Featured Wine Region: Châteauneuf du Pape

On February 6, I was fortunate enough to attend an industry tasting of Châteauneuf du Papes from the soon-to-be-released [strong]2006[/strong] vintage. Short of being flown to the Southern Rhône itself, this is about the best thing that can happen to me in the world of wine, and it was well worth taking time off to visit the [strong]Tribeca Grill[/strong] in New York City for a few hours of tasting, talking and note-taking – especially as several wine-makers were themselves in attendance, along with importer [strong]Alain Junguenet[/strong], whose extensive portfolio was exclusively represented here.

Those who know about Châteauneuf du Pape may wish to skip the next few paragraphs and get straight to the vintage report and tasting; those who are new to the wine game, or just to this esteemed appellation, may wish now to concentrate. For I am not alone in my estimation that Châteauneuf du Pape produces some of the greatest, and certainly, most unique wines in the world. Robert Parker, for all his faults, has been one of the appellation’s most consistent champions, writing in his Wines of the Rhône Valley,

“Like hunger, fear and lust, Châteauneuf du Pape, when it is great, has an almost addictive attraction to one’s basic instincts…. I drink more Châteauneuf du Pape than any other type of wine.”

More recently, Eric Asimov wrote in the International Herald Tribune,

“Few wines offer as visually clear a sense of place as a good Châteauneuf. When you stick your nose in a glass and breathe in, you can actually feel transported to Provence, to perpetually windy slopes and rocky terrain redolent of garlic, lavender and thyme.”

The village of Châteauneuf du Pape, nestled in between Orange and Avignon in the heart of Provence takes its name from the period in the 14th Century when it was, briefly, the home of the Papalcy. In 1999, I visited many of the surrounding villages and decided to save Châteauneuf du Pape itself for another time. It’s been a long time coming!

To their fine words, I can offer some recent testimony of my own: at the last wine dinner I attended, I brought alone my sole bottle of the Domaine du Pégau Cuvée Réservée 1999; it beat out a 1982 Second Growth Bordeaux, a couple of Burgundies from solid vintages, and a 1998 Cote Rotie, as the unanimous “wine of the night.” I have also been fortunate to taste some older Châteauneuf du Papes at similar BYO dinners (especially from Chateau Beaucastel) and they were the kind of wines that inspire people to start building a cellar, paying for storage or otherwise throwing their marriage out the window in search of truly satisfying company for their old age. That said, I’ve also opened one young bottle too many in the company of good friends and paid for it with the kind of hangover that suggests you may wish to stop drinking alcohol entirely.

Indeed, these are, by any criteria one uses, “masculine” wines whose alcohol content, especially in recent vintages that have been subject to the incontrovertible “climate change,” is now rarely less than 14%, and can easily reach Zinfandel-like proportions of 15.5%. Impressively opulent in their youth – with a teeth-staining, chewy texture that sometimes feels as thick as soup – they offer a heady blend of aromas and flavors that range from jammy fruits (blackberries, raspberries, cherries and blueberries) through Provencal herbs, cassis, olives, coffee, earth, leather, spices, licorice, grilled meats and wild game. And they can come out the other end – after ten to fifteen years of cellaring in a good vintage – as some of the most sublimely silky, polished, sophisticated old men in the wine world. Somewhere inbetween they can go through a “dumb” stage, where the primary flavors have dissipated and the secondary flavors have not yet shown up, which makes storing them something of a crap shoot. And a handful of the wines are simply so dense that they don’t give off much in their youth at all – but those are in the minority. A good Châteauneuf du Pape from a good vintage is likely to impress all but the most dainty of wine drinkers with its muscular, powerful, seductive profile; it’s a wonderful winter warmer, a great companion to hearty meals, a fine sipping (not gulping) wine in its own right, all in all an exercise in viniferous “hedonism”. (Critic Robert Parker has pretty much copyrighted and subsequently abused that word when it comes to describing Châteauneuf du Pape, but as the author of a novel by the same name, I reserve the right to use it for myself!)

A bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape in all its muscular glory.

Apart from its flavor profile as described above, what makes Châteauneuf du Pape unique? Here are a few things for starters, cut and pasted from a review I wrote of a 2001 Domaine Roger Perrin:

1) The guidelines established back in 1923 for the wines of Châteauneuf du Pape proved so successful that they became the foundation for the whole of the French Appellation Contrôlée system.

2) The wines of Châteauneuf du Pape have the highest minimum alcohol content (12.5%) of any wines in France.

3) Flying saucers are forbidden by local law from landing in the vineyards. (Seriously!)

4) Many of the vines are planted in fields full of huge glacial boulders (galets roulés) which, while back-breaking for the farmers and seemingly incompatible with fruit-growing, serve to absorb the Provençal heat during the day and reflect it back on the vines in the evening hours. This terroir is unique to Châteauneuf du Pape.

The famed galets roulés of Châteauneuf du Pape, which dominate the northern parts of the appellation.

5) Production is limited to 35 hectoliters per hectare – and this includes a percentage of “rapé,” anywhere from 5-20%, that must be discarded each year by each producer. (This amount, determined by the Appellation itself, is intended to serve as a form of natural selection.)

6) The wines (there is some high quality white, no rosé) have the highest number of different grapes permitted anywhere in any appellation in the world – some thirteen in all. Almost all the red wines, however, are dominated by Grenache, the high alcohol grape which reaches its apotheosis in the vineyards around this ancient village. The Grenache content is usually in the 65-80% range, higher for reserve cuvées; Syrah and Mourvèdre are the most familiar supporting characters, Cinsault and Counoise occasionally show their heads, and a handful of producers also use Muscardin and Vaccarese; only rarely does Terret Noir raise its head. Only three wineries (Chateau Beaucastel, Domaine de Nalys and Domaine de Mont Redon) out of several hundred producers grow all thirteen varietals, though the white wine of Clos des Papes, which was featured at the Junguenet tasting of the 06s, uses all six available white grapes.

Not to be forgotten amongs the facts and figures are the wine-makers themselves, who have long labored under something of an inferiority complex, working those low yields from back-breaking vineyards in relative obscurity, passing down their vineyards from generation to generation without any of the luster that comes from owning an estate in Bordeaux. Only in recent years has the profile of Châteauneuf du Pape risen to that of say, its northern Rhône neighbor Hermitage or Cote Rotie. And wine collectors in the New World still rarely place it in comparable esteem to Bordeaux or Burgundy, even though, producer for producer, year by year (and as proven at that last dinner I attended) it provides a far better bang for your buck.

That’s all changing, however. The buck has taken a beating in recent years, for one thing. And as if it’s not bad enough that French wines across the board are increasing in price simply because the dollar itself is worth so little these days, then there’s also the fact that Châteauneuf du Pape has had a whole string of excellent vintages. If you discard the flood-riven disaster of 2002, and the overalcoholic wines from the 2003 heatwave (though the latter won rave reviews with the Parker crowd), you’re looking at a solid run of A+ vintages from 1998 through 2006, with prices rising accordingly. Last year, the Clos des Papes 2005 was Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year; the Le Vieux Donjon 2005 came in third. (Both are Alain Junguenet wines. He has to be pretty impressed by that showing.) I picked up a six-pack of Le Vieux Donjon 1998s at a wine store on Flatbush Avenue for barely $20 a bottle; the 2005, assuming you can still find it, is $75. European readers, given the uniformity of the Euro and the lack of import taxes should, in theory, be much better off.

img_6176.jpgSome of the wines on show at the ’06 Alain Junguent tasting.

At least by attending the Junguenet tasting, I was able to get my tongue around some of the more exclusive cuvées that are otherwise beyond my price range. My proven method for tackling such an event, where there’s so much wine on offer, is to work my way round the tables early on, figuring out which wine-makers speak English, who can educate me about vintage and techniques, and who’s got the most “interesting” wines which I absolutely must sample properly – before my taste buds get completely numbed and the note-taking process becomes little more than an exercise in trying to keep one’s handwriting legible. Fortunately, this process was facilitated by the fact that almost every table had just a glass or two of white wine to introduce ourselves with, even if we all know that real Châteauneuf du Pape fans drink red. That said, my tasting notes are still minimal, for which I apologize; I think I’d be bluffing if I attempted to write in much greater detail when there was so much wine to sample, it was all very early in the day and I’m such a skinny runt!

Some notes on the ’06 vintage copied and pasted from the day’s programme:

“The year began on quite a streak of hot, dry weather with very little rainfall. Just as some producers were fearing the heat would be too much, August arrived with much cooler weather and occasional rain that offered the long-awaited hydration the vines needed. Just before the harvest in early September, a bit more rain fell and gave the vines exactly the push they needed to reach optimal levels of maturity. The refreshing weather even allowed some producers to wait until mid-October to harvest their older, more stubborn parcels of Grenache and Mourvèdre.”

My own impression of the 06s, limited though my experience is in getting this kind of advance tasting, was of almost irrepressible exuberance and/or alluring balance, making for forward drinking/youthful enjoyment. I had expected to have to “peer over the edge” of these Châteauneufs, to try and guess how they’d taste once they’re bottled and aged, and while I can’t testify fully to the latter, I’d be surprised if most of them don’t offer immediate pleasure. The other satisfying aspect was the across-the-board consistency; I’ve had my occasional run-ins with Châteauneuf du Papes that were either too hot, too subdued, too Parker-ized or too oxidized, but there were (almost) no such obvious clunkers here. To the extent that the wines divided themselves into camps, there were those that were almost surprisingly fruity, though typically opulent, with others offering more herbal and mineral textures that are equally enjoyable in their own way; only a few of the wines, were “backward” and ungiving. It should be noted here, however, that most of Junguenet’s producers are quite old-fashioned in their approach – hence the number of “Cuvée Traditions” in the list below. There was very little talk of new oak, but plenty discussion about foudres and concrete vats and old vines. Where modern influences are creeping into these producers’ wine-making, it’s mostly in the form of increased de-stemming and greater experimentation regarding the blending processs.

img_6190.jpgA promotional campaign for Châteauneuf du Pape (it still needs one?) plays up its unique range of thirteen varietals.

Indeed, the blending figures were under constant discussion. As I made my way around, it was evident that just about everyone feels blessed with the recent run of vintages – while admitting that when the weather gets as hot as it did in ’03 and ’07 it presents problems that are very difficult to contain. Pierre Pastre from Chateau Fortia, a font of humor as well as a fountain of knowledge, was adamant that climate change is affecting the winemakers’ ability to stick with their traditional blends, noting that this past year (’07), his Mourvèdre had a torrid time (a suitable adjective, I think) adapting to the ever-increasing heat. Bruno Boisson of Domaine Boisson in Cairanne (which I’ll write about separately) noted that in ’07, for the first time, his Grenache produced as deep a color as the Syrah. There were a few whites on show from ’07; they didn’t reveal the kind of alcohol/heat issues one might assume from the above notes.

The producers weren’t especially conclusive about differences between ‘05 and ‘06; the fact that they were talking about the new vintage in similar terms to the previous year is itself affirmative of their faith in it, given that the ’05s received such acclaim. Alain Junguenet offered that Clos des Papes had a 20% higher yield in ’06 than ’05 as one measure (but only from 21 to 25 hectoliters per hectare, still exceptionally low compared to the 52 hl per hectare allowed in basic Côtes du Rhône); his son John talked about ’05 having power and ’06 being more balanced and likely to open up quicker; Bruno Boisson of nearby Cairanne (admittedly a different appellation), likened ‘05 and ’06 to ’89 and ’90, presumably implying that they are each excellent vintages that will have their own supporters. Pierre Pastre of Chateau Fortia was also of the opinion that ‘06 was similar in character to ‘05, noting in doing so that while the ‘04s may appear to have been the weakest of the last four bottled vintages, they might age better, due to a higher sugar content. We shall see. And with that, on to the truly fun part of the event: the tasting.

(Tasting notes to follow.)

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1 Comment(s)

  1. WTG

    20 February, 2008 at 12:04 am

    Great writeup Tony! I look forward to your tasting notes and comparing them to mine. It was truly a great tasting.

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