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Taste Test: Château de Beaucastel Wines

Taste Test: Château de Beaucastel Wines

Sometimes the wine gods conspire against you. Things had been going too well for too long. I recently thought about the roll I was on, nary a corked bottle in months, and even some suspect oldies had showed well recently, rotted corks and low fills be damned. And then there was this.

What should have been a wonderful evening was marred by misfire after misfire, and sadly we suffered a 50 percent hit on rate on my favorite chateauneuf du pape, the always reliable and often awe inspiring wines of Château de Beaucastel. Now, you might have read that I am not a particularly enthusiastic fan of chateauneuf, which is true since I am usually the one writing that, but the truth lies more with grenache than with the wines of chateauneuf.

The truth is I think I am fairly well-aligned with many of the more traditional producers in the region with their reliance on the art of blending to make a better wine. Of course there are exceptions, stunning wines produced exclusively from Grenache, but they are few and far between. For me, grenache rarely produces a complete wine, instead it offers up enticing perfumes of red fruit and herbs while delivering a relatively high alcohol, low acid mouthful of red fruit that can be mouth filling, yet at the same time a bit hollow. That’s where varieties like syrah, mourvedre, cinsault, and carignan come in, not to mention all 13 allowable varieties in the wines of the application.

For my palate, the magic happens when the big ball of red fruit is filled, like a toy chest, with the complexity afforded by these other varieties. Some black fruit, olives, bacon fat, leather gloves, dirty boots, and hung game, all mixed around adding depth, structure and nuance to the explosive core of grenache. That’s when things get interesting, and of course that is what Beaucastel specializes in.

One of the few and perhaps only producers to use all the allowable varieties in their wines, Beaucastel has historically allowed mourvedre to share the spotlight with grenache, each grape making up roughly 30 percent of a typical vintage of Beaucastel. The results show in the wines, in their youth as added textural component and a more complete mouthfeel, and on to older age when the nuance really begins to show. In many cases I would tend to recommend drinking chateauneuf du pape rather early as opposed to later, not because the wines don’t age well, but rather because they don’t seem to improve significantly with age. Change, yes, but for the better?

Click here to learn more about Beaucastel wines.

— Gregory Del Piaz, Snooth


Rustic Jewel of the Rhône Meets Modernity

CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE, FRANCE — I like to think I’m a modern guy, but when it comes to wine, I must be more of a traditionalist. This is what I learned during a recent visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the great wine-growing village in the Rhône Valley of France.

I traveled there to taste more than 120 red wines from the 2010 vintage, which was recently released to rave reviews. About half were so-called traditional wines, made in large quantities, using time-honored methods and priced modestly (for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at least). The rest were “prestige” or “special” cuvées — boutique-style wines made with more modern techniques. These wines often command triple-digit critics’ scores — and prices.

As I’ve written previously about the wines of two other Rhône villages, Cairanne and Rasteau, 2010 is an excellent year for the region. Several Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers, including Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel and Thierry Usseglio of Domaine Pierre Usseglio, said they might have made their best wines ever in 2010.

Yet even a great vintage cannot obscure big differences in winemaking approaches.

While tasting the traditional wines, I lost track of the number of times I wrote down descriptions like “fresh,” “elegant” and “balanced.” While I can’t claim an encyclopedic knowledge of old Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I was reminded of vintages like 2001 and 1990, when the wines cluster around the sweet spot where power and finesse intersect. Of the 68 wines in this category, I would have been happy to buy perhaps one-third to one-half of them — an unusually high hit rate.

Next up were the 61 special cuvées. There were some excellent wines, including my top choice among all the wines in either category, Mr. Usseglio’s Cuvée de Mon Aïeul. Still, I found myself using descriptors like “oaky,” “cherry cola” and “aggressive” a bit more than I would have liked. These wines are built for the long haul, not for early drinking, so it’s no surprise that they were less approachable than the traditional wines. But I’m not sure I would want to splurge on more than a handful of them.

Prestige cuvées are a fairly recent invention. Henri Bonneau’s Réserve des Célestins, generally considered to be the first, dates back to the 1920s, but the movement didn’t really gain momentum until the 1980s, when well-known producers like Beaucastel joined in.

The cuvées have proliferated since then. Harry Karis, a Dutch doctor who has written a book about Châteauneuf-du-Pape, identified 174 of them, from about 100 producers, as of 2009.

Some of the cuvées feature grapes from small, special parcels of vines. Unusually among great French wine appellations, Châteauneuf-du-Pape has no official classification to designate superior vineyards, like the grands crus and premiers crus of Burgundy. So, with the special cuvées, some growers have created their own, informal distinctions.

“Fifteen years ago, we talked only about the mistral and the galets roulés,” said Mr. Usseglio, referring to the north wind that whips down the Rhône Valley, and to the smooth stones that were deposited here ages ago by the river. Both are distinctive features of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, helping to dry the grapes after rains, thereby preventing maladies, while preserving moisture in the soil to nouris the vines during the hot summers.

Yet winemakers have shown, in some cases with their special cuvées, that it is also possible to make great Châteauneuf-du-Pape from sandy or clayey soil. “Now there is more talk about the diversity of the terroir,” Mr. Usseglio added.

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Other growers use their prestige cuvées to highlight a single grape variety, usually grenache. This grape makes up more than two-thirds of the appellation’s total vineyard area, but until recent years it was generally considered too high in alcohol and too cloyingly rich to make great wine without the help of other varieties.

Grenache certainly has its benefits, including an excellent capacity for aging. Mr. Usseglio’s Cuvée de Mon Aïeul is mostly grenache. So is the red wine of Château Rayas, perhaps the most iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape of all.

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    • Do not miss Yotam Ottolenghi’s incredible soba noodles with ginger broth and crunchy ginger. for fungi is a treat, and it pairs beautifully with fried snapper with Creole sauce.
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    • A dollop of burrata does the heavy lifting in Sarah Copeland’s simple recipe for spaghetti with garlic-chile oil.

    But some growers maintain that using grenache unblended can deprive Châteauneuf-du-Pape of a certain complexity and balance. The appellation permits an unusual number of varieties, 13, in its red wines, and producers like Beaucastel and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe use them all. Some of the 13 are white varieties a small amount of white grapes in the blend gives these sun-ripened reds a dash of freshness.

    “Blending is necessary to balance the excesses of this climate,” Mr. Perrin said.

    And then there is the oak issue. This is perhaps the most obvious thing separating traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the modern interpretation. The old-fashioned method calls for the wines to be aged in giant tanks, often made of concrete, which is favored because it is neutral all you taste in the wine is the fruit and the terroir.

    The modern-style wines, including many prestige cuvées, are often aged in small oak barrels of the kind favored in Bordeaux or Burgundy. Especially when new barrels are used, the wines take on aromas of vanilla (acceptable, perhaps, in small quantities), coffee or shellack (unacceptable, to my taste, in any amount).

    I’m simplifying here. Not all of the prestige cuvées are aged in oak, and some of the traditional wines are. Some producers use oak only for some of the varieties in the blend, most often syrah, while aging their grenache in large tanks. Others handle the oak deftly, adding a touch of sophistication without overpowering the fruit.

    I also have nothing against oak in principle. What would a Montrachet be without oak? A mere chardonnay, perhaps. With Châteauneuf-du-Pape, however, I just don’t think it’s necessarily needed, or even desirable — especially in a vintage as pure, as fine, as naturally well endowed as 2010.

    It came as little surprise to me that two of my favorites among the traditional wines I tasted — Vieux Donjon and Vieux Télégraphe — came from producers that have bucked the trend, choosing not to make any prestige wines. Wines like these are made in a traditional style, with a modern attention to quality. While other producers skim off their best grapes for the special cuvées, here everything goes into the “basic” wine.

    The spread of special cuvées is emblematic of the export success that Châteauneuf-du-Pape has achieved. While the French consider Châteauneuf-du-Pape to be a rustic wine, if they are aware of it at all, it is prized in places Northern Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

    Around 70 percent of the production is sent abroad, where consumers are willing to pay more than the French, who tend to consider anything more than €10, or about $12, for a bottle of wine to be extravagant.

    On a sunny day in July the streets and cafes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are filled with American, British and Japanese visitors.

    “It’s an appellation that has been dusted off,” said Dominique Grangeon of Domaine de Cristia.


    Why You Should Give Biodynamic Wines a Taste

    Organic, biodynamic, and natural wines are getting a lot of attention lately. You may notice “green” tags in the wine aisles, organic and biodynamic seals of certification on wine labels, news articles, and winery websites highlighting their green environmental initiatives in the vineyards and cellar. What’s the difference between all these “green” terms and why you should give biodynamic wines a taste.

    This month the French Winophiles are exploring French biodynamic wines. We will be chatting about the subject Saturday, January 19 at 11:00 am ET and writing about it on our blogs. A list of the blog posts is at the bottom of this post. In the meantime, check out our host, Gwendolyn Alley’s preview post for our theme on French biodynamic wines here.

    What’s the Difference between Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural Wines

    Organic Wine – Basically, organic wine is made from grapes grown in vineyards that do not use synthetic chemicals like fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. The focus is on creating healthy soils and a biodiverse environment. The ultimate goal is for stronger, healthier, and more disease resistant vines.
    However, U.S. and European wines have different requirements when it comes to sulfur dioxide in organic wines.
    In the U.S. “organic wines” (can carry the USDA organic seal) contain no added sulfites, only naturally occurring (less than 10 parts per million). “Made with organic grapes” (cannot carry the USDA organic seal) is allowed to add sulfur dioxide up to 100 parts per million and must be disclosed on the label. (Conventional/nonorganic wines can have up to 350 parts per million).
    In the European Union, organic wines are allowed 100 parts per million for red wines (150 for conventional/nonorganic red wine), 150 parts per million white and rosé wines (200 for conventional/nonorganic), sweets wines are allowed an additional 30 parts per million.

    Biodynamic Wine – Biodynamic wines encompass the criteria of organic wines in addition to, some or all of the principles composed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Biodynamic farming encourages creating a holistic ecosystem with biodiversity and self-sustainability instead of a monoculture. Also, the planting, sowing, harvesting, and pruning are determined by the lunar cycles. The third principle and the most controversial includes homeopathic preparations made from cow manure, quartz, and seven medicinal plants. Some of these preparations are buried in animal organs over the winter and unearthed in the spring and applied to the vineyards. Certification can be obtained from Demeter and Biodyvin when the criteria are met.

    Natural Wine – Natural wines have no legal classification or set of standards for operating procedures. In general, they are wines made without additives, chemicals, little or no sulfites, no cultured yeast, and no filtering. They are known to be funkier tasting more sour and yeasty with a cloudy appearance. Three examples of natural wines Orange Wine, Pétillant Naturel (Pet Nat), and Col Fondo Prosecco.

    Why Should You Give Biodynamic Wines a Taste

    Environmental Impact – Farming with less or no synthetic chemicals is healthier for the soil, environment, people, and the planet. Also, using preparations in the vineyards and following the lunar cycles as outlined in the principles of biodynamic farming makes for stronger and healthier plants in the long run.

    Health – Chemicals can negatively affect your overall health whether spraying them in the fields, using them in the wine cellar or consuming products that have been treated with them. At the end of the day, when you consume a more natural product how do you feel? Overtime how is your overall health?

    Terroir Expression – For the taste of a wine to express the uniqueness of where it is grown, having an organic and holistic philosophy in the management of the vineyard and minimal intervention in the cellar, allows more readily for that expression of terroir to show itself.

    Certification – Biodynamic wines have a set of standards and criteria that must be met to be certified.

    Tasting Notes

    2010 Château de Puligny, Monthélie Sous Roches, Burgundy
    13% abv | $45.00 Fermented | 100% Chardonnay

    Château de Puligny had a progressive transition to organic & biodynamic farming. The estate was purchased by the Montille family in 2012. In 2002 the estate begin organic farming and since 2005 introduced biodynamic viticulture. Domaine Montille, as stated on their website considers biodynamics from an agricultural methodology applied from a pragmatic approach: “listen to the soil and the plants, promote and encourage the development of the vineyards and work in harmony with the natural cycles of the planets and phases of the moon to reinforce the vineyards.”

    Deep gold in color. Medium bodied and acidity. On the nose toast, green apple, and apricot aromas. On the palate fresh, chalky, citrus, and star fruit notes.

    2016 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Gewürztramier, Turckheim, Alsace
    13.5% abv | $29.00 Fermented| 100% Gewürztraminer

    Domaine Zind Humbrecht is owned by Olivier Humbrecht. The estate was organic certified in 1998 by Ecocert and biodynamic certified in 2002 by Biodyvin/Ecocert. Domaine Zind Humbrecht believes that terroir expression is reinforced by cultivating the vines organically and according to biodynamic principles. Read about Humbrecht’s perspective on minerality in wines and the biodynamic connection here.

    Deep straw in color. Medium bodied and acidity. On the nose lychee, rose, and spice. On the palate dry with spicy, ginger, peppery notes.

    Food Pairing

    The Zind Humbrecht Gewürztraminer with its dry and spicy elements was a great pairing for the sheet pan dinner of curry chicken and cauliflower, pickled red onions, and cilantro. The exotic blend of curry, garam masala, turmeric, and fresh ginger was matched with the spicy component in the wine. The high-temperature roasting of the chicken and cauliflower were balanced with the fullness and higher alcohol in the wine. The pickled red onions provided a nice palate cleanser along with the acidity in the wine.


    Best Red: 2018 True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon

    Region: California | ABV: 14.2% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, Blueberry, Cedar, Cola

    For beginners who know they love a full-bodied red, it’s impossible to go wrong with California cabernet sauvignon. This plush, rich bottling comes from the Central Coast’s Paso Robles region, known for a warm, dry, and sunny climate that’s ideal for producing ripe, user-friendly wines.

    The True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the best values you’ll find there, with powerful dark fruit flavors of blackberry, blueberry, and plum accented by vanilla, spice, cola, and toasty oak notes. The tannins here add structure but are not too drying, and a splash of acidity keeps this big wine from feeling heavy or overpowering.


    Best California: Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 2017

    • Region: Napa Valley, California
    • ABV: 14.5%
    • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Oak, Plum, Blackberry

    The Duckhorn label gets to boast about being among the first producers of single-vineyard merlot in California, as well as pioneers making North American merlot an international prize. The secret’s in the terroir of this royally famous Three Palms vineyard where volcanic rock absorbs the heat of the day, continuing ripening overnight, and protecting grapes from any unusually cold mornings where frost may threaten to unhinge them.

    Vanilla and oak roll off the tongue right off the bat, complemented by deeper hues of plum and blackberry. This wine is bold and dry with just a touch of acidity. An exquisite texture, it goes down with an elegant finish.


    Best with Porterhouse: Prats & Symington Chryseia Douro 2016

    Two steaks in one is an exciting thing. The porterhouse or the T-bone is a cross-section of marbled, textured strip steak and the lean tenderloin. You get the flavor of the strip and the tenderness of the loin. “If you want a truly earthy experience, outside of the usual reds like the new world cabernet sauvignons, merlots, and syrah, Portuguese reds are high up on the list to pair with steaks," says Zachary Marcus Cesare Harris.

    Prats & Symington Chryseia is big, bold, and alive. This well-structured wine with mouthwatering acidity is rich and spicy. Expect robust black fruit, dark coffee, silky smooth tannins, and a subtle savory finish. This wine is a powerful and complex companion to the Porterhouse steak.


    Rasteau

    Planted on predominantly south-facing slopes, Rasteau is characterized by profound ripeness and intensity. Grenache thrives in this arid, sun-drenched terrain, and a large proportion of 30–90 year-old vines continue to bear fruit year after year.

    Long considered one of the best regions of the Côtes du Rhône Villages, the appellation obtained cru status in 2010.

    “Rasteau is a powerful wine,” says Helen Durand, owner of Domaine du Trapadis, a small estate winery. “Power and freshness aren’t opposites here. Even if acidity is soft, there is freshness from minerality and finesse, particularly with age.”

    Wine Styles: Red (100% in Rasteau AOC), Vin Doux Naturel (100% in Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau AOC)

    Permitted Varieties: Red Wine—Primarily Grenache (Noir), complemented by Mourvèdre, Syrah accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Terret Noir, Ugni Blanc, Vaccarèse, Viognier

    Vin Doux Naturel—Primarily Grenache (Blanc, Noir and Gris) accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Syrah, Terret Noir, Ugni Blanc, Vaccarèse, Viognier

    Recommended Producers: Domaine de Verquière, Domaine du Trapadis, Domaine Fond Croze, Domaine La Soumade

    The red wines of Rasteau are composed principally of Grenache, though they’re augmented by Syrah, Mourvèdre and a host of other minor blending partners.

    The appellation is also revered for its vin doux naturel, which means naturally sweet wines. These expressive fortified wines are produced from Grenache Noir, Blanc and Gris. Most unique are the region’s nutty, deliberately oxidative rancio-style, ambré and tuilé vins doux naturel.

    Beaumes de Venise / Photo by Tim Moore / Alamy


    Château de Beaucastel 2007 Red (Châteauneuf-du-Pape)

    You now have FREE access to nearly 300,000 wine, beer and spirit reviews. Cheers!

    At first glance, this is not particularly impressive it's slightly herbal and rustic, with a raisiny edge to the fruit. But this really improves with air, fleshing out on the midpalate and losing the raisiny notes in favor of plum and savory notes. Give it four or five years in the cellar and drink it over the next 15 or so. Joe Czerwinski

    How We Blind Taste

    All tastings reported in the Buying Guide are performed blind. Typically, products are tasted in peer-group flights of from 5-8 samples. Reviewers may know general information about a flight to provide context&mdashvintage, variety or appellation&mdashbut never the producer or retail price of any given selection. When possible, products considered flawed or uncustomary are retasted.

    Ratings reflect what our editors felt about a particular product. Beyond the rating, we encourage you to read the accompanying tasting note to learn about a product’s special characteristics.


    Taste Test: Château de Beaucastel Wines - Recipes

    Vaudieu is the flagship of the family. It spreads its 70 ha on the best terroirs of the appellation, and what strikes: everything is grouped in one piece. Its size has no equivalent, except the huge finesse of its soils, where sands take over and provide very precise and elegant wines. Vaudieu is, since centuries, one of of the patterns of Châteauneuf du pape. Thanks to the Brechet family, it is about to find again its former glory.

    The Château Vaudieu, located in the heart of the Châteauneuf du pape Appellation, was built in 1767 by Admiral Gérin, a lieutenant in the Marseille admiralty. It is one of the three genuire castles of the XVIIIth century in Châteauneuf du pape.

    For over 250 years, the "Val de Dieu" (Valley of God), an area suitable for cultivation from which the name "Vaudieu" was to come, has sheltered a vineyard within its landscape of hillsides and terraces that enjoy the best possible exposure. In the mid 19th century, just before the phylloxera crisis, the estate was one of the four great Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards, able to produce over 200 hl of quality wine.

    It was under the leadership of Garbriel and Juliette Meffre that the vineyards reached their current size of 70 ha within a 450 m radius of a bicentennial Lebanese Cedar, a special guest at the 18th century Chateau.

    Upon the death of Gabriel Meffre in 1987, his daughter Sylvette Bréchet took the destiny of this magnificient property in hand. In 1990 she was joined by her son Laurent, and then by Julien in 2006. With their involvement, the winery was modernised in order to separately handle the grapes from the 32 vineyard plots that were re-demarcated in order to achieve the best potential from each "terroir".

    The elegance of the Vaudieu "Terroirs", enhanced and magnified in this way, has ensured that the reputation of the estate's wines has become well established over the years. Laurent Bréchet, supported by a team who is totally focused on quality, continues this painstaking work respecting the terroir and this very special environment, giving birth to the prestigious "Amiral G", "Val de Dieu", and "Clos du Belvédère" wines.

    The vast vineyard extend over a real mosaic of terroirs, with more than 7 distinct geological components. Here side by side, one can find, among others, sandy type terrains, terraces of large pebbles, marls, hillsides of limestone soils, extending between 85 to 125 meters altitude, whose grapes are vinified and matured separately until blending.

    The extremely fine tannis structure in the estate's red wines comes from the significant proportion of sandy textured "terroir". As for the estate's whites, it is the minerality of a limestone with flint bedrock that shapes the wines. Acidity is an important feature of whites as they age. This comes chiefly from the "Clos du Belvédère" plot, which gives rise to a wine of the same name.

    Grape varieties:

    Sun that shines for 2800 hours per year, a Mistral wind that blows over 100 days and only 600 mm of rain each year. The old black grape vines grow on gentle slopes, with a water regime suitable for very old vine stocks.

    The estate relies on the appellation's 13 grape varieties, but il's the Grenache that clearly dominates the blend. The variety really brings out the best of the terroir, procuring a certain sensation of sweeteness when reaching maturity. On this particular terroir, its balance is obsolutely remarkable.

    For the red wine, others varieties will complement it: Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Terret Noir, Vaccarèse and Muscardin play an integarl part in the estate's wines, bringing attractive aromatic highlights.

    Fot the white wine, the Grenache will be combined with Roussanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul and even the Picardan, one of the appellation's oldest, rarest, planted in Vaudieu.

    The vineyards populated by old vines, literally dig deep down into the subsoil, drawing in all its aromatic complexity as it goes. The yields are vere low: aroubd 25Hl/Ha on average. Only the finest clusters of grapes make it through the winery doors.

    Vinification anad maturing:

    In the estate's vast vinification cellar the graes from each plot can be vinified separately. The extractions are long and gentle, in order to obtain textures that are of great finesse and never at the expense of concentration.

    The red wines are aged for 15 to 18 months, part in barrel, in a very old underground cellar. Certain grape varieties that are vinified pure, such as the Syrah and the Mourvèdre, are perfectly suited to wood aging. In contrast, the purity of the Grenache is preserved in large vats.

    The wines are bottled at the estate in a single operation to help ensure consistency. Than maturing, that will often last for several years, starts in the aging cellar at the heart of the celebrated winery.

    As for the whites, the grapes are hand picked, early in the morning, in small boxes of 15 kg. Directly pressed, the musts are selected before fermentation. The whites are matured for 6 months, of which a small proportion in barrel.

    Chateau de Vaudieu red - 80 % grenache - 15% Syrah - 15% Mourvèdre - Elegance, softness, and a pleasure to drink. Already deliciously fruity, but best between 5 and 15 years.

    Chateau de Vaudieu red - Cuvée "Val de Dieu " - 60 % grenache - 25% Syrah - 15% Mourvèdre - An uncopromising, philosopher's wine. This is a wine of great depth, powerful, dense and well bred that can be laid down for many years.

    Chateau de Vaudieu red - Cuvée "Amiral G" - 100% Grenache - This wine is a tribute to the founder of the domain: " l'Amiral Gérin". A stunning cuvée, it exhibits typical Chateauneuf du Pape character with purity and poise shinning through.

    Chateau de Vaudieu white - 80% White Grenache - 15% Roussanne - 5% Clairette, Bouboulenc and Picardan - Full and fat in its youth, it reaches its best after 5 years and, due its acidity, can age for over 10 years.

    Chateau de Vaudiue white - Cuvée "Clos du Belvédère" - 100% White Grenache - A mineral white wine, blessed wiht remarkable acidity, and balanced by gorgeous fat.


    France&rsquos Most Seductive Wine

    Why are collectors so crazy for France&rsquos famed red blend Châteauneuf-du-Pape? F&W&rsquos Lettie Teague visits the producers of the most lust-inducing labels.

    I’ve always been intrigued by the passions of others, particularly when it comes to wine. What makes someone crazy for Chardonnay? Prize Burgundy over Bordeaux? Or, as in the case of my friend Park B. Smith, adore the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Park and Châteauneuf are one of the world’s great love stories, right up there with Shah Jahan and his late wife (he built the Taj Mahal over two decades in memory of her). While Park has made his fortune in home furnishings, he has centered his life around Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He can’t even say the name without drawing every syllable out𠅌hâ-teau-neuf𠄽u-Pape—the way a lover might name his beloved.

    Never mind that Park can drink anything that he wants from his truly stupendous cellar of 80,000 bottles or so, wines from every important region in the world. (Park once owned more cases of 1982 Château Mouton Rothschild than the Baroness de Rothschild probably did herself.) But half of that cellar is Châteauneuf-du-Pape in fact it’s the only wine I’ve ever seen Park drink.

    I like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, truly I do. I admire its exuberance, richness and earthy minerality, its aromatic notes of spice and blackberry and its great acidity, which makes it go so well with food. And though I’ve bought a fair amount of it over the years, including some bottles from Park’s own cellar that were sold at a Sotheby’s auction last year, I’ve never felt the passion that Park does. Was it my shortcoming or that of the wine? Or was it because I’ve never been to the region itself? (Park has been to Châteauneuf-du-Pape so many times, he’s even been named an honorary mayor.) Perhaps a visit would change my perspective after all, the best way to appreciate a wine is to explore the place that it’s made.

    When I called Park to tell him my plans, he seemed rather nonplussed. (Mecca is never surprised by a pilgrim, I guess.) He just asked me to say hello to his friends. Park didn’t give names, but then, I supposed everyone in Châteauneuf-du-Pape was his friend.

    Châteauneuf-du-Pape (“new castle of the Pope”), in France’s Rhône Valley, got its name when its capital city of Avignon became the new home of the Pope in the 14th century. During this time, just before the Great Schism, seven Popes, all French, chose to live in France rather than Italy. (Pope Gregory XI, though French, decided to return to Rome. He came to a bad end.)

    Châteauneuf-du-Pape is both a town and a wine region, and while the former is small, the latter is quite large. Both are located within the southern Rhône Valley, though they are geographically part of Provence. Accordingly, the climate is mild, unlike the valley’s northern end. And unlike the cool northern Rhône, where the Syrah grape is the star, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the softer, lusher Grenache is featured, most often as part of a blend. Indeed, Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers can legally blend up to 13 grapes, including Mourvຍre, Syrah, Cinsaut and six white varieties, making it the most-blended great wine in the world. (White Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be very good and occasionally great, but like Park, I was primarily interested in the red.)

    The one thing that the north and south ends of the Rhône do share is le mistral, the legendary wind that blows in the summer and winter. It can blow quite hard and last as long as a week in fact, its relentlessness has been said to cause a few residents to lose their minds. Le mistral was blowing hard the day I arrived with Scott Manlin, my wine-collector friend from Chicago, who also aspired to a Park-like love of Châteauneuf. 𠇍o you think the mistral affects visitors the way it does residents?” I asked Scott as we left the Avignon train station in a rental car. 𠇊re you trying to tell me something?” he replied.

    In fact, while the mistral may challenge the mental stability of the region’s winemakers, it’s been a boon to them as well it brings (mostly) sunshine and helps keep the vines free of disease. It’s one of the keys to the creation of great Châteauneuf-du-Pape, along with the huge stones called galets that help the vineyard soil retain heat during the day, later released at night, thereby helping to ripen the grapes. And yet, until the past 20 years or so, there weren’t many great Châteauneuf-du-Papes, since most of the wines were sold in bulk through cooperatives. But a new generation of producers has revived the old estates and begun turning out more modern wines, transforming the region into one of the most progressive in France.

    My friend Robert Parker, the wine critic, was the first to recognize and champion these changes in fact, if there’s anyone who loves Châteauneuf-du-Pape as much as Park, it would be Bob, who has repeatedly extolled the wine’s generosity of flavors. Indeed, when I asked Bob for the names of his favorite producers, he gave me such a long list, I knew I𠆝 never be able to see them all.

    At the top of Bob’s list (and mine) were Sophie Estevenin and Catherine Armenier of Domaine de Marcoux, my first destination. “You’ll like the Armenier sisters,” Bob predicted�urately, as it turned out. Sophie and Catherine were friendly and unpretentious in both outlook and dress—strictly jeans and sensible shoes. In fact, every producer I met, save one (more on that later), was just as easygoing and nice.

    Like most Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers, the Armenier family has been making wine for hundreds of years—practically since the time of the Avignon popes𠅊nd yet there was little in the way of ornamentation at their winery: Our tasting took place in a sparsely furnished room where a bare bulb on the wall gave off a burning smell. 𠇍oes that bother you?” Catherine inquired anxiously. It did—though not nearly as much as the wind, which had begun to howl.

    We talked about the most recent vintages, all of which were quite good to varying degrees. The wines of 2003, the year of the great heat wave, were inconsistent: Some were very good, while others were alcoholic and overripe. The 2004 wines were more balanced, structured and restrained the 2005s were exuberant, showy and easy to love. The full power of 2006 was not yet known at the time of my visit, as most of the reds were still in barrel. While many producers have said 2004 was their favorite vintage, “we prefer 2003 wines because the year was difficult,” said Sophie. In fact, their 2003 Vieilles Vignes (“old vines”) bottling was drinking beautifully, though the 2004 was the more elegant wine. The 2005 was opulent, ripe and high in alcohol. The vieilles vignes wines are some of the most sought-after in Châteauneuf𠅎ven though, at $250 a bottle, they’re hardly cheap. (Domaine de Marcoux’s standard Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottling is a lot more affordable at around $50.)

    The next day, at Sophie’s suggestion, Scott and I drove to the actual castle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, now mostly ruins, high on a hill overlooking the town. But ours wasn’t a historical tour: We were looking for lunch. Sophie’s husband, Jean Pierre Estevenin, is the chef and owner of Le Verger des Papes, located just below the castle ruins. Alas, it was closed. Scott looked unhappy. Fortunately, the wine shop next door, Cave du Verger des Papes, also owned by Estevenin, was open. Scott looked more cheerful when we went inside. “They have everything,” he said, scanning the bottles on display. A young saleswoman approached us: “Your face is familiar,” she said to Scott. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” he replied. The woman smiled, “We have no bad clients.” In fact, most clients, she said, were American—nearly 90 percent. �ore I worked here, I didn’t know that Châteauneuf-du-Pape was so popular with Americans,” she added.

    That of course is largely thanks to Bob, whose fulsome praise of Châteauneuf-du-Pape has helped raise recognition of the region and, some have said, increase the prices of the wines. And yet Châteauneuf-du-Pape is still nowhere near as expensive as Burgundy or Bordeaux. In fact, according to Dan Posner of Grapes the Wine Company in Rye, New York (where I buy my Châteauneuf-du-Pape), there are still lots of values in the $40 to $50 range, like the wines of Les Cailloux and Domaine de la Janasse. “It’s the luxury cuvພs that have become so expensive,” he added.

    Their prices didn’t seem to matter to Scott, who promptly spent over 2,000 euros on luxury cuvພs. “They’re cheaper here than in the States,” he explained. Among the wines he purchased was the 2003 Deus Ex Machina from Clos Saint Jean—one of Parker’s �thbed wines.” “It’s the Domaine de la Romanພ-Conti of the Rhône,” said Estevenin, who had joined us. “You can’t find it,” he added. I thought he meant the wine, but he was referring to the domaine. “I’ll drive you you’ll never find it yourselves.”

    Four men, one quite large, emerged from a tiny white truck as we drove through the (unmarked) gates of Clos Saint Jean. Inside, the large man brushed past us as we walked into the winery office. The large man sat down at a computer. I looked at the screen: He was checking Clos Saint Jean’s Parker scores. “That’s Philippe Cambie,” Vincent Maurel, the proprietor of Clos Saint Jean, said to me. Cambie was the consultant whom Parker dubbed “the Michel Rolland of the Rhône,” after the famous Bordeaux enologist. Cambie has been credited with modernizing Clos Saint Jean and dozens of other Châteauneuf-du-Pape estates by focusing on making wines with riper fruit and using small barrels for aging instead of the traditional large foudres or tanks.

    The Grenache-dominant wines of Clos Saint Jean are all made from very old vines. They’re opulent, with notes of dark berries and spices. They’re also immensely concentrated wines with rich fruit, the prototype for modern Châteauneuf-du-Pape𠅎specially the 2005 Deus Ex Machina and the 2005 La Combe des Fous. I found it hard to believe they could age for years they were so delicious in their youth. But according to Cambie, that is the beauty of Châteauneuf-du-Pape: “You can drink it now and in 20 years. You can drink it old and young.”

    Our tasting concluded, Cambie folded himself into his tiny white truck again with surprising ease. “I will lead you to Rayas,” he said. (I wondered if Michel Rolland ever helped a journalist find a neighboring Bordeaux château.) The route to Château Rayas was longer and more complicated than the one to Clos Saint Jean and, as it turned out, the journey took three times as long as our tasting there.

    Under winemaker Jacques Reynaud, Rayas had been one of Châteauneuf’s great producers. My first taste of Rayas (with Park, of course) had been Reynaud’s famous 1995 bottling, which Park had declared “the finest young wine” he𠆝 ever tasted. Since Reynaud’s nephew Emmanuel took over about a decade ago, the wines had been inconsistent. But I still wanted to see the estate.

    The winery was in disrepair—the building needed a fresh coat of paint𠅊nd Emmanuel seemed to be in a bad mood. He gave Scott and me exactly five minutes to taste samples of three of his lesser wines, then showed us the door. “That was unique,” Scott commented. “Somehow I don’t think he’s one of Park’s friends,” I replied.

    Our next visit was with one of Park’s favorite producers, Laurence Feraud at Domaine du Pegau. The Domaine du Pegau Cuvພ da Capo was the first modern prestige cuvພ made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, starting in 1998. Nuanced, elegant, and deeply flavorful, it’s almost like an everyday wine for Park, he loves it so much—never mind that it’s about $600 a bottle.

    Feraud, a punkish-looking woman with a spiky hairstyle and tight, boot-cut jeans, was getting ready to bottle her wines, including Capo, when we arrived. In creating Capo, Feraud said she was inspired by the big flavors of California wines. Her fellow Châteauneuf producers seemed to be inspired by her prices. “Now everyone has to make a prestige cuvພ,” she complained. 𠇋ut it’s also important to make a good regular Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

    Certainly being able to price a special cuvພ at 10 times the regular bottling had to be a temptation. And other modern producers, like Domaine de la Mordorພ, whom Scott and I saw next, seemed to have no trouble selling their cuvພs at Capo-level prices. Domaine de la Mordorພ’s young proprietor, Christophe Delorme, who runs the estate along with his brother, has created some of the biggest, richest special cuvພs in the appellation: La Plume du Peintre and La Reine des Bois. “We have the most concentrated wines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” Delorme asserted. And some of the highest alcohol levels, too: The 2005 La Plume was well over 16 percent. But this wasn’t at the expense of finesse. No wonder Parker had said the wine could age for 40 or 50 years.

    For the next several days, Scott and I visited as many producers as possible, including Henri Bonneau. Bonneau’s house may be one of the hardest places to find in all of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, marked only by a scrap of paper by the door that read �ve Fermພ,” or �llar closed.”

    Bonneau, who works out of a cobweb-strung cellar that Parker has described as a �t cave,” is more of a medievalist than a traditionalist indeed, unlike the modern producers who leave their wines in barrel for a fairly short time, he often leaves his to age for many years—or until he “needs the money.” Bonneau was obviously doing well some of the wines in barrel were seven years old.

    It was Thierry Usseglio of Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils who had led Scott and me to Bonneau’s door. “Otherwise you won’t find it,” he had said, a now-familiar phrase. His own domaine was quite easy to find, just below the ruins of the castle and marked with an enormous sign. The Usseglio wines were likewise easy to appreciate. Their regular bottling is an always-reliable, traditionally made wine, while their special cuvພ, Mon A໾ul, is a more modern-style wine, enormously concentrated and rich.

    Our last visit was to Château de Beaucastel, the crown jewel of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, off the national road. Beaucastel is an enormous winery by Châteauneuf standards, turning out a wide range of wines, from basic Côtes-du-Rhône ($25) to small, special cuvພs like Hommage à Jacques Perrin (a mostly-Mourvຍre wine, about $450). The winery also makes use of all 13 grapes in fact, its sommelier, Fabrice Langlois, had composed an imaginary orchestra that included each one. “Grenache is the violin,” Fabrice said. “Mourvຍre is the viola and Syrah, the piano.”

    I returned to New York impressed and enlightened, yet not really sure that I fully comprehended the source of Park’s passion. Then, several months later, Scott came to town. A friend held a dinner party in his honor, to which I contributed a bottle of 2000 Domaine du Pegau Cuvພ da Capo. As everyone tasted it, there was a collective gasp. “This is a truly flawless wine,” one friend finally said. And so it was: intense and hedonistic, but totally balanced. But most importantly, I realized, looking around, the wine had made everyone incredibly happy. So that was the secret of Park’s Châteauneuf love: It wasn’t just the wines themselves, but what he felt when he shared them with friends.


    Watch the video: The Château de Beaucastel Difference April 2020 (January 2022).