There are very few classic European wine appellations that have become powerful consumer ‘brands’ in their own right. The names Jurançon, Bierzo or Bairrada will mean very little to the vast majority of people, but brave is the restaurant that does not include Chablis, Sancerre or Rioja on its list: touchstones for so many ‘ordinary’ wine drinkers, for whom these names spell quality. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is right at the top of that list too. For many restaurants and supermarkets, Châteauneuf is at the apex of their red wine range, a ‘famous name’ that their customers recognise as standing for quality, and worth the occasional splurge even if it does push the upper limit of what they’ll pay for a bottle of wine. So every supermarket and most mid-market restaurants will consider Châteauneuf-du-Pape to be an absolute ‘must’ on their wine list.
The truth is that for all that Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the great wines of France, its popularity also means there is an awful lot of it about, and quality does not always live up to the wine’s reputation. Supermarket Châteauneuf is often supplied by a large négociant, not necessarily based in the southern Rhône Valley. It’s a sobering thought that more Châteauneuf-du-Pape is produced annually than all of the northern Rhône appellations – Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, St Joseph, etc. – put together.
Translated as ‘The Pope’s new castle’, Châteauneuf-du-Pape often bears the papal seal embossed on its bottle. The historical reference dates back to the 14th century when the papacy was relocated to the city of Avignon, just a few miles south. The vineyards are famously covered in ‘galets’ or ‘pudding stones’, large pebbles that absorb the sun’s heat by day and release it overnight, thus helping ripen grapes to produce wines of generally high alcohol. But the galets are not ubiquitous, with no sign of them in many excellent vineyards, which may be composed of ‘Safres’ (compressed fine sand), ‘Grès Rouges’ (red sandstone) or ‘Eclats Calcaires'(porous limestone).
For many people Châteauneuf-du-Pape will be amongst the most expensive wines they will ever buy. Given its massive popularity, and the fact that it is lapped up by supermarket buyers as a high ticket item almost guaranteed to sell, I thought it would be interesting to line up some supermarket own-label and big brand examples for a taste test. Vintages of the wines tasted range from 2013 back to 2010, but please note that the vintage tasted below may not be the current one stocked by the named retailer.
There were six own-label wines amongst my selection of eight, and given that their price differs by only a couple of pounds, there was quite a range of styles and quality on display.
Domaine Vieux Calcernier, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2013, France
Grenache makes up half the blend of this Aldi exclusive, along with Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Syrah and the seldom-seen Vaccarese. It weighs in with 14% alcohol. Schisty, raspberry-touched aromas have plenty of briar and earth, and there is a cool feel to this. There is a touch of chocolate on the nose too, and it has some spices to add complexity. The palate is rather lean, but it is juicy, and although there is a slightly stripped feel to this for some reason, that leanness does add to its sense of freshness into quite a tangy, bittersweet finish. 87/100. £14.99, Aldi but it was a seasonal product for Christmas.
Sainsbury’s, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Courlandes 2013, France
With a relatively modest 13.5% alcohol this 60% Grenache blend also has a relatively pale colour, suggesting a Châteauneuf in a lighter style. The nose has soft strawberry and vanilla, that is pleasing if not terribly terroir-specific. It has a fruity palate too, a lean stripe of liquorice and a very dry finish, but it is spicy and peppery and reasonably long. It just feels a touch too lean for its own good. 86-87/100. £16.00, Sainsbury’s
Asda, Extra Special Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2013, France
Bottled for Asda by négociant firm Leon Perdigal, the name behind many an own-label Rhône wine, this again has a modest 13.5% alcohol and a very primary purple/crimson colour. On the nose it is all lift and cherry brightness at first, an almost Beaujolais-like character before a bit of darker fruit and gentle meatiness emerges. On the palate a similar juicy, but uncomplicated profile continues, and whilst hardly a Châteauneuf of great seriousness or structure, it is balanced, forward and drinks well. 88/100. £13.50, Asda.
Asda, Extra Special Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2011, France
This older vintage of Asda’s own label has a nicely saturated ruby colour and masses of soft, quite jammy red fruit that is appealing and generous, just edged with briary spice. With 14.5% alcohol it is beefy stuff though, that fluffy sweetness suggested by the nose giving way to a palate with much more muscle and structure, the tannins and stripe of chicory acidity giving a savoury finish. 88-89/100. £13.50, Asda.
Wm Morrison, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2011, France
Bottled for Morrisons by Ogier, this also has 14.5% alcohol and perhaps a slightly darker, more crimson colour. The nose is darker and firmer too, much more about dark blueberry and cassis aromas than red fruits, with liquorice and a sheen of coffeeish oak. Firmer in the mouth too, with a racy edge to the tannins and acidity, defining the bold black fruit and more of that endive and meaty savouriness. 89-90/100. £13.99, Morrisons
The Cooperative, Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Clefs Croises’ 2011, France
A hint of softening to the colour of this for sure, in another Grenache-dominated blend with 14.5% alcohol. Quite creamy, quite gentle on the nose, and back into the soft red berry spectrum of aromas, with a hint of pepper and sweet earth. This fills the mouth with juicy red berry fruits too, a bit of keen raspberry flavour and tart acidity, more earth and leather, a broader base filling in on the mid-palate. The finish shows plenty of spice and a little heat, with easy-going tannins but good overall balance. 88/100. £15.99, The Cooperative
Perrin et Fils, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Sinards 2011, France
There is 70% Grenache in this blend that comes from young vines of the Château de Beaucastel estate and from Perrin family vineyards. 14.5% alcohol. Aged in large oak foudres, it has a big, meaty and slightly antiseptic nose, the hints of something Bretty and Elastoplast-like in the background. The palate bursts with creamy and ripe fruit, plenty of berries, a gamy and earthy edge, and relatively soft tannins into a juicy, but slightly lean finish. A niggling doubt over that Bretty character marks this down a little, though it does drink well in an open and fairly straightforward style. 87/100. £22.00, Sainsbury’s Fine Wine range, in 230 stores.
Perrin et Fils, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Sinards 2010, France
Given my doubts over the possible Brettanomyces problem in the 2011 above it was good to have this 2010 vintage of the ‘Sinards’ to compare. With 14.5% alcohol, it is a blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre that has a dark, saturated and more youthful colour than the younger wine. The nose has a faint trace of something antiseptic, but here it melts into cedar and meatiness, with spices and a mineral edge too. There’s an umami character to this in the mouth, the meaty darkness of soy sauce and just a glimpse of fruit sweetness rather buried beneath the tannins, grippy acid finish and that meat and spice. Not an easy-drinker like some here, but a slightly sinewy but complex food-wine with structure. 90/100. £25.50, Asda. See all stockists on wine-searcher.