Not all red wine drinkers want light and juicy summer reds.
Lighter reds are suitable as afternoon-quaffing patio wines, which pair well with hard cheeses, fruits and charcuterie. But they’re only precursors to the big, bold reds that are best with summer grilled steaks, ribs and such. Enter Chateauneuf du Pape.
Chateauneuf du Pape is in the southern Rhone Valley in France and is one of the big spicy red wines of France. Always a blend of the 13 permitted varietals, the permutations available to wine makers and consumers are endless. While the most famous domaines have their chosen recipes, each producer has a unique style that is best suitable to their terroir or location. The namesake makes the region legendary, but the wines certainly back up the infamous “Village of the Pope.”
The appellation is highly suitable to viticulture because of the stony soils that offer several advantages. First, the stones retain heat during the day and reflect heat to the vines at night. Second, the stones offer excellent drainage for the vines’ roots. And third, the wines are structured with a high minerality, adding complexity and depth to an already robust wine. The common denominator of all the producers is the grape grenache, which dominates the blends. The other varietals that make up the blends are syrah, mourvedre and cinsault.
A unique quality of these wines is that they are not dominated by oak. There are some producers that utilize barrel aging, but not to the same degree as Bordeaux or Napa. Instead, the wines are a reflection of pure fruit with minimal to zero oak influence.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a change in the style of some Chateauneuf du Pape. The traditional method ferments whole clusters of grapes with the stems. The result are wines that are darker, spicier, earthier, long-lived and considerably more structured with tannin. The modern approach, on the other hand, de-stems the grape clusters and offers wines with brighter fruit, finesse and earlier drinkability. Both are delicious. As a result of the fame and deliciousness of the wines, they are not cheap (though not outrageously expensive either). Prices start at $50.
If that starting price point is eye-shattering, however, there are excellent alternatives better suited to those seeking better value. There are several options worth exploring in a range of prices starting at $10. The most affordable options are labeled Cotes du Rhone, which are the same varietals. This designation has lower standards in regards to yields, so the wines are considerably lighter than the aforementioned ones.
The next tier in quality is often the best bang for your buck. The ‘Crus’ of the southern Rhone Valley are wines of similar quality to Chateuneuf du Pape but with prices ranging between $20 and $50. Wines to look for in this budget come from Lirac, Rasteau, Vacqueyras and Gigondas. The great wines of the southern Rhone are versatile, pairing with an array of meals while also serving as excellent cocktail wines.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.