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.
Since the great vintage of 1998, with the exception of 2002, Châteauneuf has been on a roll. The pinnacle - 2007 - was heralded by Robert Parker as the vintage of the century.
What else are faithful wine geeks to do but to set up the greatest CdP face-off of our times - 1998 vs 2007, top producers, top of the line wines (prized bottles from hallow cellars of Chris B and Carlos G). Iron Chevsky was there to partake, learn, and document!
1998 Beaucastel ($150-200, 96RP, 95WS) & 2007 Beaucastel ($75-90, 96RP, 96WS)
1998 Chateau Rayas ($300-500, 94RP, 94WS)
1998 Janasse VV ($140, 95+RP) & 2007 Janasse VV ($250, 100RP, 96WS)
1998 Vieux Donjon ($100-170, 95RP) & 2007 Vieux Donjon ($60, 95+RP, 94WS)
1998 Les Cailloux "Cuvee Le Centenaire" ($250-600)
2007 Vieux Telegraphe "La Crau" ($55-70, 96+RP, 95WS)
2007 Saint Prefert "Collection Charles Giraud" ($250, 100RP, 98WS)
An esteemed line-up tasted by an esteemed panel. Below are the wines in the order of the group-rank, left-to-right from top-ranked. Take a close look.
Wines 1 through 5:
Wines 6 through 10:
Combining my own impressions with those around the table, here are the take-aways:
1. Good CdP is much better aged than young, as can be seen from the top 3 wines being all 1998.
2. Young CdP is big, fruity (even jammy), spicy and brooding. The same wines, when mature, mellow out, with some herbal / vegetable notes emerging - think "bloody mary".
3. There was not a bad wine in the line-up, with the exception of perhaps 2007 Beaucastel which at this stage is just too jammy for me. That said, with the right food, personally, I would have enjoyed any one of them, without the distraction of the others. But life is tough - for you, my readers, I had to sacrifice myself and go through all of them!
4. Price seemed to be a non-factor, as the most favored wine - 1998 Vieux Donjon - was amongst the least expensive in the lineup. The 2007 bottling is still somewhat affordable.
5. These are relatively low-acid, wild-tasting wines, even in their elder years. No wonder Laurence Feraud of Domaine du Pegau once told me, having just returned from Burgundy back to her domain in Cheateauneuf-du-Pape: "My wines are so WILD and SPICY". That they are. Makes one wonder what barbarically wild mood one must be in to shell out upwards of $100 (and far more, in some cases).
6. The tasting took place at Donato Enoteca. A fabulous multi-course Italian dinner followed. I must say, however, that CdP's go with Italian food about as well as flip-flops with an Armani suit. If you are going to have Italian food, drink Italian wine. With Chateauneuf, stick with Provençal cuisine.
7. The '98 Donjon was ranked the best wine, with '98 Rayas - the second. Once the blinders went off and dinner went on, the crowd thought that 1998 Rayas was by far the best wine. I suppose Rayas' reputation as being Southern Rhone's classiest export had nothing to do with that :)!
8. I have to give it to Beaucastel. The 1998 did not taste old, and the medium body of the wine made it infinitely more attractive to me when the food arrived.
Well, all that is fine and dandy. I felt special. Intellectually, I enjoyed. But truth be told, I find Chateauneuf-du-Pape to be in the same bucket as Bordeaux - wines of limited applicability - good with robust meat dishes. But with Burgundy and Barolo being in the same $$ range - with their more etherial textures and classier flavors - it's a tough sell for the very expensive CdP's. Yet when American consumers are exposed to French wine, I know Chateauneuf-du-Pape's are often the most popular of all French regions (granted - most consumers cannot afford the astronomically priced top-of-the-line wines we tasted that day). Why are they popular? In my humble opinion, these are transitional wines for new world wine lovers looking for the next step up - big, fruity, but with more character than Cali and Aussie fruit bombs. The wines we tasted are certainly fine examples of their terroir. There is a place and time for everything, and if it's roasted lamb with rosemary that I am in the mood for, perhaps a Beaucastel would be just what the doctor ordered. But that right place and right time are increasingly rarer at my table. As much as I cherished the opportunity to experience these wines, when the food came, I reached out for a Barbaresco (Produttori del Barbaresco's Moccagatta 2004) - bright, juicy, medium-bodied, high-acidity joy of a wine.