We came to taste at this most revered and exclusive of wineries in Châteauneuf-du-Pape through a very nice bit of good luck. Perhaps there really are no more than six degrees of separation in the world. We were joined on a recent visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape by a friend who happens to be the former squash pro in Avignon as well as a very accomplished jazz violinist. A regular gig for him was to play at Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s best restaurant La Mère Germaine. He suggested we go there for lunch, and after consuming a sumptuous meal there he introduced us to the restaurant’s charming chef/owner, David Rocamora. David asked if we had lined up any tastings and when we informed him we had not, he said “leave it to me” and promptly lined us up with two of the best. That is how we got to meet Vincent Maurel and taste the magnificent wines at Clos Saint Jean.
Like most of the wineries in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Clos Saint Jean is a family operation that has been passed on from generation to generation. The estate was founded by Edmund Tucassel in 1900. He waited a decade before he released his first vintage, wanting the vines to be appropriately old and giving him the time to refine his winemaking technique. By 2002 the estate was in the hands of his two great grandsons, Pascal and Vincent, who made the pivotal decision to bring in uber wine consultant Philippe Cambie. The highly influential wine critic Robert Parker has referred to Cambie as the “Michel Rolland of the Southern Rhone”. (Rolland is Bordeaux’ most famous enologist whose client list spans the globe and includes many of the top wineries on the Right Bank and several Napa wineries of cult status.) Cambie’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of the Southern Rhone: 25 clients within the Châteauneuf-du-Pape A.O.C. and another 37 elsewhere in the Southern Rhone. The Maurel’s offer much of the credit to Cambie for the winemaking techniques they now employ that give them massive ratings among the wine cognoscenti and the ability to charge some of the highest prices in the region. Clos Saint Jean’s 2003 vintage was a game-changer for them and Robert Parker bestowed huge laud on their efforts. Parker found their micro-cuvee “Deus Ex Machina” a candidate for the 2003 wine of the vintage in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Vincent Maurel took us on a two hour tasting tour of his winery the day after our lunch at La Mère Germaine. Vincent was an incredibly gracious host whose passion for his wines was unmistakable. Vincent smiles easily and often, and talks with great enthusiasm and animation. He explained to us what they are trying to achieve now at Clos Saint Jean. Since 2003 they have expanded their lineup of wines from a single cuvee to now vinifying five different wines from the region: Chateauneuf du Pape, Chateauneuf du Pape Vieille Vignes, Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc and their three ultra-recherché micro-cuvees, Deus Ex Machina, Les Combes Fous and Sanctus Sanctorum.
Vincent explained that they destem all the fruit and generally go for long macerations (up to 35 days) to gain their desired levels of extract. He beamed with pride as he showed us the steel and concrete fermentation tanks which have been in use since his father made wine there. Clearly some traditions still hold sway at Clos Saint Jean and it is not just about the modern techniques introduced by Philippe Cambie. The Grenache is treated differently than the Syrah and Mouvedre. The Grenache is fermented and macerated (the time the juice is left in contact with the skins to extract colour, tannin and flavour) using “delestage”, a technique that introduces oxygen to extract phenolic compounds and produces a softer less astringent wine and greater fruit character. Whereas the Mourvedre and the Syrah receive “pigeage”, the punching down of the cap of skins that rise to the top of the fermenter, to extract flavour and phenolics. The Grenache sees no oak ageing and the Mourvedre and Syrah receive their elevage in a combination of new and one year old barrels and demi-muids.
At least as important as the winemaking is the source of their grapes. The estate owns 41 hectares on the plateau east of the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape called La Crau. This high elevation plateau is dry and rocky with exposure to the force of the Mistral winds that rip through the plain. Its inhospitable appearance gives rise to its name, which means “Where nothing grows”. La Crau is truly hallowed ground in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the tenderloin district of the A.O.C.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is known for its galets roules, the large pudding stones that cover many of the vineyards and that retain heat which helps in ripening the grapes. La Crau is covered in more of these stones than other vineyards which may account for its superior status. Those galets protect the soil from extremes: they block direct sunlight during the day and then reflect that heat back at night. This also helps retain some moisture in the soil, much needed on this arid plateau. Other top wineries sourcing fruit from La Crau include La Nerthe, Pegau and La Vieux Telegraph.
The combination of great terroir, the extraordinary passion of winemaker Vincent Maurel and the talents of consulting enologist Philippe Cambie combine together to produce some extraordinary wines.
This is their Vin de Pays, made from a parcel of grapes that lies just outside the Chateauneuf du Pape A.O.C. boundary. Black cherry combines with a meaty finish with plenty of tannin on this medium + frame. At this early stage it comes across a bit rough, but no doubt that smooth out with another year or two in bottle. Made from Grenache and Caladoc, a hybrid grape that is a cross between Grenache and Malbec.
2015 Chateauneuf du Pape
Made from 75% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 10% Mouvedre and other grapes. Medium to dark red in colour, the wine has a lovely nose of black cherries and Kirsch. On the palate the cherry fruit is joined by black pepper and floral notes that rest on solid frame with medium + tannin. The long finish is seductive.
Red fruits combine with notes of fennel and herbs on a medium body. Here the tannins are more polished and give a hint as to how the 2015 will develop. Charming at this early stage, it will no doubt age further, but I suspect this vintage will be best enjoyed during its first decade where its rounded, soft character will offer much pleasure.
2013 Chateauneuf du Pape
Showing more of a traditional side of the house, this wine was looking for elegance over power. Still tannic and in need of time, it delivered cherry and red fruit flavours with medium body in a lighter style, with a silkiness that was almost Burgundian. Provencal herbs and cracked pepper on the finish elevate the complexity.
Very Good +
2012 Chateauneuf du Pape
Gorgeous black cherry and Kirsch rise from the glass to greet your nose. As Vincent told us “The weather signs the vintage” and the contrast between this wine and the 2013 showed the veracity of his statement. Round and full, the ripeness of the fruit showed itself with a black forest cake note. This is big, sumptuous Chateauneuf du Pape that is all about pleasure. Drinking wonderfully right now, it will no doubt gain complexity over time and have at least 15 more years of good drinking. I could see some tasters saying wait, the best is yet to come, but we would be inclined to enjoy its youthful exuberance.
Another forward wine ready for immediate consumption, this wine showed the integration of the fruit and structure that occurs with a bit of ageing. Red fruits sit on a medium body with medium tannins. The finish is long and peppery. Lithe and angular when compared to the 2012, this is the wine that is your perfect guest at the dinner table: offers plenty to the conversation but does not hog the lime light.
Very Good +
2015 La Combe des Fous
60% old vine Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Cinsault, 10% Vaccarese. One of their ultra-premium micro-cuvees, it takes its name from the inhospitable nature of La Crau and translates to the “fool on the hill”, a further reference to the difficulty of farming La Crau. Decadently rich this is a full-bodied expression of black cherry, raspberry, garrigue with a long, long peppery finish. Already complex, there are notes of Kirsch mixing in with hints of dried flowers.