The reds of the lower Rhone valley in southern France are cold-weather wines, big and flavorful, with sufficient power to illuminate the darkest evening. Fittingly, they are produced in within broad view of the foothills of the Alps and blue skies of incredible clarity. Such country seems preordained to produce wine of stature, and has in fact been doing so since before the Romans arrived. Reportedly Pope Clement V, in Avignon, liked local Rhone wines; he had a country estate built in the hills above the river, in the heart of the vineyards, called Ch.ateauneuf-du-Pape.
It is now a colorful ruin. The name, however, belongs to the best known and most important appellation in the area, a wine of great character and aging potential, recommended as the ultimate accompaniment for gamy roasts but in fact good with any red meat. Ch.ateauneuf-du- Pape is a blend of as many as 13 different grapes, including grenache, cinsaut, syrah, mourv,edre and clairette. Consequently it has no clearly identifiable varietal flavor, as bordeaux and burgundies do, but an overall impression of complex, sometimes peppery fruit, and the warmth of at least 13.5 percent alcohol -- France's highest legal minimum.
This is no aperitif; neither is it a wine for the beaujolaisie. The bigger vintages of Ch.ateauneuf-du-Pape require many years under the basement steps before drinking, although there is a recent trend even in the Rhone valley toward lighter, more accessible reds.
Visitors to Ch.ateauneuf-du-Pape are struck by two things: The intensity of the Mediterranean sun, and the extremely rocky soil. Here tractors plow fields of oval stones once brought down the Rhone by glacier. The vines are truly "stressed," meaning that by searching for water and nutrients buried deep in the earth they develop character and intensity missing from those planted in easier environments. Pruning is rigorous and the yield intentionally low.
This summer at the Domaine de Mont-Redon, the biggest single vineyard in Ch.ateauneuf-du-Pape, I sampled its dark young wines, of the traditional style. Mont-Redon leaves the juice on the lees for three weeks to make the wine even more concentrated; it is then passed through a centrifuge, and left in huge oak barrels for about three years. Nowadays the wines are released after bottling, so it is up to consumers to make sure they get the additional age the wines surely need.
Of the recent Mont-Redon vintages I tasted, the '78 was the most intense, with suggestions of cassis and cherries, a lot of body and tannin and a kaleidoscopic finish. The '80 was a minor version of the '78, and the '81 was almost as impressive, but it required more age. (It is available here for about $10 a bottle.) The '82 had good color and the aroma of violets, without much fruit or tannin. The '83 also seemed light, but more promising than the '82, the least distinguished vintage. Mont- Redon's wines are among the most expensive Ch.ateauneuf-du- Papes, but they are usually worth the price.
The good news for the consumer is that the prices of some Ch.ateauneuf-du-Papes have actually come down in the last year, because of their popularity and the strength of the dollar. These bargains include the wines of Ch.ateau de Beaucastel, Domaine du Vieux T,el,egraphe, Paul Jaboulet, Ch.ateau de la Gardine, and M. Chapoutier. The '79 and '80 are generally the most drinkable recent vintages.
Remember: the more patient the investor in these wines, the greater the reward.