If you listed France’s great red wines in order of prestige, Châteauneuf du Pape would probably come in last. It is unquestionably a great wine, and it’s long been one of my favorites, but it just doesn’t get much respect. From the canny consumer’s point of view, that’s great: It keeps the prices from soaring into the stratosphere with Bordeaux and Burgundy and the two darlings of the south, Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. But from the point of view of justice, it’s irksome: Châteauneuf deserves better.
This little effusion was prompted by a lovely bottle of ’98 Vieux Télégraphe La Crau that Diane and I broke out a few nights ago to accompany a broiled butterflied leg of lamb and some fresh chanterelles. Yes, it’s that time of year: The summer-fruiting chanterelles are in, the temperature is high, and the cooking is simple. But simple cooking doesn’t mean you have to drink lesser wines; a grilled leg of lamb will partner happily with the best reds in whatever passes for your cellar. Ergo, the Vieux Télégraphe. As fine wines will, this one prompted not just that fit of indignation on its behalf but also a bit of nostalgia that led in turn to reminiscences of its kin and to memories of my long involvement with Châteauneuf du Pape.
Like almost everyone of my generation, I learned wine on French wine – and for too long a time, that meant Bordeaux and Burgundy almost exclusively. There was so much to know there, and so much to enjoy, that I was slow to move out to other parts of France and the world. At about the same time I was learning that there’s more to Italy than simple Chianti and Soave Bolla, I began to discover the south of France, and especially Châteauneuf du Pape, which in those dark days was one of the few wines from anywhere along the Rhône that found its way to the US.
It was probably a Château Fortia that started my love affair with Châteauneuf. Memory tells me that Fortia was one of the most readily available Châteauneufs then, and one of the most important estates in France because of its proprietor’s major role in the creation of the whole French wine appellation system.
Baron Le Roy Boiseaumairié, a Norman and a WWI fighter pilot who married into the Rhône estate, led the local fight against fraudulent wine (some things are always with us) and formed a consortium that formulated the basic rules for what goes into Châteauneuf and how it’s vinified. Later, he led the national commission that established similar regulations for France’s other wine zones. And all the while, he continued to make excellent wine at Château Fortia.
Forty or more years ago, that wine tasted of summer to me – sunbaked, in a totally attractive, travel-poster way: dark and vinous, with a hint of raisins and a deep plums-turning-into-prunes flavor that seemed to demand strong meats and stinky cheeses – which, I quickly found out, Châteauneuf responded to as to long-lost friends. How could you not like this wine? Everything about it was redolent of where it came from. Just smelling it conjured up images of tanned, gnarled farmers under a brilliant clear sky tending equally gnarled vines on rocky, arid fields. So strong was the impression that I resolved to go as soon as possible and see for myself.
I don’t know now whether I really envisaged all that before I actually got to the Rhône valley, or whether the rocks and sun that I saw when I arrived seemed so right that I persuaded myself I had foreseen it. It really doesn’t matter. The sun-dazzling, almost cobbled vineyards of Châteauneuf du Pape looked to my mind exactly like what the wine tasted like: Here was gout de terroir as concentrated and true as any wine lover could wish.
In those days of yore, there was, alas, a large downside to that wonderful sunscape. Very few hotels in southern France had air conditioning, and the few that did were very reluctant to turn it on (“It is not yet the season, M’sieur”). I remember a ghastly night in Avignon when, forced to leave the windows open because of the heat, our room was invaded by the vampires of the Rhône, mosquitoes as big as WWII fighter planes and guided, I firmly believed, by the vengeful souls of downed Luftwaffe pilots. I grew up near the New Jersey meadows (not then The Meadowlands), and I know from mosquitoes. When Diane and I went down to breakfast next morning, having donated as much blood as the insect hordes could carry, we looked like plague victims, dotted with buboes and swellings. We had to drink a lot of Châteauneuf that week to rebuild our blood supply.
Happily, the mosquitoes were not the only ones who dined well in Avignon. There were several very fine restaurants there, and the cuisine was still classique. One in particular, Hiély Lucullus, stands out in memory both for superb food and for allowing me to say one of the few clever things I’ve ever managed in French. If the cuisine was still classique, and so were the attitudes. Consequently, not a person in France could be persuaded to understand a single syllable that came from my mouth. And since no one then would deign to understand English, Diane, whose French is good, usually spoke for us. But at Hiély, I attempted to order for myself, and what I ordered was Pieds et Paquets, a lamb knuckle accompanied by a neat little package of lamb tripes.
The waitress was extremely dubious, and asked me – in French of course – if I knew what I had asked for. I replied, in the very best French I could muster, that although I spoke French very badly, I ate French very well. She was dumbfounded – clearly, this possibility had never occurred to her (nor, to be just, to anyone else in France at that time). She gave us very attentive service for the rest of the evening – which by way, contained another fine bottle of Châteauneuf.
Much has changed in France since then: cuisine, attitudes, and wines. There are now more producers of fine Châteauneuf than ever, and most of the wine is better made – more consistent from harvest to harvest, more elegant, less rustic: more modern I guess you’d say (though that’s not always a good thing). Except for one or two superstar producers (you won’t find their names here), Châteauneuf is still reasonably priced, still rewards aging, and still tastes deeply of the South. Maybe it’s not as raisiny anymore, but it still sincerely loves strong meats (especially long-stewed ones) and stinky cheeses, and its generous bosom happily makes room too for a nice piece of broiled lamb. Just don’t forget the chanterelles, if you can get them. Nostalgia is all well and good, but mushrooms are of the moment.