Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf du Pape: familiar names to almost every wine lover. But, they have more in common than most casual observers realise; indeed, a producer in Châteauneuf du Pape could, in theory, label their wine as Côtes du Rhône instead if they chose. How is that possible? Because Châteauneuf du Pape is just one of dozens of individual villages in the 75000 acres of south-eastern France in which the Appellation Contrôlée (AC, now renamed Appellation Protegée or AP) of Côtes du Rhône can be used.
Châteauneuf du Pape may be the best-known village but does it make the best wines? Now there’s a question! Undoubtedly, there are some outstanding Châteauneufs and many very good ones, but I’ve also come across some rather ordinary examples that attract undeserved high prices simply because of the name. So, for value, it’s often worth looking at some of the other villages. But a word of caution: there are so many different micro-climates in this vast region and so many different grape varieties allowed by the AC regulations, that defining what a good Rhône red should be is actually quite difficult. I would suggest that finding a producer whose style you like is probably more important than the village itself.
A good example is a wine I opened recently: Domaine Montvac is based in Vacqueyras (“vac-ker-rah”), barely 10 miles north-east of Châteauneuf. They produce a number of different wines but their ‘Variation’ bottling is unusual for the region in that it isn’t a blend but made from 100% Grenache harvested from vines planted in the 1940s. This had lovely black berry fruits together with hints of coffee, smoke and leather; absolutely delicious but it needed to be paired with some pan-fried venison steaks which perfectly complemented the weight of the wine.
Wines such as this – and most Châteauneufs – benefit from a few years ageing to soften the tannins and make the wine altogether more harmonious. My bottle was from 2012 and it has been lying quietly under our stairs for a few years (hence, I’ve long forgotten where I bought it or how much). But, at 7 years old, it was drinking well, although, if I had bought more than 1 (which I didn’t!), I would happily wait and enjoy that in another 2 or 3 years time.