When a Wine Goes Naked


As a rule, naked people are not a pretty sight, a rule which the exceptions emphatically prove.

So it is with wine.

We take for granted that serious red wines will be clothed in oak. Oak softens skin tannins, provides texture and body, and builds complexity. What would Syrah be without smoke, Merlot without chocolate, Cabernet without vanilla, Pinot without clove and cinnamon? All flavor notes contributed by oak.

The exception—Chateauneuf du Pape. The good folks from the former vineyards of the Avignon popes have long disdained the use of new oak barriques preferring to emphasize fresh fruit in their cuvées.

Young bottlings from this region in the Southern Rhone valley can be uneven—sometimes fun and cheery, often rustic, occasionally excellent. However, at the meeting of the San Diego Wine Society last weekend, I was reminded of how well these wines age. The Clos du Mont-Olivet La Cuvee du Papet 2000 was stunning.  Very dark plum, fig, and, most importantly, wonderful dried herbal notes and black olive burst from the glass, and the velvety textured finish was long and graceful. What begins life as a bit frivolous becomes dark, brooding, and serious in part because the absence of oak allows the development of fruit and herbal notes to take center stage.

It is a blend of 60% Grenache 20% Mouvèdre 20% Syrah, aged in concrete vats and then large oak barrels that impart little oak character.

This wine stood out in some pretty lofty company. The Reuling Pinot Noir (Sonoma 2011) was lovely; the Pio Cesare Barolo 2008, young but satisfying as they usually are from this producer; the Bodegas Riojanas Vina Albina Gran Reserva 2001 was classic Rioja elegance; the Argiano Brunello 2004 earthy and full of finesse. All consumed with the fine cusine (and view) from the Sheerwater Restaurant at Hotel Del.

But the Chateauneuf du Pape was head and shoulders above these worthy competitors. Mark Twain said that “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  Not true in the world of wine.

Disappointments: Chateau La Papeterie St. Emilion 1996 was rustic and thin; the Toscar Monastrell Reserva 2006 from Spain’s Alicante region was just weird with distracting vegetal and chemical notes.

The surprise: an Anakena single vineyard Carmenere 2010 that was rich and flavorful and a steal for about $14.

The San Diego Wine Society meets every month to blind taste wines from the classic regions of the world.

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