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The Perfect Chateauneuf du Pape

I don’t usually like to post about a single bottle as it invariable means some ego-boosting label that nobody else can afford, so what’s the interest other than so called ‘wine porn’? But I thought the Antarctic chardonnay was a remarkable story, and here I have another bottle that gave considerable pause for thought.

Chateauneuf du Pape (CNP). It makes you think of the hot south and those galets, flat round stones that cover the vineyards and act as storage heaters during the night, as if they really needed more heat these days. Apart from the cult standard bearer Chateau Rayas, which sits on a unique sandy soil, commands prices in four figures and is very much grenache based, the usual red CNP is a mix of grenache, mourvedre, syrah and other varieties, cooked over those galets and packing a lot of flavour – bright cherry fruit, violets, black pepper and that distinctive herbal taste of garrigue, the smell of the Provencale scrubland, the thyme, rosemary and lavender that grow wild across the hillsides. Well, it’s nice to think that the wine smells of the hillsides, though I suspect it’s more of a romantic notion than reality. Wine doesn’t literally smell of its terroir.

Nevertheless, it’s a wine that’s usually pretty easy to spot blind – peppery, herby and ripe. When I first moved here in the 90s, it was what you might call great value winter warmer wine, the vinous equivalent of comfort food, perfect for a damp, dismal grey day. Robert Parker was in his pomp, lording it over the wine world, and his favourite home tipple was CNP. As it was cheap and very cheerful, I bought lots if it, Domaine Pegau and the famed biodynamic Chateau de Beaucastel especially.

But about a decade ago I noticed things going awry. The 1998 Beaucastel came in at 13.5% (& is still going strong today). The 2005 was 14%, still reasonable, but a few years later and I bought some other CNP online that scored well and was inexpensive and was shocked to see it at 15%+. My wife and I tried to drink it and gave up, and when I served it to the 20 yearish kids, thinking that gobs of sweet fruit and alcohol would be perfect for them, they too coughed and spluttered. Since then, I guess our palates have become older and less desperate for power and in your face flavours, more craving the subtle than the obvious. As the alcohol and ripeness climbed with the temperatures, I bowed out and dropped CNP off the buying list, even though the prices remain relatively decent compared to the other areas of France further north (Rayas excepted, which has gone into pricing orbit and a frenzy of speculation).

But somewhere before that, I decided to splash out in a supposedly top vintage for perhaps the other best-known name in CNP, Clos des Papes. A six box of the 2007 duly arrived, the critics were in the stratosphere of praise and eulogies, and I stuffed it away in the cellar thinking that I was storing up a lot of future pleasure, rubbing my hands with anticipation.

So what, you might be thinking? Well, so a lot I hoped. Just to set the perspective, look at the great and the good of the wine experts:-

100 points Robert Parker's Wine Advocate

One of the great vintages from this estate, surpassing even the 1990, 2000, 2001, 2003, and maybe the 2010 (time will tell with this one), the 2007 Châteauneuf du Pape from Vincent Avril delivers everything you could want from a wine. Full-bodied, intense and beautifully concentrated, with plenty of muscle and depth, it shows the hallmark elegance and purity of the estate, with sensational notes of kirsch liqueur, raspberries, incense, smoked meats and Asian spices. The blend is the normal 65% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah and the rest a mix of permitted varieties, brought up all in older foudre, and it's just now entering its prime drink window and has another two decades of longevity. (JD) (2/2017)

99 points Jeb Dunnuck

Taking the better part of the evening to open up, and really not shining until the second day, the monumental 2007 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape has shed some of the bombastic levels of fruit it possessed on release, and is developing into a textbook Clos des Papes that exudes richness, as well as finesse and elegance. Loaded with kirsch liqueur, licorice, crushed rock, flowers, and sweet spice, this full-bodied Châteauneuf-du-Pape hits the palate with a wealth of fruit and glycerin, yet remains perfectly balanced, seamless, and incredibly fresh and light. There’s no shortage of tannin or structure, and this needs a solid 4-5 years of bottle age to really start to hit its stride. It should be very long lived and any southern Rhône lover needs to have this wine in the cellar! (3/2012)

97 points Wine Spectator

Absolutely stunning, with a deep well of crème de cassis that's thoroughly pure and captivating, while black tea, fig cake, hoisin sauce, incense and graphite notes weave throughout. The supervelvety finish lets blackberry, boysenberry and crushed cherry fruit take an encore--as if this needed any more fruit. A fantastic display of precision in a very opulent year. *Collectibles, Wine Spectator Top 100 of 2009* (JM) (10/2009)

95 points Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar

Powerful, pungent aromas of kirsch, dark berries, smoky herbs and spicecake, with notes of black olive and tobacco coming on with air. Chewy, palate-staining dark fruit flavors are complicated by bitter chocolate, licorice and black cardamom. Acts like a 2005 today, with serious structure but also superb depth of powerful, densely packed fruit. A hint of cherry skin adds grip and refreshing bitterness to the long, smoky, focused finish. Not an easy read right now: this demands cellaring. (JR) 95+ (1/2010)

Jancis Robinson

Strong, ripe purple fruits plus a hint of gaminess on the nose. Great beautiful richness on the palate. Sumptuous and glorious but not hot. 25 hl/ha -- wonderful supple tannins. Great directions. Probably best decanted. 19.5/20points (JR) (10/2014)

100 points??!! The perfect wine? WOW! A wine that could not be improved upon? This was by far the best (rated) wine I had in my cellar, and I had six of them. And it had not cost me a new mortgage. Incredible – the wine outscores Chateau Petrus and Romanee-Conti. And if I usually take the US scores with a large pinch of salt, Jancis has the old school English style of palate, ie restrained, and 19.5 is also off the scale. Somehow without even realising it, I had a cheap Ferrari in the garage…

So, I figured that at 15 years old (& before I had read these scores) we might as well try one. After all, it had not been expensive, I knew it had good scores (though not how good) and the weather had turned ghastly. CNP seemed just the trick.

And this is where the story really begins. I should have known. I find critics’ scores that were made years ago, especially when the wines were young, rather meaningless, as mature wines taste so different from their infancy. I therefore had a look at the comments made on Cellar Tracker this year. Of the first five I read, two mentioned a ‘nose of nail polish’ and a ‘glue-like chemical smell.’ Odd, but then anyone can post on CT, so I guessed they were probably just a bit weird.

Mistake number one.

Number two was not to have read the experts. Two words would have given it away. Kirsch liquer.

As you may have twigged by now, I am not a fan of high alcohol wines and I despair at the never-ending escalation in percentages. When I read ‘high alcohol, but you can’t taste it’ I cringe. If you can’t taste it, either you have taste buds that happily munch Trinidad Scorpion chillies as an aperitif with impunity or the wine is so (over)loaded with fruit that it (sort of) covers up the alcohol.

But here there is no such pretence. After all what is kirsch? It’s a Swiss cherry digestif, eau de vie (brandy if you will) made from cherries. And it comes in bottles that don’t wince at 15% alcohol, but proudly declaim 40 or 43%. So if your palate says a wine tastes of kirsch as opposed to cherries, just what are you saying..?

(Another give away is the word port, or porty in a wine description, another kiss of death as far as I am concerned, but often used as a compliment).

Anyway, you probably want to know what the blessed things tasted like by now.

I decanted it for 2 hours and told my wife that we were about to drink the perfect wine, the 100 pointer, something we’d never knowingly done. Being a gent, I poured her the first glass and expected some form of hushed excitement and glorious acclamation. Just how do you describe perfection?

‘Yuck it smells of nail varnish. What the hell is it?’

Okay, well, not quite what I had expected or hoped for. I sniffed it myself and was assailed by two things, a smell of, guess what, kirsch and a sort of burnt rubber. It was a powerhouse of cherries macerated in alcohol with a nasty chemical side salad. Yuck.

I poured the 2 glasses back into the decanter and went to find something drinkable.

But you can’t give up on a super-score bottle just like that, especially when it’s probably worth a couple of hundred quid now or more.

On day two the rubber/varnish had indeed gone, and the wine did now smell of CNP, pepper, violets and kirsch. To be honest, though I don’t think you can technically smell alcohol, well, it smelt of alcohol. I looked at the label.


Ouch. Frankly it tasted of it and more. I struggled through a glass out of a sort of sense of duty and gave up. It was just too hard, aggressive and sweet. I guess beef stew in red wine beckons, and the other 5 bottles will be off to auction so that I can buy something nice instead. I suppose I should thank the critics as their scores will have bumped up the resale price too.

The morale of the story is to look at the alcohol level first, which these days I try to remember to do, to check for the tell-tale comments, and to ignore totally the critics who rave and drool.

But why? I mean these are highly respected, serious people who taste a ton of wine. How could they all get so excited about a wine that is so seemingly out of balance? Either they haven’t a clue (not the case); love blockbuster sweet powerhouse wines (true in some cases but not all); follow the label a la emperors’ clothes (again, not really that likely, this is not a cult superstar); tasted it too young (yes); tasted it too quickly (yes) and probably tasted it amidst a mouth and mind-numbing array of other wines so that only something really in your face could register. I can’t find any other excuses.

Whatever the reason, and even given the ridiculous score inflation of recent years, to score this bottle in the 97-100 range is obviously exaggerated. If you appreciate very lush, ripe, sweet high octane/alcohol wines then yes of course this will tick all your boxes, but to claim that it attains vinous perfection just shows how unreliable these scores really are.

Caveat lector!

Anyone for a daube de boeuf..?!

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