Among my more regular stops when in the Southern Rhône is Domaine de Beaurenard, the dynamic and progressive Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate run by the brothers Frédéric and Daniel Coulon.
When I first started visiting here, Daniel's sons Victor and Antonin were little kids running around the house. Now, Victor, 27, and Antonin, 24, have returned from their studies and internships to join the domaine. See my notes from my 2014 visit here for more background on Beaurenard.
Even though Daniel, 56, and Frédéric, 52, have a little more white hair than when they started, the tall, wiry pair are still as animated as ever. In conversation, they weave in and out of each other's sentences seamlessly, with one often gesturing with his hands while the other speaks. Certified biodynamic since 2010, the Coulons' estate includes 79 acres in Châteauneuf, 62 in Rasteau and 15 in Côtes du Rhône. The reds brim with ripe, dark, succulent fruit, backed by warm ganache and dark graphite notes. The whites are opulent but defined, with a creamy mouthfeel and alluring toast accents.
In addition to the modern bent in their wines, the Coulons are also among the most forward thinking in terms of their viticulture and winemaking. They have been using foudres large and small, along with barrels for aging. They use different fermentation vats. And now, they are working to conserve the genetic material of their vineyard.
"Climate change is happening, and people are starting to realize that Grenache can't be the only grape in Châteauneuf," says Frédéric.
"The 13 varieties were planted in the beginning for a reason. Because the blend is complex but also because different grapes allow you to manage the vintage. If it is too cold, some grapes do better. Too wet, too hot, and so on," says Daniel.
To that end, the Coulons took cuttings of each of the 13 varieties from their oldest vines, 100-year-old vines for each. From those they created their own vine library, a 1-acre plot just beside Daniel's house. That plot is now 10 years old, and these "daughter vines" (as the 100-year-old vines that were selected are the "mother vines") are now used to propagate selection massale into the rest of their vineyards, as they replace vines when necessary.
"It's a way to secure the patrimony of our heritage," says Frédéric.
But what makes this plan unique is that a Syrah is not replacing a Syrah vine, per se. A Syrah might be replacing Grenache, or a Bourboulenc might be replacing a Mourvèdre. "The diversity is needed. And it's important to see which varieties do well in which soils. And on which parts of the slope—high or middle or low," says Daniel. "It's a constant experimentation while keeping the diversity of our varieties."
The fruit from these vines is picked at the same time and co-fermented. Debuting with the just-released 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Partita, the final blend is less than 50 percent Grenache, low for a typical Châteauneuf, and uses 10 percent white varieties, a high percentage. Vinification is in wood vat, then élevage in foudre for 18 months, followed by an additional 6 months in cement. The result is a rich, lush wine that lets dark ganache, loam, mint, bay and tobacco notes spill forth, melding slowly into a core of steeped plum and fig fruit, ending with waves of fig bread, Turkish coffee and warm paving stone. It's distinctive and also just a bit reminiscent of Rodolphe de Pins' Montfaucon made from 15 varieties. There are just 400 cases made.
We tasted through both 2015 and 2016, two vintages of compelling quality here. My official notes on the 2015s, based on a blind tasting in New York, will appear soon. A few quick notes on the 2016s: Both the 2016 Rasteau and 2016 Rasteau Argiles Bleues are the best versions yet for these wines, and they are going to deliver excellent value. They are loaded with blue and black fruit flavors, fresher and better defined than the 2015s and marked by gorgeous graphite streaks. The basic Châteauneuf should be a foundation for Rhône lovers who will undoubtedly want to load up on the 2016, as it shows unbridled energy, loads of red and black fruit and a spice-filled finish that ripples nicely. The Boisrenard cuvée is a stud in the making, reminding me of a cross between the 2001 (a high-water mark here) and the benchmark 2010, with coiled energy, waves of fruit and both riveting acidity and strident tannins in lockstep through the finish.