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  • April 1, 2013
  • Versino Châteauneuf

  • by Lars Carlberg

jean_paul_versinoJean-Paul Versino’s special Cuvée des Félix (the name of both of Jean-Paul’s grandfathers) macerates for around four weeks and later ages in used Burgundian and Bordelais barrels. The blend comes from about 5 ha consisting of Grenache (65 percent), Mourvèdre (25 percent), Syrah (5 percent), and a few other varieties.

Tasting samples of his 2006 and 2005 Félix, one notices no overt wood aromas or tannins. The wines have substance to support the wood. This unfiltered cuvée comes predominantly from three quartiers, or areas: a parcel near La Nerthe, a plot by La Crau (called Blaquières), and an easterly sloping site on Pied de Baud near Mont-Redon. La Crau and Mont Redon are the stony plateaus to the east and north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, respectively. The roughly 90-year-old vines are cropped at a mere 20 hl/ha.

My favorite, however, is the “Tradition,” as the top Rhône expert John Livingstone-Learmonth likes to define this classic wine. It comes from diverse old-vine parcels spread throughout the appellation and with a strict selection at the vine. Yields are low at between 28 and 30 hl/ha. Eighty percent of Versino's holdings are covered with stones. In 1994, he had a total of 9 ha under vine, now its closer to 16 ha, with diverse well-placed sites.

The vineyard care is without herbicides. He uses only eight harvesters, who pick with two buckets over a long harvest. The good grapes go to vat, the others are separated out. Usually, Syrah ripens first and is picked and later blended with some Grenache, then comes more Grenache blended with late-ripening Mourvèdre. The blend is 65 percent Grenache, 15 percent Mourvèdre, 15 percent Syrah, and 5 percent other varieties. The Tradition has an 18- to 20-day maceration and is aged in old 40- to 45-hl  foudres for over 18 months and bottled unfiltered. As with Félix, there is no destemming and a percentage of his Félix goes into the Tradition each year. This wine is fruitier than Félix, but with drier tannins. Open-minded, Jean-Paul experimented in the 2003 vintage with a batch of destalked grapes that later was bottled under the name Les Bauds, which consisted of roughly 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent Mourvèdre.

Since Jean-Paul—whose paternal grandfather, like the Usseglio's, had emigrated from Piedmont to Châteauneuf—still uses an old wooden basket press and ferments with whole bunches, he is one of the few growers using these two time-honored methods of winemaking. For him, the dividing line between old-style and modern Châteauneuf begins with the destemmer.

Both wines, Tradition and Félix, have what he would describe as "asphalt" on the palate. I also get réglisse, or liquorice, and herbs. They have meaty aromas, too. He avoids extraction via pigeage, or stomping the grapes, and rather prefers remontage, or pumping over. His are true vins de garde with tannins and noticeable length at the back of the palate.

“Domaine Bois de Boursan” initially started as his white-wine label and eventually evolved into an export label for both red and white. He wanted to create something new with this name and felt the traditional label had no space for it. His local clients and an importer in the UK refused to accept the new label, so he has continued on with the old. I hope he keeps to the original label, bottle, and generic red Châteauneuf capsules. ♦

Photograph courtesy of Andrew Guard.

Portions of this post appeared in similar form on the blog of the former Mosel Wine Merchant, April 7, 2008.

  • This article is off-topic, but was my first ever post on the former Mosel Wine Merchant blog. Jean-Paul Versino is one of my favorite growers in Châteauneuf. Of course, I love Château Rayas, such as the 1995. Yet I like Clos des Papes, Clos du Mont-Olivet, Le Vieux Donjon, Domaine Charvin, Château de Beaucastel, and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, among others.

    Jean-Paul Versino might have more than 16 ha now. Andrew Guard lists 18 ha in his profile.

    From the last several vintages, I haven’t bought any Châteauneufs. I still drink them, but alcohol levels tend to be even higher than before.

  • Andrew Guard says:

    Hey Lars,

    Great article on one of my favorite producers. Visiting Châteauneuf du Pape this year made me realize (again) that producers who resolutely stick to traditional methods, like the Versinos, are sadly now quite the rarity. I haven’t pressed him for some years on the exact size of his estate but acreage in Châteauneuf du Pape is now more than ever very tightly held so I would imagine that the figure may not have moved too much. In any case I’ll ask him again next year. His 2010 is wonderful, I like so much about it and will keep a couple of bottles to share with you should you make it down to these parts in the future!

    • Thanks, Andrew. I appreciate your photo, thoughts, and invitation. During my time at Christie’s in NYC, I remember reading an article in an American glossy wine magazine about the Avrils of Clos des Papes spending over a million euros for a few hectares in La Crau. The price of land skyrocketed with all the hype from Robert Parker, who, despite his liking traditional producers, tends to favor the bigger and riper wines.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Lars – Thank you for the interesting article. Whereas I can remember most of your articles from your old MWM blog, I do not remember this one. Anyway, my tastes in Châteauneuf are very similar to yours. Mont Olivet and Vieux Donjon are my favorites in terms of style and price. Also, I recently had a very good 2009 La Nerthe, and will have to try more from them, based on that wine. The one Rayas that I’ve had (1998) was in a category by itself.

    Anyway, I’m adding the Versino CDPs to my list of wines to try in the future.

    • You’re welcome, Andrew. Yes, it was my very first article on the MWM blog. I also like Mont-Olivet and Le Vieux Donjon for their traditional style and quality-price rapport. When I was buying Châteauneuf regularly every vintage, they were each a go-to domaine. I especially liked their 1994 and 1995 vintages. I also had the vintages up to 2001. Both destem more now. Yet the wines remain genuine expressions of Châteauneuf from well-placed, old (mainly Grenache) vines. I’ve had some excellent La Nerthe, too. The wines are more sleek, but have real class. Rayas is indeed special.

  • John Gilman writes in an interview that Syrah doesn’t belong in the southern Rhône. Yet he is a fan of Mont-Redon, which has increased their holdings of Syrah to 25 percent of the blend. He also makes the assertion that Mont-Redon is traditional and going against the grain. Mont-Redon might be conservative, but is far from old-style Châteauneuf. Mont-Redon destems all their grapes, ferments the musts in auto-pigeage stainless-steel tanks, and ages the wines in small oak barrels. Despite Robert Parker’s criticism (often unfair) of this famous and large estate with a great terroir on the northern plataeau, Mont-Redon did produce some average wines over the years. Parker feels that Mont-Redon is resting on their laurels. I suspect he’d like an unfiltered, more concentrated special cuvée. On the other hand, Gilman finds that the wines have great finesse.

  • John Ritchie says:

    Domaine Ferrand makes an excellent all-Syrah Côtes-du-Rhône in the Southern Rhône, ‘La Ferrande’. The 2010 is finely balanced and their 2010 Grenache-based CDR was one of the better wines I tasted in the category. I haven’t tasted their Châteauneuf, but the lower-level wines are great and more than enough evidence that Syrah can be superb in the south.

    • Although I’m familiar with Domaine Ferrand, I’ve yet to taste their Côtes du Rhône “La Ferrande.” John Livingstone-Learmonth’s Wines of the Rhône (Faber and Faber, 1992) talks about Syrah in Châteauneuf and how it’s been less successful in his opinion. He does mention, however, Château de Fonsalette Côte du Rhône Syrah as an exception.

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