“This Châteauneuf du Pape estate has been at the top of its game for many years and any partisan of Rhone Valley wines who has not yet tried a wine from Domaine Roger Sabon should make every effort to do so.” -Robert Parker
It has been said by certain friends that I know and respect, regarding their opinions on all things related to wine, that Grenache based wines, particularly Châteauneuf du Pape fall flat when tasted on their own merits. I happen to not share that opinion, and in fact, feel quite the opposite about these fantastic wines. The purpose of this wineblog is to provide a top ten list of reasons why I like these wines so much.
1) The vineyards have Rocks (galets roules- which reflect sunlight to the under surface of the vines during the day, and warmth into the vines throughout the night), the vineyards also consist of stone, limestone, sand, and clay. These are miserable conditions for growing anything except for grapes. Fortunately, they are fantastic for growing wine grapes.
2) Some of the oldest vines in all of Europe are in the southern Rhone. Most of the vines in all other regions of France were planted after World War Two. Even in burgundy, the growers say that the average effective life span for Pinot Noir is 60-80 years. For Grenache, it is a different story all together. These old, 100 plus year old, vines give low yields (two tons hectare – about one ton per acre), which increase the phenolic compounds and skin tannins, and contribute to the varietal’s character and flavor.
3) The Mediterranean climate, combined with Rhone river influences, and mistral winds, which achieve 60-70 mph, for more than 100 days per year, remove excess water, insects and disease. The wine professionals say that Grenache grows best when it grows in a stressed fashion within its region. The Southern Rhone is located at the absolute northern region for its more traditional Spanish growing latitude. Grenache doesn’t do well growing even one hour father north in the Northern Rhone, and this also contributes to the unique character of Rhone Grenache.
4) 100% Grenache wines can be too alcoholic, too pale in color, and too low in acidity. The balance often is off and the wines can feel flabby and poorly structured. This is a common problem with Spanish Garnacha wines, which are usually 100% single varietal. The Rhone valley is one of the few places in France where the grapes can fully ripen year after year- this great weather helps improve the weak spots for Grenache based wines. The great Provence weather has produced a decade long string of great to exceptional years in the Rhone.
5) All the varietals are grown in head prune fashion (goblet style), except for Syrah and Mourvèdre, which are trellised (more fragile and so the grapes don’t touch the ground). The reason for this is multifactorial. This growing technique is old. Millennia old. This is the way all vines were grown at one time. It is nice to retain some history in wine making. Next, this goblet style of vine management can resist the Mistral winds more effectively than traditional trellising. The vines have to combat significant wind each year for a significant part of their growing cycle. It has been shown that there can be a 5-10% loss of vine canopy due to wind, and the goblet style seems to curb that loss. Next, there is a lot of sun in the Rhone. The goblet style seems to keep the grapes shaded for a greater part of each day, over and above what trellising can do. Finally, the stalk of these old Grenache vines get quite thick- much thicker than Syrah vines, and the vines have seemed to well tolerate this form of growing over the centuries.
6) Châteauneuf du Pape blends are what make the wines. Officially, there are thirteen grape variables that can make up these wines, although the locals here say there are actually eighteen. The primary three are Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre. Syrah for smoothness and acidity, Mourvèdre for tannic backbone and elegance. Grenache gives a depth, fruitiness, and richness. The other red varieties allowed are Cinsault, Counoise, Muscardin, Piquepoul noir, Terret noir, and Vaccarèse (Brun Argenté). White and pink varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette blanche, Picardan, Piquepoul blanc, Piquepoul gris, and Roussanne. (The varieties not specifically mentioned before 2009 are Clairette rose, Grenache gris and Piquepoul gris). These red wines can actually contain up to 20% white wine varietals! This is especially true in years with lower acidity in the Grenache grapes. All these varietals are the winemaker’s spice rack. And even though Chateau de Beaucastle is the only one that regularly uses ALL of them in each wine they make, the artistic license given to the winemaker in this region is unique in all of France.
7) The vinified Grenache juice is aged in Foudres (large extra thick wooden containers that hold 60 hectoliters- 1600 gallons); Syrah and Mourvèdre are aged in new oak. The reason for this is that Grenache is highly susceptible to the negative effects of oxygenation (even the micro oxygenation that occurs through traditional barrels. The Rhone winemakers have figured this out, and account for it with their winemaking techniques. These Foudres are amazing to look at in the caves!
8) There is no cooler bottle than these bottles with their Châteauneuf du Pape contrôlée embossed seal above the label. It is the only style of wine I can think of that has a mandated bottle designation on it.
9) These wines taste amazing! Grenache contributes a preserved fruit raspberry jam flavor. The Syrah brings color, acid and spice, and the Mouvedre- backbone and elegance to complete its structure. Aging these wines bring an earthiness with old leather and notes of tar. It is undeniable! The complexity of these wines is present even in younger vintages.
We had an amazing tasting in Châteauneuf du Pape at Chateau Roger Sabon, who can trace their winemaking roots to 1542. We had the tasting in the cave among the Foudres. They produce four award winning red Châteauneuf du Papes, and one white. The first is called Olivets, and is made principally of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. The second is their reserve, and is made from the same three as Olivets, but with a lower percent of Grenache. The third is called Prestige and was my favorite. This one adds a significant amount (10%) of Mouvedre, and assorted other varietals, and consistently scores in the mid 90s for Wine Spectator magazine. The first word that comes to mind when I sampled it was opulence. Their top of the line is called Le Secret de Sabon, and is simply a rock star. We didn’t get to taste it because it is made in such small quantities, but James Mollesworth gave the 2011 a 99 rating. Needless to say, I am bringing several bottles of this one, and also the 2007, home with me – to drink in a decade or two. Don’t worry, I am bringing plenty of the Prestige home as well.
10) There is the existence of the Rhone Rangers in California. The Rhone Rangers are a group of winemakers who created a non-profit organization to promote the Rhone varietals in America. The group includes around 200 winery members (including wineries such as Martinelli, Tablas Creek, Ridge and Landmark), 110 professional growers, and over 2,000 supporters who have the common attribute of loving the wine varietals that originate in the Rhone.
There are many more things I could say about the fine wines of Châteauneuf du Pape, but I have rambled on long enough. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and like with the wines from Bourgogne, Châteauneuf du Pape will win all naysayers over by drinking these harmonious, herbal wines of freshness, dark fruits and great structure.