April 4 2012 12:00 AM

To truly enjoy Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, drink them before they become too old


The Southern River Rhone Valley region in Southeast France is home to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, where some of the world’s great red wine is grown. Thanks to hot summers and strong winds, the rocky soils absorb heat by day and gradually release the heat to the grapes during the cool nights. Typically, the wines are bright, rich, and deep, made in a style that minimizes oak influence, if oak is used at all. 

Up to nine red grape varieties can legally be grown in the appellation. Red Châteauneuf-du-Pape always consists of a blend of several varieties, usually focusing upon Grenache as the predominant grape in the blend, with Syrah and Mourvèdre in the second and third spots. Grenache contributes a ripe, red berry, jammy component to the wine, while the Syrah adds depth and complexity. The Mourvèdre adds even more intense color and a tannic backbone. The finished product can be berry-like, or it can emphasize herbal, forest floor, barnyard-y characteristics (but in a good way).

Châteauneuf-du-Pape (hereinafter “CdP”) wines are known to age well, which brings us to the central theme of this column.

During hosted wine tastings, some of the most frequent questions posed to presenters are “what is the cellar life?”or “how long will it age?” Of course, predicting the future is difficult in any circumstance, but particularly difficult when predicting the evolution of a living beverage that may be subject to an array of good and bad events while in the bottle.

During a recent tasting, our group put to the test the aging characteristics of several CdP wines purchased upon release and maintained in temperature and humidity controlled conditions for more than a decade. The results may be instructive for wine aficionados interested in putting bottles down for a few years.

Our group started the tasting of “mature” wines by opening two white CdP wines, a 1998 Domaine du Pégau and a 1999 Domaine Bois de Boursan. The likelihood that virtually any white wine would be drinkable at age 13 or 14 is almost anathema to most modern white wine winemaking techniques, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that these wines were drinkable, albeit way past peak. That they were drinkable at all probably is a testament to the quality of the fruit, the acidity and the structure. CdP white wine grapes are mostly unknown to Americans, and include Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Clairette and Picpoul. 

The white wines definitely showed bottle variation. The ‘98 Pégau was amber in color, with overtones of roasted nuts and vanilla. It still had depth of flavor, but some tasters felt that the wine was simply “gone.” The ’99 Boursan had a tangy edge, with almost a Sauvignon Blanc character on the back palate, reflecting good acidity. But the enjoyment of these older wines was more academic than hedonistic.

Seven red CdPs were sampled. When red wines are completely over the hill, they tend to lose color, develop a browning characteristic, and sometimes become sour and devoid of fruit. This group of CdPs managed to maintain medium ruby color, without too much browning, although certainly there was bottle variation (different characteristics from bottle to bottle of the same wine), which tends to become more prevalent as wines age.

The two favorite CdPs were both from Domaine du Pégau. The 1996 had a full, complex bouquet, still showing evidence of fresh fruit, herb flavors, a smoky character, and just a bit of a sharp edge on the mid palate. Although losing the fruit of its youth, it was holding together well.

The 1998 Pégau demonstrated its relative youth by displaying more fruit, a greater intensity of lingering tannins and an herbal nose. This wine was in balance and still has life ahead of it.

The third favorite of the group, 1998 Domaine Raymond Usseglio, was from another well-known and reputable producer.  For many, this was the favorite, and for others it was the favorite until they tasted the Pégau. Displaying nice acid balance, herbal nose, and a minerally, earthy, dark fruit presentation, it was holding together well. Also in the running with votes as favorite wine were 1998 Domaine St. Benoit and 1998 Domaine Charvin.

To some, the St. Benoit was clean, balanced, somewhat subdued, and continued to preserve some fruit and tannin, but showed a drying finish consistent with its age. For others, the St. Benoit was flat, stinky, and just plain gone— highlighting bottle variation and demonstrating what can happen over time as wines age. The Charvin maintained some tannic structure, suggesting that it still had life left, and demonstrated a clean, balanced finish. Votes dropped off significantly for the 1998 Domaine Roger Perrin and the 1998 Domaine de la Charbonniére, reflecting their loss of character and fruit.

So what are the takeaways? Most wines are made to be enjoyed earlier in their life cycles, perhaps even as soon as one arrives home from the wine shop. Wines made to have long cellar life, particularly those with concentrated fruit and dominant tannic structure, can develop appealing additional nuances and complexity over time. But the point where a wine reaches peak is not only difficult to predict — until opening the bottle — but is also subject to an individual’s perceptions and palate.

These wines were certainly enjoyable and tasting them was an interesting educational experience. My two cents: If you have bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the cellar that were produced in the last century, drink ‘em up.

In Vino Veritas

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)