WORDS KEN GARGETT
Fans of fine Rhone wines will be delighted to learn that the highly respected Chateauneuf producer, Chateau Le Nerthe, has returned to our shores after several years absence. Commercial director, Christophe Bristiel, who took over the role from his father a decade ago, was in town to show that the wines have lost nothing in the interim. Indeed, with the trio of stunning vintages, 2015 to 2017, this is a golden era for Rhone wines.
Chateau La Nerthe is one of the world’s older wine estates, dating back to 1560. They were one of the first estates to bottle their own wine, which appears to have started in 1784 and one of the earliest Chateauneuf estates to export. In the 1800s, they began the practice of 100% destemming. They were also the first in the region, and undoubtedly one of the first in Europe, to graft vines after the devastation wrought by phylloxera, doing so in 1893.
The Richard family have owned the estate since the mid-1980s, only one of a handful of families to have done so, since the 1500s.
After purchasing neighbouring vineyards in 1991, the estate now has 90 hectares, farmed organically, covering an array of soils – Christophe likes to refer to it as covering the full Châteauneuf terroir in one vineyard. They have all thirteen permitted varieties and have broken the estate up into 57 separate plots, picked and made separately, but many of the grapes are still co-fermented, as the plots are not mono-varietal.
Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc 2018 ($110) – Expect to find a blend of Grenache blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Clairette in this delicious Rhone white. Average ‘blanc’ production in the region is just 5% but La Nerthe far exceeds this with 15%. Lovely stonefruit notes with peach kernels, a hint of apricot, jasmine florals and spices. The Estate considers this release to be very typical for this wine and that the generosity it offers is very much a key component of the ’18 vintage. 92.
Cotes du Rhone Villages ‘Les Cassagnes’ 2017 ($38) – Very rare for a Cotes du Rhone to be a single vineyard wine, but this one is. I’m told that the name means ‘oak trees’ and the vineyard is surrounded on three sides by oak forests. 65% Grenache, 25% Syrah and a mix of other varieties, this has some riper darker fruits. Good spice notes. Lovely now and for the next five years. 89.
Chateau des Tours (Brouilly) 2017 ($38) – This is the outlier in the portfolio, a very fine Grand Cru Beaujolais (the Cru of Brouilly). This estate is also owned by the Richard family and it also has a long history, dating back to the 14th century. Bright purple. Full of spice notes, garden herbs, cherries and florals. Lingers nicely. Ripe, open and generous with an appealing soft palate. A compelling reason to drink more top Beaujolais. 91.
Chateauneuf du Pape 2015 ($110) – This is the key wine for the Estate and production is usually around 15,000 cases. The wine, from the first of this trio of stellar vintages, gives an immediate impression of coiled power. Loads of lovely strawberry notes. Red cherries, florals, warm earth and spices make for a delightfully aromatic nose. Balanced, supple and seamless. Plenty of tannins but well managed. A good future ahead. A blend of all 13 permitted varieties, though dominated by Grenache (45%), Syrah (30%) and Mourvedre (15%). 93.
Chateauneuf du Pape ‘Cuvee des Cadettes’ 2015 ($300) – A map from 1723 shows that Cadettes was already considered as a discrete single site. It was also the site of the first grafting, back in 1893, after phylloxera, and some of those vines are still producing. In good years, production is around 1,000 cases; in less generous years, 300 cases. There was no 2011 or 2014, which may be as a result of a lesser vintage or it may be because the Estate believes that the removal of these grapes from the ‘standard’ would impact it adversely. Unlike the large foudres for the ‘standard’ Chateauneuf, this wine saw 12 months in 100% new oak barrels (this has been reduced for both the 2016 and the 2017). The vines are at least 80-90 years of age. The cepage is a roughly even split between Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.
Lifted aromatics with coffee bean and dark fruits. Great concentration and fine balance, with a lingering gentle finish. Mouthcoating tannins but they are soft and cushiony. Seriously impressive length. The early oak notes are quickly being absorbed into the wine. Expect this to have a very long life and to drink beautifully for many years. 95.