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Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
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Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.
A FEW 1998 NORTHERN RHONE REDS AT THE MAGNUM SOCIETY,  WELLINGTON


The Magnum Society of Wellington,  New Zealand,  is a wine group founded in 1972.  It came together as a result of wine tastings and classes presented initially by John Buck now of Te Mata Estate,  and continued by Michael Morris,  a co-founder with John of Te Mata.  Society activities have continued to centre on tastings of classic winestyles from around the world,  and the keeping of a cellar to facilitate the tasting of such wines when they have some maturity.

A recent tasting considered the 1998 vintage in the Northern Rhone Valley.  1998 was a warm even hot and dry year,  not only  in the Rhone Valley,  but also South Australia and Hawkes Bay.  Big wines are therefore the order of the day,  which pleases one section of wine people,  but for others the wines run the risk of being too warm-climate and therefore losing the florality,  spice and subtlety coupled with complexity which differentiates good rich syrah from big shiraz.  

Ratings for the 1998 vintage in the Northern Rhone are not completely consistent.  Robert Parker rates the district 90 and Tannic,  and Wine Spectator is similarly 90 and "Very structured reds with good fruit, balance and concentration".  Decanter combines the North and South at 4-stars,  yet the character of the vintage suited the South more than the North.  Jancis Robinson is less keen,  noting in an article titled "1998 Rhones - not so glorious, alas",  24 Feb. 2005:  "There are some promising wines, and most of the wines still looked relatively youthful, but in too many wines there is a worrying lack of fruit at this stage in their development, and some of them seem just overwhelmed by either oak or tannin and sometimes both."  The implication is the north is less than the south.  Michael Broadbent's 2002 considered opinion for the Northern Rhone is much more favourable:  "5-stars:  Great vintage.  Uniformly good growing season … hot and dry … Sun-tanned skins produced deeply-coloured reds and a high sugar content with substantial levels of alcohol."

All things considered,  then,  this small group of Northern Rhone wines was approached with great interest,  though a few from the other districts would have made it more so (though it was early days for Hawkes Bay syrah).  The views of other writers on individual wines (now quoted below) were checked after writing up the wines.

The wines had been decanted several hours previously,  so I cannot comment on the specific need for breathing.  It is safe to assume that all would benefit from some air,  and one improved dramatically with 24 hours further breathing.  My overall impression was one of slight disappointment that the wines had come forward so quickly.  They were not as excitingly varietal as I hoped.  Conversely,  they reinforced absolutely the superb varietal character some of our best recent syrahs from Hawkes are achieving.  I am sure that a tasting of the best 2002 Hawkes Bay syrahs at a comparable 10-year interval with the 2001 Northern Rhones (due to climatic difficulties for 2002 in the latter) will produce a more impressive and enjoyable tasting than this one did.  From 2005,  when both districts enjoyed superbly fine understated weather conditions,  10-year tastings of Northern Rhone syrahs against the best 2005 Hawkes Bay syrahs will be nothing less than exhilarating.  Make sure to provide for it,  as the best wines are mostly still available …

For those interested in syrah and Northern Rhone wines,  the new standard text for the district is Livingstone-Learmonth,  below.

Broadbent,  Michael,  2002:  Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine.  Webster's,  560 p.
Livingstone-Learmonth,  John,  2005:  The Wines of the Northern Rhone.  University of California Press,  704 p.






SYRAH / SHIRAZ:

1998  Bonnefond Cote Rotie les Rochains
1998  Domaine Courbis Cornas les Eygats
1998  Jaboulet Hermitage la Chapelle
1998  Jamet Cote Rotie
  1998  M Sorrel Hermitage
1998  Tardieu-Laurent Cornas Vieilles Vignes
1998  Tardieu-Laurent St Joseph Vieilles Vignes


1998  Domaine Courbis Cornas les Eygats   18 ½  ()
Cornas,  Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13%;  $ –    [ cork;   100% Sy,  vines planted 1991;  100% de-stemmed,  s/s fermentation & cuvaison 21 – 30 days;  12 – 16 months in French oak 25% new;  R. Parker:  1998 Les Eygats … peppery, charcoal, earth, and truffle aromas with abundant quantities of blackberry and cassis fruit. It tastes more like a Cote Rotie than a Cornas, but the oak is well-integrated, the acidity low, and the tannin noticeable, but well-integrated. Rich and complex, this 1998 should evolve nicely for 12-15 years. 90;  J. Robinson:  Dark crimson. Modern fruity wine with some Syrah rigour in its structure. Well mannered. Attractive to drink now. Not intense but good balance. Dry (not sweet), firm, no-compromises finish. 16.5 ]
Ruby and velvet,  fresh and good for the year.  Bouquet is quiet,  but rich and ripe,  inclining to the new world in style.  There seems to be a clear barrel-ferment suggestion,  on fruit which is plummy more than cassis,  but still clearly syrah.  It is a little too ripe for explicit florals,  but there is black peppercorn.  Palate is wonderful though,  by far the richest of the 1998 wines,  classically syrah,  the oak new but balanced,  the acid balance excellent.  The winestyle tiptoes towards best Australian,  but stays rooted in the Rhone:  no hint of boysenberry here.  Cellar 5 – 15 years more.  GK 03/08

1998  Bonnefond Cote Rotie les Rochains   18 +  ()
Cote Rotie,  Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13%;  $ –    [ cork;  100% Sy,  Rochains the top wine,  vines up to 35 years age;  all de-stemmed;  up to 24 months in sometimes all-new oak,  90% French,  10% American;  not filtered;  R. Parker:  1998 Les Rochains … reveals spicy new oak in the nose along with intense black currant and cassis fruit, good spice, and a supple texture with medium body and moderate tannin. It should drink well for 10-14 years. 90 ]
Ruby,  some velvet.  This was the dark horse in the set,  opening very quietly,  with a little brett and decay showing on bouquet.  Yet as it aired,  and one tasted back and forth through the wines assessing their relative qualities,  this one crept up the ranking.  The soft charm of its (in the fullness of time) almost floral bouquet and near-burgundian fruit is appealing,  while clear cassis and black pepper spice developed on both bouquet and palate,  as it took up air.  It is a much richer wine than the Tardieu-Laurent Cornas,  and (as with all these) would be ideal with food.  Decant it well prior to use,  12 hours or so.  Cellar 5 – 10 years.  GK 03/08

1998  Tardieu-Laurent Cornas Vieilles Vignes   18  ()
Cornas,  Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13%;  $ –    [ cork;  100% Sy,  wine bought-in immediately post-fermentation,  suppliers included Verset and Michel;  made from 80 and 100-year old vines,  24 months in new oak;  not filtered;  R. Parker:  There is no need to worry about the harmony among the diverse elements in the spectacularly black/purple-colored 1998 Cornas Vieilles Vignes (125 cases produced). It boasts an extraordinary bouquet of violets, truffles, black raspberries, cassis, and blackberries. Super-rich and extremely full-bodied (it achieved 13% natural alcohol), this profound Cornas needs 5-6 years of cellaring, and will keep for 20-25 years. An amazing effort!  92 – 94.  L.-Learmonth rates this wine 5-stars (in a 6-star system,  and 5 rarely given);  www.tardieu-laurent.com ]
Ruby and appreciable garnet,  older than expected.  Bouquet is dramatically Rhone syrah,  pinpoint wallflower / dianthus florals augmented by some brett,  plus crisp cassis,  all very fragrant indeed.  Palate contrasts with the Courbis Eygats,  being much leaner than expected for this negociant,  just a hint of stalkyness,  but a gorgeous flavour.  Though it will keep for some years,  it will become leaner and stalkier,  so best to start using.  Cellar 2 – 5 years,  say.  GK 03/08

1998  Tardieu-Laurent St Joseph Vieilles Vignes   17 ½ +  ()
St Joseph,  Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13%;  $ –    [ cork;  Sy 100%,  vines 25 – 60 years old,  in 1998 cropped at c. 1 t/ac;  implication of similar new-oak elevage to the Cornas;  not filtered;  R. Parker:  Concentrated and impressive, the 1998 St.-Joseph Les Roches was produced from yields of 20 hectoliters per hectare. It exhibits a dark ruby/purple color, high tannin, and mineral-infused, flinty, black cherry and cassis fruit. This medium to full-bodied, backward St.-Joseph requires 2-3 years of cellaring, and will keep for 15 years.  87 – 89 ]
Ruby,  some velvet,  richer than the Tardieu-Laurent Cornas.  This wine needed time to open up too,  so decant it well ahead of use.  It opens to fragrant berry in which cassis is dominant over darkest plum,  plus light pepper / spice.  Palate is very dry,  but richer and more youthful than the Cornas,  with much less brett,  but nonetheless just a little plainer.  It will cellar for 5 – 10 years more.  GK 03/08

1998  Jamet Cote Rotie   17  ()
Cote Rotie,  Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13%;  $ –    [ cork;  selected from 17 different lieu-dits within the appellation;  no more than 30% de-stemmed;  up to 20 days cuvaison;  up to 22 months in oak,  20% new,  not filtered;  R. Parker: The 1998 Cote Rotie exhibits a deep, opaque plum/garnet color, and a smoky, fried meat, blackberry/cassis-scented bouquet with notions of earth and licorice. A classically proportioned effort, with full body, superb ripeness, high tannin, and layers of concentration and extract, this is not a Cote Rotie for those unable to defer their gratification. It needs time in the bottle. Anticipated maturity: 2005-2018. 92;  J. Robinson:  Quite youthful crimson. Surprisingly evolved already on the nose. A bit clunky. Round and supple but nowhere to go. Fruit already at a peak. Tannins already dissipated. But still not great. Certainly can΄t be accused of trying too hard... 16;  L.-Learmonth:  Floral / earthy mix,  stewed fruit bouquet; blackberry, juicy touches, well-clad with tar/licorice, oiliness.  Pepper, camphor/tar end as tannins of the year take over.  To 2015.  4-stars ] ]
Ruby,  and some garnet too.  One sniff of this,  and one thinks of some 1998 Hawkes Bay syrahs.  The wine is fragrant,  clearly varietal with both florals and white pepper,  but even on bouquet there is a leafy / stalky component,  along with some brett complexity.  Palate confirms the stalky thought,  but there is fair fruit,  cassis more than plum,  some of the leanness of the Tardieu-Laurent Cornas,  but here let down a little by the stalkyness.  It is so hard to get Cote Rotie optimising the floral component,  without a thread of leafyness.  Cellar 1 – 5 years.  GK 03/08

1998  M Sorrel Hermitage   16  ()
Hermitage,  Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  12.5%;  $ –    [ cork; holdings include 0.8 ha of the famous le Meal planted in 1928,  plus parts of Bessards and others;  the 1998 50% de-stemmed,  implication of some marsanne in this blend,  less than the 5% in le Greal;  15 days cuvaison in wood and steel;  this standard wine 16 – 20 months in older oak only;  R. Parker:  The 1998 Hermitage, which emerges primarily from such vineyard sites as Greffieux, Vignon, and Bessards, was totally closed when tasted. It displayed a dense ruby/purple color, a hint of blackberry fruit, and a boatload of tannin. However, it finished with a Bordeaux-like austere character. 87;  J. Robinson:  Light crimson. Lively light tart – nothing to do with Hermitage majesty. Pinched tannins on the finish but just too much acidity. Awfully light. 15 ]
Mature ruby.  This is intriguing wine.  It is not immaculately clean,  showing an old-fashioned French grubbiness,  but the intriguing thing was,  it smells and tastes surprisingly like a sturdy cabernet-dominant claret,  a plainish St Estephe from a sterner year,  maybe.  This interpretation is perfectly in order:  in the 1800s syrah from Hermitage was routinely used to add backbone to claret,  and cabernet sauvignon and syrah share cassis as a key descriptor.  Palate is lean browning cassis,  tannic,  tending austere with the acid showing,  so like the Tardieu-Laurent Cornas,  this is a wine to be using up.  Only fair to note that some tasters found this wine too grubby for enjoyment,  so,  after decanting,  pour it from jug to jug splashily a few times.  Cellar 2 – 5 years.  GK 03/08

1998  Jaboulet Hermitage la Chapelle   14 +  ()
Hermitage,  Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13.5%;  $ –    [ cork;  with the deterioration of the firm through the 1990s,  winemaking notes can only indicate what might have happened in 1998 – 100% de-stemmed,  cuvaison 20 – 35 days in s/s or concrete;  perhaps 12 – 15 months in barrel,  the oak regime not elucidated by L.-Learmonth,  but my impression has been the introduction of some new from the mid-1980s;  R. Parker:  The outstanding, elegant 1998 Hermitage La Chapelle's dark plum/purple color is followed by scents of new saddle leather, black currants, blackberries, and underbrush. In the mouth, the wine reveals sweet tannin, medium to full body, excellent depth, and an intriguing smokiness.  To 2030. 90;  J. Robinson:  Light ruby slightly crimson. Lots of acidity and a definite lack of fruit! Dry as dust in fact. In May 04 I also noted this lack of fruit in the middle and noted it was too tart and hard on the palate. A second bottle in May 04 was much better. 15;  L.-Learmonth:  1998 3-stars:  Oily warm floral bouquet – soft dark fruit aromas.  Gently stewed plum fruit gains dimension through the palate,  smoky fruit skin presence.  Can sing,  more boom from 2007.  2015 – 19 ]
Garnet more than ruby,  the lightest of the wines,  the hue inappropriate for the year.  Bouquet is a classic example of oxidation in the winemaking,  oxo cubes and coffee,  non-varietal.  Palate is savoury on the oxo cubes,  not unpleasant in the sense of very old Spanish QDR to accompany pizza or somesuch,  but a travesty in terms of both the AOC Hermitage,  and the earlier legacy of la Chapelle the wine.  The premature death of Gerard Jaboulet in 1997 was a tragedy for this firm,  as this wine and its successors amply show.  Happily,  Jaboulet the firm was sold in 2005.  The wines emanating from the new owners,  the Frey family who own Ch la Lagune in the Medoc,  will be watched with great interest by all those who loved the earlier Jaboulet wines.  Finish up as QDR,  not with guests.  GK 03/08