It was an open secret in the wine world: burgundies were fortified with reds from the Rhone. When the weather was unkind to Burgundians, they'd just add a little sunshine from the more predictable south. And the favorite blending wines were the full-bodied, high alcohol chateauneuf-du-papes.
Of course, this was before our time, and before the introduction of the French appellation control,ee system in 1936. If, or when, it's happened since, it has, of necessity, been discreet and the good growers of Ch.ateauneuf haven't received recognition for the part they've played in boosting the body of burgundy.
Unfortunately, Ch.ateauneuf has been through its own lean years recently. It has been out of favor because too many of the wines were pedestrian. Like other areas of traditionally big reds, production methods had been changed to suit the "modern taste" for lighter, quicker maturing wines.
Most of the corner-cutting was done by negociants, producer- shippers, rather than the small domaines, but in times of low demand and economic uncertainty, many domaines preferred to sell their crop to the negociants. Now, international demand and better prices have encouraged a return to the old style.
Several months ago, it was promised that our trade would be flush with rh.ones. The wines have arrived and retailers do have a better range of rh.ones than at any time in the recent past. And the broadest selection is from Ch.ateauneuf-du-Pape.
I couldn't be more delighted. The wines tasted in the past month show a high standard, partly because our trade has sought domaine wines as well as shippers, and partly because they're from the very good '78 and '79 vintages.
Of the two years, I found the '78s to be fuller, firmer and needing longer aging than the '79s. The '79s had a higher astringency and sharper finish. On the other hand, they should mature more quickly than the '78s. It all depends on how long you can wait, and, if there is one overall comment on the wines listed below, it is: be very patient. It'll be worth it.
As a group, the wines are deeply colored, staining the glass. The noses are closed, only opening up after three or four hours. And all are tannic, so tannic that early drinking is not only a waste of long term potential, but inadvisable for enjoyment now.
Prices vary, depending on the domaine and the retailer, but are in the $9 to $15 range. Shop around. There should be good rh.ones in the spring sales.
I've divided my recommendations into two sections, the very full-bodied and the medium-bodied. Given that it is permissible to use up to 13 different grapes in a ch.ateauneuf-du-pape and that the appellation covers a variety of soils, it is to be expected that there will be variations in style.
Full, needing more than five years: '78 Ch.ateau La Nerte; '78 Les Cailloux; '78 Ch.ateau de Beaucastel; '79 Les Cedres, Paul Jaboulet, an exception to the price ceiling, it can cost as much as $20, and may not be worth the premium. All had deep fruit and tannin, promising a smooth and earthy maturity. I particularly liked the pepperiness of the Beaucastel, a domaine that has always been an exception to the switch to lighter wines.
Medium-full, some of which may be deceptively soft now, with the fruit masking the tannin: '78 Domaine du Haut des Terres Blanches; '78 Vidal Fleury (a shipper of first class reputation); '79 Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe; '79 Domaine Font de Michelle.