As I've grown older I've developed an appreciation for wines that are immediately gratifying but that can also provide great satisfaction over several years. Which means that while I adore Bordeaux, and was fortunate enough to purchase vintages that are now reaching full maturity, I can no longer buy a young Bordeaux and wait 20 to 25 years for all the elements to come into perfect harmony. Today, the wine that I find myself turning to most often is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Although Châteauneuf-du-Pape, from France's Rhône valley, may never possess the elegance and longevity of a great Bordeaux, the mystique and prestige of a wine from the famous vineyards of Burgundy or the perfume or rarity of a top-notch Barolo or Barbaresco, what it does offer is immediate gratification both intellectual and hedonistic in nature. Its wide array of aromas and flavors are reminiscent of a Provençal marketplace while its texture—rich and round, sumptuous and opulent—is virtually unmatched by most of the wines of the world.
The best Châteauneuf-du-Papes are among the most natural expressions of grapes, place and vintage. Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards are farmed organically or biodynamically, and the region's abundant sunshine and frequent wind (called le mistral) practically preclude the need for treating the fields with herbicides or pesticides. The wines themselves are equally pure, their flavors rarely masked by aging in new oak.
Of course, not all Châteauneuf-du-Pape is created equal. Therefore, I've put together a little history and geography lesson and a few relevant facts to help wine lovers better understand the region that famed Rhône vigneron Marcel Guigal once called one of the three greatest appellations (along with Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, of the Northern Rhône) in southern France.
With more than 8,000 acres under vine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the largest appellation in the Rhône, producing only two wines, a red Châteauneuf-du-Pape (which represents 94 percent of the appellation's production) and a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Of the eight red varietals planted, Grenache is the dominant variety (nearly 80 percent), followed by Syrah, Mourvèdre and tiny quantities of Cinsault, Muscardin, Counoise, Vaccarèse and Terret Noir, while the most important white varietals include Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Roussanne (Picpoul and Picardin are also permitted). White Châteauneufs were largely bland and uninteresting until about five years ago, when winemakers invested in equipment that would better preserve freshness and aromas; these wines have since soared in quality and complexity.
Although the French appellation system has its roots in the 1923 system created in Châteauneuf-du-Pape by Baron Le Roy, proprietor of the renowned Château Fortia, Châteauneuf-du-Pape never developed a reputation for quality or achieved the prestige enjoyed by such regions as Burgundy and Bordeaux. Much of the problem was that the bulk of the production was shipped off to cooperatives to be co-mingled in indifferent blends that were either sold in bulk or bottled under various labels.
Even when I visited Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the first time in the early '70s, there were only half a dozen estates making top-quality wines. These included Château de Beaucastel, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Rayas, Mont-Redon, Clos du Mont-Olivet and Clos des Papes. Today, there are 60 to 70 estates producing wines that are as good as, if not better than, the wines made by the aforementioned six properties some 30 years ago. This is thanks not only to improved winemaking techniques but most importantly to increased numbers of young men and women taking over uninspired, moribund estates and exploiting their terroirs to their fullest potential.
There is an enormous diversity of winemaking styles among these producers, creating both appealing, easy-to-understand fruit-filled wines as well as wines of greater intensity and gravitas. The latter offer a wide array of compelling aromatics, including herbes de Provence, black cherry jam, black currants, blueberries, blackberries, roasted meats and even beef blood. These wines can be powerful, rich, full-bodied and concentrated enough to evolve for 15 to 25 years.
Meanwhile, white Châteauneuf-du-Papes generally need to be consumed within four to five years of the vintage, although a handful can age far longer. The finest are filled with plenty of tropical fruit and floral notes and possess crisp underlying acidity (most do not go through malolactic fermentation) yet are cunningly powerful and heady in alcohol, averaging 14 percent or more.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a remarkably flexible wine with food, in part because it suits so much of today's Mediterranean-influenced cooking, while the absence of new oak in many Châteauneufs means they can be enjoyed alongside an even broader range of lighter dishes such as fish, veal, and poultry.
But the greatest appeal of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, beyond its food-friendly qualities, expansiveness, generosity of flavors and sumptuous texture, is the almost addictive attraction of its combined intellectual and hedonistic elements. That's what attracts me the most and undoubtedly accounts for Châteauneuf-du-Pape's rapidly growing popularity.
Robert M. Parker, Jr., is the editor and publisher of The Wine Advocate and a contributing editor to F&W. He is the author of 14 books, most recently The World's Greatest Wine Estates.