 has been a severe disappointment in three out of four bottles tasted. Three of the bottles were diluted, vegetal, and evolved. The best bottle emerged from a tasting at the estate. The tasting note on that bottle follows. The 2000 Rayas Châteauneuf du Pape, which Emmanuel Reynaud believes is better than 1998, came in at a whopping 15.2% alcohol. It is reminiscent of a hypothetical blend of the 1998 and 1999, with a medium to light ruby color, and a sumptuous bouquet of kirsch liqueur, spice box, and licorice. Full-bodied and fleshy, with low acidity, it is a sweet (from high glycerin and alcohol), seductive, intoxicating offering with no hard edges and a rich, fleshy mouthfeel. While it will be hard to resist, I feel the 1998 still has more structure. Anticipated maturity for the 2000: 2005-2016. To reiterate, the other three bottles tasted stateside were strikingly rust/ruby in color as well as herbaceous/vegetal.

Although the 1998 is not among the most compelling wines of the vintage, it continues to put on weight and performs better and better with each tasting. It appears to be the finest effort Emmanuel Reynaud has yet produced. The lighter-styled 1997 and 1996 appear diluted in terms of color, but both possesses surprising quantities of sweet black cherry fruit intermixed with hints of resin, licorice, and tobacco. They are medium to full-bodied Châteauneufs with far more flavor and intensity than their light-ish colors suggest. Both require consumption over the next 5-8 years. The 1995 is spectacular. When Emmanuel Reynaud said it was evolving quickly, in essence repudiating this vintage, I immediately drank two bottles of this glorious elixir. It does not reveal the over-ripeness of the 1990, bringing to mind a hypothetical blend of the great 1989 and 1978. Deeply-colored and still young, with black currant/crème de cassis-like characteristics, huge body, yet great structure and delineation, this is a classic Rayas that is totally different than the 1990. It should continue to improve in the bottle and may merit an even higher score. While it can be drunk now, it will be even better with 3-4 years of cellaring. Anticipated maturity: 2007-2020. What Emmanuel Reynaud is talking about escapes me. A sleeper of the vintage, the 1994 offers up a fragrant perfume of kirsch, raspberries, leather, and tobacco in a medium to full-bodied, surprisingly authoritative style with outstanding depth, ripeness, and length. Compared to the cost of the 1990 and 1995, this is a steal. As for the 1990, I have had the good fortune to drink nearly three cases, and it has been one of the triumphs of my cellar. A mere 1-2 years ago, I enjoyed a succession of perfect "100 point" bottles, but the last several bottles have merited 96-100 points, perhaps revealing the direction of this wine's evolution. Nevertheless, this is riveting stuff. A legendary Rayas made from extremely ripe Grenache, it exhibits notes of over-ripe kirsch, raspberries, cherries, game, licorice, and tobacco. This unctuously-textured, thick, juicy Châteauneuf must tip the scale at 15.5% alcohol. It is truly a Rhône Valley monument. Owners, however, should consume it over the next 8-10 years. P.S. The 1990 Pignan, drank New Year's Day, 2003, was a 95 point wine. It is the finest Pignan I have ever tasted.

A wine that continues to catch up to the 1990 (and probably has greater longevity) is the 1989. A dense-colored Rayas, but not as thick-looking as the 1990, this dark ruby-colored wine exhibits plenty of roasted herb notes intermixed with scents of tobacco, sweet crème de cassis, and kirsch. Full-bodied, highly-extracted, powerful, and tannic (resembling 1995 more than 1990), it is shedding its cloak of tannin and beginning to approach full maturity. Another gorgeous effort, the 1988 has come on strong lately. While neither as flamboyant as the 1990 nor as extracted as the 1989, it is a gorgeously elegant example that would be interesting to insert in a top grand cru red Burgundy tasting. Flowery, sweet black cherries and raspberries, along with resiny, loamy soil aromas jump from the glass of this dark ruby-colored Châteauneuf. Full-bodied, rich, and just reaching its plateau of maturity, it will last for another 5-10 years. The1985 was great young, then went into a dormant state, but has bounced back with a vengeance. The medium ruby color is not particularly saturated, but the gorgeous bouquet offers up scents of balsam, pepper, black cherries, and leather. The wine is alcoholic, heady, and rich, but a sneaky tannic characteristic creeps up as the wine sits in the glass. The 1985 has continually played games, one bottle suggesting early maturity, and the next indicating far greater longevity. There is no color degradation, and it appears to be just now reaching its peak of maturity. I would opt for drinking it over the next 5-10 years. Two vintages that are nearing the end of their lives, but which can still be spectacular where well-stored, are the 1983 and 1981. Both were classic Rayas vintages, with the 1983 potentially the "wine of the vintage" in Châteauneuf du Pape, and the 1981 not far behind. Both reveal considerable amber in their colors, along with huge, intoxicating aromatic displays of red and black fruits, herbs, spices, earth, and licorice. Both remain full-bodied, sweet, creamy-textured Châteauneuf du Papes that, while gorgeous to drink, should be drunk up.

Two wines that once hit the magical three-digit score were the 1978 and 1979. Both are in decline. The 1979 reveals a complex nose of dried herbs, leather, animal fur, black raspberries, cherries, and licorice. It is beginning to fade in the mouth, with the tannin and acidity poking through in the finish ... always a sign of a wine turning the corner ... for the worse. It can still be spectacular, and there may well be some pristine bottles that remain perfect, but I have not seen one in many years. The same can be said for the 1978, a wine that started off life slowly, gathered steam, blossomed at age 8-10, and continued to add weight and richness until 1999-2000, when it began a slight decline. Although it is still a spectacular wine, it is no longer perfect. Importers: Alain Junguenet, Wines of France, Mountainside, NJ; tel. (908) 654-6173 and Martine's Wines, Novato, CA; tel. (415) 883-0400

A traditionally run Châteauneuf du Pape estate making consistently excellent as well as under-valued wines, this old style offering is an oak foudre-aged blend of primarily Grenache (80%), Syrah, Mourvédre, and Cinsault. The 2000 represents an educational tour of the southern Rhône, in particular, Châteauneuf du Pape. It possesses all the appellation's classic components ... underbrush, garrigue, licorice, pepper, lavender, sweet black cherries, and incense. Extremely perfumed and heady, this full-bodied, moderately tannic offering comes close to matching the mass and blockbuster power of the 1998. Firm tannin in the finish suggests a long aging curve. Given my experience with Vieux Donjon, most of the classic vintages hit their peak at 7-8 years, where they remain for 5-6 years. Around age 15-16 they begin a slow decline. The 2000 should follow that path. Anticipated maturity: 2006-2016.

The Michel family has rarely disappointed over the last decade, even in vintages such as 1993, a delicious, dark, herb-tinged wine exhibiting notes of licorice, compost, leather, Provençal herbs, and black fruits. Fully mature, it is best consumed over the next 3-4 years. The 1998, a classic in the making, is, along with the 1990, one of the two finest Vieux Donjons I have tasted. The backward 1998 offers aromas of incense, roasted herbs, lavender, licorice, and kirsch liqueur in a full-bodied, sweet, expansive, structured style. It should last another 15-20 years. The 1995 remains closed, but promising. Its garnet/plum/purple color is followed by sweet aromas of roasted herbs, black cherries, incense, licorice, iodine, and earth. Medium to full-bodied, structured, and muscular, it is still youthful and exuberant, with plenty of tannin to shed. Anticipated maturity: 2006-2014. The spectacular 1990 gets better every time I go back to it. Fully mature, yet seemingly capable of lasting another 8-10 years, it boasts a dark plum/garnet color in addition to a celestial bouquet of lavender and other Provençal herbs intermixed with licorice-infused cassis and black cherry liqueur. Powerful, full-bodied, unctuously textured, and loaded, there are no hard edges in this seamless, young classic. Don't miss it!

The 1989, like many of its peers in this vintage, has aged at a glacial pace. The color is still a dark plum/ruby, and the nose exhibits dusty sweet and sour cherry aromas intermixed with licorice, herbs, leather, and meat. While tight in the mouth, and medium to full-bodied, with high tannin, it possesses good balance. I suspect it is behaving like many 1978s did at a similar age. Anticipated maturity: 2007-2016. Importer: Alain Junguenet, Wines of France, Mountainside, NJ; tel. (908) 654-6173

This renowned estate can produce 18,000-20,000 cases of wine, although there is rarely that quantity of the top cuvée because of the introduction of a second label, Vieux Mas des Papes. Impeccably run by the Brunier family, Henri Brunier has retired, but his two capable sons, Daniel and Frédéric, manage this estate with great enthusiasm along with enlightened traditionalism. One of the great wines of the appellation, this Châteauneuf generally requires 3-4 years of cellaring, and is meant to age well for 15+ years. Two decades of cellaring is possible for the finest vintages. It is a blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah, and the remainder Mourvédre and other varietals from the estate's contiguous vineyards in one of Châteauneuf du Pape's most desirable sectors, La Crau. Recent vintages have revealed similar characteristics, being dumb, closed, and nearly impossible to penetrate upon release, and in need of 3-4 years before they explode from the bottle. The elegant 2000 possesses 14.8% alcohol, along with a deep ruby/purple color, charming, rich, fruitiness, and firm tannin in the finish. With loads of freshness, copious quantities of pepper, seaweed, and black fruit characteristics, and a distinctive minerality, this full-bodied, sweet 2000 requires 2-3 years of cellaring; it should age well for 15-16 years. Anticipated maturity: 2005-2018.

Just beginning to blossom, the 1998 is, for me, the finest Vieux-Télégraphe made in twenty years (since the 1978). A spectacular effort, it boasts a deep ruby/purple color and huge concentration, but it was very difficult to assess until a few months ago. I may be committing infanticide as most tasters should give this wine another 3-4 years of cellaring, and drink it over the following 15-20. The deep ruby/purple-colored 1995 exhibits a sweet perfume of licorice, iodine, seaweed, black cherries, and plums. Dense, medium to full-bodied, well-structured, and muscular, it will be at its peak between 2004-2015. A sleeper vintage for Vieux-Télégraphe is1994. Because this vineyard tends to mature quickly, the extraordinarily hot, dry summer allowed this estate to harvest in late August and early September, long before many other properties could, and before the rain began. The 1994 offers sweet floral, blue and black fruits intermixed with dried Provençal herbs, tree bark, and earth. Powerful, concentrated, and close to full maturity, it will last for another decade. Moreover, this wine sells for a song since the vintage does not have a reputation such as 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. The 1990 is somewhat loosely knit, and lacks the inner density found in top vintages. Fully mature, it reveals notes of dried herbs, tapenade, new saddle leather, licorice, iodine, and jammy black cherry fruit. Although the aromatics and attack are impressive, the finish is abrupt. Consumption over the next 3-5 years is suggested.

While not one of the great Vieux-Télégraphes, 1989 continues to perform well. It is dense, sweet, and ripe, with copious quantities of seaweed, iodine, smoke, black cherry, and plum-like fruit offered in a medium-bodied, slightly tannic style. Fully mature, it should last for another decade. One of the great classics of Châteauneuf du Pape is the 1978 made by Henri Brunier. This wine, which has given me immense pleasure, offers a sensational smorgasbord of aromas, including compost, pepper, black fruits, smoked meats, Vaucluse truffles, licorice, and incense. The aromatics easily merit a perfect 100-point score. In the mouth, this huge wine is massive, thick, and unctuous, with the concentration of a dry vintage port. An amazing effort, it remains the quintessential classic Vieux-Télégraphe, that perhaps only the 1998 will come close to rivaling. The 1978 has been fully mature for over a decade, but the color remains a dark plum/purple with little signs of evolution. Drink it over the next decade. An amazing wine! Importer: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, CA; tel (510) 524-1524

—Robert Parker   

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