OVER THE LAST year, a number of the finest cha teauneuf-du-papes from this huge wine producing region in Southern France have become available for the first time at prices that are hard to ignore.

For years, most wine enthusiasts thought of cha teauneuf-du-pape as a highly alcoholic, heavy, grapy wine without any complexity or character. While there can be no doubt that much of the wine produced in this region is rather simple, the best estates in Cha teauneuf-du-Pape are meticulously well run, and produce superlative wines that gain complexity in the bottle while retaining a heady, perfumed quality and savory, deep fruitiness.

The vineyards of Cha teauneuf-du-Pape are just 10 kilometers north of the historic walled city of Avignon. The area is drenched with Mediterranean sun, and the wines that result from this climate are big, warm and very generous. While the French wine laws allow 13 different grape varieties in cha teauneuf-du-pape, only four varieties are widely used. Grenache is preferred by far, as it is a prolific producer, but all of the top domaines or chateaux in Cha teauneuf-du-Pape also use various proportions of syrah, cinsault and a mourve dre, in addition to the grenache, to add complexity to their wines.

Cha teauneuf-du-pape can live remarkably long in the bottle, but most wines are clearly ready to drink 4 to 6 years after the vintage. Of recent vintages, 1978 is simply magnificent, producing classic long-lived wines with a stunning depth of fruit; 1979 is also very, very good, as is 1980, although the wines from 1980 will mature sooner than most of the cha teauneuf-du-papes from either the 1978 or 1979 vintages.

The following are 10 of the very best cha teauneuf-du-pape estates that are available in the local metropolitan market, listed alphabetically by the name of the domaine or chateau. Cha teauneuf-du-pape is the perfect fall and winter wine, and is best served with beef and rich stews. The wine often throws quite a heavy sediment (which is a good rather than bad sign), and therefore should be decanted or placed upright for a day or two before drinking.

Chateau de Beaucastel--In my opinion, this estate produces the finest wine in Cha teauneuf-du-Pape. Consistently well made and even successful in off vintages, Beaucastel is the longest lived of all the cha teauneuf-du-pape wines. At a recent vertical tasting held by the importer, the 1942 was still in excellent condition. Of the vintages that are now on the market, the 1978 ($11.95) is a very intense, tannic, dark ruby/purple wine with a ripe, intense bouquet filled with exotic spices and berryish tarry scents. Very full-bodied with deep concentrated fruit and astringent tannin, this enormous wine has extraordinary promise if the consumer is willing to hold it for another 5 to 10 years. The 1979 ($9.99) is more appealing and delicious to drink at present, although it is still a big ruby/purple wine with a lot of cassis, blackberry, oaky aromas and flavors, and plenty of tannin to coat the palate. It is a voluptuous wine which should develop beautifully over the next 5 to 10 years. Both wines are widely available.

Domaine de Beaurenard -- This estate produces a wine for immediate consumption, and while critics of the estate claim Beaurenard lacks the character that it had in the past, I find the wine simply delicious to drink while you wait for the more classically rendered cha teauneuf-du-papes to mature. The 1979 ($10.95) is an intensely fruity wine with lush, lively, fruity flavors. It is hard to resist now because of its engaging personality, yet should get better over the next 3 years. Beaurenard is available at Pearson's Liquors.

Les Cailloux -- This excellent property has reappeared in the local market after an absence of 4 years. The 1978 ($10.95) is a classic from an extraordinary vintage. Very dark ruby with a moderately intense ripe, briary bouquet, this wine has excellent concentrated flavors, moderate tannin, and seems destined to hit its peak in 5 to 7 years. In contrast, the 1979 ($10.95) while also quite impressive, is softer and more supple, with slightly less depth of flavor than the exceptional 1978. Both wines are generous, full bodied wines made in the classic style and widely available locally.

Domaine du Font du Roi -- No one will confuse this wine with a Beaucastel or a Les Cailloux, but it is a lovely, supple, remarkably fruity wine, made in the style of a big beaujolais. Full bodied, yet fresh and lively on the palate, this is a wine to drink in the next 1 to 2 years. The 1981 ($7.99) is a good bargain, and is widely available.

Chateau Fortia -- Fortia is one of the classic and historically important estates of Cha teauneuf-du-Pape. While the wine has been lightened up over recent years, it still has plenty of punch and authority. If you can find any of the 1978, you'll discover it is dark ruby wine with a lovely, fragrant, fruity aroma. The new release, the 1979 ($11.95), is just as successful, with a full-bodied, well-textured, moderately tannic feel on the palate and an intense bouquet of flowery, spicy scents. Very stylish and almost elegant for a cha teauneuf-du-pape, it should mature in 4 to 5 years. Chateau Fortia is available at Pearson's.

Guigal -- While Guigal is well known for his splendid wines made in the northern part of the Rho ne Valley, most people fail to realize that he also makes one of the very finest cha teauneuf-du-papes. His 1978 ($11.95) is a very dark ruby wine with a big, cedary, berrylike bouquet of moderate intensity. Rather full, ripe and rich, this big wine is quite well-made with very good depth of fruit and moderate tannins. This wine will require a good 5 to 7 years in the cellar to soften and develop. It is available at A&A Liquors.

Chateau La Nerte -- Next to Beaucastel, this is probably the longest lived and most classically rendered wine of Cha teauneuf-du-Pape. The 1978 ($11.95) is a big, back-strapping wine with very concentrated, spicy, fruity flavors of cassis, moderate tannin and tremendous length on the palate. It is a bit rough at present, but 5 to 6 years of bottle age should prove particularly rewarding to those who have the foresight to purchase this very well made wine. Available at Pearson's.

Chateau Rayas -- Rayas is regarded by some wine writers as the finest estate in Cha teauneuf-du-Pape. I have generally found the wine a bit too oaky, since the owners have traditionally kept the wine up to 4 years in oak casks. However, the 1978 ($25), while rather steep in price, is nevertheless an excellent wine from what many observers believe to be the best Rho ne Valley vintage in the last 25 years. Very dark ruby/purple with an intense bouquet of spicy oak and ripe fruit, the 1978 Rayas is very rich and full bodied, and in need of 5 to 8 years of cellaring. Available at Mayflower Wines and Spirits.

Domaine du Haut des Terres Blanches--This is another exceptional cha teauneuf-du-pape from an estate that is not very well known. The 1978 ($10.95) is quite rich and savory, with a full-bodied feel on the palate, and plenty of ripe fruit and spicy oak.

Like most 1978 cha teauneuf-du-papes, it needs 5 to 6 years to soften and develop, but will reward the patient. Available at Mayflower Wines and Spirits.

Domaine de Vieux Telegraphe -- Always one of the most massive chateauneuf-du-papes, Vieux Telegraphe is one of the favorites of Rho ne wine enthusiasts because the wine is so incredibly intense and concentrated. The 1978, which is no longer available, was one of the very finest cha teauneuf-du-papes I have ever tasted. The 1979 ($10.95) is quite dark in color with a ripe, exotic scented bouquet. A very full-bodied wine, it has plenty of power and concentration. The 1980 ($8.99) is much more forward and accessible than 1979, and will provided considerable enjoyment if drunk over the next 4 to 5 years. The wines of Vieux Telegraphe are widely available.