I can’t imagine a lustier, more anticipated, more engaging wine tasting this year than the one held in St. Helena last night, celebrating my favorite wine, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The event, held at 750 Wines and hosted by BP Wine, two top-notch St. Helena wine retailers, brought together Chateauneuf-du-Pape aficionados to taste wines and to meet Harry Karis, author of the most important, most researched, most detailed book ever written on the wine and the region.
Harry’s 500-page tome, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, is the definitive work on the subject. Did I say definitive? I meant all-encompassing, all-knowing, all-seeing down to the molecular level, everything there is to know about Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
In addition to desiderata, the book includes profiles on all the major wine producers, a run down on ALL the properties in the appellation, a chapter on ALL the area soil compositions in the region, in fact, ALL of EVERYTHING about “CDP,” as I call the wine and the region.
“It took nearly five years to research and write the book,” says Harry, whose son Phil took all the photos and art-directed the book.
Harry, who when asked his age says “I am vintage 1956,” is a serial careerist, tackling one after another. Initially a musician (lead guitarist in a Dutch band), he became a chef and opened his own restaurant. Bored with this achievement, Harry went back to school and became a doctor, specializing in occupational health. This guy has had almost as many careers as we had bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape last night.
Along the way, Harry was bitten by the Chateauneuf-du-Pape bug.
“I had my first Chateauneuf in 1978, but it took many years to fully realize what a sensational blend it is,” says Harry. “After I learned that many of the great Burgundy reds contained as much as 50 percent Chateauneuf-du-Pape (added for color and flavorful top notes), I gained a new respect for this wine.”
I asked Harry what was the oldest Chateauneuf-du-Pape he’s ever had:
“The 1890 Chateau La Nerthe. It was still singing! I could taste fresh red fruit, raspberries and strawberries, and there was a silken licorice finish.”
Try as hard as you will to extract a point score for any of the 6,000 wines Harry tasted while researching his book, he just won’t fall into that trap. “Wine is meant to be enjoyed not rated,” he says.
To thrill assembled tasters, Harry brought some exceptional, well aged CDPs. But before we began tasting, I asked if he was as enthusiastic about the 2007 vintage as wine critic Robert Parker, who called it “the single greatest vintage in modern CDP history.”
Harry says that he probably would prefer a 2006 CDP more than any 2007 – certainly for a good decade before the 2007s soften and integrate. “It is a bombastic vintage!”
Before commenting on the wines served, for those unfamiliar with Chateauneuf-du-Pape, here’s the skinny on this exceptional wine:
+ In 1936, Chateauneuf-du-Pape became the first wine region in France to receive appellation controllee status.
+ How Chateauneuf-du-Pape got it’s name: More than 700 years ago, a series of Popes, seeking to withdraw from Rome’s military influence, moved their worship zone to an area around Avignon; in 1333, Pope John XII built a secondary residence nearby, calling it “Chateauneuf-du-Pape,” which simply means “new castle of the Pope.” The hamlet, in which the structure was situated, picked up the name.
+ While Picpoul, Terret and Clairette sound like three Shakespearean crones you’d expect to find stirring cauldrons in King Lear, they are, in fact, three of the 22 permitted varieties of grape, which can be used to make Chateauneuf-du-Pape. You likely know some of the more common grape varieties permitted – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre.
+ Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers may blend any combination of the 22 permitted varieties; some producers, like Chateau Rayas, make wine from only one variety -- 100 percent Grenache. Others, like Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, and Clos-du-Mont-Olivet, make a practice of blending ALL of the main varieties.
+ Here’s a chart of the grapes permitted in CDP:
If he could only take the CDPs of a few producers to a desert island, what would they be?
“I love the wines which Julien Barot is making for Domaine La Barroche. I would also take Charvin wines, made by the talented Laurent Charvin, and some Chateau Rayas to prove how long great wines can age. And I’d also grab some Domaine de Pegau, because these are always great wines.”
I asked Harry what was the single best CDP he’s ever had.
“While I have had many superb wines, there has only been one wine, which came close to an Aha! Moment: The 1998 Henri Bonneau, Reserve des Celestins. I was drinking it with a friend; we opened the bottle and poured a glass for each of us. We took a sip and didn’t utter a single word to each other for five minutes. We sat there in angelic silence. We were stunned at how good a wine can be.”
I asked Harry for his top three tips to best enjoy CDP.
+ “Only decant Chateauneuf-du-Pape if there is more than 10 percent Mourvedre in the blend. This grape tends to be funky and needs aeration. Otherwise, pour straight from the bottle.”
+ “Generally, in most vintages, the best age to drink a CDP is from ten years onward.”
+ “If your CDP has been at room temperature, place it in the fridge for 30 minutes before serving, to mimic cellar temperature. You’ll find the wine is fresher, brighter, more lively.”
The cursed “CDP August Effect ”
I asked Harry if I was the only person he’s ever met who believes there is a phenomenon, almost a curse, which I call “The CDP August Effect.” It has been my experience that every summer, when August comes around, the most balanced, elegant Chateauneufs-du-Pape in my cellar become awkward, gawky, imbalanced, some of them downright nasty wines.
Harry looked at me as though I were speaking a secret language. (It’s time, Harry, to pull out our Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Rings….)
I was startled by his reply: “I have that identical experience!” Harry says that for him, the nasties start in July.
“I make a point of not opening Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the middle of July to the middle of September,” Harry said.
Harry’s experience is based on a sampling even larger than mine. At its peak, Harry’s cellar held 4,800 bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and it didn’t matter which house, or which vintage, he pulled from; during summer months, they all took an evolutionary step backward, regardless of how well they were stored.
Rather than give exhaustive tasting notes on two-dozen wines poured, let me concentrate on the top wines.
1949 Chateau Patriarche, Pere et Fils.
This wine, from a Beaune negociant, was the oldest CDP of the evening, and the oldest CDP I personally have ever tasted. Despite being 62-years-old (!), it still has fruit, life and personality. Call it CDP-lite; though partially oxidized, there are still hints of dried fruits, like prunes, raisins and fig, and a noticeable Virginia tobacco finish. Actually, a very “pretty” wine, considering the age.
1959 Roger Sabon.
OMG – this CDP! Don’t let the pale strawberry color fool you; this is CDP on steroids. Sweet, almost meaty, in the middle palate this wine displays a cacophony of fruit flavors and there is a l-o-n-g finish of mint and spearmint, which persists for a good 20 seconds.
1961 Chateau Cabrieres.
I know this sounds nuts: Although half-a-century old, this wine still tastes young, vibrant, and is thoroughly alluring. It grabbed my attention on each swallow, begging me to come back for another sip. Fruit and forest flavors mingle. There is a heap o’ cherry on the finish, both sweet and sour varieties, and I ended my tasting notes with this litany: “Stunning complexity, arresting flavors, exceptional wine.” Kinda says it all.
1978 Chateau Cabrieres.
They must have been doing something extra correct at Cabrieres to snag two of the top spots in this tasting; I used many of the same words to describe the ’78 as I did the ’61. As well, I noted this wine was sweet, lush, and hedonistic. Oh, and truly sensational. Lots of berries, both black and red, tons of fresh fruit flavors, not dried or candied. What a package
Anyone who would like to learn more about Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, or who plans to visit the region in southern France, needs this book. Period. It is the definitive tome on the subject (though I think I made this clear many paragraphs ago).
The book is $50 on amazon, and $79 just about everywhere else.
You can also buy the book on Harry’s Dutch website, www.kavino.nl
One other new toy: Harry has put his ENTIRE 500-page book, as well as a new summary guide, on a compact flash drive (pictured above), which you can transfer to your iPhone or iPad, so that you always have everything you need to know about Chateauneuf-du-Pape in your pocket or backpack.
The flash drive, available on Harry’s website, is $24.95.