Southern Rhone

Henri Bonneau

Bonneaus Châteauneufs, particularly the mythic Réserve des Célestins, are not only fantastically complex, immense and capable of decades of development; they are also endowed with that rare and magical sense of extra dimension found only in the greatest wines.

Henri represents the 12th generation of his family to make wine in Châteauneuf du Pape, dating back to 1667, and his methods today continue to have more in common with the 17th century than with contemporary winemaking.

From his inaugural vintage of 1956, Bonneau has stayed the course—he doesnt de-stem, gently crushes the whole clusters and then ferments for three weeks in concrete tanks with frequent pump-overs for gentle extraction.

Bonneau adds back his vin de presse for structure and then ages the wine in a haphazard collection of neutral foudresdemi-muids and piéces, none of them younger than ten years old.

While these details describe the ultimate in traditional Southern Rhône winemaking, they dont explain just what makes his wines so extraordinary. Bonneau is a man of strong character and opinions, however, some of which lend clues to his wines fantastic character.

Mostly located in the famed boulder-covered plateau of the Le Craulieu-dit, his vines average 30 years, the age that Bonneau considers optimum for great fruit. He trusts neither new clones nor vines older than 50 years.

A traditionalist to the core, Bonneau is a Grenache partisan. Châteauneufs classic varietal makes up 90% of his vines and, ultimately, 90% of his wine. The balance is in Mourvèdre, Syrah, Counoise and Vaccarese.

Henri claims not to know what his yields are. “Ive no idea” is what he told Rhône Renaissance author Remington Norman, but his wines fantastic concentration suggests that they are quite low. Like his friend the late Jacques Reynaud of Château Rayas, another Grenache devotee, Bonneau harvests as late as possible for ripeness and complexity.

Bonneaus barrel aging regime is non-interventionist in the extreme—he simply leaves the wine in wood, racking only once a year, until he feels the time is right for bottling. In a great year this might be determined by how many years it takes for all of his super-ripe fruits sugar to ferment.

In other cases, it is a matter of developed balance and typicité. When Stephen Tanzer visited Bonneau in the fall of 2000, Henri had not yet bottled his 1996—a year in which he made no Célestins or Marie Beurrier“because it is not yet a wine.”

In this, he reminds us of great traditional Barolisti such as Roberto Conterno and Giuseppe Rinaldi, both of who believe that time in barrel is essential for complete development of their wines traditional character.

Bonneau also uses the barrel aging to determine what will be bottled as a specific cuvée. He usually releases two wines per vintagethe flagship Réserve des Celestins and Cuvée Marie Beurrier, roughly based on terroir and the resulting wines character.

The massive and powerful Réserve des Celestins is generally sourced from Bonneaus vines in La Crau, whose boulder-strewn plateau produces Châteauneufs ripest fruit. Cuvée Marie Beurrier, Bonneaus more elegant wine, usually comes from clay, limestone and sandy soils.

In any vintage Bonneau may declassify either of these cuvées, bottling them as his “basic” Châteauneuf, or selling the wine to another producer if it doesn’t ultimately meet his standards. A great example of this was his 1996, released in early 2002. After years of tending to his barrels, he ultimately singled out a half dozen or so casks to be bottled under his own label—selling off the rest to negociants. Total production of his own release was a microscopic 200 to 300 cases.

The wine was stunning. Not a massive blockbuster like the vintages of Célestins, it was nonetheless quintessential Bonneau, boasting great purity of fruit, impressive length and beautiful texture.

The rarest Bonneau wine, produced only twice in 1990 and 1998, is his surreal Cuvée Spéciale, from barrels designated to become Célestins, but which stubbornly refused to ferment their final few grams of sugar, resulting in an extravagantly rich wine that will develop for decades.

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