It’s been a favourite of wine lovers for years, and now Châteauneuf-du-Pape is producing better wines than ever before. Dynamic young producers and a stack of superb vintages have combined to guarantee many great-value new wines. JAMES LAWTHER MW visits.

It’s been a favourite of wine lovers for years, and now Châteauneuf-du-Pape is producing better wines than ever before. Dynamic young producers and a stack of superb vintages have combined to guarantee many great-value new wines. JAMES LAWTHER MW visits.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape has slipped slowly and softly into a new, more positive era. The Rhône’s largest – with 3,000ha (hectares) of vineyard – and most famous cru hasn’t always lived up to its reputation, but recent years have shown a definite progression. This can be attributed to a string of very good vintages from 1998 with a blip in 2002, and better vineyard management and winemaking techniques. Previously lacklustre domaines add new interest, as do the variations that can now be found in the style of the wine.

Grenache remains the principal of Châteauneuf’s 13 permitted grape varieties to the tune of 70%, providing the classic profile of warmth, generosity and power. Syrah and Mourvèdre have edged up to 10% and 7% respectively, adding colour, aroma and structure. Thereafter producers use a ‘seasoning’ of the other varieties.

The most significant technical transformation has been the gradual acceptance of destemming as a regular if not universal practice. The benefits have been a greater expression of fruit and flavour in the young wines and less grating tannic rusticity on the palate.

Another important change has been the gradual replacement of old barrels. The large oak foudre remains the traditional form for ageing, but producers are also introducing newer foudres and wooden vats (for fermentation and ageing), barriques (225 and 228 litres) and demi-muids (600 litres). These have brought greater precision to the wines and, in certain instances (and not to everyone’s taste), the appearance of new oak in the flavour profile.

There are a number of styles now apparent in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. So-called traditional Châteauneuf is made from a good percentage of Grenache aged for up to 24 months in vat and/or foudre. A certain volume is bland, and often finds its way into négociants’ blends. At its rustic best, as at the Clos du Mont-Olivet, it is light in colour, warm with a nuance of sweet red fruits and slightly earthy tannic structure.

Better still are the wines that embrace the principles of traditional Châteauneuf (no destemming, long ageing in foudres) but have a drastically improved quality of fruit from old vines, lower yields and more efficient vineyard practices. Wines in this style are worked in the cellar to ensure greater depth and concentration and a firm structure for long ageing. Glowing examples are Domaine Bois de Boursan (Jean-Paul Versino), Le Vieux Donjon and Bosquet des Papes.

Other producers pursue a style that could be termed modern traditionalist. In other words, they take a similar approach but the grapes are entirely or partially destemmed, and a mix of foudres and barriques used for ageing over a shorter period of time. The fruit becomes more pronounced and there’s perhaps greater elegance and suavity of texture. Domaine de la Janasse and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe would be examples of this style.

Finally, the modernist style sees a higher percentage of new oak and often an increased proportion of (barrique-aged) Syrah. The wines, as seen at the Domaine de la Mordorée and Château de la Gardine, are darker hued, rich, ripe with an overlay of creamy, chocolatey oak.

There is also a vogue at present, stimulated by the influence of Robert Parker’s notes and scores, for limited-edition special cuvées. These are either made in the modernist fashion or from selected parcels of old-vine Grenache produced in a modern traditional way. Some merit the higher price, displaying a rare intensity of fruit, flavour and ageing potential; others lack the necessary excellence, their existence a detriment to the regular cuvée.

Wine styles also vary with the vintage and the last two releases have been diametrically opposed. After a string of really great years from 1998 to 2001, the heavens opened during the harvest in 2002 to dire effect. A deluge of 600mm of rain in two days destroyed much of the crop and diluted what was recoverable. Top producers have made a valiant effort but the wines are light and fruity and for consumption over the next couple of years.

In 2003 it was the opposite, with excessive heat and drought. The vines, especially the Syrah, suffered stress. Producers needed the patience to avoid picking early, which would have resulted in green tannins. Alcohol degrees are high and the critical challenge was producing balanced wines. The successful wines are good and long ageing, in a heavy, powerful style with less finesse than 2001. Waiting in the wings is a potentially very good 2004.

Châteauneuf’s tiny volume of white wine (just 6% of production) has also improved. The blends, a permutation of the six permitted varieties (Clairette, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Picardan, Picpoul, Roussanne), vary considerably, but cleaner winemaking, the use of newer barrels for fermentation and ageing on the lees have added another dimension. Acidity is always low but the wines have a curious ability to age, taking on a minerally nuance after five or six years.

Looking at the leading producers, it is encouraging to see a youthful group, male and female, moving to the fore. Often the parents produced and sold wine in bulk, whereas the younger generation has introduced or increased bottling at the domaine. Consequently, there is a growing number of less familiar names of interest.

Politically the situation is still a little Clochemerle-esque, with two opposing syndicats, the Fédération des Producteurs and the Syndicat Intercommunal. It’s interesting to note that both use a version of Châteauneuf’s famous, heavy embossed bottle – the former with a papal tiara and crossed keys, the latter a bishop’s mitre. One or two domaines (Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes) use their own embossed signature.

Key Players

There are 300 domaines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, of which these

are a very personal selection of the best.

Chateau de Beaucastel

The wines of this emblematic estate, admirably run by the owning Perrin family, are inimitable. Dark, rich, firm and structured with a nuance of laurel and thyme, they age for 20–30 years. All 13 varieties are cultivated at the 100ha, organically managed (since 1964) vineyard, with Mourvèdre (30%) and Counoise (15%) given particular prominence at the expense of Grenache (30%). The grapes are destemmed and flash heated before fermentation and the wines aged in oak foudres. In exceptional years the Mourvèdre-based cuvée, Hommage à Jacques Perrin, is produced. The whites, too, are excellent, particularly the sumptuous Roussanne Vieilles Vignes.

Clos des Papes

‘We look for harmony and balance,’ says owner-winemaker Vincent Avril. In this respect his father, Paul, started planting more Syrah and Mourvèdre as far back as 1976 and the proportions are now 10% and 20% respectively with Grenache reduced to 65%. Another important consideration is that the vineyard (with all 13 varieties) comprises 24 parcels dotted throughout the appellation. ‘There can be a 10-day delay in ripeness between the different sites,’ explains Avril. The vineyard management and winemaking is meticulous, the wines aged initially in concrete vats and then for a year in old oak foudres. There’s just one red wine and one white, representing 10% of the production and made from all six white varieties.

Chateau Rayas

Rayas is the exception to the rule that rich, complex, long-ageing wines cannot be made uniquely from Grenache. The secret is very old, ridiculously low-yielding (15hl/ha) vines grown on cooler sand and clay soils rather than the classic stony galets roulés. The ripening cycle is longer and the grapes harvested later. The winemaking is traditional. A fat, floral white Rayas is made from Grenache Blanc and Clairette. Emmanuel Reynaud has achieved greater consistency since taking over from his eccentric uncle, Jacques, in 1997.

Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe

The Brunier brothers, Frédéric and Daniel, have over the years made this estate the benchmark for modern traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Gently aromatic with notes of spice and red fruits, the palate is at once powerful and assertive but with a fine tannic structure, accessible when young but with ageing potential. A conscientious approach in the vineyard, up to 15% each of old-vine (40 years) Syrah and Mourvèdre, old Grenache (60 years), part destemming and ageing in foudres, form the essential part of work practices. Fruit from the young vines goes into the domaine’s second label, Vieux Mas des Papes. The soft, full-bodied but aromatic white is partially vinifed and aged in barrel.

Domaine Bois de Boursan

This estate has leapt to prominence over the last 10 years under the guiding hand of owner-winemaker Jean-Paul Versino. The wines have a perfect note of ripeness, seductive dark cherry aroma, suavity on the palate, power, freshness and length. The winemaking is traditional (no destemming, certain grape varieties vinified together, old vertical press, ageing in foudres) and complements the exceptional quality of fruit. This comes from 27 parcels of old (40–100 years), low-yielding vines distributed around the appellation. Grenache represents 65% of the blend, and Syrah and Mourvèdre 15% each. The more structured, longer-ageing Cuvée des Félix has a greater percentage of Mourvèdre and is aged in old barriques.

Domaine de la Janasse

Grenache is the dominant grape variety at Janasse with up to 80% in the regular wine, 90% in the Vieilles Vignes and 100% (a parcel dating from 1912) in the Cuvée Chaupin. The pitfalls of the variety (rusticity, heavy alcohol, oxidation) are avoided by low yields, and the skilful winemaking of Christophe Sabon provides rich, full, textured wines with a certain aromatic finesse and balance. The winemaking is modern traditional with the grapes partially destemmed, and ageing is in a mix of oak barrels and foudres.

Domaine de Marcoux

Sisters Catherine and Sophie Armenier have run this biodynamically cultivated estate since 1995, taking over from their brother Philippe who initially built the reputation. The Grenache-dominated reds are spicy, rich and intense with a chalky freshness on the finish. The powerfully explosive Vieilles Vignes comes from 70- to 100-year-old vines and is aged in cement vats (the regular wine in a mix of oak barrels). Low yields are again a major factor in quality, the grapes being destemmed according to the vintage. The soft, peachy aromatic white made from Roussanne and Bourboulenc is one of the best in the appellation and ages well.

Chateau La Nerthe

The wines of this impressive (90ha) and ancient (1560) estate are modernist in style but without excess and always with precision. The property has been totally overhauled since its purchase by the Ricard family in 1985 and the arrival of Alain Dugas as manager. All 13 varieties are cultivated, with the Grenache reduced to 55% and Syrah and Mourvèdre weighing in at 18% and 20% respectively. The grapes are completely destemmed and ageing takes place in a mix of vat, foudres and barrel. A touch of new oak is apparent in the young wines. The Cuvée des Cadettes is a special bottling of red while in white there is a regular cuvée and the Clos de Beauvenir.

New faces

Châteauneuf’s reputation rests with its established stars. Few outsiders venture into the appellation, and so transformation has to come from within. These are a handful of the names worth keeping an eye on

Domaine Charvin

Laurent Charvin lives the life of a vigneron passionately. He is the sixth generation at the estate but until he took over in 1990, aged 21, the wines were virtually all sold in bulk. Bottled wines have been a serious proposition since 1995, the style powerful, exuberant, grippy and traditional in concept. Old-vine Grenache forms the heart of the single red wine from parcels dotted around the appellation. ‘Châteauneuf has always been a blended wine, not just of grape varieties but of the different terroirs as well,’ he says. There’s no destemming and the wines are fermented and aged in cement tanks. ‘Grenache is oxidative and unsuited to oak ageing,’ he adds. Tel: +33 4 90 34 41 10

Domaine de Ferrand

The story is similar at Domaine de Ferrand, Philippe Bravay taking over from his father in 1995 and increasing the production of bottled wines. The single red cuvée, produced from 70- to 100-year-old Grenache (95%) is powerful and concentrated with a creamy, summer fruit character. Destemming depends on the vintage. ‘I destemmed in 2003 and 2004 as they were two hot, parched years and I wanted to avoid the possibility of tough, dry tannins,’ he explains. Ageing is partly in tank ‘to keep the red fruit character’ and partly in one-year-old barrels ‘for the added complexity of aroma this can bring’. Tel: +33 4 90 34 26 06

Domaine Raymond Usseglio

The arrival of son Stéphane at the helm in 2000 and investment in the cellars, has brought positive change at Raymond Usseglio. Stéphane’s fine tuning has given greater expression to the fruit and added concentration and finesse. The grapes are partly destemmed, varieties vinified together (a vintage with Jean-Paul Versino of Bois de Boursan inspired this), and the wines aged in both foudres and cement vats. ‘We now vinify according to the terroir,’ he declares. There’s a regular cuvée (75% Grenache, 10% each Syrah and Mourvèdre), old vine Cuvée Impériale (90% Grenache) and improving white. Tel: +33 4 90 83 71 85

Domaine de Cristia

It’s been a slightly rocky ride since Baptiste Grangeon and his sister Dominique took over the family domaine. Their first vintage, the 1999, had to be recalled because of cork contamination. The 2000 was still a period of transition. Then, with the 2001 spot on, the 2002 brought rain and dilution. The 2003 and 2004 wines show positive progression with a defining style. ‘Our vines (80% Grenache) are mainly on clay and sand so we are looking for finesse,’ says Baptiste. The grapes are destemmed and flash heated ‘à la Beaucastel’. Baptiste discarded the old foudres and now uses one-, two- and three-year-old barrels. Depending on the vintage, fruit from old vines is either assembled with the regular wine or separated into the Cuvée Renaissance. Tel: +33 4 90 70 24 09

Domaine Guiraud

François and Marie Guiraud are another brother and sister team who have turned from bulk to bottling at the family domaine. Their arrival in 1998 precipitated further investment in the cellars (Châteauneuf’s former distillery) and new equipment. The Grenache-dominated wines (Syrah represents 20%, and Mourvèdre is being planted) are rich and textured and in a modern traditional style. The grapes are destemmed and given a long period of maceration before ageing in tank for the Grenache and barrels for the Syrah. ‘We may eventually consider demi-muids for the Grenache,’ says Marie. In 2003 the special cuvée Les Gallimardes was assembled with the regular wine giving more structure and length. Hopefully this move will continue in the future. Tel: +33 4 90 83 73 49

BEST wines of 2003

The following were the pick (minimum 4 stars) of the 2003 vintage at tastings held in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in November 2004. The regular cuvées were tasted separately from the special cuvées and are listed apart.

Regular cuvees

Château de Beaucastel

Dense, firm, upright. Layers of fruit in a solid tannic frame. Great vivacity and length. 2010–2020.

£35-36.60 (2001); Adn, BRW, Tan

Clos des Papes

Fabulous expression of fruit. Kirsch aroma with a note of liquorice. Powerful but balanced. Firm, square structure. 2007–2018. £250 (case 12, in bond); Gns

Le Vieux Donjon

Big, brooding, packed with dark/red fruit, notes of cherry and cassis. Rich, powerful and concentrated. Imposing structure. Long finish. 2007–2018. £26 (2001); Yap

Domaine Bois de Boursan

Ripe, lifted aromatic nose, notes of black cherry and kirsch. Palate firm, powerful, assertive. Good ageing potential. 2007–2017.

£13.50–17.99 (2001); Adn, Arm, J&B, Lay

Domaine Charvin

Powerful, chewy, balanced. Notes of spice and dark fruits. Full, round and concentrated on the palate. Freshness and length on the finish. 2007–2016.

£21.95 (2001/2); VTr

Domaine Duclaux

Lovely, aromatic pitch of cherry ripe fruit. Smooth, elegant style. Long, clean, fresh finish. 2006–2014.

£16.99 (2001); Vir

Domaine de Ferrand

Creamy, strawberry aroma. Just on the confit side of ripeness. Rich and full flavoured, chewy, fresh finish. Quite powerful, serious wine. 2007–2015.

£16.50 (2001/2002); VTr

Domaine de la Janasse

Aromatic, lots of red fruit, full, smooth and textured, firm structure, ageing potential. 2006–2015.

£24.95 (2002); EnW, WCr

Domaine Paul Autard

Modern style. Supple, confit, mouthfilling. Lots of matière. Toasted oak apparent but integrated. Firm finish. 2007–2016.

£20.52 (2000); Bib

Domaine Pierre Usseglio

Good weight, length and depth. Traditional style. Quite powerful. Notes of kirsch and macerated fruits. 2006–2015. £17.95 (2001); Gau

Domaine Raymond Usseglio

Elegant red fruit, a note of kirsch, round and harmonious, firm but fine tannins. 2006–2015. £15.75 (2001); BRW

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe

Imposing wine. Dense, finely textured then powerful, tannic finish. 2007–2016.

£198 (case 12, in bond); L&W

SPECIAL cuvees

Domaine Bois de Boursan,

Cuvée des Félix

Succulent, dark fruit combined with an imposing but ripe tannic structure. Fresh and long on the finish with a real note of minerally terroir. Superb. 2008–2020. £29.50 (2001); Adn

Château Fortia, Cuvée de Baron

Similar to the regular cuvée but with more extract and structure. Beautiful pitch of black cherry ripeness. Rich, smooth texture. Again powerful but refined. 2007–2018.

£48 (2001); Cbt, Hal

Domaine de Marcoux,

Vieilles Vignes

Powerful wine, deep colour, reserved and intense. Loads of sweet extract. Liquorice notes, perception of oak but this is completely tank aged! Long ageing potential. 2007–2020.

£595 (case 12, in bond); Gns

BEST VALUES

Trying hard not to break the £15 mark, the following are the best-value wines from the 2003 vintage, in general from reliable estates

regular cuvees

Château Fortia

The best Fortia in years and great value. Powerful but elegant style. Lively nose of macerated red fruits with a hint of orange zest. Super ripe fruit on the palate, a glow of alcohol but balanced. 2006–2015. £12.95 (2001); Ave, Cbt, Hal

Domaine des Relagnes

£10/bottle at the current exchange rate so excellent value. Traditional style. Plenty of extract. Powerful and firm with a solid tannic frame. 2006–2012.

h14.20; N/A UK +33 4 90 83 73 37

Domaine de la Roquette

Same ownership as Vieux Télégraphe. New cellars in 1998. Fine rather than powerful but with density and balance. 2005–2014. £12.60 (2001); L&W

Bastide Saint Dominique

Gentle, accessible wine. Lots of good fruit. Aromas of red fruit and garrigue. Palate gourmand with fine, rounded tannins. 2005–2012. £15 (2001); HoF, WPf

Domaine Chante Cigale

Traditional. Strawberry/red fruit aroma. Soft, plummy texture. Quite powerful. Little alcohol. Firm finish. 2006–2014.

£15.75 (2000); BoW, EnW, Yap

Domaine Chante-Perdrix

Consistent and reliable. Round, generous and aromatic. A tannic nip to the finish. 2005–2012. £10.76 (2001); CWi

Clos Saint Michel

Aromatic Burgundian raspberry-cherry fruit aroma and flavour. Soft, round texture but firmness on the finish. Good balance. 2005–2010. £11.99 (2002); Wai

Domaine Cristia

Plenty of sweet fruit. Notes of macerated dark fruits. Supple but with a firm structure. 2006–2014. £14.99; Lai

Domaine de Saint Paul

Very Grenache. Strawberry-raspberry aroma and flavour. Fine, nuanced style, good balance and structure. Elegance rather than power. 2005–2012. h13.25; N/A UK +33 490 83 70 28

Domaine des Sénéchaux

Traditional but in a modern guise. Big, round and supple. Plenty of creamy red fruit. Glow of alcohol on the finish. 2006–2012. £14.55 (2002); Lay, You

Domaine de la Solitude

Clean, round and smooth. Quite rich extract. Modern traditional style. Touch of new oak but not excessive. 2006–2014. £13.95 (2001); Ave

SPECIAL cuvee

Domaine de la Charbonnière, Mourre des Perdrix

Great value for a special cuvée. Accent on the fruit. Fine, ripe pitch. Cherry, blueberry notes. Lovely balance. 2007-2016. £20.25 (2001); GWW

Janes Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.

Written by James Lawther MW