Châteauneuf ShinesNick Passmore
One of the most beguiling wine properties I have ever visited is Château La Nerthe. This beautifully restored 18th century house with its understated charm is on the high plateau in the eastern portion of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
La Nerthe was the first C-du-P property to bottle its own wines, in 1792, and by the mid-19th century the wines were the best known and most expensive from the region, sold in London, Moscow, and New York.
Recent history, though, has not been so kind, and by the 1950s the estate was in terrible condition.
Finally it was bought by the Richard family in 1985, and under the guidance of Director Alain Dugas, both the property and the winemaking have been painstakingly restored to their former glory.
Twenty years ago C-du-P wines were quite different from today's. Heavier, with high alcohol levels and aggressive, sometimes green, tannins, they needed decades to mature and hardly suited the contemporary taste for instant gratification.
The Second-Glass Test
But that style has evolved, and Dugas was one of the pioneers of these changes. He claims his motivation was not commercial but personal. "When you drink one glass, you must drink another glass. Before, it was difficult to drink that second glass because of the weight, tannins, and high alcohol.
"I decided to change because it's not interesting for me to drink alcohol. I have decided to move with experiments. I tried different things."
And anyone tasting his wines today can be in no doubt of the success of these experiments.
I first tried the latest wine of the week, the Château La Nerthe Rouge 2005, when I visited Dugas in the summer of 2009, and my notes at the time read: "lovely now but will improve for at least another decade … what I like about this wine is that the Grenache doesn't dominate but is fully integrated into the larger, more complex whole. Beautiful plummy nose, all red cherries and blackberries."
Well, I drank it again recently, and I had been right—it had matured magnificently. The soft round tannins give it structure while in no way impeding its opulent accessibility. It's just oozing with the succulent flavors of cassis and plums picked out with the licorice, smoky herbs, and warm leather elements I love in a great C-du-P.
When to Drink: Now and for the next 10 years
Breathing/Decanting: An hour's breathing essential
Food Pairing: Richer red meat dishes, chèvre, roast chicken or game
Grapes: 50% Grenache, 31% Syrah, plus Mourvedre and Cinsault
Region: Southern Rhône