Whenever someone asks me what is my favorite wine, I unhesitatingly reply "Châteauneuf-du-Pape." This region consistently produces outstanding red blends that cellar well and can rival classic Bordeaux. Best part too is that Châteauneuf-du-Pape - even the classic ones - can be had for a fraction of the cost of classic Bordeaux.
What is fun for me as well is to see that expression of surprise on one's face, particularly if that person shows any familiarity with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, when I talk about the classic white wines that come from this appellation in the Southern Rhône. I even stumped a chef one time when a friend and I showed up at the restaurant with a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. The chef admitted he had never heard of it. And needless to say, it went spectacularly well with the whitefish on the menu.
Describing a Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is a bit tricky. First, there are six permitted grape varieties that may be used, but all six need not be used. There are, in fact, examples of this wine produced entirely with a single varietal. These grapes are not widely known even among those who consider themselves wine aficionados; they include Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Clairette and Picpoul as the most common. So when first tasting this wine, one might be a bit perplexed. This wine has the stern, mineral character, as well as the lightness, of a white Burgundy, rich with delicate orchard fruit like peach and pear. But there are spices and other flavors here that can befuddle the experienced palate, flavors of star fruit, anise, almond, and even fennel.
It's not a wine that will show up with any frequency at most wine stores, let alone a restaurant wine list. Part of this obscurity is due to its limited production. Just 7 percent of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is set aside for white varietals, and many of these are used in the red blends, leaving just 5 percent of the yield available for white wine production. Plus, despite the price (this wine can start at $30 per bottle, ranges mostly in the $40 to $60 area, but some can cost hundreds), these wines are generally crafted to drink young; very few are cellar-worthy (there is some debate about this).
But oh my, when you find one, they are worth it. And I recently found the 2011 vintage from Domaine Chante Cigale at the tempting price point of $30. I bought two of these and I admit I am tempted to go back for some more.
This particular blend is an even 25 percent each of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne, and Bourboulenc. I served it with sword fish steaks that had been marinated with mango and herbs. It paired beautifully with the heft of the sword fish, the wine showing as bright, juicy, and yet steely clean. There was just the right amount of orchard fruit, but that hint of anise and fennel was there dancing about the chilled taste of river stones.
While this wine is not something to keep for decades, it should store well over the next 3 to 5 years provided the right conditions can be had. And at $30, this is a good find.