Château La Nerthe: A Châteauneuf Standout
By Michael Apstein

Although you hear it all the time, the claim that 'This wine is great to drink now, but will also improve with bottle age' is, in fact rarely borne out over time.  However, with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it's true.  The red wines from Châteauneuf (and 95% of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is red) have an engaging, robust, fruity spiciness when young that makes them perfect for hearty fare.  But unlike many wines whose 'fruit-forward' flavors just fade with age, the flavors of Châteauneuf-du-Pape blossom with age into complex, exotically earthy ones that are perfect for game or grilled meats. 

The Galets are Key

Anyone who doubts the importance of soil types in winemaking need only drive around Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  The appellation is known for galets, the large rocks that blanket the vineyards.  They absorb the sun's heat during the day and radiate it back to vines like a sauna during the night.  Alain Dugas, the managing director of Château La Nerthe, one of the area's leading properties, explains that they also reflect light, thereby giving a boost to photosynthesis as well.  The galets also hold humidity in the soil, a necessity in this hot, windy, arid part of France.  Dugas notes, 'Without the galets, Châteauneuf-du-Pape would not be the unique wine that it is.'

Examining the soil, even from a car's window, explains the difference between Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the abutting Côtes du Rhône appellation.  An obvious and abrupt change of soil differentiates the poor, galets-filled terrain of Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the clay-based soil of Côtes du Rhône (and the even more fertile--Vin de Table--land in the plains nearer the river).

The diversity of soils and exposures within the small Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation (about 1/6th the size of Napa Valley) is staggering and likely explains the plethora of grape varieties utilized there and the origin of the unique Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend.  And the differences are so obvious you don't need a degree in geology to see them.  On the La Crau plateau, in the southern part of the appellation where Château La Nerthe and Château Vieux Telegraphe lie, vineyards are thoroughly covered with large round brown galets.  La Crau, a Provencal word that means, 'Where nothing grows,' is an apt name for this particularly barren, rugged section of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  But in contrast, in the areas near Château Beaucastel or on the Plateau Mont Redon, soils are more apparent and the galets notably smaller.  In other sub-zones, the rocks strewn across vineyards are jagged pieces of white limestone.

The Soils and Exposures Explain the Blend

The exposures of the 8,000 acres of vineyards entitled to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation are as varied as the soils, which explains why the harvest in this small area typically extends over a span of six weeks (from the end of August to the beginning of October).   Most properties own vineyards scattered around the appellation, enabling them to take advantage of the region's diversity. 

The multiplicity of soils and exposures goes hand in hand with--and likely explains--the origin of the blend allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  No one or two grape varieties is perfectly suited to the entire area.  Over the centuries, growers have learned which of the 13 red and white grape varieties authorized by the AOC grow best in which of the plethora of sub zones and plots of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This diversity also gives the growers an economic insurance policy should adverse weather conditions affect the varieties. 

White Châteauneuf-du-Pape

While white Châteauneuf-du-Pape accounts for only about 5% of the appellation's output, the best of them--Beaucastel's Vieilles Vignes bottling and La Nerthe's Clos de Beauvenir--stand with the great white wines of the world and are not to be missed by serious wine enthusiasts.

White Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a blend that includes Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Clairette.  It's a tricky wine to get right because Grenache Blanc, which is prized because it adds structure, oxidizes easily.  Roussanne, which adds aroma and texture to the finished wine, is a hard grape to manage because it has a very narrow window for harvesting.  Picking even a day late results in a heavy wine.  According to Dugas, Clairette adds aroma to the finished wine, while Bourboulenc supplies the all-important acidity.

Château La Nerthe

There is no better overall producer of Châteauneuf-du-Pape than Château La Nerthe.  They may not make the 'best' wine from the region every year, but they produce incredibly consistent wines year in and year out, as do the handful of other top producers such as Beaucastel and Vieux Telegraphe.  Even in 2002, a vintage destroyed by the deluge in the southern Rhône, they made an enjoyable wine.

La Nerthe's 225-acre property has been owned by the Richard family since 1985, but is directed by Alain Dugas, who came to winemaking rather implausibly from accounting.  Dugas is an engaging, enthusiastic man who looks a little like Harry Truman, and who has the same down-to-earth sensibility.  Dugas restored the entire neglected property--vineyards, winery and chateau.  When Dugas arrived, he even found a World War II bunker in front of the chateau, a reminder that the Germans had used the site as a telecommunications center.

His wines show the attention to detail he must have exercised in his former profession.  Showing good sense, Richard views La Nerthe as an investment, and leaves the winemaking to Dugas.  (And an excellent investment it is: Dugas estimated the purchase price in 1985 was about $2 million dollars, and suspects it is worth 20 times that now.)

Although La Nerthe has all of Châteauneuf's 13 permitted varieties planted (and uses them all in the red blend), the primary ones are Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah.  Dugas notes, 'The balance of the wine is in the balance of the maturation of the grapes.'  La Nerthe's wines have power, but are balanced and not overdone undoubtedly because Dugas feels, 'It is not necessary to have a high level of alcohol for the wine to be good or intense.'

Cuvée Des Cadettes

La Nerthe's top cuvée, Cuvée des Cadettes (which represents from 5% to 10% of their average annual production of 240,000 bottles), comes from a 20-acre vineyard planted with 85 to 100 year-old vines that are about twice the average age of the vines at La Nerthe.  (Although everyone agrees that old vines produce better wines, the precise reason is not clear.  Some winemakers believe it is because old vines have deeper roots that ensure a more stable water supply for the vine.  Others believe the deeper roots extract more 'flavors' from the soil).  Unlike many of the super cuvées coming from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cuvée des Cadettes is not a selection made in the cellar from the best barrels but, rather, a selection from a unique plot, according to Dugas. 

Another reason Cuvée Des Cadettes excels every year is that Dugas makes a severe selection within this vineyard.  Grapes or wine that Dugas and his team judge to be less-than-superb goes into their regular bottling.  To enhance the quality of their 'regular' Châteauneuf-du-Pape (and because Châteauneuf-du-Pape cannot be declassified to Côtes du Rhône but only to Vin de Table), La Nerthe also makes a 'second' wine from young vines under the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, 'La Graviere,' that is not sold in the United States.  

Clos de Beauvenir

Dugas is clearly enthusiastic and has a passion about his white wines.  After tasting them myself, I find his enthusiasm entirely understandable.  Of their total annual production, more than 10% is white (about 2,500 12-bottle cases), compared to the average of 5% for the appellation as a whole.  Interestingly, Dugas notes that in the 19th century, 50% of La Nerthe's production was white, though the owners replanted primarily with red varieties after phylloxera.  The property's best white, is made in very limited amounts from a small vineyard enclosed by Provencal stone walls, and is called 'Clos de Beauvenir.'

Although many people advise drinking white Châteauneuf-du-Pape within a year or two of the harvest, Dugas believes La Nerthe's are best after five to eight years.  After tasting them, I agree with him.

The Whites

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Blanc 2006 (Not yet released, Moet-Hennessey USA):  Nuances of apricots and tangerine are readily apparent in this youthful wine, whose rough edges are still apparent.  It will need several years to mellow.  87

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Blanc 2005 ($40, Moet-Hennessey USA): Unlike many southern Rhône white wines, this one is quite fresh, with excellent uplifting acidity (probably because of a higher percentage of Bourboulenc in the blend).  The 14% alcohol is not out of place in the midst of a plethora of stone fruit-flavors in this well-balanced wine.  90

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Blanc 2004 ($40, Moet-Hennessey USA):  A similar combination of apricot, tangerine and orange petal links this wine to younger vintages from La Nerthe.  Refreshing acidity from 22% Bourboulenc in the blend makes this a more refined wine.  91

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Blanc 2002 (No longer available on retail market):  I shuddered, but said nothing, when my host ordered this wine in a restaurant because of the reputation of the 2002 vintage in the southern Rhône.  I'm glad I kept my mouth shut.  What a lovely surprise: a lush texture without a trace of heaviness followed alluring hints of orange petal and tangerine.  Vibrant acidity carried the delicate apricot flavors and spice into the finish.  Tasted again with the other vintages of this wine, its grace and balanced stood out.  92

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Blanc, Clos de Beauvenir 2003 ($85, Moet-Hennessey USA):  Mostly a blend of Roussanne and Clairette (with a little Clairette and Bourboulenc) vinified in small oak barrels, the 2003 Clos de Beauvenir has great complexity, with flavors of white peach and hints of tobacco and vanilla under a layer of spicy oakiness.   Although the oak is a little prominent at this stage, it will fade with a few years of bottle age and the underlying flavors will deliver delight.  88

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Blanc, Clos de Beauvenir 2001 ($85, Moet-Hennessey USA):  This is the best white Châteauneuf-du-Pape I have ever tasted.  A stunning wine, the 2001 Clos de Beauvenir is a wonderful ambassador for this appellation.  The balance is what makes it such a complete success.  The slightly nutty elements and floral nuances enhance the delicate apricot and creamy flavors.  It has the ripeness associated with southern Rhône white wines, but also a fabulous freshness rarely found in these wines.  96

The Reds

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Rouge 2004 ($35, Moet-Hennessey USA): Haunting aromas of red fruits and spice precede nuances of smoke.  Bright red and black fruit flavors intertwined with light gamey notes leap from the glass.  This is a full-flavored, but not over-the-top, impeccably balanced wine supported by fine tannins and uplifting acidity.  It's so lovely now that it's hard to resist, but I bet it will develop magnificently.  93

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Rouge 2002 ($30, Moet-Hennessey USA): This is an excellent wine considering the overall poor quality of the vintage.  It already shows mature, tobacco-like notes in the nose and on the palate.  The bright, spicy red fruit flavors that mark young Châteauneuf-du-Pape have started to morph into gamey nuances.  More advanced than even the 2001, it should be consumed now.  85

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Rouge 2001 ($45, Moet-Hennessey USA): Although I've not tasted all the Châteauneuf-du-Pape releases from 2001, this one must be one of the stars of the vintage.  A fabulous nose of spice gives way to fresh raspberry-like fruit atop exotic herbal flavors.  Youthfully vigorous and deep, it is beautifully harmonious and not overdone.  Wonderful to drink this summer with grilled meat, it will continue to develop beautifully for at least a decade.  95

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Rouge 1998 (No longer available on retail market): The 1998 La Nerthe is starting to make the magical transformation from vibrant fresh fruit flavors to more mature ones of coffee and dried spiced fruit.  Nevertheless, sufficiently fresh fruit flavors persist to indicate that it still has plenty of life ahead of it.  Showing lovely length, brilliant balance, and plenty of power, it is an elegant wine.  94

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Rouge 1995 (No longer available on retail market): The 1995 La Nerthe conveys an attractive leathery, slightly rustic component alongside a mixture of spicy, herbal and fruity flavors.  An alluring 'wildness' distinguishes it from the more elegant 1998 and demonstrates the diversity of how Châteauneuf-du-Pape develops.  91

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Rouge 1990 ($90, Moet-Hennessey USA): Fully mature but still lively and beautifully balanced, the 1990 La Nerthe has a fabulous combination of leather, game and spice to complement the dried fruit character.  It unfolds, revealing more complexity, as it sits in the glass throughout a meal.  Bearing some similarity to well-aged Bordeaux or red Burgundy, it distinguishes itself with alluring nuances of herbs and spice.  93

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) "Cuvée des Cadettes" 2004 (Not yet available, Moet-Hennessey USA):  Big, but not boisterous, the 2004 des Cadettes has tons of minerals and tar in the nose.  Vinified in 100% new oak, the wood flavor does not dominate, and the wine is balanced by a combination of sweet, ripe, concentrated red and black fruit flavors.  A baby of a wine now, you'd be well advised to check back on this in a decade or so.  95

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) "Cuvée des Cadettes" 2001 ($100, Moet-Hennessey USA):  While any oak taste has disappeared from this wine, its youthful, vibrant fruit and spice notes persist.  Its harmony and balance is even more impressive than its substantial power and concentration.  La Nerthe's winemaking team has extracted the maximum from these grapes without going over the edge.  Unevolved at this stage, this is another great candidate for every wine lover's cellar.  96

Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône Valley, France) Cuvée des Cadettes 1998 ($85, Moet-Hennessey USA): If you see this wine on a retailer's shelf, do not pass it by.  It has a magical combination of freshness and maturity.  Just starting to show its mature side with meaty and coffee overtones, it still retains a ripe mixture of black and red fruit flavors.  The seamless addition of herbal and spicy nuances coupled with exceptional length makes this a monumental wine.  97

Clearly, Château La Nerthe makes some of the best wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  In a world filled with overdone wines with 15% alcohol, it's refreshing to see a producer make intensely flavored wines that retain elegance and grace.  Though you might need to search a bit to find some of these wines, they are well worth the effort. 

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