Correct me if I’m wrong, but Châteauneuf du Pape doesn’t seem to be a very fashionable wine these days. I don’t know why that is: Name too long? Wine thought to be too big? Too rough? Made with the wrong grapes for current trends? All of the above? Whatever the reasons, it’s a shame, because Châteauneuf is, and has been for a long time, a reliably elegant wine, capable of aging long and gracefully, and wonderfully adaptable with food of all sorts. I have always loved Châteauneuf du Pape for both those qualities: Many decades ago it was a 15-year-old bottle of Château Fortia that first taught me about the glories of sun-toasted southern wines.
This was all brought back to me forcefully about two weeks ago, when Diane indulged ourselves and some friends in a dinner of marcassin, braised young boar, for which occasion I dug out of the deep recesses of my ancient baronial cellar two bottles of 1998 Domaine de la Solitude.
Domaine de la Solitude has suffered its vicissitudes. One of the most historic estates in the whole appellation, it has been continuously producing wine since the beginning of the 17th century, and was actually one of the first estates in France to bottle its own wine, before even Lafite, though neither it nor its zone has ever acquired the prestige of the Bordeaux estates.
The whole area of southeastern France was among the earliest to be cursed with the plague of phylloxera, which devastated the local economy and from which it only slowly recovered. For many years, Châteauneuf and neighboring areas were thought of as producing only rough country wines, most of which were consumed locally or shipped north to Burgundy to give some heft to the often pusillanimous red wines of that region. The practice was so common, that hermitagiser became a widespread euphemism for it (and also palliated the adulteration of those wines with less honorific liquors).
Things began to change for Châteauneuf du Pape during the 1920s, when the almost legendary Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié of Château Fortia organized many local vignerons to protect the integrity of their wines – and, not coincidentally, to command more respect and a commensurately better price for them. The group drew up a list of regulations for Châteauneuf du Pape that later became the model for all of France’s subsequent AOC legislation.
With some small modifications, those regulations still govern the making of Châteauneuf du Pape. Thirteen grape varieties are permitted in the blend. These include Mourvèdre and Syrah, as well as lesser known varieties such as Picpoul, Cinsault, and Counoise; but far and away the most important grape is Grenache, which in the opinion of many achieves its greatest heights in Châteauneuf. Grenache has at times constituted almost 90% of the blend from some estates. More usual is something in the neighborhood of 60%; anything as low as 40% is uncommon, but it does occur. Domaine de la Solitude’s blend has tended to run around 60% Grenache, with the balance being Mourvèdre and Syrah and a small amount of Cinsault.
At the wild boar dinner that triggered this mental excursion to southern France, we opened two bottles of 17-year-old Domaine de la Solitude about two or three hours before serving them. While both were thoroughly enjoyable, the marked differences between the two provided a vivid lesson about bottle variation in older wines. The first bottle we poured had one of the loveliest aromas I’ve encountered in any wine: fresh, with distinct floral notes intermingled with wild berries and forest underbrush, the whole package delicate and persistent – so much so that several of us spent a long time just sniffing before we ever got around to tasting.
When we did, the wine on the palate was not as ethereal as the wine on the nose. It tasted rounder and more robust than the aroma suggested, less nuanced – though to preserve my reputation with our guests, it interacted very well indeed with the richness and savoriness of the boar.
The second bottle lacked the magical aromas of the first: It was more straightforward and more mature-smelling. Nevertheless, on the palate it seemed slightly fresher and a little bigger than the first bottle, and it too matched quite comfortably with the last tastes of boar and the first tastes of the cheeses that followed. The differences between the two bottles and how one could possibly account for them also provided food for a good deal of (fairly farfetched) speculation and amusement. That, of course, is one of the great charms not just of Châteauneuf du Pape, but any good wine.