Jeb Dunnuck, jebdunnuck.com
About this WINE
Vieux Télégraphe is one of the most renowned estates in the Southern Rhône. Blessed with the finest locations in the area on the famed La Crau plateau, there is an emphasis on terroir expression and natural winemaking. The Bruniers, who own the property, started their love affair with La Crau in 1898 – a grand cru equivalent in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Hippolyte Brunier was a farmer who lived off the land with less than a hectare to make his own wines on the high, stony La Crau plateau. Since those humble beginnings, Vieux Télégraphe has blossomed into one of the most celebrated producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
As with other Châteauneuf properties, the heavy autumn rains of 2019 were key here – replenishing ground water stores and preparing the vines for the summer months of relative drought. The mild winter and spring helped usher their grapes towards a gradual but full ripeness with fairly low yields. This brought about the decision to harvest early, from 25th August and with all grapes in by 19th September – this was a record for the domaine. They see their ’20s as a classic vintage, reminiscent of the late ’80s. The wines display the full-bodied concentration and structure typical of Vieux Télégraphe, but the energy, freshness and restraint of a cooler vintage. Piedlong, the Brunier family’s single vineyard offering, saw a similar pattern. Their deep-rooted old vines thrived under the dry conditions of the year, and they describe the wine as possessing a “natural complexity”.
Alongside their Châteauneuf properties, the Brunier family own Domaine des Pallières in Gigondas – a mixed farming estate set within the Provençal Forest and measuring 110 hectares, 25 of which are under vine. They also have a 50-strong herd of goats, which they use to make their Rove de Pallières cheese. For the ’20 vintage, the family reported the lowest yields ever recorded at the estate, dipping to 15 hectolitres per hectare – under half the permitted output of the appellation. However, they also rate it among their top three vintages since taking over the estate in 1998.
The most celebrated village of the Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the birthplace of the now indispensable French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system – imperfect though it may be. Compared to the Northern Rhône, the vineyards here are relatively flat and often feature the iconic galet pebbles – the precise benefits of which are a source of much debate. Minimum alcohol levels required by the AOC are the highest in France, but at 12.5% it is well below the natural generosity of Grenache, which only achieves its full aromatic potential when it is fully ripe and laden with the resultant high sugars. Syrah and Mourvèdre contribute the other defining elements in the blend, adding pepper, savoury spice and structure to the decadent Grenache. There are a further 10 permitted red grape varieties which can be used to adjust the “seasoning”. Of the five white varieties permitted, it is Grenache Noir’s sibling – predictably perhaps – Grenache Blanc, which dominates, though Roussanne shows a great deal of promise when handled well, notably at Château de Beaucastel.
Southern Rhône Blend
The vast majority of wines from the Southern Rhône are blends. There are 5 main black varieties, although others are used and the most famous wine of the region, Châteauneuf du Pape, can be made from as many as 13 different varieties. Grenache is the most important grape in the southern Rhône - it contributes alcohol, warmth and gentle juicy fruit and is an ideal base wine in the blend. Plantings of Syrah in the southern Rhône have risen dramatically in the last decade and it is an increasingly important component in blends. It rarely attains the heights that it does in the North but adds colour, backbone, tannins and soft ripe fruit to the blend.
The much-maligned Carignan has been on the retreat recently but is still included in many blends - the best old vines can add colour, body and spicy fruits. Cinsault is also backtracking but, if yields are restricted, can produce moderately well-coloured wines adding pleasant-light fruit to red and rosé blends. Finally, Mourvèdre, a grape from Bandol on the Mediterranean coast, has recently become an increasingly significant component of Southern Rhône blends - it often struggles to ripen fully but can add acidity, ripe spicy berry fruits and hints of tobacco to blends.