The 1978 vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape is considered epic - the first of the “modern” great vintages that brought this old southern French appellation to the attention of a new generation of wine lovers.
I recently had the good fortune to taste a couple of the more noteworthy bottles from this great vintage; an experience that filled in some holes in my tasting experience and lent some perspective to the just released 2016s. Given their similarities, comparisons between these two vintages are inevitable, so tasting the ‘78s may offer insights into the future of the 2016s for those of you in the market. I won’t get into vintage details here - you can do that yourself easily enough. Suffice to say that a long and relatively cool, but even-tempered growing season was the common thread in both vintages.
Of course with just 3 wines it’s difficult to make any sweeping generalizations. But I’m sure that for many, the idea that these wines can not only live for 40 years, but evolve beautifully over so many decades is a wonder in itself.
The 1978 Domaine de Pegau Cuvee Reservee was the first wine up and it proved to be the most intriguing and revelatory. Many old school writers and wine critics have written of the similarity between well-aged Chateauneuf and Burgundy, but I had never seen this tendency so perfectly illustrated as it was with this wine.
And although it had been standing up for weeks it was still quite cloudy. In spite of this it remained a healthy - if faded - deep rose madder hue, with very little brickish/amber at the rim. Medium in weight, the ethereal aromatics of old black tea leaves, dried rose petal, faded sandalwood, and subtle raspberry flower suggested the inside of a potpourri-scented hankie drawer in your grandmother’s dresser.
The textures were creamy and fine with no hint of grit from the still in solution, unfiltered sediments. As sometimes happens with older wines that have spent years cooped-up in a bottle, the nose only grew in intensity as the wine breathed. In fact it held together so well that it made a profound impression on tasters who purchased a taste as a SuperPour many hours later. They couldn’t put it down - their noses returning again and again to their glasses as it continued to offer new surprises.
A couple of weeks later, my friend who had provided the wines and I returned to our favorite spot for our monthly tasting lunch and opened the Chateau Fortia 1978. At first the wine seemed sound but as it aired in the glass a tell-tale vein of tca could be discerned - if ever so slightly - buried underneath some pretty charming dark berry fruit and spice aromatics. Too bad - but maybe the waiters to whom we gave it were able to enjoy it in spite of the flaw. I certainly hope so.
The back-up bottle that day was the Vieux Telegraphe 1978, a legendary wine that certainly lived up to it’s lofty reputation. The cork was nearly perfect and the wine was more than sound - it was full-throttle with all the dark intensity that VT is known for. Still dark ruby / garnet with an almost blackish/purple center, experienced tasters would be hard-put to accurately date this wine if tasted blind. It seemed far younger than it’s 40 years and it held up remarkably well into the next day, showering the palate with copious dark blue and black cane fruits, hints of mocha and savory / meaty notes - all richly textured and with fine length.
A limited tasting yes, but one that served to highlight the differences between three venerable properties that should be enough to encourage anyone to lay some 2016s down for even a few years if they are going to turn out as lovely as these bottles.
And while I appreciated greatly the power and depth of the Vieux Telegraphe and realize why it has so many fans, my admiration and intrigue was captured by the exquisite Pegau. But then anything that reminds me of Burgundy already has a head start in my tasting book.