WITH a name even Francophobes can pronounce and a very photogenic village home, the perennial popularity of Chateauneuf du Pape is no surprise. Indeed, it sometimes seems it has been present on wine lists since the Avignon papacy itself ended over 600 years ago.
Despite often adorning its bottles with the papal cross-keys, the support of pontiffs does not fully explain the attraction of Chateauneuf du Pape’s wines; neither does all those quaint, tourist-friendly buildings. Success is rather more of a down to earth matter (literally so) and also owes much to local winemaking skills.
Much of the terroir is dominated by smooth, quartzite-based pebbles known as galets which not only retain moisture but also accelerate grape ripening. That is because the stones absorb the blistering daytime sunshine then slowly release the stored heat at night to provide, in effect, a 24-hour ripening process.
Winemakers’ contributions come from keeping yields low, judiciously controlling the effect of the high sugar levels extra-ripe grapes produce and the careful use of oak. Grenache, for example, goes into concrete tanks while large, old barrels are used for other varieties.
In addition, and unlike northern Rhone, winemakers in the south are also brilliant exemplars of that very French skill, blending. In total, 18 grape varieties are allowed to form part of a Chateauneuf du Pape red blend; these include a handful of white grapes. In practice, however, just three varieties pre-dominate (mourvedre, syrah and – usually in the lead – grenache).
I sampled versions from the big four supermarkets, and all have richness and depth which, in some cases, borders on the intense. There are, however, subtle differences. In essence, if you like your reds to be soft with fairly limited tannin, seek out the Asda and Morrisons versions. If you have a particular food partnership in mind, or just enjoy some a tannic twist on the finish, it is probably the examples from Sainsbury’s or Tesco for you.
That Tesco version – 2011 Finest Chateauneuf du Pape (£13.49) – also delivers cinnamon and vanilla-based black cherry fruit that develops into hints of blackcurrant with a clean white pepper finish and a lick of acidity to balance the tannin.
By contrast, in 2011 Extra Special Chateauneuf du Pape (£13.50, Asda) the fruit is more bramble-centred and it also takes on mocha and chocolate influences towards its finish.
There is a rather appealing fruit cocktail behind 2011 The Best Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve (£13.49, Morrisons) that starts off with dark plum flavours which slowly evolve into softer, more acidic raspberry influences.
Finally, top of the selections in my book, comes 2011 Taste the Difference Chateauneuf du Pape (£14.99, Sainsbury’s) which has warm and rounded blackcurrant fruit, black pepper on the finish but, above all, well-judged tannin that provides the right concluding grip without obscuring the brightness of the fruit.
Although only five per cent of Chateauneuf du Pape wine is white, do not underestimate the wines that roussanne, grenache blanc and their blending partners can produce.
Those whites often have a distinctive style embodying complex, savoury touches and clear hints of minerality. M&S demonstrates the point via the tasty 2011 Chateauneuf du Pape Les Closiers Blanc (£17.99) with its soft, apple and lemon fruit, gentle acidity and chalky backdrop.
2012 Macon Villages Burgundy France, 13 per cent An excellent wine made by an acclaimed co-operative, this delivers all the freshness and delicacy you would expect, accompanied by crisp, apple and lime flavours, good supporting acidity and the type of citric finish that shows how vibrant unoaked chardonnay can be. £7.49, Co-op
2007 Lacroix Bordeaux Superieur France, 13.5 per cent Given a little time to breathe, this claret from a great producer opens out beautifully. The rich, black cherry fruit is supported by appealing – but not overly assertive – acidity, touches of spice and that slightly graphite-style depth this area does well. £5.99 (as part of a mixed case), Majestic