Some wine lovers will run for the hills at the mere mention of Châteauneuf-du-Pape—a bogeyman whose alcohol-driven wallop of overripe fruit threatens to bully the palate and dull the senses. The appellation has certainly seen its share of gloppy, overbearing wines through the years, particularly as global warming and the predilections of a certain prominent palate took sway over the past couple of decades. Indeed, trying to drink wines like these is like trying to dance with a bag of bowling balls.
However, Châteauneuf-du-Pape at its greatest and most traditional more than justifies its lofty historical reputation, and only the finickiest of drinkers would reject outright such visceral expressions of terroir. When the appellation’s sun-drenched ripeness comes across as a mere fact of being rather than as a calculated aim, and when it is not exaggerated through cellar technique, it is as natural and lovable as acidity in Alpine wine or salinity in Mediterranean wine.
We are incredibly lucky to work with Jean-Paul Versino of Domaine Bois de Boursan, whose staunchly old-school Châteauneuf-du-Pape is both gutsy and refined, both powerful and elegant. Jean-Paul’s father Jean founded the domaine in 1955 after relocating from Piedmont, and Jean-Paul took the reins with the stupendous 1990 vintage, continuing the organic viticultural practices Jean began in the mid-1970s—he was among the first in the region to make that move—and keeping things adamantly traditional in the cellar.
The domaine’s holdings encompass 16 total hectares, spread among 27 small parcels scattered throughout the appellation and comprising a wide variety of soil types and expositions. Furthermore, all thirteen of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s allowable varieties can be found among Jean-Paul’s extremely old vines (between 55 and 95 years of age), and all make their way into the wines—a rarity in the appellation. Jean-Paul harvests everything by hand, and he keeps all the best fruit for Bois de Boursan, selling small amounts to négociant each vintage. He also tends to pick slightly early compared to many of his neighbors, retaining spice and acidity in his wines where others seek maximum fruit impact but perhaps forfeit nuance in the process.
Anyone who doubts that the cellar is a vital component of terroir need only to pay a visit to Versino’s wondrous cave. Opening the door and descending the stairs, one is met with an overwhelmingly pungent mold—which, despite the lungs’ protestations, ensures the visitor that this is indeed a living environment, rich with the residue of all the organic processes that take place within. It is no accident that wines of such character issue forth from a place of such character. No gleaming toasty barrels are to be found here; Jean-Paul’s wines, in large part, develop in the bulging bellies of foudres that have raised half a century’s worth of vintages before them. He de-stems as little as he feels the vintage requires, and often not at all; he never yeasts, never fines, and never filters. Versino knows that the fruit his gnarled old vines eke forth tells a beautiful story, and he does nothing to disrupt the narrative.
Bois de Boursan’s 2017 Châteauneuf-du-Pape “Tradition” (the prestige “Cuvée des Félix” will arrive next year) offers a pretty, aromatically enveloping take on an extremely warm vintage, one whose opulence met Jean-Paul’s emphasis on freshness at an attractive midpoint. A difficult flowering combined with a touch of hydric stress to slash yields, and Versino produced a miserly 21 hectoliters per hectare, at alcohol levels barely above 14% (quite modest in this era). Completing this shipment are the 2019 Blanc, always a standout for the category, and a special highly-limited bottling from the 2015 harvest which spent a full four years in barrel.
2019 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc
Versino’s prioritizing of freshness in his red wines carries over notably to his Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, which comprises a mere five percent of his production. Produced from 35% Clairette, 35% Grenache Blanc, 15% Bourboulenc, and 15% Roussanne, Jean-Paul presses whole-cluster in an old vertical basket press and blocks malolactic fermentation to preserve acidity. Raised two-thirds in enameled vats and one-third in eight-to-ten-year-old barrels, this 2019 offers an exuberant nose of almonds, hazelnuts, honeysuckle, and peach, and the dry, focused palate shows barely a trace of the mouth-filling viscosity that can sometimes throw this appellation’s white wines out of balance. Most of these vines were planted in 1925, with a portion planted in 1991, and their extreme age shows through in the wine’s forceful cling and long, tunneling finish.
2017 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge “Tradition”
Roughly speaking, Bois de Boursan’s “Tradition” comprises 65% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah, and 5% of the remaining ten allowable varieties. Jean-Paul de-stemmed 20% in 2017 and employed a 25-day cuvaison with no punch-downs—a long, slow extraction which emphasizes nuance and prevents unduly harsh tannins from crowding out the wine’s gorgeous high tones. Its energetic fruit profile veers toward red far more than black, with the dizzying spice Grenache can achieve in this appellation when it’s not overburdened by mass. There’s a sense of controlled wildness here that embodies the house style even more forcefully than in most vintages, with a silky entry leading to a finish of notable but extremely fine tannins which dance across the tongue. Though it is remarkably seductive for a young Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this should blossom with time in bottle as all of Jean-Paul’s wines tend to.
2015 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge “Cuvée des Félix – Sélection Jean-Paul Versino”
A selection of Jean-Paul’s oldest and best parcels, “Cuvée des Félix” is made only in suitable vintages, and never comprises more than 10% of his total production. Whereas as some prestige cuvées in the region are fluffed up via heavy extraction or new oak, Versino’s is produced without such bells and whistles. Félix is a blend of three sites, all of which are historically prized: La Crau (from vines planted in 1924), La Nerthe (planted in 1920), and Pied de Baud (planted in 1920). It comprises 65% Grenache and 25% Mourvèdre (a significantly higher proportion than in the Tradition), plus splashes of the domaine’s oldest Cinsault, Syrah, and Counoise. The wine, while undeniably powerful, offers a subtle and layered evocation of terroir: a firm minerality imbued by La Crau’s hard, rocky plateau; a richness from the warm stones of La Nerthe; and a high-toned red-fruited character derived from Pied de Baud’s sandy terrain. Félix typically spends two years in old 500-liter barrels, but Jean-Paul set aside two particularly promising casks of the epic 2015 vintage for an additional two years and change, only the second time in his career he has attempted such an extended élevage. The results are thrilling, attaining a transportive sense of depth and wildness—a reminder of a bygone era, perhaps, with a character rarely encountered in the appellation these days. Indeed, Jean-Paul, a man not prone to self-aggrandizing, admits that this 2015 “Sélection” reminds him of the wines made by the iconic Henri Bonneau, a legendary grower whose long-aged, unabashedly untamed Châteauneuf-du-Pape is punishingly difficult to source but capable of real poetry in the glass. Jean-Paul’s wines stand easily in this grand tradition of intelligent low-tech traditionalism, and the 2015 “Sélection” represents the most movingly extreme version of his style we have yet encountered.