David 14 August 2014
I’m on a bit of a southern Rhône roll. This time it’s the iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This famous region produces some of the finest and longest-lived red wines in the world and rouses true passion among wine lovers.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape refers to a village, an appellation and the wines from the appellation surrounding that village. Roughly translating to ‘the Pope’s new castle,’ the history of CNDP is indeed bound up with Popes. The papacy moved to Avignon from Rome in 1308 and the seven successive popes reigned there from 1309-1377. Pope John XXII is credited with planting a papal vineyard and the wines from that area were initially known as ‘Vin du Pape’ and later as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These days you’ll find CNDP wine in a distinctive heavy bottle embossed with the papal insignia.
The appellation covers about 3,100 ha and a total of 18 varieties, both red and white. But in the warm climate and poor soil of CNDP, grenache reigns supreme, producing the finest examples of this variety in France. The other main red varieties here are mourvèdre, syrah and cinsault. White CNDP is also made but in very small quantities.
The vineyards of CNDP are relatively flat and traditionally characterised by the famous and much photographed galets roulés, or large pebbles, which retain heat and assist in the ripening process. Despite the fixation on the stones, the appellation actually possesses a variety of soils.
Unusually for one of France’s great wine regions, CNDP has no official classification system (like the grand and premier cru system of Burgundy) to identify superior vineyard sites. Some domaines have created their own classification by producing special cuvées.
So what can you expect from a good red CNDP? Wine author Andrew Jefford rather poetically describes it: “The best is unique within French wine. A grandly soft wine, deliciously burdened with a sweetness and spice like a cedar whose branches are laden with snow. It’s a wine to welcome drinkers at 2 or 3 years yet its flurry of goosedown tannin and meaty extract will hold two decades at bay.”
Robert Parker gets equally carried away: “Its glorious perfume, which is reminiscent of an open-air produce market in a Provençal hill town, expansive, generous, well-endowed flavours, sumptuous texture, and heady alcohol content evoke an image of hedonism.”
Keeping it simple, I’d describe red CNDP as a rich, round, generous and full-bodied wine that’s spicy and alcoholic. It has the potential to be long-lived and silky, but can still be enjoyed when young and lush. Common flavour descriptors include: cherry, raspberry, kirsch, violets, herbs and black pepper.
Here are two must have CNDP traditionalists - Henri Bonneau and Pierre Usseglio.
Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils
“One of the top estates in Châteauneuf du Pape.” The Wine Advocate #197 Oct 2011.
Following the Great Depression, Francis Usseglio left Italy in 1931 to find work in CNDP. By 1948 he’d acquired his own vineyards and went on to have two sons Pierre and Raymond. It was Pierre who took over the estate upon Francis’ death, giving it the name Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils. Just to confuse matters, Raymond set up his own estate naming it Domaine Raymond Usseglio & Fils.
Pierre’s two sons Thierry and Jean-Pierre took over in the late 1990s, with the notable improvement in quality at that time leading to the estate's now top reputation.
“This estate has been on an outrageous run of successful vintages ever since 1998, no small thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the two brothers, Jean-Pierre and Thierry Usseglio.” Wine Advocate, #173 Oct 2007.
Nowdays the estate is around 60 acres, made up of 17 different parcels, with about 95% red plantings. The vast majority of this is grenache, but there’s also syrah, mourvèdre, cinsault, counoise and muscardin. While the domaine is modern and progressive, the wines are made in the very traditional CNDP way using vats and large old oak barrels. Their heartybut refinedwines are in the true CNDP style.
1. Pierre Usseglio Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012
Also known as the ‘Cuvée Traditionelle,’ this wine is made up of 80% grenache, 10% syrah, 5% cinsault and 5% mourvèdre. Fermentation takes place in tanks before ageing 18-24 months in a combination of old wooden foudres and concrete vats.
This is why people love CNDP - fresh and bright, yet solid and generous. Let it open up and you’ll enjoy the luscious, ripe red fruit, slight savoury push and firm, plush mouthfeel. Blackberries and violets carry good weight and length, backed by firm and velvety tannins.
“Inky ruby. Ripe blackberry and blueberry on the fragrant nose, with hints of fresh flowers and pipe tobacco adding complexity. Sappy dark berry and candied cherry flavours show impressive depth and a smooth, velvety texture. Open-knit and very attractive already, but with good spine and structure as well. Finishes sweet and supple, with excellent persistence and a hint of candied flowers”. 90-92 points. Josh Raynolds, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar.
“Excellent, with a fruit-loaded personality… displays abundant blackberry, red currant, licorice and toasted spice notes to go with a medium to full-bodied, pure and polished profile on the palate. Always approachable in its youth, it’s a no-brainer purchase and will drink nicely for over a decade.” Drink now-2024. 90-92 points. Jeb Dunnuck, The Wine Advocate #209 Oct 2013.
This is a great price for a wine of this calibre.
I can offer it for $69 per bottle. Order this wine
2. Pierre Usseglio Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée de Mon Aïeul 2012
The name translates to ‘ancestral cuvée’ as a tribute to the founder of the domaine and what a tribute it is. Only released in good years, this is one of the star wines of the appellation. The wine has an impressive lineage with the 2007 vintage scoring 100 points from Robert Parker.
The 2012 is 100% grenache with the fruit coming from old vines on the best sites in the estate. It’s fermented and aged in concrete tanks and barely touches oak, with only about 10% seeing 2-3 year old large barrels.
The wine is a deep rosey colour and I could smell it across the room as it was poured. You’ll find delicious aromas of cherry, musk and liquorice, which follow through onto the palate. This is one for the cellar, built to age… dark and solid with firm tannins and great velvety length. What a mouthful. With so little oak it’s amazing that all this purity and power comes pretty much from the fruit. That’s quality CNDP for you.
“Opaque ruby. Black raspberry, Indian spices and licorice on the highly perfumed nose, with a sexy floral overtone gaining strength with air. Red and dark berry preserve flavours show excellent depth and sweetness, along with an assertive spiciness. Supple tannins build on a finish that accentuates the floral and berry notes.” 92-94 Points. Josh Raynolds, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar.
“Easily one of the top wines in the vintage, the superstar 2012 Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée De Mon Aïeul is… gorgeous all around, with incredible polish and purity, it offers up copious kirsch, licorice, toasted spice and crushed flowers with a seamless, full-bodied profile. Elegant, remarkably fresh and with fine tannin, it’s hard to resist even now. Nevertheless, it should benefit from a year or three in the cellar and have 15 years of longevity.” Drink 2016-2027. 94-96 Points. Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Advocate #209 Oct 2013.
What a beautiful wine - definitely one for the cellar.
I can offer it for $135 per bottle. Order this wine
Henri Bonneau is nothing short of a living legend in CNDP and his wines some of the most sought after. Born in 1938, his first vintage was in 1956 and he’s still making wine. Henri is the 12th generation of the Bonneau family to produce CNDP and has, as Wine Spectator observes, ‘quietly assumed the position of dean of CNDP.’ He is regarded as the master traditionalist, using methods harking back to the 19th century and there’s no producer more revered in the appellation.
Bonneau has a tiny estate of only 15 acres, a good part of which lies in CNDP’s most famous vineyard, ‘ La Crau’. Bonneau only makes a limited number of red wines, usually 4, and grenache accounts for about 90% of his plantings. Mourvèdre, counoise, vaccarèse and syrah make up the balance. He makes his wines in the most simple and traditional way, but what really sets him apart is his élevage. This French term does not really have a direct equivalent in English, however it refers to the practices that take place between fermentation and bottling. In Bonneau’s case this involves extended aging in what can only be called a hodgepodge of ancient barrels. Bonneau blends and bottles his wine at such time he thinks fit - the wine spends up to 5 years in barrel and may not be released until 6, 8 or even 10 years of age!
Bonneau’s house and cellars date from the 17th century and are located in the town of CNDP. Memorably described by one critic as ‘like the bio-hazard room in a video game,' to someone like me, who’s worked in hygiene conscious Australian wineries, they’re simply mindboggling! I’m not sure how best to describe them. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Despite his fame, Bonneau is a modest man who lives a fairly simple life. Although he does have a reputation for being standoffish as acclaimed British wine author Andrew Jefford can attest: “I have tried to visit Châteauneuf’s Henri Bonneau but was told that Monsieur Bonneau does not receive English journalists!”
Despite this, Bonneau’s wines speak for themselves with their impressive track record.
“...the Bonneau wines rest alone at the absolute summit of the appellation, and to a certain degree, they transcend it in much the same way that Château d’Yquem does in Sauternes.” John Gilman, View from the Cellar
“Bonneau portrays a zest for life and the sweet nectar that comes out of the barrels could come from nowhere else. You realize how lucky we are, as wine lovers today, to have the access to a gentleman like Henri Bonneau and to be able to taste his wines. They won’t exist forever.” Jeb Dunnuck, The Wine Advocate, Oct 2013.
3. Henri Bonneau Les Rouliers NV
The current release of Bonneau’s entry-level wine is a blend of 2005 and 2007, two fabulous vintages in the southern Rhône. The wine comes from a vineyard on the other side of the Rhône River, outside and just north west of CNDP, in an area known as The Gard. Accordingly, Bonneau simply labels it as ‘Vin de France’ not CNDP.
As for the varietal makeup, all I can say with certainty is that it’s mainly grenache. Bonneau keeps no exact measures when he makes his wines so the remainder of the blend is probably made up of some mourvèdre, cinsault and carignan. It’s made in the same way and is it's a similar style to Bonneau’s CNDP.
The wine is a crimson colour with a slightly bricky edge. The nose is warm, rich and inviting and develops beautifully after opening. I love that this wine offers complex aged characters yet is still fresh and bright - rare for something this age. You’ll find raspberry, spice, molasses and liquorice as well as deeper, leather and tobacco aged characters. The wine is rich, generous and complex with long velvety tannins. Amazingly for an entry-level wine, it has that elusive CNDP quality… power and finesse (finesse being the difficult bit).
This is one of the best value wines I've drunk all year. It delivers so much for the price - flavour, age, expertise and great vintages. It’s the Bonneau magic for a fraction of the top cuvée price. Delicious. I could drink it
very often. You’ll find it at the delightful Est restaurant for $140.
I can offer it for $69 a bottle. SOLD OUT
4. Henri Bonneau Réserve des Célestins 2007
This is Bonneau’s ‘grand vin’, his top wine, only released in good years and 2007 was definitely one of those. Wine Spectator magazine gave the vintage 95/100 and Robert Parker gave it 98/100 - the best vintage rating he’s ever given for CNDP.
The wine is about 90% grenache with the remaining 10% made up of mourvèdre, counoise and vaccarèse. Most of the fruit comes from the Le Crau and Grand Pierre vineyards (sandy soils next to Chateau Rayas). It's a truly great wine that will stop you in your tracks.
“… it offers up a singular, exotic profile that shows the vintage perfume and freshness, as well as the slightly feral quality of this estate. Kirsch liqueur, roasted herbs, blackberry, cured meats, lavender, incense and ground pepper are just some of the nuances here. This full-bodied, concentrated effort hits the palate with authoritative richness and depth, yet stays incredibly light, fresh and even elegant. Already approachable, with a drop-dead gorgeous texture, it should certainly be worth the extra effort to track down once released.” Jeb Dunnuck, The Wine Advocate #209 Oct 2013, 96-98 points.
Only a few dozen bottles make it into the country, although if you’re keen to try an older vintage you can pop into Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney where you’ll find the 2001 on the list for $1,250.
This is simply an extraordinary wine, and without a 13th generation to carry on Monsieur Bonneau’s legacy, one we are privileged to see.
I can offer it for $450 a bottle (very limited). Order this wine