Sunday, February 14, 2010

Le Cigare Volant from Bonny Doon Vineyards

Few vintners in the world, are so funny and interesting to interview as Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. When I met Randall the first time a decade ago, his company Bonny Doon Vineyards was still growing, and by 2004 it was the 28ht largest wine company in United States. Since then, a lot of things has happened, and when Randall Grahm sold the brands Cardinal Zin and Big House, and moved the Riesling project into a separate company in washington State, production is now at moderate 30 000 cases per years.
Today Randall Grahm has returned to his initial ambitions and intentions, wines of terroir rather than big brands and wines of a winemaker. “I have a more European taste, and I want my wines to express a sense of place, with elegance, fine tannins and structure, and notes of minerals”, he says. When we met last time just before Christmas, he told me there are too many Testosterhône Rangers out there, and for him, greatness in a wine, never equals to high impact and intensity. To me, his wines are better and more honest than ever.
This tasting consists of four vintages of his interpretation of the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Depending on the vintage, it is a blend based on Grenache, some vines as old as 100 years, with the balance of Syrah (most of it is bought from the Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley) and most often just small portions of Mourvèdre, Cinsaut and Viognier.
Normally, 20 per cent of the juice is bled off the skins to increase the body and structure, and the upbringing will take place in a combination of 225 and 600 liter big oak barrels, and traditional oak foudres for 15-18 months. Alcohol level is normally at 13.5 per cent, or slightly higher. Today the wine is sealed under screw cap (thank God for that!), as all of his wines are. Total production of this wine reaches 3 000 cases per year.

2007 Le Cigare Volant / 91 p
With its 60 per cent of Grenache, which really shows great here in its high red fruity perfumes, and 32 per cent of the more spicy Syrah (the rest of the blend is Mourvèdre and Cinsaut), this wine is just lovely! Again, as for the 2005 vintage, you’ll find all elements of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines on the nose and the palate. There is sweet ripe fruit, a warm sensation of alcohol (in this vintage, high 14.4 per cent), a complex note of garrigue, firm and youthful tannins, and a very long and intense aftertaste. I really like this wine, and I would love to see it in a blind tasting with some of the 2007 French counterparts. Perhaps it will turn out to be more Californian in a tasting like that, but tasted with the other vintages of Le Cigare Volant, I find it to be very French! As with the rest of the wines, it need some time in a decanter – this is always recommended for young vintages of reds under screw cap.
Drink it 2011-2018.

2006 Le Cigare Volant / 89 p
This is a quite unusual blend, 44 percent each of Grenache and Syrah, the rest Cinsaut and just a dash of Mourvèdre and Carignane. The wine is a bit more fruit driven than the 2005 or 2007 vintages, both slightly superior, yet fine but not as expressive. Still it has that great classical (or French) structure, with firm tannins and also a slightly greenish bitterness which I suspect comes from the stems. As the other young vintages, I recommend another year or so of bottle age.
Drink it 2011-2018.

2005 Le Cigare Volant / 91-92 p
In this vintage, 50 per cent of the blend was Grenache, 24 per cent Mourvèdre and 22 per cent Syrah. It’s one of the most Châteauneuf-du-Pape like wines I’ve tasted from California for a very long time, and if poured blind to me, I would most likely go for La Reine de la Bois from Domaine de la Mordorée! Thanks to its lighter body, and lower alcohol (13.5 per cent), it’s much more elegant than its counterparts from Rhône, but the flavor profile is more or less the same, and there is just a note of garrigue. The taste is dry, yet it has that lovely ripe and almost sweet cherry and raspberry fruitiness, and because of the youthful tannic structure, I would give the wine some more bottle age.
Drink it 2010-2019.

2001 Le Cigare Volant / 90 p
To get perspective and to see the evolution, Randall opened up a more mature vintage of Le Cigare Volant. This one, a blend of 34 per cent Grenache, 33 per cent Syrah, 27 per cent Mourvèdre and as splash of Viognier, showed both a maturity and a great complexity thereof. Still, it has a firm structure, but not enough to make me think of another ten years of so in the cellar. What I like in this wine, is the combination of ripe and still vital fruitiness, and the more secondary earthy aromas. “Back then, I worked with a longer maceration, which gave the wines a grander structure”, Randall said. I like this wine a lot, but the younger vintages are more impressive. Not because the are younger, only because they were better made.
Drink it over the next few years.


  1. Slipped a 1989 bottle into a Ch9dP tasting recently as an extra treat. The Ch9dPs were ranging from 1997 Beaucastel to 2007 Fiancée. The Cigare proved to be highly enjoyable at 20 years. Not quite at the same level as the others but that was hardly to be expected.

    Anyway, pleasing to know that the early 90th vintages I still possess probably will keep for quite some time still.


  2. Over the years I've been working with Californian wines, I've noticed that most consumers, both American and European, believe Californian wines must be drunk in their first years. However, it has very often proved to be the opposite, especially with red Rhône and Bordeaux blends.
    Although I very much enjoy young wines, in almost every one of the vertical tastings of California wines I arrange, I find many of the older vintages (1980s and 1990s) to perform fantastic. Actually, more and more I tend to keep my best California reds for at least 5-10 years after release before I touch them.

  3. Hi, I was trying to visit your website, but the link does not work. I have a question: what other California wines are similar in taste to le cigare volant? thank you!