Jefford on Monday: Châteauneuf in the cellar
Andrew Jefford delves back three decades to find out if Châteauneuf du Pape both needs and merits age.
How much Châteauneuf du Pape do you have in your cellar? In the 1997 revision of his outstanding book on the Rhône (Wines of the Rhône Valley), Robert Parker said he drank “more Châteauneuf du Pape than any other type of wine,” and that “visitors to my private cellar can attest to the fact that my stock of Châteauneuf du Pape is proportional to my voracious taste for the appellation’s finest wines.” Two paragraphs later, though, he lamented the fact that a Wine Spectator profile of eight ‘great American cellars’ (in August 1996) seemed to suggest that – in contrast to his own horde — the multi-million dollar collections in question excluded Châteauneuf more or less completely.
My suspicion is that the last twenty years haven’t seen a huge change. Châteauneuf as a fine wine to be cellared, in other words, remains the preserve of the committed enthusiast rather than a default choice for every fine-wine lover. The market prices for mature, high-point Châteauneuf – respectable but rarely headline-grabbing – underline the point.
Why? It’s possible that the style of the wines – extravagant, uninhibited and baroque – lacks the universal appeal of graceful, fresh Burgundy or urbane, elegant Bordeaux. Set alongside Californian and Southern Hemisphere blockbusters, though, Châteauneuf itself can seem almost burgundian, and a model of perfumed restraint. Style alone cannot account for this collecting neglect.
The nub of the matter, surely, is the ageability of the wine itself, and with it two key questions. Does fine red Châteauneuf need age? Can it improve with age?
In search of answers, I decided to taste the ‘tradition’ (or ‘grand vin’) cuvée of four leading Châteauneuf estates in three outstanding vintages, each a decade apart (2010, 2000 and 1990). The wines were supplied by the estates themselves – Ch de Beaucastel, Ch la Nerthe, Domaine du Pégau and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe – and I had a chance to chat to César Perrin of Beaucastel, newly appointed MD Ralph Garcin of La Nerthe and Laurence Féraud of Pégau over lunch afterwards.
César Perrin pointed out that, like it or not, most consumers of Châteauneuf (not just the 60 per cent which is sold generically, but even from leading estates like Beaucastel) are drinking the wine more or less as soon as they buy it. “In 2012, we did a study about our 2010, which is certainly a vintage to age. We found that 80 per cent of it had been drunk already.” “People regard ageability,” added Ralph Garcin, “like a kind of life insurance policy – it’s there but they’d rather not use it. The challenge for the winemaker is to make a wine which can perform in a sprint, but also run the marathon if required.”
All three producers stressed that the region hadn’t yet had as much experience in creating wines for ageing as some others. “The locomotive for this is Bordeaux,” said Laurence Féraud, “where the ideal was always to have a wine which could age for 50 years. But as recently as 1986, all Pégau was sold in bulk.” Another challenge, according to César Perrin, was to understand exactly which winemaking parameters might create wines with maximum ageability – given the extraordinary latitude open to Châteanuneuf growers. There are 13 grape varieties (Beaucastel uses them all) yet you can still make wine from a single variety if you want; there’s a wide range of soil types; there’s total liberty regarding ageing; and there are many differences in winemaking approaches (Pégau uses only whole bunches including stems, whereas Beaucastel and La Nerthe destem everything and Vieux Télégraphe partly destems; Beaucastel briefly flash-heats the red harvest).
Ageability matters to the producers, though. “It’s the only way we have,” said César Perrin, “of knowing the work of our elders.” Laurence Féraud goes further, believing that it is via the trajectory of wine in time that you can see that “wine has a soul. It’s not just the result of a set of techniques. That’s why it is so important to me. I thought the 1990 had died two or three years ago, but a year later it took off again. Even we growers don’t understand everything.”
Read more at Jefford on Monday: Chateauneuf in the Cellar