Châteauneuf-du-Pape – Pick of the Year

If there’s one name in Rhône wine that immediately strikes a chord with the public it’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Other wines from the region may be more expensive, but it’s Châteauneuf that the visitors most want to see.

High Street, Chateaueuf-du-Pape

High Street, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. On a busy day.

I’m in the fortunate position of working with four excellent estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape – in alphabetical order, Domaine Galévan, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Roger Sabon and Domaine de Saint Siffrein. Janasse and Sabon are the most famous – if you look at Wine Spectator’s list of the best CdP’s, they’re always there – but I’m happy to say that all “my” estates make great wine. (After all, why else would I want to work with them?)

I also taste wines from lots of other producers. And that’s how I know that, sadly, not every bottle with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape label is worthy of the name or its price. In too many cases, you would be better off spending less and buying a top quality Côtes-du-Rhône. But when it’s good, there’s not much that can compare with a CdP, so here’s my pick of what I tasted this year.

Let’s start with the producers I work with. Here are my selections from their ranges:

Domaine Galévan – the white Côtes du Rhône 2013 and red Côtes du Rhône Villages 2011 are amazing value for money, but the two red CdPs and the one white are exceptional.

Coralie Goumarre in the doorway of her cellar at Domaine Galevan.

Coralie Goumarre in the doorway of her cellar at Domaine Galévan.

The Tradition 2012 is dark, inky, rich and voluptuous. Delicious pure fruit. The first time I tasted the Saint-George 2011 my tasting note said “bloody lovely” (excuse my French). 100% old-vine grenache, it has richness, complexity, waves of flavour. The Blanc 2013 has already sold out, but believe me it was fantastic. Hardly traditional – it tastes like a southern Meursault – but great nonetheless.

Just a small part of the Janasse range.

Just a small part of the Janasse range.

Domaine de la Janasse – My vote, if I had the money, would go to the Vieilles Vignes 2012. Deep, dark and dense but lifted by its freshness. Despite its power, it’s remarkably elegant. As I don’t have the money, I buy the Côtes du Rhône Villages Terres d’Argile 2012. It has 25% carignan in the blend (which is always a good thing in my book), beats many a CdP and costs me 15€.

In the cellar with Gibert Sabon

In the cellar with Gilbert Sabon

Domaine Roger Sabon – The fact that this estate is world-famous doesn’t mean the prices are ridiculous – you can buy a bottle of the Olivets CdP for less than 20€ at the cellar door. The cuvée Prestige 2011 and 2012 are twice the price, but for the depth and concentration you get that can hardly be begrudged. But my money goes on the Cuvée Réserve. It falls between the other two in price, but has much of the Prestige’s class. Sweet red fruits, a bit of spice and a lithe, supple palate. (And they make a very good Lirac, too.)

Domaine de Saint Siffrein – my longest standing CdP partner. Saint Siffrein makes one of the best white CdPs I know and two red CdPs that are quite different in style.

Cyril and Patricia Chastan who lead the Siffrein estate.

Cyril and Patricia Chastan who lead the Siffrein estate.

Because of small harvests in 2012 and ’13, the latest vintage of white is the Blanc 2011 (although I’m told that there will be a ’14). It’s a lovely wine that’s still going strong (and, judging from a 2006 I tasted this year, is likely to have plenty of life in it). More traditional than Galévan’s white, it has the subtle fruit and creaminess of grenache blanc.

The red Tradition 2011 got great reviews in the French and English wine press – it’s a soft, up-front wine that you can happily drink now – but I reckon the 2012 is going to be even better. It has more structure and brighter fruit. Wine Advocate called it an “outstanding Provençal effort”.

Terre d’Abel 2009 is the estate’s special cuvée. Its high mourvedre content makes it far more meaty, far more tannic and gives it darker fruit. It also gets slightly high scores from the critics, but I have to admit to a preference for the cheaper, more classic Tradition.

Now for the other estates. I’d be very happy indeed drinking wines from any of them. Again, they’re listed alphabetically:

Domaine du Banneret – The estate only has 3ha (about 7½ acres) of vines and make just 10,000 bottles of a single cuvée, but boy is it good. Whole bunches are used during the fermentation, so stems and all go into the tank.

Tasting Domaine du Banneret's wine in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Tasting Domaine du Banneret’s wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The Banneret 2011 has an old-fashioned feel (in the best possible sense) with sweet, strawberry-ish grenache fruit. The 2010 is sleeker, more structured, with plenty of spice.

Domaine de la Biscarelle – I tasted two different CdPs here – the Classique 2011 and Les Anglaises 2011. It’s the Anglaises which has really been grabbing the critics’ attention, but the Classique is delicious too.

Christelle and Jerome Grieco, Domaine de la Biscarelle

Christelle and Jérôme Grieco, Domaine de la Biscarelle

Classique 2011 – Aromas of ripe fruit, dark cherry and animal fur (warm dog). Lovely texture – starts off round, soft and then the tannins start to kick in. On the palate there’s raspberry, mulberry and black olive.

Les Anglaises 2011 is in a similar mould but with the volume turned up. More red fruits on the nose. Still young and needs a bit more time.

Château La Nerthe – Very highly rated in France. The 2011 is made in a big, ripe style, mixing plum, clove, pepper and licorice. A real crowd-pleaser.

La Nerthe

La Nerthe

The 2013 white is also going to be good. Stony, mineral, weighty. Broad and long, rather than fat.

Domaine du Pegau – Like Banneret, Pegau likes to use whole bunch fermentation. They also like big old barrels (“foudres”) for ageing. The results can be funky, dare I say a little rustic, but with bags of personality and appeal. Unfortunately I wasn’t taking notes when I tasted the Cuvée Réservée and the Cuvée Laurence in July. So now I can’t even tell you which vintages I tasted. But it’s enough to say that the Réservée must be one of the best value buys in CdP (around 30€ at the cellar door) and the Laurence (about twice the price) is simply great wine.

Domaine Pierre Usseglio – Frankly, the Cuvée Traditionalle 2011 isn’t my favourite vintage of PU, but still it’s very good. Plummy and rich, maybe just a bit too “porty” for my taste. But like the La Nerthe, a crowd-pleaser.

Pierre Usseglio

Pierre Usseglio, white on the left, red on the right

Domaine Vieux Télégraphe – One of the most celebrated names in CdP. The La Crau 2011 didn’t get a great rating when Decanter magazine reviewed 100+ CdP’s from the 2011 vintage, but what does it know? Sweet, ripe fruit but with structure and finesse. Ignoring the producers I work with (I wouldn’t want to spoil a beautiful friendship), the best, classiest CdP I tasted all year. A brilliant balancing act.

The slightly cheaper (or should that be less expensive?) Piedlong 2011 doesn’t hit the same heights, but still it’s excellent, punchy and full of fruit.

The Vieux Télégraphe white 2012 was also a delicious, subtle glass.

The stony vineyard soils of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

The stony vineyard soils of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

You may be asking where’s Château de Beaucastel in this line up. Well I tasted the 2011 twice this year, once in April and again in July, and despite excellent reviews elsewhere I just can’t get excited by it. In April it was tasted straight after the Banneret wines and, I thought, simply didn’t match up. My tasting note from the day describes it as being a “so what?” wine. In July, it had the misfortune to be tasted on the same day as the Vieux Télégraphe. For me, there’s no contest.

The almost-as-famous Clos des Papes also disappointed. Not that the wine was bad, not by any means, it just didn’t strike me as great. Rich and powerful, certainly, but when I tasted it at the estate I thought the wine lacked freshness (I wonder how long the bottle had been open?).

Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator love both wines, so feel free to ignore me.

Tasting room in the village.

Tasting room in the village.

Every one of the producers listed exports their wine. So if you want to get hold of a bottle or two check out the internet for your nearest supplier – isn’t a bad place to start. Happy hunting and even happier drinking.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. We don’t drink Châteauneuf-du-Pape every day, so when we do it had  better be good. There’s plenty to more to read on the blog, so browse away. There are also more photos and short pieces on the Facebook page. Last but not least – we have to earn a crust, you know – there’s also the website, full of suggestions for wine tours and tastings in the Rhône valley.



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