It may not have always felt like winter proper this year, but it will still be below freezing this weekend, and has been extremely cold the past few days. I’m well-prepared, however: I’ve got just the red wine to sip during a night spent reading. Something full of poise, big yet graceful fruit, racy herbals, mineral and loam: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The southernmost appellation in the Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became a noteworthy wine region in the 1970’s, when a number of producers went the quality route and began making wines that spoke of the region’s essential greatness: gamy, earthy flavors piercing your palate like the essence of le mistral, the wind that shivers down the slopes of the Alps. Even the name of the region, meaning “new castle of the Pope,” hints at its prestige. Pairs well with Northrop Frye and a side of Bakhtin.
But in all seriousness, let’s talk about why this wine is so damn delicious, and why it is still so magnificently in vogue everywhere in the United States. With just over 8000 acres of vineyards, Châteauneuf-du-Pape far outstrips other Rhône appellations in size. The region’s terroir features a quite distinctive characteristic: masses of smooth stones of all sizes, ranging from pebbles to small boulders. These stones help retain heat, a positive factor in the ripening process, and keep the ground from drying out, which is helpful in drier summers. Considering the fact that low yields are critical to creating high-end Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the geography is ideal for its production. Pain in the ass to till, though. This particular bottle also comes from the holdings of André Brunel, something of a celebrity in the region; his family has been making wines in the Rhône valley for more than 90 years.
Ninety percent of all wine made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is red, and the wine is nearly always a blend, whether red or white. Just as there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape there are thirteen (OK, fourteen) grapes permitted by law. To review, these include: grenache (red), syrah (red), mourvèdre (red), cinsaut (red), muscardin (red), counoise (red), vaccarèse (red), terret noir (red); grenache blanc (white), clairette (white), bourboulenc (white), roussanne (white), picpoul (white), and picardan (white). Vinification here tends to eschew small oak barriques that you’d see in Bordeaux – instead the wines are fermented in a mix of large cement vats (for grenache, which oxidizes easily) and foudres, large old barrels that don’t impart any vanilla toasty elements; these would impede the naked fruit and stony flavors that make a lot of Rhône reds so great.
So what is so great about the 2004 André Brunel “Les Cailloux” Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Well, the color, for one thing: a pale cherry red in the glass, which swirls out aromas of herbal garrigue (predominantly sage and lavender), ripe red berry fruit, cinnamon spice and notes of licorice. Finely balanced in the mouth, with that ripe fruit and licorice offset nicely by still-vibrant acidity and a deliciously deep earthy character. Finishes very well, lip-smacking and long. A fantastic value at $35. Ward off the winter with a bottle of this, your favorite book, and some warm, chewy brown bread with herb-infused oil and olive tapenade.