1990 Chateuneuf-du-Pape tasting with Ross Bott and co.

Wow, what an experience last night.  It was the first time I came to a Ross Bott tasting event.  My wine friends have been telling me about these Ross Bott events around the Palo Alto area, and finally I emailed Ross to add me to the list, and so it began.  Ross Bott is a Bay Area wine guru, who has been running a wine tasting group in Palo Alto probably for the last 30 years.  His tastings are rather serious events, with wine geeks getting together with their own glasses, and quietly tasting 8 wines blind, taking notes, and finally ranking the wines in the order of preference.  Ross then collects the individual rankings and computes overall rankings, etc, and then announces those.  Each participant then sees how far they are from consensus.  Really entertaining and educational exercise.  Ross supplies the wines from his allegedly enormous stash, and everyone pitches in to cover his cost.

A lot of the time these tastings (which usually run twice a week)  focus on New World wines (California,  Australia, etc) which don't interest me nearly as much as Old World (France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal), with France of course being the classic and the best, in my opinion.

So when Ross sent out the announcement of the tasting of 8 highly-ranked (back in the day) Chateauneuf-du-Papes from the excellent 1990 vintage, my wife and I decided we cannot miss it.  So 7:30pm sharp we showed up with 8 empty glasses to a house in Palo Alto, offered up for these tastings by one of the regulars.

Here is what Ross Bott had sent out in the tasting announcement:
"The 1990 vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape was nearly perfect weather-wise, with a warm summer followed by a long, dry autumn which allowed producers to pick grapes at optimal ripeness.  The resultant Chateaunefs showed very well when young, and seemed to promise a long life.  Of the 1990 vintage Robert Parker wrote in 1997: "1990 may be a replay of 1967 or 1959.  It is a fabulous vintage, with virtually everybody producing wines of enormous richness, power, weight, and lofty alcohol levels.  The wine ares quintessential Chateauneuf du Pape -- robust, superconcentrated, very rich, and immensely appealing.  In spite of their concentration, size and poetntial for longevity, their low acidity and high levels of glycerin have ensured a precocious, sweet style that have made these wines unforgettable from birth.  While drinkable and accessible, the great 1990 Chateauneuf du Papes should prove to be uncommonly long-lived because of three of the necessary components for longevity -- extract, alcohol, and tannin -- are all present in copious quantities.  This is a great vintage!"

After brief introduction to a crowd of wine affectionadoes (aka "wine geeks"), we settled at one of the tables, along with 4 other compadres (another 8 or so people sat at another table, and 2 more guys settled down on a couch - very cozy!)  The host was nice enough to offer some very fancy cheeses and loaves of warm and crusty baguettes.  But the stars of the shows, of course, were the wines.

With my palate swinging toward moderately aged wines and enjoying Southern Rhone wines lately, I had really been salivating by now.

The blind line-up included:
  • 1990 Clos du Mont-Olivet "La Cuvee du Papet" (12.5%): "This wine's evolution has been surprising. Believe me, if I had known it was going to develop into a nearly perfect wine, I would have bought more. The dark ruby color reveals slight lightening at the edge. Stunning aromatics offer up classic Chateauneuf du Pape aromas of balsam wood, garrigue, kirsch liqueur, blackberries, and pepper. An extraordinarily voluptuously-textured effort, with layers of concentration, no sense of heaviness, mouth-staining levels of richness, and more than 14.5% alcohol, this astonishing wine proves what old vine Grenache can achieve. Given its vigor, exuberance, and extraordinary richness, this wine has remarkable freshness for such size and power. It will drink well for another 15-20+ years." (98/100, Robert Parker, Jan 2003)
  • 1990 Chateau du Beaucastel (14%): "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." (96/100, Robert Parker, Jan 2003)
  • 1990 Andre Brunel "Les Cailloux - Selection Reflets" (13%): "Les Cailloux's regular cuvee has evolved into a blend of 65% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah, and 5% miscellaneous varietals aged both in barrel and foudre. The traditional cuvee 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." (95/100, Robert Parker, Jan 2003)
  • 1990 Chapoutier "La Bernardine" (14%): "While it is apparent that the Chapoutiers are making thrilling wines from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, they have also made extraordinary progress with their vineyard in Chateauneuf du Pape. The 1990 Chateauneuf du Pape-La Bernadine is significantly better than the 1989. The deep dark ruby/garnet color is followed by a huge nose of sweet, roasted, raspberry fruit intermingled with scents of peanuts, fruitcake, and spicy pepper. This enormously rich, expansive, full-bodied wine exhibits an unctuous texture, exceptional concentration, and a long, moderately tannic finish. An intense, velvety wine" (92/100, Robert Parker, Oct 1992)
  • 1990 Guigal (13.5%): "Marcel Guigal was shrewd enough to recognize the greatness of this vintage and bought heavily from all his sources in Chateauneuf du Pape, resulting in one of the finest Chateauneufs this firm has produced. Already delicious, it is a full-bodied, rich, thick, boldly flavored wine with gobs of fruit. With over 14% alcohol, it is a blockbuster in terms of its power and fiery richness." (90/100, Robert Parker, Jan 1997)
  • 1990 Vieux Telegraphe (14%): "... full-bodied, alcoholic, and fleshy, with plenty of Vieux-Telegraphe's telltale nose of herbs, olives, black pepper, iodine, and sweet, jammy fruit. Soft, round, and generous" (90/100, Robert Parker, Jan 1997)
  • 1990 Chateau Cabrieres "Prestige Tete de Cru" (15%): "One would have to go back to their exquisite 1961 to find a Chateauneuf du Pape from Cabrieres as superb as their 1990 Cuvee Prestige. This selection from their oldest vines is superb. ... exquisite. It had obviously seen some new oak given the subtle vanillin, smoky character in the fabulously dramatic, earthy, black-fruit-scented, sweet nose. In the mouth the wine displays full body, exquisite depth and richness, as well as fine grip and focus. This flashy, immensely impressive, velvety-textured wine can be drunk young, but it should easily last for 15 or more years." (90/100, Robert Parker, June 1994)
  • 1990 Bosque des Papes "Cuvee Chantemerle" (14.5%): "The opaque purple/black-colored 1990 Cuvee Chantemerle is a spectacular wine with a staggering perfume of black fruits, minerals, pepper, and flowers. Exceptionally rich, with stupendous concentration and a viscous texture suggesting low yields and old vines, this profound Chateauneuf du Pape is outrageously delicious, even decadent; it should last for two decades or more. An exceptional effort! Anticipated maturity: now-2012." (98/100, Jan 1997)
What you should take away from the above list is that these are some high-end highly rated (and high-$$$) wines from the most prestigious appelation in the Southern Rhone.

The wines were poured into glasses marked A through H, in secret order.
And so it began... and lasted for the next two hours...
At first, sniffing...  I went through the whole line-up twice -- once in the order of the glasses, and once in random order.  I made the following notes (mind you - these are not in order of the wines listed above, so I had no idea which wine is which)
  • A - little on the nose, some barn
  • B - not much
  • C - roast meat (beef)
  • D - dusty attic
  • E - jammy-oxidized
  • F - alcohol
  • G - balanced
  • H - greenish
I then attempted to rank them just based on the nose.  Here is all I could do at this point, from best to worst:
  1. E
  2. G
  3. C
  4. H
I couldn't rank the rest, since they seemed all about the same level of enjoyment (or should I say "lack thereof").

General impressions - rather neutral -- this was my first ever tasting of aged Chateauneufs, and they smelled kinda sour, dusty, moldy (which sometimes can be good), and only some smelled pleasant or intriguing.  Definitely less than what I had expected, and not nearly as alluring as moderately aged burgundies I had tasted in the past.

Next, the tasting...  Similar to sniffing, I went through the line-up multiple times, in multiple orders, spitting all but a couple of wines that prompted deeper inspection.

The overriding impression was that of disappointment (though the crowd around me seemed to rather like some wines a lot, and hate some with equal level of disgust).  While all the wines were still drinkable, only a couple really tasted good, and most were too funky.  So rather than ranking my favorites, it was more of an exercise of ranking which ones I disliked less than others.

Here are the tasting notes:
  • A - good/ok/still acidic + tannin, not great
  • B - moss, chocolate, tomato
  • C - dusty (not pleasant), pickle, can't stand it
  • D - pickled cured meat, glue, (no!)
  • E - dark raspberry, not good
  • F - neutral, boring
  • G - dusty, tomato, smoke, (not bad)
  • H - still nice fruit, but not much character, tomato aftertaste -- good
Of the entire line-up, I could honestly say that only G and H were wines I could see myself enjoying with a meal.  The rest, I wouldn't touch.

Based on the above sniffing and tasting notes, I arranged the final rankings (it was not easy to make up my mind), and submitted the sheet to Ross for aggregation.

The results

The ranking are listed from worst to best:

My ranking:  C D B A F E G H
Aggregate  :   B C E D A H F G

I then proceeded to compute my own "edit-distance" (or deviation) from the consensus, by adding up the number of ranks I was off for each wine.  It totalled 14, which I think is not bad - although experts in the room scored a much lower number, as I guessed from their comments.  (My wife's "edit-distance" was 24 - haha - she was totally off! :)

Two and a half hours later, after scores had been tallied, and delicious cheese and bread consumed (except for the stinky stinky custom-aged red-hawk cheese - oh god - that was baaad, but that's a story for another day), my wife and I were saying good-byes to our new wine friends, and leaving with fascination and puzzlement from the intellect- and palate-provoking experience not for the faint of heart.

Oh, and here are the wines revealed.  For those not super-experienced in Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, basically in terms of reputation, Chateau de Beaucastel is the king.  You can preview Robert Parker ratings above to see what the expected ranking was, but here is what the final rankings were:

Consensus Ranking with Wines Revealed (best to worst)
  1. G - Bosque des Papes  (the best overall, and my #2)
  2. F - Cabrieres (my wife's favorite, and my #4)
  3. H - Beaucastel (this was my favorite)
  4. A - Vieux Telegraphe
  5. D - Guigal
  6. E - Mont-Olivet
  7. C - Chapoutier
  8. B - Andre Brunel  (the worst overall, and my #6)


half_bottle said…
I'd call this wine blog for the geeks. Edit Distance??!!

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