Ode to Châteauneuf-du-Pape

It’s only rock and roll, but I like it. 

by Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com

28 December 2019

The bottles seemed endless. Fifteen producers had delivered three bottles for a dinner I had organized at the restaurant of the French embassy in Washington D.C. earlier this month. But the restaurant staff received 180 bottles of wine (the delivery was 45 different wines, but four bottles each), and along with the help of star sommelier Maria Denton and Châteauneuf-du-Pape representative Marie-Clémentine Savey, we tasted through most of these bottles to avoid any cork taint issues.

Fifteen whites and 30 reds were featured at a magnificent dinner earlier this month that proved a metaphor for the generosity that is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

At their best, the reds also convey complexity and length. And, dear readers, tis’ the season! 🎅🏻

Red Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a great drink to enjoy in the winter, especially with venison and other flavorful meat.  But the wines can be paired in more creative ways, as I experienced over the 45-wine dinner held at the Petit Bouchon in the French Embassy in Washington D.C. Vintages reached back to 1986, but most of the wines were in the 2000s.

Many thanks to the union of producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for generously providing so many bottles for a superlative dinner tasting. And that union – the Syndicat des Vignerons de Châteauneuf-du-Pape – is working with members to counter the effects of climate change, which contribute to higher alcohol levels in southern Rhône wines in recent years. It is not surprising to sometimes encounter excessively jammy wines from the southern Rhône. And, as you can see in the video, below, more grapes like Counoise are being blended into Château de Beaucastel for example to lend greater freshness to the wine. Other producers consider increasing the percentage of white grapes (authorized in red Châteaneuf-du-Pape) in their blends to heighten freshness, as you can read in this text that I had written for Decanter magazine.

Picking earlier and canopy management methods such as less leaf clearing to prevent over ripening are other ways to counter excessive alcohol.

Based on my experience with the wines over the last 20 years, and with this most recent experience, I say with confidence that many wines convey freshness, with depth and breadth, long finishes and complexity, and offer you a great drink to enjoy in the winter. The whites are often misunderstood, because when young, they are full-bodied and ideal for gastronomy, but work best when coming from producers who focus more on freshness to ensure enough balancing acidity.

Finally, and this is so important, when tasting Châteauneuf du Pape, one should not have a strict Burgundy mindset or, for that matter, a strict Alsatian Riesling mindset. That is not to say that some of the finest whites of Châteauneuf-du-Pape can exude lovely wet stone aspects like Riesling. And some reds can be Burgundian. But Orange is neither Beaune nor Colmar … And taste is taste. As the Latin adage goes: De gustibus non disputandum est.

And context is everything.

So Vive la Difference. When it comes to generous wines – in red and white – Châteauneuf du Pape rules the roost. To quote Mighty Mick: “It’s Only Rock and Roll, But I Like It”.

From left to right: restaurant chef Mark Courseille, Châteauneuf-du-Pape representative Marie-Clémentine Savey and restaurant director Max Jacquet

French embassy dinner 

One word to describe the dinner at the French embassy in Washington D.C. earlier this month is “generous”. Appellation representative Marie-Clémentine Savey and I could barely conceal our pleasure over the prospect of enjoying a six-course dinner, prepared by star chef Mark Courseille, accompanied by the 45 different wines.

Quite a menu (photo by Frank Morgan)

I already know that Rhône freaks who attended this event were (very) happy, and they should be posting notes in the near future on their respective blogs or on wine forums or in social media. In any case, a huge MERCI to the staff of the Petit Bouchon restaurant, starting with director Max Jacquet.

About the Chef

Chef Mark Courseille’s passion for culinary arts was in evidence as I snuck away from the table mid-dinner to revisit some of the whites that participants had appreciated earlier in a stand up tasting before the dinner. He was full of other ideas for wine pairings, but I told him that his choices for the evening were nearly perfect already.

Chef Mark Courseille (photo courtesy of Petit Bouchon)

Originally a native of Bordeaux, Chef Courseille graduated from the Culinary High School of Talence. His culinary journey in the kitchens of many high profile restaurants include Washington DC’s Citronelle by Michel Richard, Le Paradou by Yannick Cam, and Le Saint-James (Relais & Chateaux) in Bouliac, France.

The food and wines 

Before we sat to dine, 35 participants took time to taste through a series of 10 white wines, see the list below. Some wines came across more elegant than others. They took their time to taste through the wines for nearly 90 minutes before we enjoyed the six-course dinner with 35 more wines.

One of my favorite whites from the evening.

As per usual, wines in bold I like in particular. When red and bold, even more… It seems to me that 2016 was a rather successful vintage for white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as it seemed to convey the most freshness, although it benefited from an added advantage of having a bit more evolution as compared to the 2018s and 2017s among the 10 whites initially assessed. They went well with the reception foods including superb Faroe Island smoked salmon wrapped in millefeuille and sea scallops tartare. Of course much depends on the producer for style. I highlight the ones I liked most, below:

Domaine Saint Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2018
Domaine Pierre Usseglio Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2018
Domaine du Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2018
Domaine de Marcoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2018
Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2017
Domaine de la Charbonnière Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2017
Château de Vaudieu Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2017
Domaine du Bosquet des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2016
Domaine de Cristia Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2016
Les Cailloux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2015
After a brief introduction to the famous appellation, including some history, we sat down and concentrated over six dinner courses, each paired with up to six wines. The first course of lobster with carrot ginger sauce proved delicate and flavorful, a delight. The special cuvées of white exuded greater depth generally than the preceding wines.

Gorgeous table setting

Domaine Roger Sabon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2018 Cuvée Renaissance
Domaine Giraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2018 Cuvée Les Gallimardes
Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2017 Cuvée Clos de Beauvenir
Château de Vaudieu Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2017 Cuvée Vieilles Roussannes
Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2016 Cuvée Barberini

Foie gras! Photo by Frank Morgan

The second course changed the tone, as we went directly to a pan-seared foie gras, braised red cabbage with gingerbread in a beet sauce. An orchestra of delights accentuated by the first series of reds. Among the reds, I liked the forest floor and floral aspects of the Domaine de Marcoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 Tradition, while the Domaine du Bosquet des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 Cuvée Chantelemerle came across more full bodied and perhaps better suited to the food.
I also liked very much the Domaine du Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2009 Tradition, as this estate tends to favor cooler styles of winemaking. And the Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2000 Tradition was also excellent. Both the Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2010 Cuvée Cornélia Constenza and Domaine Pierre Usseglio Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2006 Cuvée Aïeul matched the foie gras nicely.

What superb squab!

For the third course, the chef prepared filet of roasted squab, accompanied by sautéed wild mushrooms (big pieces) and eggplant caviar, flavored by a Périgourdine sauce. I liked especially among the reds a superb Clos du Mont Olivet Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2000 Cuvée du Papet that seemed to go best with the dish. But also an excellent showing from the Domaine de la Charbonnière Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2009 Cuvée Vieilles Vignes and the Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2006 Cuvée Réserve Secrête. I found the Domaine du Bosquet des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2009 Cuvée A la Gloire de mon Grand Père a bit closed in and the Domaine du Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2005 Tradition somewhat lacking in expression, but it could be just a phase. The Domaine Roger Sabon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2006 Cuvée Réserve Secrête was tasty, but did not stand out as much to me as the preceding wines.

Just some of the 45 wines (three bottles each) that we had to taste through before service.

For the fourth course, a quality steak soaked in red wine, with mashed potato, fine carrots and baby onions, we enjoyed some more wine highlights such as the Domaine de Charvin Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2005 Tradition, refined with wet stone and mint. Although one bottle was marred by excessive notions of nail polish. As with any wines, you got bottle variation. My second favorite, from memory, was the Domaine de Marcoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2001 Tradition, with floral elegance and refinement.

Overall favorite for the fourth flight (photo by Frank Morgan)

By the same token, the Domaine Pierre Usseglio Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2000 Tradition exuded some clearly endearing truffle notes, but I also encountered some volatile acidity that was just a bit too prominent for my taste. My overall favorite was a superb Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 1998 Cuvée des Cadettes, which is in an excellent drinking window today (glad I have a bottle). The least preferable for me was the Domaine de Cristia Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2009 Cuvée Vieilles Vignes, which was a bit too jammy for my taste. The Domaine Les Cailloux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 1986 Tradition was quite delicate.
The delectable cheese plate – with Comté, Saint Gil d’Albio and Tomme de Savoie was nicely paired with more fine Châteauneuf du Pape reds, especially for me the Domaine Santa Duc Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2016 Cuvée les Saintes Vierges, which exuded a crushed herb elegance that outshined the others in this flight, including the following: Domaine Giraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2016 Cuvée les Gallimardes, Domaine Saint Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2013 Cuvée Charles Giraud, Château de Vaudieu Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2010 Cuvée Amiral G., Domaine Roger Sabon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2009 Cuvée Renaissance and
Clos du Mont Olivet Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 Tradition, which was a superb wine.
The marathon was not over yet!
For one of the most decadent yet nuanced desserts I have ever enjoyed – dark chocolate fondant, poached quince in grenadine sauce and dark chocolate sorbet, we had some rather hedonistic wines! I just recall enjoying most the Les Cailloux 2010 and La Nerthe 2007 …
Domaine Santa Duc Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2013 Cuvée Habemus Papam
Domaine Saint Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2011 Cuvée Auguste Favier
Domaine Les Cailloux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2010 Tradition
Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 Tradition
Domaine Giraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 Cuvée Les Grenaches de Pierre
Domaine de la Charbonnière Rouge 2005 Mourre des Perdrix
I look forward to the impressions from some of the participants who plan to post online.
As we enter winter, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a great choice.

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