Château Simone Palette Rouge 2002
Having visited Provence many times, I have had a variety of encounters with its wines over the years. The first was prior to my vinous awakening, knocking back some of the inexpensive yet curiously delicious local rosé with platters of garlic-laden molluscs and frogs legs. Discovery of other more interesting appellations followed later, most notably Bandol of course, but also other esoteric yet less-heralded communes, such as Cassis and Palette.
Years later these small and little-known appellations continue to fascinate me, especially Palette which is almost a single-producer appellation akin to Château Grillet or the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant. Well, perhaps I exaggerate; in truth Château Simone is not the only producer here, although surprisingly there are a few merchants touting this wine who do try to make this assertion. Current INAO documents (updated July 2010) have the appellation at 43 hectares, and Simone's vineyards account for about 15 of those. There are eight individuals or companies registered with the INAO as making wine in the appellation, although of these only five are listed as viticulteurs (of which one I suppose will be Simone), the other three being two local co-operatives and a négociant. So there are four domaines besides Château Simone, the most notable names being the 9-hectare Château Crémade and Stéphane Spitzglous who cultivates 14 hectares at Château Henri Bonnaud. Neither seems to have established an international reputation to match that of Château Simone, although Crémade has featured in the Guide Hachette more times than is likely by chance, and Henri Bonnaud has been successful in the Decanter World Wine Awards in recent years, so I am sure both domaines would be worth investigating.
Returning to the appellation in general and Château Simone, the permitted varieties for red Palette are divided into two tiers, the cépages principaux (which must constitute at least 50% of a blend) being Grenache, Mourvèdre (this variety must exceed 10%) and Cinsaut. The cépages secondaires, which may make up the remaining 50% (although they will often account for much less) are an eclectic bunch including foreigners such as Cabernet Sauvignon, the southern varieties Carignan, Syrah and Durif (otherwise known as Petite Sirah), and esoteric rarities including Manosquin, Muscat Noir and Castet, about which I know very little. Palette also gives us rosé and white wines, the former the same blending regulations as for the reds, the latter principally Clairette (there is a 55% minimum here), and the cépages secondaires are just as complex as for the red wines, led by familiar names such as Ugni Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Muscat, Picpoul (as in Picpoul de Pinet) and Colombard, and followed by the more esoteric southern variety Terret Bouret and the entirely unfamiliar Pascal and Aragnan. Such a broad array of varieties to choose from awards Palette one peculiar accolade; this is - if I have my sums correct - the highest number of eligible cultivars in any French appellation, easily trouncing the 13 varieties of Châteauneuf du Pape.
Today Château Simone remains in the hands of René Rougier, who also heads up the local syndicat. Unlike his neighbours at Crémade and Henri Bonnaud Rougier does seem to maintain a strong international reputation through his wines, particularly the red (this week's wine), although the white and rosé are also very popular in some quarters. The blend in question here, in the 2002 Palette Rouge from Château Simone (bottle number 002813) is generally 45% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre and 5% Cinsaut, with 25% cépages secondaires, sourced from 50-year old vines grown on north-facing, limestone slopes. The wines see over two years in wood, with 18 months in small foudres up to 30 hectolitres capacity, followed by a year in barriques of varying ages, prior to bottling without filtration. From a half bottle the wine currently shows plenty of red pigment and is still convincingly youthful. The nose immediately displays a layer of rich fruit with a warm, spiced, lightly baked character. Starting off a touch fuzzy and confused, it soon hunkers down and smoothes out, showing a tighter fruit character with time, tinged with a faint whisp of tobacco. The palate is rich but dry with a thin seam of bitterness running through it, a touch reminiscent of burnt coffee, although with a sweet and fleshy character which reminds me somewhat of Musar. Dry at its core, with good grip and nice acids, this wine certainly makes up for its rustic lack of finesse with plenty of character. I suspect, looking at this wine's structure and extract, it still has plenty of give in the cellar too. Good potential here. 16+/20 (23/8/10)