A Conversation with Daniel Brunier of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape on the 4th of April, 2011
It was the 1998 Vieux Télégraphe which I enjoyed in a London wine-shop (The Sampler) last year that got me interested in Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. I’m usually the one to seek out Southern Rhône bargains (Gigondas, Seguret) and eschew the more illustrious (and pricey) Châteaunef-du-Pape. But the 1998 Vieux Télégraphe Rouge was enticing – a medium colour, showing its age with garnet at the rim and a fully-developed nose: meaty, leathery notes dominating the hint of remaining black fruit. On the palate, the wine was full-bodied and still brimming with fruit. Long, spicy, succulent, complex and delicious – the wine lived up every bit to the promise of its illustrious producer and famed appellation.
When I visited the Rhône Valley in April this year, I decided to stop by and see Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe for myself. Fortunately, the affable and very approachable Daniel Brunier agreed to meet me and show me around the estates.
Domaine Vieux Télégraphe was founded in 1895 by Daniel’s great grandfather. Now in the fourth generation of family ownership, Daniel started working at the Domaine in 1981, joining his brother who started a year earlier. Since then the Brunier family has acquired another Châteauneuf estate – Domaine La Roquète. They also own Domaine Les Pallières in Gigondas (together with their US importer Kermit Lynch). Our conversation started though with a Brunier project much further afield – Château Massaya in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Daniel founded Château Massaya (meaning ‘Twilight’) with two Lebanese brothers – the Ghosn brothers – in 1998. The idea was to create something outside of France and Europe. The motivation, according to Daniel, was “people”. As Daniel put it “France and Europe are a bit stressing and frustrating. They’re interesting because of soil and history, but frustrating because of laws, taxes and history”. Lebanon provided the opportunity for experimentation, for a “human adventure” – working with Lebanese people who are great hard workers. Since 2004 Ramsay Ghosn has really been the winemaker. The goal is not to make “a French wine in Lebanon”, but to reflect the local Terroir. Terroir, according to Daniel Brunier, is also about people – and depends on “the way they eat, think and sleep”. Having a Lebanese winemaker is therefore, a part of the philosophy.
The conversation veered back to Daniel’s French estates, whose wines are sold in 40-45 countries around the world, but not in India. We left Daniel’s offices to take a trip to the top of the Plateau du la crau in the southeast corner of Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. This plateau, with views of the spectacular snow-clad Mount Ventoux in the background, is where the Vieux Télégraphe vineyards are located. The defining feature of the soil is the galets. These round stones that both absorb heat and radiate it back to the vine, and keep the soil underneath (a red clay) from losing its moisture. This moisture-retention is critical, because as Daniel pointed out, they receive almost no rain on the plateau between May and September, and irrigation is illegal and impossible.
The dryness is one reason for the old vines. After 30 years of age, when they have developed deep moisture-seeking roots, the vines can withstand very dry conditions. Some gobelet-trained vines in the vineyard are over 80 to 100 years old. The young vines (8-30years old) are used for producing the second wine of the Domaine, while the older vines (30-100 years old) are used to produce Vieux Télégraphe. In most years Vieux Télégraphe is 65% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre, and 15% Syrah – the remainder being made up of Cinsault and the white grape Clairette.
Terroir, as Daniel pointed out, is very complicated. We spoke about the Mistral, the winds that blow in these parts at up to 120 km/hour. Mistral too, Daniel explained, is part of the Terroir. Especially when it blows in the summer close to maturation time – it helps produce small concentrated berries that give more flavour. The soil on the plateau is complex and a proportion of 70% galets in the top-soil is huge and has an enormous effect on the vines.
On the drive back I spoke to Daniel about the 1998 Vieux Télégraphe that I had tasted, and how wonderfully it had evolved. I asked him about his preference: does he like to drink his own wines young or old? He said he personally preferred to drink his own wines young: between 7-10 years old, even though they easily develop in the bottle for 20 years or more. A number of winemakers – in Burgundy, Rhône and elsewhere – have told me the same thing about their ageworthy wines – that they prefer them young when the fruit is all very much alive.
We then made our way to one of the wineries (La Roquète as the winery at Vieux Télégraphe was closed for construction work), where everything is handled by the gravity process as a matter of philosophy. The Vieux Télégraphe winery has used the gravity process since 1978. Daniel provided three reasons for using the gravity process. Firstly, it respects the grapes (which are hand harvested) – “the less we hurt the grapes, the more we preserve the fruit”. Secondly, a proportion of the grapes are fermented with their stems – this necessitates the use of the gravity process as it is impossible to pump grapes that have not been de-stemmed. Finally, it is very easy to clean a winery where there are no hoses or pumps! Why don’t more people use the gravity process? Apparently – though it seems easy and intuitive, a winery based on the gravity process is hard to build. The barrel room, where some barrels had just been drawn off for bottling smelled of wonderful red fruit – crushed cherries, raspberries and red fruit compote. The winemaking philosophy at the Brunier estates calls for minimal oak influence – the ageing is done in large oak foudres that hold thousands of litres of wine, and impart little or no oak influence.
Back at Domaine Vieux Télégraphe we headed for the tasting room, and Daniel took on the role of doing what most Vignerons do best – pouring and talking about their wines. “Life is too short for cheap wine”, said a sign as we entered the tasting room – perhaps to prepare the wallet as much as the palate. We tasted through several wines from the three Rhone domaines – Les Pallières, La Roquète and Vieux Télégraphe. My only regret (and I accept the fault for not asking) is that we did not taste any wines from the Lebanese estate, Château Massaya. Perhaps next time!
We tasted mostly 2008 and 2009 wines, with some 2010 barrel samples. Across the board, the 2009’s were more succulent with a greater fruity opulence than 2008. The wines were impressive across the range, but the following stood-out in my opinion:
‘Terasse du Diable’, AOC Gigondas Rouge, 2009
Enchantillon, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2010 (not yet bottled)
This wine provides good reason why Châteauneuf whites, long overshadowed by the reds, should not be overlooked. A blend (one-third each) of Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Roussanne – honey and tropical fruits mingled with white flowers for a wonderfully fragrant nose. On the palate – good minerality combined with medium acidity and some spiciness to provide a long finish.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2009 (not bottled yet)
Accent on black fruits combined with chocolate and spiciness. Excellent fruit concentration with a mineral, savoury edge on the finish. A big wine at 15.3% alcohol, but absolutely seamless. A lot of the wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape are big wines – with over 15% alcohol. But all the wines I tasted here were seamless, carrying the alcohol exceedingly well.
Enchantillon, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2010 (not yet bottled)
Another excellent Châteauneuf white, with Grenache Blanc and 40% Clairette (the Clairette coming from a 45 year old vines).
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2008, 2009, and 2010 Vintages – all of which were excellent.