France's original appellation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is suddenly the wine to watch thanks to a new generation of vignerons who have joined the traditions of the southern Rhône with modern techniques from other regions to create a run of remarkable vintages dating from 1998 (save for '02). Châteauneuf (the hip drop du-Pape) now produces some of the most distinctive and age-worthy wines in France.
The recent sea change in Châteauneuf is all the more interesting as this rural area made up of several soil types is known to be staunchly traditional. The region was first planted in the fourteenth century (Châteauneuf-du-Pape means "new house of the pope" and refers to a summer palace used by the Avignon papacy), and while the winemakers have been slow to change, the wines had been inconsistent before this new era.
Fashioned from blending wines (Grenache predominates, but 13 grape varieties, including Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and even whites can be used), the wines are mouth-filling and loaded with red and black fruits backed by tar, tobacco, herb and mineral flavors. Typically high in alcohol, thanks to the southern Rhône's warm, dry conditions, they achieve elegance through their acidity. Grilled beef or lamb, and perhaps a truffle or two on the side, makes a perfect match. Some suggestions follow:
The long-standing and highly respected Brunier family created a hefty 17,000 cases of the Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Crau 2003 made from vineyards covered in the large rolled stones that are the trademark of the appellation. This is a rich, gravelly textured wine that needs a few years in the cellar. A blue-chip estate that was rated 93 in Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication, and retails for $45.
More accessible when young is the Paul Autard Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2003 (92, $35), which pumps out boysenberry, mocha and spice flavors—with 4,000 cases made, it should also be relatively easy to find.
Trophy hunters should look for the Roger Sabon & Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape Prestige 2003 (95, $65). It's a classic example of the appellation and vintage with its dense raspberry, plum, licorice, tar and bacon notes all supported by thick, muscular tannins. Only 1,250 cases.