The Superb Grace of Old Vines: Drinking Janasse

In a region where castles crumble to ruins on the hills, and the vines outlive their farmers, one of the youngest wineries has been setting the quality bar for decades. Despite only 40 years of history, Domaine de La Janasse easily ranks among the greatest estates of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But you wouldn’t know that from the small personal wine cellar with low ceilings and rough hewn shelving that served as my tasting room on a cold January day. Amidst an eclectic collection of bottles tucked in around a gravel strewn floor, Christophe Sabon took me through his latest releases, a collection of some of the finest wines from the region I have ever tasted.

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After World War II, the men of the Sabon family returned to their home in the little town of Courthézon, and took up tending their grapes. Aime Sabon’s father had long sold his grapes to the local cooperative, and so when Sobon returned from his own military service in 1967, he continued the tradition until, in 1973, he completed construction of his own cellar, which he named La Janasse, after the section of Chateauneuf-du-Pape that his family had long owned. Sabon cautiously began to bottle his own wine in larger and larger quantities, while expanding his vineyard holdings with the proceeds from the much more lucrative use of his grapes.

Sabon’s son, Christophe, watched his father transform from a farmer to a winemaker, and early on saw the path he was eager to follow. In the 80’s, Christophe Sabon went to Beaune to study viticulture, and returned to take over management of the estate in 1991.

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“When I arrived in 1991, we were farming 100 acres and bottling some wine, but still selling a lot of grapes. My first goal was to increase our bottling, and so I introduced the idea of making different cuvées.”

Sabon’s sister Isabelle trained as an enologist, and in 2002 returned to work at his side, making for a powerful duo of talent that quickly settled into what seems to be an effective and affectionate working relationship.

Thanks to the efforts of Christophe and Isabelle, the estate now consists of slightly less than 50 acres of vines in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation and about 200 additional acres in the surrounding Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations. Somewhat unusually, more than 75% of the estate’s holdings are planted to Grenache, which Christophe Sabon feels strongly represents the soul of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

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“For me that is the best for elegance and finesse. Maybe you can call it the Pinot of the Rhône Valley,” chuckles Sabon, “but, then, I studied in Burgundy. You can keep Grenache alone on sandy soil, and you can keep it alone on clay, but with stones you have more power and you need some Syrah to balance things out.”

“I prefer the freshness of soils to the freshness of stems,” he adds.

The 50 acres of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are spread across the various four soil types of the region, with an emphasis on the sandy soils near the family’s home and primary vineyard holdings around Courthézon.

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The old cellar

Sabon takes a pragmatic approach to viticulture. “We have a philosophy, but we must be open. This is about being an artisan, and feeling what you make. We farm 80 to 90 percent biologique [organic] but we are not certified,” says Sabon. “I tend to say ‘in my vineyard, just as for me.’ When I can work biologically, I do. But if I need to save the vineyard, I can.”

Sabon increasingly employs some of the principles of biodynamics as well. “For me what is interesting in biodynamics is to listen to the vineyard and to take time, like our grandfathers did. For pruning,” he continues, “I pay attention to the moon and the weather. I bottle with the north wind because the high pressure keeps more aromas.”

The grapes are all harvested by hand and sorted by father and son in the vineyard, and then again at the winery, and then finally one more time in the cellar.

The family has recently built out a second cellar, allowing them to have three different teams working during harvest. The old square cement tanks resemble most cellars in the region, but the new cellar features more angles.

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The new cellar

“Our new tanks are trapezoidal, and they encourage gentler extraction,” explains Sabon.

Following fermentation, most of the wines are transferred to large oak foudres where they age for 12 to 14 months.

“If we can get malolactic fermentation to go in the foudres, we get no reduction. We can keep the wine on its lees, and that also allows us to use less sulfur,” says Sabon. “After, we just fine with egg whites and bottle with gravity and no filtration for either the whites or the reds.”

In addition to a normal bottling of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that is called “Tradition” and an old vines bottling, Sabon produces a 100% Grenache cuvée called “Chaupin” from his oldest vines, primarily grown on sand.

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“About 30% of the Chaupin cuvée is aged in smaller demi-muid barrels, but not much of the wood is new. When I started to make this cuvée in 1996, I used new barrels. I was from Burgundy,” shrugs Sabon. “I gave it 18 months of new oak, but it was too oaky. So I’ve changed it a little.”

Somewhat unusually, Sabon encourages his Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc to go through malolactic fermentation.

“That is somewhat unique in Châteauneuf,” he explains. “It was a mistake we made in 2000 but we found that we didn’t lose any acidity. The wine was slightly less fruity, but we were able to bottle it without filtration, which I think is important for aging the wine.”

Aging, as my tasting that afternoon was to re-confirm, is something that the wines of Janasse do impeccably well. Janasse may be a relative newcomer, but it, and its wines are built for the long haul.

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Isabelle and Christophe

TASTING NOTES:

2012 Domaine de la Janasse White Blend, Côtes du Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of ripe apples and pears with a hint of white peach. In the mouth, pear and peach flavors mix with a bright sunny juiciness and a hint of spiciness. Excellent acidity with just a touch of heat on the finish. The wine has a nice balance of minerality and fruit. A blend of 50% Grenache Blanc, 15% Clairette, 15% Bourboulenc, 10% Roussanne, and 10% Viognier. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse White Blend Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, pears, and white peaches. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful salinity underneath flavors of white peach, pears and apples. Beautifully round and rich but without being too ripe, this wine is perfectly balanced and delicious. A faint tannic grip remains through a very long finish. A blend of 40% Grenache Blanc, 30% Roussanne, and 30% Clairette all grown on sandy soils with a little clay. 14.5% alcohol. 350 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse “Prestige” Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhône, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of fresh pears and a hint of baked apples with spice. In the mouth, gorgeously bright pear and apple flavors have a delicious freshness to them with some floral overtones and a spicy quince note in the finish. Richer than the standard white bottling, this wine has a power and a depth that is quite compelling. A blend of 60% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, and the remaining 20% and old-vine field blend of many other white varieties. 100 cases made. 14.5% Score: around 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse Red Blend, Côtes du Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of beautifully bright strawberry and mulberry fruit with a hint of green herbs. In the mouth the wine is quite bright and delicious with fantastic acidity that makes strawberry and cherry flavors all but electric in the mouth. Fabulously juicy and delicious with the faint hint of tannins to add complexity along with a forest floor note in the finish. Utterly delicious. A blend of 50% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 10% each of Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Carignan. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2011 Domaine de la Janasse “Le Garrigue” Red Blend, Côtes du Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cedar and strawberry jam mixed with a dark chocolate raisin quality. In the mouth, the wine is rich and broad with strawberry and cherry fruit that hangs between fresh and dried, mixed with a woody herbal quality that lingers for a long time (with a hint of alcohol) in the finish. Broad and powerful, and silky in texture. 100% Grenache grown on clay. Roughly 250 cases made. 15.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

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The Janasse tasting room, decorated with children’s art

2011 Domaine de la Janasse “Tradition” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of strawberry and cherry fruit mixed with a bright stony minerality. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderfully bright, fresh mineral undertone and juicy strawberry and mulberry and cherry fruit. Quite juicy and fresh for what is generally a very hot vintage in the region. Deliciously balanced with great acidity and length. 75% Grenache, 5% Cinsault, and the rest made up of Syrah and Mourvedre. Shows little of its 15.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2011 Domaine de la Janasse “Chaupin” Grenache, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of alpine strawberries and wet stones. In the mouth, the wine has an incredible crystalline quality with the bright strawberry and cherry fruit glinting and glassy in the mouth. Fresh, fantastic acidity makes the wine bright and delicious and oh-so mouthwatering. Stunning mineral depth and wonderful forest floor complexity lingering in the finish. 100% Grenache planted in 1912 on sandy soil.15.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2011 Domaine de la Janasse “Old Vine Cuvee” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of gorgeous ripe strawberry, cherry and mulberry fruit. In the mouth, stunning and juicy strawberry, cherry and mulberry fruit flavors are wrapped in a gauzy haze of powdery tannins and buoyed with fantastic acidity. Amazing breadth and depth, with great complexity. Made up of 4 plots, two on sandy soil, two on clay, with vines a minimum of 80 years old, and some more than 100 years old. A blend of 85% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, and a bit of Syrah. 15.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse “Terre di Argile” Red Blend, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Rhône, France
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of garrigue, wet stones, and brilliant fresh strawberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, a gorgeous combination of green herbs, strawberry, and cherry fruit mix under a blanket of muscular but powdery tannins. Fabulous acidity. A deeper, earthier minerality lingers through a long finish along with just a hint of meatiness. Quite delicious. A blend of 25% each of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and old Carignan. janasse_2014-10.jpg14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $23. click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse “Le Garrigue” Red Blend, Côtes du Rhône, Rhône, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright juicy strawberry and cherry fruit with a wet stone undertone that is quite compelling. In the mouth that stony minerality continues with gorgeous supple tannins wrapped around a core of crystalline strawberry and cherry fruit tinged with a hint of green herbs. Lovely long finish that sails on for minutes. Fabulous. 100% Grenache grown on clay. Roughly 250 cases made. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $49. click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse “Tradition” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, strawberry, and mulberry fruit. In the mouth there is a fabulous purity of fruit that makes flavors of strawberry, cherry, and mulberry quite crystalline in quality. Gorgeous green herb flavors linger in a very long finish. Stunning depth, minerality, and length. Outstanding. 75% Grenache, 5% Cinsault, and the rest made up of Syrah and Mourvedre. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse “Chaupin” Grenache, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright strawberry fruit with a hint of wet leaves and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously bright strawberry and cherry flavors all but burst forth on the palate with fantastic acidity and brightness. Gorgeous, supple tannins wrap around the core of fruit in the wine and support it with a hint of forest floor complexity. Stunning minerality and a minutes-long finish. 100% Grenache planted in 1912 on sandy soil. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse “Old Vine Cuvee” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, and incredibly fresh strawberry and mulberry fruit. In the mouth, the wine has an explosively juicy quality with stunning strawberry and mulberry fruit wrapped in muscular and extremely fine grained tannins. The wine is both powerful and elegant, lasting for minutes through a soaring finish. Made up of 4 plots, two on sandy soil, two on clay, with vines a minimum of 80 years old, and some more than 100 years old. A blend of 85% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, and a bit of Syrah. Around 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $110. click to buy.

2001 Domaine de la Janasse “Tradition” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry, licorice, and garrigue with a hint of smoked meats. In the mouth, gorgeous, powdery tannins wrap around a core of cherry, smoked meats, forest floor, and a hint of dried fennel seeds. Floral notes linger in the finish along with wet stones. Fabulous acidity and length. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $150. click to buy.

1999 Domaine de la Janasse “Old Vine Cuvee” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of smoked meats, leather and dried flowers. In the mouth, leather, red apple skin, cherry and sandalwood flavors are wrapped under a thick fleece blanket of mouth-coating tannins. Wonderful acidity still and great length and power in the mouth. A knockout of a wine. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $170.

1998 Domaine de la Janasse “Chaupin” Grenache, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of smoked meats, raisins, and dried flowers wafting over a bed of dried forest berries. In the mouth, incredibly fine grained, mouth coating tannins wrap around a core of licorice, mulberries, and dried cherries mixed with smoked meats. Fabulous acidity, soaring length and amazing balance. Killer. 14.5% alcohol Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $135. click to buy.

1994 Domaine de la Janasse “Chaupin” Grenache, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, dried redcurrants, and strawberries. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful mineral aspect to it, with stony flavors of dried strawberry and cherry, mixed with wet earth, dried fennel seeds and wet stones. Beautiful length and depth. Phenomenal. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.

1997 Domaine de la Janasse White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied grapefruit, candle wax, dried peaches, and bee pollen. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeous lemon oil and dried citrus rind quality, mixed with a woody brown sugar caramelized note that is quite compelling. The most delicious aspect of this wine is the gorgeous saline quality that emerges as it passes over the palate. Fabulous length and stunning depth of minerality and complexity. Hints of dried peach linger in the finish. One of the best white wines I have had in my mouth in some time. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.

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