THE BEST OF CHATEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE – LES CAVES SAINT CHARLES

This past Saturday, Dorianne and I returned to Châteauneuf-du-Pape (LINK) for lunch and a tasting at a wine cave – a retail wine store. It was a beautiful day, and we drove through the lovely Provençal countryside, with its vineyards, orchards, scenic homes and farms, and lush vegetation. Our friendly GPS took us along about 5 kilometers of single-lane road through vineyard after vineyard before we entered the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the most storied Appellation (LINK) of this part of France.

Lunch was at Restaurant Le Pistou (LINK) on a little side street off of the main town square. We sat outside and expected a light lunch, but the servings were very large – gambas salad for Dorianne, and grand gambas with salad and vegetables for me. As you can see, the plates were sizeable. We washed this down with the house white – a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Before this trip, I did not know that whites were made here – but they are, compromising about 6% of the total production. The whites of Châteauneuf-du-Pape stand alongside the storied reds as excellent wines.

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Le Caves Saint Charles (LINK) was highly recommended in Tripadvisor.com (LINK), which we used as a means of sorting through the dozens and dozens of caves du vin in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We wanted to ensure that we were tasting really good wines. After deciding, we made an appointment via email to meet the owner, Guy Brèmond, for 3:30 pm. We were a bit late, having had some trouble locating the cave – our GPS being little help – and in finding a place to park. When we arrived at the cave, which is at the top of the highest hill in town, only overlooked by the nearby ruins of the original Château of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it was locked up. We knocked on the door to no avail. We called the number, and did connect. It turned out that Guy was later than we were, having been stuck in traffic in Marseilles earlier. After a few minutes, we were in the temperature controlled cave, which is under the home of the owner.

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The actual cave structure of Le Caves Saint Charles dates from the 13th Century. There is another section underneath that dates from the 12th Century that is going to be renovated in the coming year. The cave in use has four rooms carved out of the rock with stone walls and vaulted ceilings – a lobby area, the tasting area, a small storage area and an area converted into a modern kitchen. There are bottles of wine in wooden boxes from the 45 producers that Guy represents throughout the cave rooms. We started in the tasting area.

Guy Brèmond is a Master Sommelier and a very personable and outgoing man. Once we established that Dorianne and I knew something about wine, although not that much about Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we were off and tasting. He spoke in depth about the philosophy and history of the appellation, and about the way the wines are made and the misconceptions that many have about Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We tasted 8 wines, two whites and six reds. The reds were made in three different styles, or methods.

The 90 minutes or so that we were at Le Caves Saint Charles with Guy Brèmond went by quickly. I kept having the feeling that this was a really special experience, and it was. The depth of his knowledge of wine in general and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines specifically, combined with his enthusiasm, was a bit hypnotic. I will share now that we did purchase a mixed case of wine at the end of our visit to have shipped to California; but we were intending to do that when we arrived, if the wines were good. Guy is a very good businessman, but there was no pressure to purchase beyond what may naturally arise when you are in a fabulous environment, tasting exceptional wines, with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable host.

Now to the wines – to be tasted in huge stemmed glasses, by the way:

We began with two whites. As I said, I was surprised to find whites here, as I have never seen them in the U.S., nor read about them. We had tried a Mont-Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape white shortly after arriving here in Provence and found it delicious.

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The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Whites.

First, we tasted a 2012 Domaine de Nalys Blanc (LINK) (LINK), a blend of 40-56% Grenache blanc, 14-34% Clairette, 13-27% Bourboulenc, 3-10% Roussanne, 1-5% Picardan, 1-3% Picpoul. The white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are, like the reds, complex. This wine gives you a lot to experience on the nose, in the mouth, and through the finish. There is green fruit, minerality (always), some floral notes on the nose; apple, pear, and hints of earth and anise on the tongue; with a smooth lingering finish that returns to the mineral notes from the bouquet. This wine would be exceptional with lighter cheeses and seafood – oysters and shellfish in particular. We bought 3 bottles at 31€ and change.

Next, we went to the 2013 Domaine de la Janasse Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (LINK) (LINK), a blend of 40% Grenache Banc, 40% Clairette, and 20% Rousanne. This is a beautiful wine from one of the most highly regarded producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A wine that is very drinkable now, but should age well. The nose is peach and floral, but with that ever-present minerality; mouthfeel is rich and viscous with hints of vanilla; long, smooth finish. We bought 3 of these, too, at 34€ and change. (That’s half a case so far.) I think that we will continue to explore the whites of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; in fact, I am certain of it.

As we move to the reds, I should point out of few things (this will be a rather long post). As we taste, there is a lot of conversation going on. Dorianne is full of questions. I ask a few myself. Guy Brèmond is expounding on each wine, each producer, their philosophy, their practices, the market, his business, and more. It is quite lively and very interesting.

There are a number of misconceptions that are very common when it comes to Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines:

  • Many people do not know about the white wines, as their small production limits their distribution.
  • Many believe that all Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds come from thirteen varietals. There are, depending upon who you speak to, anywhere from 14 to 18 varietals in the appellation. Some do not count the white varietals other than Granache Blanc. Others count only some of them. So there are, essentially 13 varietals of red, but some of the white varietals may be blended into the red wines. The appellation currently allows 18 varietals under a Châteauneuf-du-Pape label.
  • Many believe that all Chateauneuf-Du-Pape reds must be blends. This is not true. For example, you can have a 100% Granache, which we have tasted (not at the Cave). Most reds are a blend of three to five varietals. The basis for almost all Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds is the classic GSM BlendGranache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.
  • Why so many varietals in a small appellation? Guy says that it was because when the appellation was developed and the rules created in 1923 (amended in 1936 and 2009), all of the varietals under cultivation at the time were included. This “democratic” move forestalled the inevitable infighting that might have jeopardized the pact.
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape is part of the Côtes du Rhône, or the Rhône Valley Area. It has 3161 hectares, or 7811 acres under cultivation. Total production is 2,686,841 gallons, or about 21,000 cases per year. 94% is red and about 6% is white. (LINK)

So on to the reds. We tasted six, from three different philosophies of making Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wines, as described by The Wine Cellar Insider website (LINK):

  • The Traditional, Modern & Neoclassical styles – “Much of the difference between traditional and modern, is the ripeness of the grapes, effective yields, amount of stems used and most importantly, the percentage of new oak barrels used in aging the wine. Producers making wines in a more traditional style do not use oak, preferring to age the wine in older, neutral, massive barrels, cement lined vats or foudres that are widely used in the region. They do not destem the grapes. In other words, they follow the traditional practices of the region. There are numerous high quality traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines made all over the appellation today” (LINK). So the use of smaller oak barrels designed to impart its characteristics onto the wine is a hallmark of the Modern Method. The Neoclassical Method is a hybrid of the other two, some oak barrels are used, but only for a portion of the harvest.

 

Our first two red wines are from the Modern Method:

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The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Modern Method Reds.

First, a 2012 Clos Saint Jean “Vieilles Vignes” Châteauneuf-du-Pape (LINK), a blend of 85% Grenache with the remainder a mix of Mourvedre and Syrah (Guy says that Syrah is used only for “cosmetic purposes” – to provide a richer color). This is a big wine, full-bodied, with deep red fruit and minerality on the nose and the palate. A wine that will age well, I think. If this is typical of the Modern Method, it is very much like a California or New World wine – bold, high alcohol, fruit forward. In my research, I noticed that Robert Parker generally gave higher marks to Modern Method wines.

The next Modern Method wine is a 2012 Domaine Roger Perrin Chateauneuf-du-Pape (LINK) the website lists an average blend of 70-75% Grenache, 15-20% Syrah, 10-15% Mourvedre, 2-5% Cinsault or Clairette and 1-2% Counoise or Vaccarese. Another big, fruit-forward wine. Dark red fruit, a bit of mushroom on the nose, minerality throughout. Very similar to the Clos Saint Jean, but with a bit more finesse.

The next three wines are from the Traditional Method:

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The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Neoclassical Method wine (Left) and the three Traditional Method Reds.

First, a 2010 Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee (LINK), a blend of 80% Grenache, 6% Syrah, 4% Mourvedre and 10% other varietals. This is an amazing wine – you can immediately see the difference between this method and the Modern Method – something that would carry through with the rest of the wines tasted. It is more mineral than fruit, more elegant than bold, with a beautifully balanced structure of tannins. This is my style of wine. But we did not buy this one.

Next, a 2010 Château Fortia Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition (LINK), a blend of 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 15% Mourvedre. Aged in foudres (concrete tanks). This wine is pretty much everything that the Domaine du Pegau is, but it takes it to a higher level, but is very much its own wine. You get some barnyard on the nose, which begins to dissipate after a few minutes, but remains. I did not find it off-putting, but some may. There is ripe fruit in there, but it is subdued in a minerality – dirt, terroir – that permeates the wine. On the palate it is very nicely structured and balanced and the fruit began to come through. This is a wine that will age well and one that would benefit from decanting. We bought 3 of this one at 35€.

Next, a 2010 Beaurenard domain Cuvee Boisrenard Chateauneuf-du-Pape (LINK), a Grenache blend but the winery does not release specifics as far as I can tell – only that up to 13 varietals may be included in the wine. Parker 91, Wine Spectator 97 points. A long, smooth finish. The initial tasting bottle had been opened too long, Guy opened a new bottle and got us clean glasses. This one, too, could benefit from decanting a while. We probably would have bought some of this wine, too, but a case was our limit, and we couldn’t pass up the next wine.

Finally, a wine in the Neoclassical Method – meaning a mixture of traditional and modern. A Château Jas de Bressy Châteauneuf-du-Pape (LINK) (LINK), a blend of 80% Grenache; 15% Syrah and 5% Mourvèdre. This wine has lots of mushroom on the nose and a nice peppery sense as well. Fruit is secondary to the minerality on the palate, plus a sense of chocolate. The tannins were there to ensure a relatively long life for this wine. A very nice wine. We added three of these at 36€ and change to round out our case purchase.

After our tasting, we had a quick tour of the rest of Les Caves Saint Charles with Guy Brèmond. There is another small storage room in the cave and a modern kitchen also where gourmet dinners are prepared to pair with these amazing wines. Guy also takes his act on the road, bringing dinners to private homes in the U.S. with a Michelin-Star chef. You can find out more about this at his website (LINK). This experience has been the wine highlight of our six weeks in France. I am very grateful to have discovered so much about the joys of Provence, and the wines of this amazing region.

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Guy in the kitchen. Behind him is a terrace with an amazing view.
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Some of the Cave wines in the kitchen.
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A Cave Storage Room
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Every Chef needs some Wine for Cooking – and for the Cook!

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