Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a grand name with wines of a range of qualities. If the appellation did not exist, the wines would be a much more humble Côtes-du-Rhône (Villages) and you might wonder what all the fuss was about. But it certainly does exist and in fact its contribution to the way the French thought about wine was enormous. And, at least historically, where the French have gone the rest of the wine world has followed.
The appellation is certainly a triumph of marketing. The name, the pope’s new castle, harking back to the arrival of the Avignon popes in the thirteenth century, the weighty bottles and the crest on those that are bottled within the appellation all convey seriousness and importance. Sadly for romantics there is no real connection between the early middle ages and today’s wine – though probably just as well for those of us who actually want to drink it. But much importantly for the history of quality wine production was Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié’s response to the crisis in French viticulture following first phylloxera and then adulteration scandals in the early twentieth century. He persuaded his fellow growers to draw up a set of rules for what in 1933 became the first ever AOC for a French wine. The parameters are interesting:
- geographical delimitation, as practiced much early by Port growers on the Douro
- including only very infertile land which in turn leads to:
- low permitted yields (35hl/ha)
- a minimum 12.5% alcohol level to be achieved solely by the sugar in the grapes
- a (generous) list of permissible grapes
- and, intriguingly, no rosé.
The test for infertile land was that lavender and thyme would thrive there. The alcohol level – still the highest minimum level stipulated in France – is a testimony to the warm of the climate in the south of France. And the grape varieties are dominated by volume by Grenache Noir, but also allowed initially 9 other, then 12 other varieties for red wines. After all, the AOC could hardly rule out of court the minor blending grapes which people already had in their vineyards.
Saturday’s night’s fine wine supper focused on quality wines in the middle price range. We started with two whites from Sénéchaux 2006 and the Baron’s Fortia 2003. These share the structure of warm climate wines, a certain waxiness and the herbs which are so characteristic of both whites and reds of the region. The first was both obviously younger with still fresh acidity, the second a triumph of resistance to the bakingly hot summer of 2003. It led with honey and butterscotch notes and then dried fruit on the palate. Wines of substance and real interest.
The reds showed the versatility of the AOC. Because of the warmth and the soft, Grenache-based, fruit, these wines can be drunk surprisingly young. Thus Clos du Calvaire, Mayard, 2009, had a beautiful layered nose of oak and ripe fruit and a palate which featured ‘strawberry jam – which has caught on the bottom of the pan’! But keeping the bottles for a few years does repay your patience. Dom. de la Roquète 2006 and Ch. Mont Redon 2006 have really got into their stride with great depth of flavour, the wood now a secondary theme to the lovely soft fruit. The Roquète is more traditional, aged in large neutral barrels, while the Mont Redon was layered and attractive in the modern style, half of it being aged in smaller barriques.
The next pair were a step up in terms of quality and slightly older. La Nerthe 2005 has a larger Syrah component (31%) with Grenache having dropped to 50%. It was somewhat closed on the nose (violets, black pepper), but showed great concentration and length on the palate. A good all rounder in cricketing terms – but perhaps one that will only flourish in the second half of its career? Completely different was La Gloire de Mon Père, Bosquet des Papes, 2004, from 60-70 year old vines which are basically Grenache – 98%, with a smidgen of Cinsault and Clairette. A modest nose for a grand wine but then a superb, soft, deep palate, sweet fruit and good acidity, very warming and massive in the mouth – 16% alcohol it turned out. And finally, we tasted Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s abilility to develop with age: Dom. Font de Michelle 1998. Now garnet in colour, instead of the vivid ruby of the young wines, beginning to develop some attractive barnyard notes, now elegant not robust, soft fruit and fine tannins.
At this quality level (£20-30 a bottle), both white and red Châteauneuf is easily equal to the cachet attached to it.
And finally …
A few weeks later we were treated by friends who had been at this tasting to a bottle of Ch. de Beaucastel 1989, one of the great estates of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As you can see from the picture the label was still in great condition as was the wine. Garnet in colour, the nose was now a very refined and lifted combination of strawberry fruit and old oak with the subtle sweetness of many years of ageing. In the mouth there was still a good structure, soft tannins and good length. It is remarkable how long lived these wines are. Although it was clearly fully mature, there were no signs at all of the wine beginning to fall apart. They just getting softer and more ethereal with time.