We import some great wines from a gang of terrific producers in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. While we can’t pick a favorite (they’re all good or we wouldn’t waste our time!) we can say Mont Thabor is for sure tops in our book of amazing discoveries. And not just because Daniel Stehlin has one of the most epic moustaches in the Rhone Valley.

The vineyards

We rolled into Mont Thabor on a sunny spring morning during our recent trip to Chateauneuf in March. After arriving at the winery the three of us squeezed into the back seat of his old Land Cruiser and set off on a tour of his vineyards with Daniel and his daughter.

The best Chateauneuf-du-Papes are among the most natural expressions of grapes, place and vintage.

-Robert M. Parker, Jr

As we drove by La Nerthe, Daniel casually mentions that when his family originally bought land in the region, they turned down that very same parcel on which the now famous chateau occupies. He shrugs it off, not even considering it a missed opportunity. Why should he? After all, his family owns around 10 acres of prime Chateauneuf vineyards, stocked with Syrah, Counoise, Mourvedre, and of course, the grandaddy of them all, 70+ year old Grenache vines. Add another 15+ acres in nearby Cotes du Rhone, and it’s pretty clear he has perfect foundation to churn out some killer wine.

Daniel seems to know every inch of the 70+ year old vineyards.

Daniel seems to know every inch of the 70+ year old vineyards.

Smaller yields = bigger fruit flavor
CdP is known for its high-octane wines that deliver big, ripe, complex flavors. One reason these wines are so immensely concentrated has to do with the AOC requirements, which limit yields to 368 gallons per acre (nearly half what’s allowed in Bordeaux). Then you have the old vine Grenache, which accounts for around 70% of plantings in the region. With age, these old vines produce less fruit, but the berries sure pack a huge punch of flavor! Finally, growers can only irrigate the vineyards twice per year, and only if really necessary, so they’re basically dry farming all this old-vine fruit.

The Estate

Mont Thabor winery is a humble compared to some of its neighbors. There’s no sign on the roadway inviting tourists in. No imposing castle perched on a hill. It’s not a tourist destination like La Nerthe, Vieux Telegraphe, or Chateau Rayas. This means it’s still under the radar – a good thing if you ask us!

The name “Mont Tabor” comes from one of the most famous mountains in Galilee Israel. In 1881 Daniel’s great uncle, Fritz Stehelin, bought the estate, consisting of a beautiful old French farmhouse with an adjacent stable which he immediately converted into a proper winemaking cellar. Then in 1940 Luc Stehelin took over from Fritz, and succeeded in planting new vines in the Cotes du Rhone. Daniel took over in 1977, and today it still remains a family affair, with his daughter helping him on the side.

Originally used as a stable, now the barn holds fermentation tanks.

Originally used as a stable, but now serving a much better purpose (at least in our opinion!).

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2001 that he stopped selling wine to negociants and began making estate wines. Parker awarded 90 points to his second vintage, and the high praise and high scores have continued since then. It seems he made the right choice!

The family

This is a 100% family owned and run operation with Daniel at the helm, and his daughter by his side. Daniel is humble but proud, full of positive energy and just an all-around SUPER friendly guy. After touring the vineyards we returned to dine “al fresco” in the warm spring sun alongside his two daughters, where we enjoyed a seasonal lunch of sliced beets, roasted asparagus, and braised beef with potatoes lyonnaise – all lovingly prepared by his wife.

The first course of our lunch with Daniel and his family.

Daniel’s wife served up a delicious lunch, starting with some fresh asparagus and sliced beets, drizzled with a bit of olive oil and balsamic.

The wine

During our visit we tasted samples of the 2015 and 2016 wines. In a word? EPIC! No doubt these vintages will go down in history as two of the best in several decades. Let this be your formal notice to stock up as much 2015 and 2016 Rhone wine as you can!

The latest vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape resting in cement tanks.

The latest vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape resting in cement tanks.

Back to Daniel’s wines. Polished, lush, and leaning toward the more traditional style, they are, as Robert Parker put it, “gutsy” and deliver everything we love about Chateauneuf. Up front it’s an orchestra of red fruit – kirsch, raspberry, maraschino cherry, red whips, and red plums, accompanied by a chamber of brambly blackberry, spice box, crushed sweet herbs and anise.

Deep, intense, a bit wild, with round, dark blue fruits and a peppery, wild herb note --- then the anise and mint and spice kick in.

Deep, intense, a bit wild, with round, dark blue fruits and a peppery, wild herb note — then the anise and mint and spice kick in.

He ages 2/3 of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape in barrel and the remaining 1/3 stays in the tank for 12 months. After harvest, Daniel uses mostly whole stems during fermentation, something that adds a sense of “freshness” in the final product and a little extra tannin that helps firm up the structure. Fermentation continues over a period of four weeks in large concrete tanks and the remainder of aging takes place in a mix of oak barrels and concrete tanks. The final blend is usually made of 70-80% Grenache, around 20% Syrah, and a small percentage of other grapes like Mourvedre, Counoise, and Cinsault.

The 2007 Mont Thabor Châteauneuf du Pape displays the vintage’s very sexy, full-bodied, fruit-driven style with the purity and freshness of the wine’s corpulent personality. This is classic old-vine Grenache showing plenty of kirsch, licorice, and garrigue. This seductive style should drink beautifully for at least a decade.

– Robert M. Parker, Jr on the 2007 Mont Thabor Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge

Daniel’s wines have received plenty of solid scores and praise from critics, he seems more focused on making something he enjoys, in a style he feels best flaunts the grapes personality. Unlike some other producers in the area, he doesn’t make a separate, higher level CdP so you know he’s putting all the best fruit and attention into the single Chateauneuf he makes.

Tasting tank samples of the 2015 and 2016 wines.

Tasting tank samples of the 2015 and 2016 vintages.

You know what we like best about the wine industry, besides the wine? The people. And Daniel Stehlin is a prime example of that. He’s approachable and sincere, and the sort of guy you’d instantly trust on the other end of a belay as you ascend Everest.  And since he doesn’t need to factor in the upkeep of a massive castle with sprawling, perfectly manicured green lawns into the pricing equation his wines are always a screaming good bargain, drinking way above their price point. Needless to say, we’re VERY proud to bring Mont Thabor wines to the US – the only downside is we wish there was more to go around!

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Visit http://chateaumontthabor.com/ to learn more