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October 27, 2011

MNSC Rhone Trip Day 5: Henri Bonneau

For some of us who are lovers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, there is one name that stands out above all others: Henri Bonneau.  Wines from this legendary winemaker are highly sought after by wine lovers and collectors, and the boys of MNSC are certainly big fans.  We featured all 3 of his cuvées at our horizontal tasting of 1990 Châteauneuf-du-Pape last year.

He is also well-known to be somewhat reclusive, and appointments with the great man is hard to come by.  Therefore we were all the more fortunate and privileged to have been able to call on him today.  We are told that it is rare to find him descending into the cellars for tastings - as he suffers from arthritis and going up and down stairs is understandably painful and difficult - but he accompanied us today while son Marcel made sure that our glasses were never empty.

The one thing I had heard about - perhaps from reading Parker's book on Rhône or one of his newsletters - is that the conditions of the cellars are, shall we say, not exactly hospital grade.  Many people have often wondered in amazement at the profoundness of the wines that have come from such a cellar.  Therefore I was not in the least bit surprised to find truth in what I had heard.

The cellar conditions are the exact opposite of what we had just seen at Beaucastel.  The floor was wet so there's a little sludge going around after mixing with the dirt.  The air is dank and circulation seems non-existent.  Mold is everywhere, as are the cobwebs between the barrels and on the walls.  Henri doesn't believe in new oak, and his barrels certainly show it.  We are told that he takes second-hand barrels from friends that have been used for 4-5 years, which he will then use to age his vin de table...  After being used for the vin de table for a few more years, the same barrel is then used to age Cuvée Marie Beurrier.  Not sure how many more years it will take for the same barrel to graduate to Cuvée Célestins...

I don't know how old the fermentation tanks are, but it is possible that they were made just after WWII.  Having seen how each and single stainless steel, oak or cement tank at every single winery is religiously scrubbed clean, the five tanks in the room look like they've been neglected for the last few decades.

2010 Henri Bonneau Cuvée Marie Beurrier - sweet, jammy, a little stinky.  Good and chewy tannins, with acidity showing mid-palate.

2010 Henri Bonneau (Réserve des Célestins) -  the Grenache fruit from La Crau will go into Célestins.  Sweet and jammy, it's a lovely wine.  Tannins were bigger on the finish.

2009 Henri Bonneau "G" - my understanding is that "g" stands for "grand", and is the code for Marie Beurrier...  This was so rich and full of strawberry jam.  Amazing.  Light on the body but with long length.

2009 Henri Bonneau "P" - similarly, "p" stands for "petit" and represents Célestins.  Rich and sweet, this is a big wine with structure.

2008 Henri Bonneau "G" - bigger nose, smoky, animal and leather notes.

2008 Henri Bonneau "P" - loads of leather, game meat, smoke, stewed fruit.  Big tannins here.

2007 Henri Bonneau "G" - good acidity here.  Lovely nose with stewed prunes and lots of black fruits.  Alcohol was very obvious.

2007 Henri Bonneau "P" - very jammy, sweet and lovely on the palate.  Alcoholic with a long finish.

Henri Bonneau Les Rouliers - this vin de table is a blend of the 2005 and 2007 vintages.  Smoky, sweet fruit and animal notes.  Clearly a big step down from the other wines, but amazing quality for a VdT...

2006 Henri Bonneau Réserve des Célestins - forest, dried herbs, a little smoke.  Tannins are there but not overpowering.  Good acidity balance.

2005 Henri Bonneau "G" - savory, mineral, black olive, ripe and stewed fruit.  Tannic on the finish.

2005 Henri Bonneau "P" - more black olive and mineral, which were masking fruity notes like prunes.

Almost all the wines we tasted today were still in barrels or tanks.  Henri does not have a set timetable for bottling and releasing his wines.  The famous saying - which he repeated when asked today - is that he'll bottle and sell some wine when he feels he needs money.  This will free up some barrels, which will enable him to move some wine from the tanks into barrel.

We are told that these days Henri rarely drinks wine as he suffers from diabetes, but he tasted the 2007s today and was happy with them.

This was truly a very special visit, being able to meet the great winemaker and (indirectly) converse with him.  Yes, we all have the potential to be groupies, and I don't have any problem admitting that I'm a big Henri Bonneau fan.

We knew our time was up when the smell of lunch came from the kitchen, and we bid our farewells to Madame, Henri and Marcel.  I caught a glimpse of one of their beautiful tabby cats curled up on a table by the door, and hope to have the opportunity to see it again someday.

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