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France’s Most Seductive Wine

Why are collectors so crazy for France’s famed red blend Châteauneuf-du-Pape? F&W’s 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—Châ-teau-neuf–du-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 Mourvèdre, 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. “Do 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. “Are 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’d 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—accurately, 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—and 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. “Does 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—even 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. “Before 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 cuvées 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 cuvées. “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 “deathbed wines.” “It’s the Domaine de la Romanée-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—especially 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’d 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—and 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 Cuvée da Capo was the first modern prestige cuvée 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 cuvée,” she complained. “But it’s also important to make a good regular Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

Certainly being able to price a special cuvée at 10 times the regular bottling had to be a temptation. And other modern producers, like Domaine de la Mordorée, whom Scott and I saw next, seemed to have no trouble selling their cuvées at Capo-level prices. Domaine de la Mordorée’s young proprietor, Christophe Delorme, who runs the estate along with his brother, has created some of the biggest, richest special cuvées 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 “Cave Fermée,” or “cellar closed.”

Bonneau, who works out of a cobweb-strung cellar that Parker has described as a “bat 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 cuvée, Mon Aïeul, 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 cuvées like Hommage à Jacques Perrin (a mostly-Mourvèdre 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. “Mourvèdre 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 Cuvée 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.

Published May 2008
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