Last month we received the sad news that Isabelle Barantin had finally succumbed to the circling sharks and sold the iconic monopole vineyard of Château Grillet to François Pinault of Château Latour. I spoke to Isabelle on the phone shortly afterwards and made the mistake of congratulating her on the sale - the property had been discreetly on the market for quite some time. ‘Ne dis jamais ça’ was her terse response. Isabelle made it very clear to me that she had been a reluctant vendor - still a few million Euros in the current account must sugar the pill to some extent. While it is a shame that this unique 3.8 hectare site is passing out of a family ownership that dates back to the French Revolution at least Isabelle can leave with her head held high having restored the vineyard and wine to their full, outstanding potential during her 17 year stewardship.
I speak from direct experience as Yapp Brothers have shipped straight from the Château since the early 1970's and I cannot think of a wine that has been more commercially controversial. Robert Parker described Château Grillet as being ‘overpriced and overrated’ in his 1997 book wines of the Rhône, which is not what you want to read when you are sitting on pallets of the stuff. For years I had a running dialogue with Jancis Robinson who doggedly catalogued its short-comings (there was even a derogatory comparison to Harrogate springs!) before she was finally won-over by the 2004 vintage: “France’s most idiosyncratic appellation, devoted to one producer with one amphitheatre of Viognier vines has been difficult to love for many vintages but in 2004 white Bordeaux wizard Denis Dubourdieu was brought in to give the wine a good scrub and here at last we have real freshness even at three years old. There’s a deeply mineral nose and then dense fruit and a wonderfully creamy finish. Even the most jaded wine enthusiast would be fascinated by this evidence of a new era at this famous white Rhône landmark.” Which, if you are trying to sell it, is much more uplifting.
Once, after a tasting in the Crown Hotel in Southwold when a room full of Masters of Wine had roundly berated the 1990 vintage, I did consider throwing in the towel but the great Rhône guru John Livingstone-Learmonth (www.drinkrhone.com) persuaded me to keep the faith on the grounds that the terroir at Château Grillet is unique and capable of producing outstanding wines. Happily he was right (as gurus often are) and the vintage run from 2003 onwards, under Monsieur Dubourdieu’s influence has been fantastic. I tasted the 2005 last week with Farr Vintners boss Stephen Browett at Chabrot Bistro d’Amis (www.chabrot.co.uk). It’s a bargain there, in London restaurant terms, at £95 a bottle and is drinking beautifully now. It is still a little closed on the nose and merits decanting but it has great vigour, length and minerality and is the perfect foil for classic French cuisine. I think it has a least a decade’s happy drinking ahead of it - as does the 2006 which is also stupendous. We are about to ship the keenly anticipated 2007 which will, I suppose, mark the end of an era. If the rumours of what M. Pinault paid for the property are even half accurate it may well also be the last ever vintage of Château Grillet that is remotely affordable, so my (highly partial) advice is to fill your boots before the Bordelais ramp up the prices – it’s unquestionably a buyers’ market!