Our wine journey began at a Shaw’s supermarket in 2006. The store was offering a promotion: Buy five bottles and get the sixth one free. It didn’t take long before my wife and I migrated to the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlet, which had a much larger selection. Knowing nothing about wine, choosing what to buy there was difficult at first. Fortunately, the very knowledgeable Joe “The Wine Guy” Comforti (the current wine director at Tuscan Kitchen) worked at the Salem, N.H., store on Saturdays. He suggested that we try a bottle of Chateau La Nerthe’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
All we knew about this wine was that it was French and cost $30 a bottle. We figured it had to be good.
My wife and I enjoyed that wine so much that we returned the next day and bought a case. The wooden crate that it came in has remained a treasured souvenir all these years, marking the beginning of a wine collection that currently numbers more than 250 bottles.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape or “The Pope’s New Castle,” is a designated wine region (AOC) in the Rhone Valley of southern France. The region is about 8.5 miles long and 5 miles wide, encompassing several villages and communes. Its name was derived from the historical fact that beginning in 1309, Pope Clement V and eight subsequent popes called Avignon their home.
Fifteen different grape varieties are allowed by law to be blended into Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, but 75 percent of the grapes grown in the region are grenache. Most wines made there are a blend of grenache, mourvedre and syrah. The other allowed varieties are blended by winemakers to taste, much like a chef would blend spices into his or her creations.
Wines from the region tend to be a bit high in alcohol — very bold, earthy and chewy. There are plenty of fruit flavors, but you can also expect a floral nose along with flavors of smoke, coffee, leather, garrigue (wild scrub herbs) and sometimes barnyard. All of these attributes are the result of the terroir. The soil there is loaded with rocks, sand, limestone and clay, making it unsuitable for most crops but fantastic for wine grapes.
It’s not uncommon for garrigue to be growing among the vines. The barnyard notes are the result of a naturally occurring yeast called Brettanomyces, “Brett” for short. Many winemakers eliminate this yeast, but others embrace it as part of the flavor profile expected from the region. Brett can give off an odor when a bottle is first opened, so when serving Chateauneuf-du-Pape, always decant for one to two hours.
During a recent visit to Lucia’s Bodega in Windham, N.H., I spied a bottle of 2015 Chateau La Nerthe. The last vintage we had was 2003, and I was hoping we would enjoy the same magic in this one. We experienced the expected complex fruit flavors from this blend of 50 percent grenache, 25 percent syrah, 20 percent mourvedre and 5 percent cinsault.
Chateau La Nerthe is one of the oldest and largest vineyards in the region, but, as is the case in many other regions, some of the best wines come from smaller producers.
I visited Andrea Comeau, beverage catering manager at Andover Classic Wines in Andover and was directed to Domaine Roger Perrin Reserve des Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This winery was established in 1969 and has only 37 acres of vineyards, compared with La Nerthe, which was established as early as 1560 (the historical record is uncertain) and has about 220 acres. Roger Perrin blends 76 percent grenache, 12 percent syrah, 7 percent mourvedre, 3 percent cinsault, 2 percent clairette, 2 percent counoise and 2 percent vaccarese to create a delicious fruit-forward blend with notes of freshly picked sweet berries and a touch of earthiness. At $56, you would expect something special, and you won’t be disappointed.
I also made my way to the Wine Connextion in North Andover, where I found one of their employee picks: Crous St. Martin Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Established in 1879, this winery cultivates 120 acres of vineyards. The wine turned out to be a bargain at $30 a bottle. Along with the bold fruity and earthy tones, there was a floral component to this wine that I really enjoyed.
One thing to look for when buying these wines is the embossed papal crest on each bottle. This crest guarantees authenticity, strict production criteria and, since 1979, a taste test. Wines that do not meet the taster’s standards are refused the right to be labeled for the appellation.
During the upcoming holiday season, consider gifting a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape to someone special; 2015 was a great vintage, and 2016 is reported to be even better. It’s always at the top of our wish list.
Andover Classic Wines
North Andover, Mass.