We tasted three vintages of the Château La Nerthe Rouge – 2007, 1998 and 1986, classic vintages in three decades for La Nerthe. This wine is unusual in the Southern Rhône in that it contains all 13 of the traditional permitted grape varietals for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Grenache is the dominant grape, making between 50% and 60% of the final blend. Syrah and Mourvèdre contribute significantly, then Cinsault comes in at about 5% and the rest contribute only about a percentage point each. This wine is also unusual in the Southern Rhône in that about 30% of the blend is aged in new French oak barrels – most
Southern Rhône producers use only old oak or simply concrete or stone vats.
The 2007 was a medium-deep ruby-violet colour. The aromas were very concentrated with a complexity you might expect from the blend of 13 grape varietals: ripe strawberry, hazelnut, thyme, warm earth, licorice, pine needle and black pepper. Experienced tasters may recognise the fingerprint of grenache (strawberry), syrah (pepper and piney/medicinal notes) and mourvèdre (thyme/earthyness) along with the nuttyness from the oak. The palate was perhaps less focused than the nose, however it was well-balanced with a medium body, ripe fruit flavours, soft and supple tannins and a warm bricky minerality to the finish. As you would expect from a hot climate, the alcohol was on the high side and the acidity only medium, however these features were not out of kilter.
I found the 1998 perhaps a little less concentrated than the 2007, but the development of the aromas made for an appealing nose. The fruit was less jammy and ripe, rather darker and brooding. It was accompanied by vegetal/mushroom aromas, plus violets, chocolate and hazelnut. I found subtle licorice and mint notes but the overwhelming feature of this wine was a distinct ‘meatiness’. The structure of the palate was similar to the 2007, but with firmer tannins and a drying finish. Overall, I found this wine more savoury and subtle than the ’07, perhaps lacking a little in fruit to make it a truly exceptional wine, although this is, of course, a matter of personal taste.
It is very unusual to taste a wine from the southern Rhône with 25 years age on it, so we felt very privileged in tasting the 1986. This wine had a medium ruby core, but the development of colour was such that the rim of the wine was almost yellow. It had quite an astonishing, unique nose. The ‘meaty’ development I mentioned for the 1998 had progressed and we now had a very savoury nose, which reminded me most of the remains in the bottom of a roasting dish after serving Christmas lamb. Mushroom notes were strong, accompanied by garrigue, roasted herbs and pumpkin. However, there were still delicate overtones of raspberry, chocolate and a subtle florality. The body was a bit light for the alcohol level, however at this age that is not unexpected and with such an astonishing array of flavours to complement the nose, this could be forgiven. Tannins were firm and drying, but ripe and chewy – very engaging and appealing. An ferric, sanguine finish rounded out a quite extraordinary wine.
The final two wines of the night were the château’s flagship Cuvée des Cadettes, vintages 2009 and 1989. This is a very special wine made from about 50% Grenache and about 25% each Syrah and Mourvèdre. The impressive thing about this wine is that the grenache component of the wine comes from the oldest grenache vines in France. Indeed, they were the first vines to be planted in France on American rootstock following the devastation of phylloxera, and date to 1893! I’ve written about the effect of vine age on wine previously, though in essence, the older vines serve to make a more concentrated, intense wine. These two wines certainly demonstrated this effect.
The 2009 was virtually a barrel sample at the time, as it is only just being primed for release. The wine was very fruit-dominated with strawberry, raspberry and boysenberry aromas, along with allspice, peppered salami, chocolate and a ‘baked-earth’ minerality. Very succulent with firm, juicy tannins, and a huge intensity of flavours and aromas. This wine is still a baby, but will only develop in richness and complexity with age.
The 1989 showed what this wine can achieve with 20 years bottle age. It had a long gradient, from a medium-deep ruby core to a yellow-orange rim. My sample was cloudy with sediment. The nose was certainly something worth writing home about! The overriding feature for me was the intense concentration of aromas. It was difficult to unpack and, indeed, every time I smelled the wine, I seemed to discern a new set of aromas. I got a significant ‘meaty’ savouriness – salami and meat pastry, there were herbs – rosemary and thyme, roast vegetables, brazil nuts, raspberry and boysenberry, a subtle minty/medicinal note and crushed violets – it was almost Barolo-like. Flavours were similarly complex, and the body was rich and mouth-filling. As per the other wines discussed, the structure was on the high side for alcohol with only medium acidity. Tannins were firm, coating and chewy: quite powerful and intense. My final words on my tasting note for this wine were, “very fierce but, wow!”