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“What joy! Just one wine, no special nonsense Cuvées.”John Livingstone-Learmonth on Le Vieux Donjon
The trend in Châteauneuf-du-Pape towards heavier wines over the past 25 years reminds us a lot of how Barolo lost its way in the 1990s.
Just as Old-School Barolo estates had become near-unicorns by the late 1990s, there are today relatively few Châteauneuf estates still turning out old-vine Grenache whose seamless elegance and generosity of bouquet can make a devoted Burgundy lover weep.
Yet, when the discussion turns to who, after Rayas and Henri Bonneau, has been making the greatest Old School wines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in recent years, there is one essential name that is sometimes forgotten: Le Vieux Donjon.
Perhaps it’s the Michel family’s modesty, despite earning eighth place on the Wine Spectator’s Top Ten list for 2018. Or that their prices have changed little over the past decade (while other estates’ prices have soared).
No matter ... it is an inescapable truth that Le Vieux Donjon—made in a way unchanged since the 1970s—stands increasingly alone among today’s Châteauneuf-du-Papes.
The Old School greatness of the wine is based in part on the Michels' methods: no new wood; only patient aging in tank and foudre. But there's also the fact that no separate old-vine cuvée is made, insuring that the oldest and best vines go into the flagship wine.
Finally, there’s the matter of terroir. The vines are in the lieu-dit of Piedlong—shown as les Pielons in the 1940s Larmat map above—which is the highest point in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, right next to Rayas.
This makes for nighttime temperatures 10 to 15 degrees below the rest of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As the mistral howls across the Piedlong plateau, it not only lowers temperatures, it wicks away humidity. And there are the rare outcroppings of limestone that contribute even further to the wine’s elegance.
To those who love Barolo and Burgundy, but have given up on Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this may be one of the great wine values in all of France. In fact, we dare say that if this wine were made in Burgundy, it would cost three times as much.
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