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Wild at Heart: Bois de Boursan’s Magical 2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape

For lovers of true, old-style Rhône wines, Domaine Bois de Boursan in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a rare gift. This storied appellation has seen its fair share of concessions to modern winemaking in recent decades. In a quest for richer fruit, silkier tannins, and bigger scores, many growers lost the soul of the place, and drinkers who prize elegance often exhibit a gun-shy attitude—unfortunate but understandable—toward Châteauneuf-du-Pape as a category. At Bois de Boursan, however, Jean-Paul Versino keeps the old ways alive, producing deeply soulful wines in which elegance and gutsiness coexist happily—wines that show what this magical place can say when allowed to speak in its own true voice.

Like his father Jean before him (who founded the domaine in 1955), Jean-Paul works with utmost respect for the environment, using only organic treatments in the vineyards. His holdings encompass ten total hectares, spread among twenty-seven small parcels scattered throughout the appellation and comprising a wide variety of soil types and expositions. Furthermore, all thirteen of the 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 overwhelming sense of the moisi de la cave—the mold of the cellar, which 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 miserly eke forth tells a beautiful story, and he does nothing to disrupt the narrative.

Jean-Paul’s wines unfailingly express their vintage with honesty and grace. Seeking neither to overcompensate for less solar conditions nor to lean brutishly into riper ones, he always manages to find the balance the vintage’s character demands. The 2013 and 2014 growing seasons presented their fair share of challenges, but in each Jean-Paul was able to produce beautiful Châteauneuf-du-Pape, albeit of a lighter, more elegant persuasion. In 2015, however, Nature was unusually generous, and he took full advantage. We have just received Bois de Boursan’s 2015s in our warehouse, and they are stirring, monumental wines that capture the soul of the appellation in such stark lucidity as to almost defy belief. This is Châteauneuf-du-Pape not only to delight the connoisseur but to win new converts, and we are thrilled to share them with you.

2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge “Tradition”
This is a wine of such dazzlingly gorgeous aromatics as to provoke a smile of disbelief. Rarely does one meet a nose of such visceral beauty in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and one must pay easily thrice or more what this wine costs to do so. It is multidimensional, offering a full spectrum of fruits, from bright red to dark black, a warm, palpable stoniness, an intoxicating interplay of spice and truffle, and a whiff of animale that is both charming and seductive. Despite the wine’s density—due to the warmth and generosity of the 2015 growing season—there is plenty of room to breathe, and a sense of palate-cleansing freshness due to truly superb acidity for the appellation. This wine has a generosity of spirit that is irresistible, and it manages to be both friendly and profound in the way only truly great, traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be. Roughly speaking, “Tradition” comprises 65% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah, and 5% of the remaining ten allowable varieties. Jean-Paul de-stemmed only 15% of the crop, and aged the wine for two years in the aforementioned large, old foudres before bottling. It wears its 14.2% alcohol—modest by today’s standards in a warm year here—with impeccable grace.

2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge “Cuvée des Félix”
In years whose quality allows for it, Jean-Paul separates his oldest, lowest-yielding vines into this cuvée, which never comprises more than 10% of a given vintage’s total production. These vines are found in three key vineyards: La Craü (planted in 1924), La Nerthe (planted in 1920), and Pied de Baud (planted in 1920, and facing northeast, thereby contributing lift and spice). Comprising 65% Grenache, 25% Mourvèdre, 5% Syrah, and 5% assorted others, it spends two years in a combination of larger foudres and smaller barriques—all very well used—and the higher proportion of Mourvèdre shows in the wine’s deep, brooding, wild personality. Significantly less aromatically exuberant at this stage of development than the 2015 “Tradition,” the 2015 “Cuvée des Félix” is oceanic in scope, and, as is always the case, it demands a bit of patience. Still, the tannins, while massive, are honest in spirit, and are coated in enough fruit as to not be at all forbidding, and this wine oozes soulfulness just like its friendlier sibling above. It will doubtlessly unfold slowly and mesmerizingly over time, displaying the complexity which for now remains tightly coiled. These elderly vines yielded a mere 18 hectoliters per hectare in 2015.

2017 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc “Tradition”
Versino’s prioritizing of acidity and freshness in his red wines carries over notably to his Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, one of the finest in the appellation. Produced from 35% Clairette, 35% Grenache Blanc, 15% Bourboulenc, and 15% Roussanne, Jean-Paul presses whole-cluster in an old basket press, and blocks malolactic fermentation in order to preserve acidity. He employs only stainless steel, finding that oak both overwhelms varietal nuance and contributes undue weight to an already-rich wine. This 2017 is downright delicious, pulling off the difficult feat of being bright and energetic without feeling as if it’s fighting the warm generosity of its terroir of origin. A clean, pure, expressive nose of fresh almonds, hazlenuts, honeysuckle, and crunchy peach gives way to a palate of notable richness, yet with only a hint of the oily character which sometimes bogs down Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. This miniscule-production wine comprises barely five percent of Bois de Boursan’s total output, and 2017 is a particularly charming vintage for it.