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Tardieu-Laurent with Michel Tardieu

by Tom Cannavan, 07/00

I recently had the opportunity to visit the cellars of Tardieu-Laurent, deep beneath an imposing Château not far from Aix-en-Provence, in a southerly extension of the Rhône valley. Tardieu-Laurent is something of a superstar domaine, even more so since lionised by American wine critic Robert Parker who has, it's fair to say, raved about their entire range of wines awarding scores in the mid to high 90's using his famous 100-point system.

The world has beaten a path to the door since then, and prices for the wines have soared to eye-watering levels - if you can find them at all. The domaine is a partnership between Dominique Laurent, one of the hottest names in Burgundy, and Michel Tardieu, a dynamic young winemaker. Tardieu-Laurent is an extremely unusual operation in that they are a négociant only, buying young wines from growers all over the Rhône which they mature and blend before bottling. They own no vineyards and don't buy grapes; only wine. Tardieu-Laurent are very much an "artisan" producer, making between half a dozen and 20 or so barrels of each wine.

The cellar is heady with the spice and vanilla aroma of new oak. Every wine in the portfolio spends many months in top-quality new French barrels (15 months for the top wines) before being transfered to older inert barrels for a further nine months. The wines are aged on their lees and racked until clear, being bottled without fining or filtration. Though the oaking is obviously a significant factor in these wines, Tardieu proclaims himself as a confirmed terroirist, insisting that his aim with each appellation is to express powerfully the fruit and sense of place, never masking these factors with wood.

Michel is an extremely engaging and remarkably down-to-earth character. Scrambling up and down rows of barrels he insisted that I taste all of his wines, all the time keen to explain how they are made and to answer questions. He is self-effacing, and happily cracked jokes about his fame and the phenomenal reputation his wines have acquired. Casual in tee-shirt and shorts, he is ever-attentive to tasters' comments and justifiably proud of his wines. Despite the obvious oak influence, these young wines each showed superb quality of fruit, very fine tannins and balanced acidity. I was ready not to like these wines given the hype and hysteria that surrounds them, but as a range they were both delicious and impressive.

One of the great mysteries that surrounds Tardieu-Laurent is exactly where the young wines they buy come from. Rumours abound that most are from the best vineyards and producers of their respective areas, some people claiming to have insider information or to have spotted a wine from its characteristics.

   photo of Michel

Presumably Tardieu-Laurent can pay the growers more for their young wines than the growers can make by maturing and bottling their own? Michel gives little away. When I asked directly about the origins of his Côte-Rôtie for example, he would say nothing more than "mostly Côte Brune", with a little twinkle in his eye (Côte-Rôtie's famous slopes are divided into Côtes Brune and Blonde).

Tasting notes on fifteen 1999 wines from barrel follow. It is worth emphasising that tasting wines from barrel is at best a snapshot of an often very rapid and not always predictable phase in a wine's evolution. I check the components - particularly fruit quality, ripeness and ripeness of tannins; I check that acidity is balanced and that the oak seems sympathetic within the overall picture. But this remains a picture of individual components that offers clues to potential - far removed from conclusions on a finished wine.

1999 red wines from barrel

This is a Carignan/Syrah blend from a single vineyard. It is glossy and dark with a beautiful richness and spice about the nose, a little jammy note of over-ripeness, but one that is powerfully complemented by rich fruit, body and good structure. Very good.

Côtes-du-Rhône "Guy Louis"
Grenache/Syrah. Striking, intense purple. Plenty of spice and fresh, creamy black fruit. Loaded with fruit on the palate that is berryish and again lush and ripe. A harder tannic edge just makes its presence felt. Contains a proportion of Northern Rhône fruit. Very good.

Vacqueyras Vieilles Vignes
Great depth of colour again. 90% Grenache, 10% Syrah. A meatiness about the nose with lovely fresh berry fruit and a creamy coffee note sitting just below. Very fresh on the palate, good body and moderate tannins and acidity. Quiet complex. Very good.

80% Grenache dominates the blend with Syrah and Mourvèdre. Deep ruby/purple. This has real refinement on the nose with kirsch-like sweetness of cherry fruit. Plate is refined and taut with more cherry and juicy black fruit. Very silky in texture, it turns quite chewy in the finish as tannins grip. Very good.

90% Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre. Deep purple. Big, fruity nose that is open and attractive with cherry and elegant red fruit. Palate is quite tannic and biting, but again fruit is rich but elegant and balanced with moderate acidity and a rounding of oak. Very good.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes
Dark ruby/purple. A little hint of sweet, jammy over-ripeness. Forest fruits and a creamy note. There is great depth to this wine, a real blue/black seam of taut fruit and silky texture. Long finish is very pure and fruit drives through good tannins and moderate acidity. Very good indeed.

From vineyards on the granite plain. There is a huge whiff of cordite and charcoal that is very typical Crozes Syrah. Stunning quality of fruit in this with loads of schisty, mineral-edged black fruit that is ripe and sweet with a smoky edge. Good length and lovely balance. Potentially outstanding for the appellation.

Cornas "Coteaux"
Deep purple colour. Spicy, peppery fruit on the nose is rich and pure. The oak is more noticeable on this wine at present, but again there is a very impressive quality of fruit and a citrussy acidity that keeps it fresh. Tannins are fine and it has good length. Good.

Cornas Vieilles Vignes
From a single vineyard once more, this has an attractive nuttiness about the nose before a similar aromatic and flavour profile, but with a little more concentration and an attractive leathery quality. Very good.

Fine, fine purity of black fruits, very ripe, dusty and blue/black quality like blueberry and blackcurrant. Great concentration on the palate, a real slug of pure fruit that powers through into a long finish. Tannins are moderate and oak adds a little extra flesh. Good acidity and good length. Very good indeed.

St Joseph "Les Roches" Vieilles Vignes
Les Roches is the vineyard. This darkly-hued wine has a lovely minerality and a fine, elegant nose. The palate too shows a really racy elegance with a fine, tight black fruit core and a balanced finish where already integrated oak, tannins and acidity support almost impercetibly. Very good indeed.

This is from Côte Brune fruit. It has a beautifully fragrant nose with a sauvage character and flowery nuances. There is lovely depth to this wine, apparent even on the nose with layerings of sweet black fruit. On the palate fabulously round, silky and rich with black cherry and blackcurrant fruit, hints of spice and great concentration. Balanced and long, a wine with outstanding potential. Excellent.

1999 white wines from barrel

Côtes-du-Rhône "Guy Louis" Blanc
100% marsanne, this is a heady, powerful wine with fat, rich peach fruit and toasty oak on the nose. The palate is full and succulent with more buttery, peachy fruit. Acidity is moderate and it is pure and fruity into the finish. Excellent for the appellation.

Fantastic purity of sweet pear and peach fruit. Essence of ripe pear, with loads of vanillin oak giving a buttery, rich edge to the elegant fruit. This has great style, with a clean and pure palate, the oak in check and moderate acidity freshening the fruit. Very good length indeed. I'm not a huge fan of oaky Condrieus, but this has the potential to carry it off very successfully.

Hermitage Blanc
A single barrel of this is made for friends and special customers. It has a distinctively nutty nose with lots of apricotty fruit that is quite fat and alcoholic. The palate is rich and laden with fruit, but a slightly cloying style for me.

1998 wines

Though all sold-out long ago, the 1998's are in their final few months in barrel and Michel poured me a glass of the Minervois. An absolutely stunning wine from this appellation which shows the potential that rigorous fruit selection and careful winemaking affords this humble region. Beautifully deep and creamy fruit meshed with fine tannins and generous supporting oak. Delicious and with considerable finesse and complexity.

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