Recently I realized that in eight and one-half years of writing this column, I have not once devoted an article to the great red wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
In that time I have written repeatedly about Bordeaux, California cabernet sauvignon, Barbaresco and Barolo, Burgundy and the wines of the northern Rhone. Somehow, for no reason I can adequately explain, I have never gotten around to telling readers about a wine that can equal any of them -- at a better price.
All I can say by way of mitigation is that I too have suffered from my lack of attention to one of the world's great red wines. In building my modest cellar over the years, the worst mistake I have made is my failure to stock more Chateauneuf-du-Pape when it was dirt cheap.
The gravity of this omission was brought home to me recently when Wine Advocate publisher Robert M. Parker Jr. invited a group of friends to join him in a tasting of southern Rhone Valley wines, mostly Chateauneuf-du-Papes, from the great 1978 vintage.
To say these wines were great would be
an understatement. Wine after wine exhibited that smoky, meaty, intense blackberry flavor -- seasoned with herbes de Provence -- so characteristic of mature Chateauneuf. Still robust as in youth, they had taken on a silky texture that charmed as it overpowered the senses.
Suffice it to say that no group of 1978s from any of the world's wine regions -- and 1978 was a fine year for almost all of the world's great red wines -- would be likely to outshine this group of Chateauneufs. Not Bordeaux, not Burgundy, probably not even Hermitage and Cote Rotie. Shockingly, many of these 1978s sold for under $10 when they first hit the market.
But this is not to talk about the 1978s, a vintage long vanished from the market. Chateauneuf-du-Pape enjoyed an exceptional run of vintages during the 1980s, and many of these wines are still on the market.
The fact that you can still find some of the great 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1985 Chateauneufs is testament to how much these wines have been underrated. Perhaps because they are not as rare, they have never been accorded the cachet of their northern Rhone cousins. But to the consumer who prefers drinking wine to kissing labels, this represents opportunity: Even though Chateauneuf prices have increased dramatically since the early 1980s, almost all of them still lag behind wines of comparable quality from other regions.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a rocky area around the southern French city of Avignon, seat of the papacy during the 14th century -- hence the name, which means "new castle of the Pope." The vines that grow in this forbidding-looking ground (you couldn't really call it soil) are a mixed lot of 13 approved red varieties, the most important of which are grenache, syrah and mourvedre. (There is also a small amount of white Chateauneuf-du-Pape produced.)
Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape is not a wine for casual quaffing by the pool. It's a wine for sipping with a hearty stew or a fine roast on a frigid winter evening. Its natural alcohol levels can rank among the highest achieved by any wine (up to 15 percent), but the enormous fruit in a fine Chateauneuf keeps it from tasting hot or harsh.
If you have have never tasted a truly fine, mature red Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is difficult to describe the flavor and feel. But try this: If taste could be transformed into sound, Chateauneuf-du-Pape would speak with the voice of James Earl Jones -- deep, rumbling and powerful but at the same time smooth and melodic.
In recent years, some producers have lightened up on the traditionally burly, robust character of Chateauneuf and produced relatively simple, fruity wines for early consumption.
Some of these wines can be charming, but only the name -- and the attendant price -- distinguished them from simple regional Cotes-du-Rhone. They do not deserve to share the same noble "appellation" as such classic Chateauneufs as Chateau Beaucastel, Domaine de Vieux Telegraphe, Bosquet des Papes, Guigal, Chateau Rayas and its excellent second wine, Pignan.
Chateauneuf can be forbiddingly tannic in its youth, but it matures relatively quickly compared with other great red wines. At five or six years, it is almost always approachable, and it usually peaks between eight and 15 years, though the finest estates produce wines that will last three decades or more.
During the 1980s, only two Chateauneuf vintages could be described as subpar -- 1982 and 1987. The 1981, 1983, 1985 and 1988 vintages all produced great wines, and Mr. Parker, who has tasted many of the not-yet-released 1989s, calls it the finest year since 1978. In addition, a couple of vintages that were spotty elsewhere in France, 1980 and 1984, were quite successful in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.