Robert Parker is not what you think he is.
The most common misconception of Parker -- the world's most powerful critic -- from both his acolytes and his detractors is that he always rates highest the biggest, most powerful wines on the table. I had the opportunity last week to taste wine with Parker for the third time, at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, and can say this is simply not true.
Parker has real affection for wines made in traditional ways: whole-cluster fermentation (with the stems) in cement tanks. He spoke repeatedly about how he likes Grenache that never sees oak. And he praised elegance in wine and encouraged the Napa vintners in the crowd to pursue it.
"I'm sorry to serve all these wines that are not made in 100% new oak and overextracted," Parker said. "It might not help my reputation."
Parker chose 2007 Chateauneufs du Pape for this year's tasting because, he said, "This is the greatest vintage I've ever tasted in the southern Rhone."
"The interesting thing is, 2007 is not a great year in France," he said. "But in the southern Rhone, it's extraordinary. This was a warmer than normal vintage, but it had the coldest nighttime temperatures of the last 40 years. I think that's why the freshness was preserved."
While the wines we tasted were expensive, Parker also said, "The $12 and $15 wines from the Rhone from '07 were the best I've ever tasted. It was virtually impossible to taste a bad wine at any level from the southern Rhone from 2007."
Parker said he believes Chateauneuf du Pape is "the epicenter of great Grenache in the world," and he has a number of theories on making great Grenache, some that conflict with his public image and some that reinforce it.
He's dead-set against new oak for Grenache, saying something that would shock his haters: "People talk about Romanee Conti and La Tache as great wines. But they're 100% new oak. So what you're tasting is often the oak. What would they taste like without the new oak? (With most Chateauneuf du Pape) what you're tasting is the juice from the old vines. I don't think you can do that with Cabernet or Shiraz. They need the oak, they need the oxidative process of the oak."
"I call them naked wines. There is no makeup."
But he also said this: "It's almost impossible to make good Grenache unless you pick it over 25 Brix. We're talking 14% alcohol and up. It's almost impossible to find good Grenache at 13% alcohol. It needs to be picked very ripe. I think Grenache is a much more difficult grape to make great wine from than Pinot Noir. You have to pick it very ripe, very late."
That said, he does not believe big = good.
"The great wines of the world are wines of exceptional concentration, but they're not heavy," Parker said.
Parker says that he's not the first to notice the great qualities of the '07 vintage in CDP.
"I've been going at the end of August to the Rhone for more than 20 years," he said. "I have never seen more Danes, Dutch, Swedes and Belgians than this year. They were like locusts, filling up the trunks of their cars with these wines."
Given the quality of the wines we tasted, I can see why.
A few more notes about Parker: He has an impish sense of humor. He was amused by tasting Chateauneufs du Pape in the heart of Napa Valley, mostly with highly successful Napa Valley wine people, and said he planned to send the mayor of CDP a letter describing the event. He's also a charitable guy, as the proceeds from the event go to culinary students for wine-education scholarships.
He's so enthusiastic about wines he likes that he had to be prodded several times, because he wanted to linger and tell stories while tasting some of the great ones.
He must not be a sake drinker, because he told of taking Chateauneufs du Pape to Masa's in New York to have with sushi and sashimi. "Even Masa thought I was crazy," he said. On this issue, sorry Bob, but I'm with Masa.
As for his palate, you can agree or disagree with his preferences, but his descriptions are very accurate.
Last week I told an editor I'd tasted with Parker and he shared this story: "I remember defending him at a very drunken dinner with some wine friends, and as a joke, they decided they’d pull the Parker reviews for those wines and compare them to what they were tasting. They came away very humbled."
"Humbled" isn't the word I'd use for my experience; I have done this before, and besides, I'm already aware that I'll never be better than the 2nd best wine writer from Maryland (though you may judge for yourself which of us, above, is better-looking).
"Impressed" is more like it. The man's bold and full-bodied, but with great longevity, surprising balance and natural elegance.
Chateau Rayas Reserve Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Wow. Made from 100% whole-cluster (with stems!) Grenache, this is the best current-vintage wine I've tasted so far this year, and I've had some big names. So lively and interesting, it's elegant enough to taste great and complex enough to fascinate. Peppery, with nice red cherry fruit, notes of tobacco and licorice and lip-smacking acidity on the finish. Delightfully aromatic; you can smell the famous "garrigue" of the region. The tannins are so soft you don't notice them, but Parker says, "The '83 and '85 are still in fine form. It's an incredibly long-lived Grenache." I'll give it 99 points, which means anything I want to give 100 this year has a high bar to cross.
Les Cailloux Cuvee Centenaire Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Made from 80% Grenache with 10% each of Syrah and Mourvedre, the latter two aged in new oak. You can smell the oak, but you don't taste it; instead it's quite spicy, with cherry and cinnamon intermingling, voluptuous tannins and a silky yet cinnamony finish. Parker calls it "a big wine with elegance." Not heavy at all. 94
Bosquet Des Papes Chante Le Merle Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
80% Grenache with 10% each Mourvedre and Syrah. Red and black plums, allspice, clove, pepper, cinnamon and a little lavender on the spicy finish. 93
Domaine Giraud Grenaches De Pierre Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
100% Grenache from 110-year-old vines. Parker said, "This is a wine I never really liked until 2006. In 2007 it's beautiful." This one feels big, with cherry and kirsch liqueur, very soft tannins, and notes of lavender. 90
Domaine Olivier Hillaire Les Petits Pieds d'Armand Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Aromatic, but I think this one's overripe -- I smell raisin in addition to cherry, green herbs, spearmint and "garrigue" (think scrub pines and lavender). The fruit is quite ripe, the tannins are soft, and it's raisiny on the finish. 88
Clos du Mont-Olivet La Cuvee Du Papet Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Parker says, "This is as traditional as it gets. The father, son and wife all look like 100-year-old vines." Ba-dum-dum. It's 80% Grenache with 10% each Mourvedre and Syrah. This cuvee is only made in good years, three times so far this decade ('01, '05, '07). Cherry with eucalyptus, spearmint, allspice, clove, pepper and lavender; spicy on the finish. 92
Domaine Charvin Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Parker says, "I find it the wine that comes closest spiritually to Rayas." It's all whole-cluster fermented, with the stems. It's 85% Grenache, with the remaining 15% taken up by Syrah, Mourvedre and "mixed blacks" -- 13 grapes are authorized in CDP, but many wineries now use only three for their reds. This wine tastes like Christmas: spicy, with red plum flavor, a little kirsch on the midpalate, lavender and scrub pine, allspice and clove. Very aromatic and interesting, though the finish is a little hot. Parker says, "This is atypically rich and big for Charvin." It's excusable. 94
Domaine Font De Michelle Cuvee Etienne Gonnet Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
A "modern-style wine," Parker said, of 70% Grenache with 15% each Mourvedre and Syrah, some of which spent time in small new oak barrels. There's a pure, ripe, sweet black cherry fruitiness that I like, but only a tingle of pepper on the tongue and a hint of garrigue in the aroma tells its origins. 88
Domaine La Barroche Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
100% Grenache from 100-year-old vines. Though aged in old wooden foudres, it still tastes New World: syrupy cherry with Concord grape and a little licorice. Rich and silky, with jammy fruit. Parker said, "It's almost like a liqueur of Grenache." A nice beverage, but I don't know if I'd be happy with it if I ordered Chateauneuf du Pape and wasn't warned. 89
L'Accent De La Roquete Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
90% Grenache and 10% Mourvedre. Dense cherry fruit with kirsch notes and silky tannins and just a hint of lavender in the aroma. 89
La Bastide Saint Dominique Secrets de Pignan Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Concentrated ripe and rich cherry with kirsch liqueur, but also spearmint and eucalyptus notes. Interesting green mango scents lift an aroma that, with all the eucalyptus, is slightly medicinal. Dense and rich, but interesting. 91
M. Chapoutier Barbe Rac Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
This is the wine where my taste and Parker's most diverge. From 100% Grenache planted in 1902 in "an area that's not considered one of the best areas," Chapoutier created a wine about 16.5% alcohol about which Parker said, "I think that's a really strong wine from Chapoutier. It's a big, big wine." Nice cherry and kirsch flavors with some peppermint and lavender on the finish, but it's huuuuge, and I can't imagine drinking it with dinner, or even finishing a full glass of it. Hot on the finish. 86
Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Always one of the most controversial wines in the region, this was the only wine in the tasting that wasn't mostly Grenache; instead it's 60% Mourvedre with 20% each of Grenache and Syrah. The question is always whether that dusty, earthy aroma is Mourvedre or brettanomyces, and if the latter, whether it's spoilage, as UC Davis claims, or an element of terroir. A tannic, austere wine that smells to me like brett, with nice cherry fruit, kirsch and some stemminess. 89
Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe La Crau Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
65% Grenache with a wider range of other grapes than most. Parker said, "They think the 2007 is the greatest wine they've made since 1978. I think this is going to be a wine to forget for 4 or 5 years." That said, one of the most elegant, balanced wines of the tasting. Nice cherry fruit with pepper and lavender and an excellent long finish with nice sweet cherry on it. I'm sure it will be more complex and better overall in 2014, but I could enjoy a bottle right now. 94
Le Clos Du Caillou Reserve Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
60% Grenache with 20% each of Mourvedre and Syrah, the latter two aged in new oak. In 2001, Parker gave 100 points to this wine. He said of this vintage, "I think Cabernet fans would like this wine." Hearing that, I wanted not to like it. It's really, really ripe -- blackberry, vanilla, alcohol. In fact, it smells like Barossa Valley Shiraz, and I doubt I could even guess the continent in a blind tasting. But it has prickly acidity and some pretty black raspberry on the finish, and I won't deny that it's delicious. 92
Domaine de Saint Prefert Collection Charles Giraud Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
60% Grenache, 40% Mourvedre. Parker said this estate made bad wine until sold in 2002, the worst vintage in 70 years because of a catastrophic flood (that also submerged his rental car). Imagine taking over a winery and immediately being hit by that. They recovered to make this interesting wine with black cherry fruit, tangy acidity and notes of raw meat, green herb and garrigue. 92
Clos Des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
65% Grenache with 20% Mourvedre and "mixed blacks." Parker says this winery makes CDP with "a Burgundian sensibility. It's rich, concentrated and structured. But it's fresh and it's elegant." That's all true: Very nice cherry fruit, some kirsch, aromatic notes of licorice, pepper and horehound. Nice light-medium body, nice acidity, wonderful balance. I love the brightness of it. 95
Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils Cuvee de mon Aieul Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
95% Grenache, 5% Syrah. A New World wine but a nice one, with ripe and rich blueberry flavors, some licorice and coffee and pretty raspberry on the finish. 93
Domaine Grand Veneur Les Origines Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
50% Grenache, 30% Mouvedre and 20% Syrah, the latter two in 100% new oak. Parker said, "This has as much new oak as any wine in the tasting." The aroma is closed tight, but there's nice blackberry fruit on the palate with decent acidity, a hint of Concord grape and some Cabernet Franc-like herbaceousness. Tannic on the finish. Though all these wines will probably be better in 5 years (or more), waiting on this one is mandatory. 90
Domaine De La Janasse Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
85% Grenache with 15% Syrah, the latter aged in small new oak barrels. Over 16% alcohol. Parker said, "It's the most powerful wine of the day. It's a hippo with a ballerina dress on." I liked it better than that image, and better than most of the other hippos. Really ripe and rich blackberry fruit with a hint of chocolate. Soft, syrupy tannins. There is more elegance here, like a hippo bathing in blueberry pie. Daintily. 91