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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The New Guy in the Southern Rhône

Winemaker Ralph Garcin is in at Château La Nerthe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Photo by: James Molesworth
It’s relatively rare to see a field graft in the Rhône. Here, Clairette has been grafted onto Bourboulenc vines at Château La Nerthe.

Posted: Jul 11, 2017 2:44pm ET

Ralph Garcin, 42, is the new guy in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The winemaker took over at Château La Nerthe at the end of 2015, with 2016 his first full vintage. He's diving in and making some changes at this large and prominent estate. For background on La Nerthe, you can reference my 2007 blog post. Garcin follows Alain Dugas, who made the wines from 1985 (when the Richard family bought the property) to 2007, and then Christian Voeux up until 2015.

Garcin has started in the vineyards first, logical enough. The 242-acre estate comprises 222 acres of vines in two main pieces, 148 acres in front of the château, with sandy soils sloping down to more clay along the road in Châteauneuf, and another 74 acres that slope up and behind the château, extending on to the La Crau plateau and its famous galets.

In the front portion Garcin has field-grafted over Roussanne onto former Bourboulenc vines. That's a rarity in France, where parcels are often pulled out and left fallow rather than grafted over. But the spot was between two parcels of Roussanne, and by grafting over, they are back in production after two years. White wine is a specialty at La Nerthe, representing 10 percent of production, double the percentage for the region as a whole.

Previous to La Nerthe, Garcin was working at Jaboulet in the north. I asked him what felt different coming down to the Southern Rhône.

"Well, I'm from Lubéron originally, so it's not that different. And by working in the north, where I was often on the négociant side of the operation, working with grapes from the south was not new to me. But in terms of management of the vineyard, it's new. The goal is to fine-tune and bring more character and details to the wine. It's a great puzzle, because everything is already here. We just need to figure it out."

To that end, Garcin has started breaking down La Nerthe's vineyard into smaller plots, while also going grape by grape.

"Previously, many varieties were cofermented," he explains "As a newcomer, I needed to learn the blocks, so we vinified everything separately. Then we crossed those lots with different oak regimens to see which worked best."

Going forward, Garcin will need smaller vats to do more precise vinification of the parcels, but with the well-financed Richard family as owners, I would suspect he'll get the tools he needs to keep pushing forward.

There are tweaks in the winery too, where Garcin has increased the maceration temperature a few degrees.

"Because we have riper tannins," he explains. "Riper and more polished tannins, so we can adapt the oak regime accordingly, as we need less air to soften the structure. We can shift to demi-muid for example, and then have less oak impact on the wine."

The 2016 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a sample of the approximate final blend, 50/25/20/5 Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault, aged half in foudre, the rest is a mix of new, second- and third-fill barrels. It has lots of brambly grip wrapped around juicy red and black licorice notes, followed by cherry and plum compote flavors, ending with a nicely integrated roasted apple wood note.

The 2016 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée des Cadettes (which is not made every year—2011 and 2014 were skipped) is usually an equal parts Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blend, all cofermented. But in 2016 it's 50/30/20 Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, with the wine aged in some demi-muid (15 percent) for the first time. It delivers a blast of blueberry reduction, along with warm fig and blackberry confiture, backed by melted licorice and a long, tarry finish. There's nice vibrancy here, though this is still on the fruit bomb side of the ledger.

The 2016 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White is a 52/35/13 Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Clairette blend. It's juicy, with bright green almond, green fig and yellow apple fruit flavors and a lovely swath of honeysuckle through the finish. Sporting lively acidity, it still leans to the richer side of the spectrum, but it's brighter and racier than the previous house style.

The single-vineyard bottling of the 2016 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Clos de Beauvenir is not made every year (2011 was the most recent skip). There is never more than 250 cases per vintage from this 10-acre vineyard and the 88/12 Grenache Blanc (fermented in stainless steel) and Clairette (third-fill barrels) is still very open despite the recent bottling, with green fig, mirabelle and yellow apple fruit lined with light fennel, verbena and honeysuckle notes. It shows hints of macadamia and brioche through the finish, though they are more restrained than previous vintages. And there's no Bourboulenc in the blend for the first time.

"We're paying more with length than power now," says Garcin. "In 2016 we pressed with less pressure, so we got less of the slightly bitter notes and darker color at the end of the press. We also moved the élevage to demi-muid."

Garcin is playing with the puzzle pieces, and putting it together.

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