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A good Châteauneuf-du-Pape is first and foremost a wine-lover’s wine

July 20, 2011

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A good Châteauneuf-du-Pape is first and foremost a wine-lover’s wine. Other wines can give you gloss and symmetry, the sort of good looks that are obvious even if you aren’t much of a wine drinker. But Châteauneuf does not lend itself to smoothness and polish.

It is earthy and sometimes fierce, the proverbial “brooding” wine.

Yet as difficult as it can initially be to embrace, the ornery character of Châteauneuf makes it all the more rewarding when the lights finally go on. That aha! moment is like suddenly recognizing the beauty in one of Picasso’s women, and realizing that conventional notions can take you only so far.

A classic Châteauneuf can offer the fruit flavors that most wine drinkers love so well, ranging from cherry and blueberry to deep, rich raspberry. It can also have intense aromas of violets and other flowers, woven through with whiffs of earth and Provençal herbs, spices and a little of what is politely termed barnyard. This is all in one big package that is rarely neat.

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.

While the wines that are lumped together in the Rhône region are bound by the Rhône River, northern and southern Rhônes are completely different characters. The reds of the northern Rhône, like those of Burgundy to the north, are based on a single grape. Syrah rules, even if the vignerons of Côte- Rôtie occasionally throw in a little viognier, and the fascination of these wines is in the various expressions of this one grape.

But Châteauneuf and the southern Rhône is a land of blends. Traditionally, the wines were field blends of many grapes grown side by side. While the appellation’s rules permit the use of 13 grapes in the blend, most wines nowadays are dominated by grenache, mourvèdre and syrah (with some exceptions, like Château Beaucastel, a historic Châteauneuf producer, which still uses all 13 varietals).

Since the great vintage of 1998, Châteauneuf has been on something of a roll. With the exception of 2002, which was a rain-drenched washout for the reds of the southern Rhône, almost every year has been very good, to say the least, and each has its particular fans. Except for some of the great producers, like Beaucastel, Rayas and a few others, most of the 2004′s are available. The wine panel recently had the pleasure of tasting 25 bottles.

Florence Fabricant and I were joined for the tasting by Tim Kopec, the wine director at Veritas, and Mollie Battenhouse, the sommelier at Tribeca Grill. Both restaurants have superb lists of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Not surprisingly, we each had different feelings about the 2004 vintage. I was the most enthusiastic. It reminded me of 1998 because I found so many balanced wines with great character. Tim was the least enthusiastic, feeling that some grenache grapes hadn’t ripened sufficiently. While he called 2004 very good, he also said it reminded him more of 1997 than 1998, a vintage that a decade later has not earned many compliments.

We all found the wines to be highly diverse, with Mollie dividing them into three groups: elegant, concentrated and brooding. I understood but found a lot of overlap in the wines, which is part of what makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines so interesting.

Whatever we thought of the vintage, we all agreed on our top wine, the Colombis from Domaine Ferrando, a newcomer to this historic region. The estate is owned by Isabel Ferrando, and this, the first vintage of Colombis, is quite the beginning: rich and generous with a spicy, herbal complexity and plenty of earth and mineral flavors.

Ferrando also owns the established Domaine Saint Préfert, which produced our No.8 wine, the big, dark Réserve Auguste Favier, which was jammy yet balanced with plenty of room for aging and improvement.

The bottles in the tasting ranged from $20 to $95, and our best value, at $32, was the Domaine de Monpertuis, an old-style Châteauneuf that blends in tart herbal and earth aromas with a fresh raspberry flavor. This wine was balanced and though enjoyable now will benefit, like most of these bottles, from at least a few years of aging. In fact, Châteauneuf in general can be enjoyed young but doesn’t really come into its prime until it is at least 7 to 10 years old.

Our No.2 wine, the Domaine de la Janasse Vieilles Vignes, reminded me a little of a Rayas because of the beautiful raspberry aromas that are typical of that storied estate.

A different style was shown by our No.3 wine, the Domaine des Relagnes, a cuvée with a peculiar name, Les Petits Pieds d’Armand, which does not refer to Armand’s little feet, but to a vineyard of very old vines. This wine was big and powerful with plenty of stuffing, and while three of us liked it very much, Mollie dissented, finding it port-like.

The Bosquet des Papes à la Gloire de Mon Grand- Père was a special favorite of mine. This cuvée, made from an old patch of grenache, is a complete package — jammy yet elegant with flavors of fruit, spice, earth and herbs, and is already delicious.

It should be no surprise that Châteauneuf-du-Papes are brawny wines, historically high in alcohol. In fact, the appellation requires the highest minimum level of alcohol, 12.5 percent, of any appellation in France. Yet they wear their strength well. Brooding, perhaps. Monstrous, almost never.


Clark Wine Center was built in 2003 by Hong Kong-based Yats International Leisure Philippines to become the largest wine shop in Philippines supplying Asia’s wine lovers with fine vintage wines at attractive prices. Today, this wine shop in Clark Philippines offers over 2000 selections of fine wines from all major wine regions in the world. As a leading wine supplier in Philippines, Pampanga’s Clark Wine Center offers an incomparable breadth of vintages, wines from back vintages spanning over 50 years. Clark Wine Center is located in Pampanga Clark Freeport Zone adjacent to Angeles City, just 25 minutes from Subic and 45 minutes from Manila.

Wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, Loire, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Alsace, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, South Africa, Chile and Argentina etc. are well represented in this Clark Wine Shop.

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