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Producers are dialling back the jammy flavours in Châteauneuf, which for too long dallied in fruit-bomb territory.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape finds its balance anew

Feb 1, 2019 5:50 AM

New York

OF THE many wonderful transformations that have characterised the past decade in wine, perhaps the most heartening has been the stylistic swing back toward balance and nuance.

This shift comes after a long period in which exaggerated red wine ruled. Ultra-ripe, jammy fruit bombs - lacking freshness and structure (other than the tannins contributed by new oak barrels) - seemed for too long to epitomise what powerful critics sought and what many producers were all too willing to provide.

These overblown wines surged to become prominent in many different regions, but none more so than Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in the southern Rhône Valley of France.

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Châteauneuf has always been a big, powerful, rough-hewed wine, capable of majesty yet always a bit tattered. As I was learning about wine in the 1980s, I drank a lot of Châteauneuf, which back then was a more affordable great wine than Bordeaux or Burgundy.

I loved its intensity and its complexity. The leathery fruit and distinctive savoury flavors were rustic in the best sense of the word, conjuring up the fragrant wild herbs known as garrigue in Provence and southern France. Years later, on the rare occasion when I drank a Châteauneuf from the '80s, they all seemed etched with this aromatic badge of place.

Somewhere along the way, many Châteauneufs lost that rustic appeal. In the late 1990s, many producers began to pursue a lusher, glossier, more oaky style - just another modern, polished red, though denser and stronger than many, often at 15 to 16 per cent alcohol.

Some critics loved this evolution, and the wines became more expensive. But while the region gained newfound popularity and wealth, the wine lost something, like a magnificent ramshackle manse transformed into a McMansion, luxurious but no longer Mediterranean.

This style reached a peak, perhaps, with the 2007 vintage, which some critics called historic. Our wine panel review of the '07 Châteauneufs told a different story.

"I've never had a vintage like this, so lacking in structure and tannins, and with so much ripe fruit at the expense of minerality and earthiness," one panelist said, though he added that he thought the wines would be popular.

Yet with so many regions now finding a new balance, with a greater diversity of styles to please more tastes, I have wondered whether Châteauneuf producers, too, reconsidered their path. Like 2007, the 2016 vintage has been hailed as a great vintage in Châteauneuf. I thought it might be a good time to revisit the wines.

One recent January afternoon, the panel tasted 20 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, all from the 2016 vintage. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Sabra Lewis, wine director at the Standard Grill in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, and Edouard Bourgeois, wine director at Pressoir.wine, which organises events and offers consulting.

Twenty bottles are by no means a complete tasting, but they do offer a cross-sectional characterisation of the vintage. We buy them all retail, but we have a cap of US$100 per bottle, so luxury cuvées were not included, nor were some big names that may not have been released yet.

As is typical of the southern Rhône, almost all Châteauneufs are blended wines, with 13 grape varieties permitted. Practically speaking, most are blends of four grapes, with grenache playing the dominant role, abetted by mourvèdre, syrah and cinsault.

Still, exceptions abound, including two of Châteauneuf's most important names, Château Rayas, which is 100 per cent grenache, and Château de Beaucastel, which uses all 13 varieties, though the big four make up 80 per cent of the blend.

I don't drink as much Châteauneuf as I once did, although the wines in their modern style have been widely popular.

Ms Lewis said: "It's an easy sell, and you can find good producers in a wide range of prices."

All of us agreed this was an excellent lineup of wines. And based on this small glimpse of the vintage, it seems that a stylistic correction may well be underway.

We found plenty of well-modulated bottles despite the ripeness of the grapes in the 2016 vintage. These wines were indeed characterised by potent fruit flavours, as expected in such a year, but they were balanced by savoury herbal flavors as well, all underscored by tannins that, if not exactly stern, offered length and structure.

Mr Bourgeois said: "They were showing great."

Few wines were too oaky, and few were jammy. For me, the biggest problem was a one-dimensional fruitiness in a few of the wines that lacked the herbal, earthy quality of classic Châteauneuf du Pape.

One thing that has not changed for the better is price. These are expensive wines, with only three of the 20 bottles under US$50, none of which made our top 10. Only two of our 10 favorites were under US$65, so we did not select a best value.

There's another way to look at it, though. Châteauneuf is a peak expression of the southern Rhône. Paying US$84 for a Beaucastel, our No. 2 bottle, is considerably less than you would pay for a top Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie from the northern Rhône, to say nothing of a leading Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne.

Our consensus favourite was the Chante le Merle Vieilles Vignes from Bosquet des Papes, a cuvée made from old-vine grapes that were not destemmed before they were crushed. (Leaving the stems on is an old-fashioned technique that can add savoury elements to the wine.) We found it to be intense and complex, powerful yet balanced.

The Beaucastel, our No. 2, was savoury, with an old-school leathery element that we liked. No. 3 was the Cuvée Renaissance from Domaine de Cristia, a rustic, chewy wine, with flavours of dark fruit and licorice. Both these wines have higher-than-typical percentages of mourvèdre in the blend, 30 per cent for Beaucastel and 40 per cent for Cristia. As climate change takes hold, more producers are increasing their mourvèdre components, as it tends not to get as jammy and alcoholic as grenache does.

No. 4 was La Dame Voyageuse from Domaine de la Mordorée, a more typical blend with 75 per cent grenache. Yet it, too, offered complexity and dimension. It was followed by the Clos St Antonin, a powerful, fruity wine, 100 per cent grenache, that nonetheless offered some complex herbal flavors, and the Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, a tannic wine with flavours of red fruits and flowers.

The Télégraphe, another historic name of Châteauneuf, was the most expensive wine in the tasting, at US$90. The domaine makes a second wine, Télégramme, which is generally excellent and about half the price.

Others in our tasting well worth seeking out are the earthy, powerful Domaine de Ferrand; the velvety, intense Tradition from Domaine de la Janasse; the chunky, licorice-flavoured Domaine de Marcoux; and the bright, raspberry-scented Boisrenard from Domaine de Beaurenard.

As balanced as these wines were compared with, say, 10 years ago, they are nonetheless big and alcoholic, most ranging from 15 per cent to 15.5 per cent alcohol, with just a few at 14.5 per cent. That is simply the nature of Châteauneuf, and they require powerfully flavoured, hearty foods to go with them.

But they were not without freshness. That's a great quality in a Châteauneuf, and in no way diminishes the otherwise imposing character of the wine. It simply helps - to once more use that perhaps overused but crucial term - to achieve balance. NYT