I love Chateauneuf du Pape…it is one of my favourite wines, for a whole bunch of reasons. Grenache-based, little or no influence by wood, can age for 10 – 20+ years in good vintages and – for a wine of high caliber – is still affordable for most people’s cellars (at $40 – $60 a bottle).
But when to drink it? An important question, because while it can be drinkable young, it is also exquisite when it reaches full maturity.
Before we get to “when”, though, a little about “why” to age it.
As I have written before, the vast majority of wines (over 90%) are not only ready to drink on release, but will get no better with age. The fruit is (hopefully) ripe and fresh, so why wait!
But a small number do benefit from age. Why? Well, a few reasons.
“Big” red wines often have strong tannins, which can make a wine taste harsh when young. Age will soften those tannins, making for more enjoyable drinking.
The other reason for aging is the way a wine can develop complexity over time. The primary aromas and flavours can evolve into secondary ones – herbs, licorice, earth, meat. As long as they don’t overwhelm the fruit (or get overwhelmed by wood), that can be great!
So back to the main question…when to drink your Chateauneuf!
Well, in my experience, try your first bottle at 8 – 10 years old. The tannins should be softened, but the fruit still very apparent. You will want to decant the wine just in case it is still too tannic, as that can soften things up over the course of a meal.
Try your second bottle (and remember, always try to buy at least 2 bottles of a cellar wine so you can follow its development) at 15. For most Chateauneufs, that should be full maturity. Again, decant – there will be sediment – and check out the fruit component. It will be drier than the last time for sure…but if it is still very present, and not overwhelmed by the secondary flavours, you are in good shape.
Finally, if you are lucky enough to have a third bottle – and the second was in really good shape – try it at 20. Stored well, from a good vintage, this can almost be a religious experience! Almost port-like flavours can develop, not sweet, but so complex and smooth.
So there you go…a bit of a road map for Chateauneuf du Pape!