An Ancient Pair of Chateauneuf du Pape from 1964
Chateauneuf du Pape was a common post-war selection on restaurant wine lists and wine stores in America. However, it fell out of favor in the 1970s due to significant price increases. As late as 1980, Gary Gunther for The Washington Post cautioned that Southern Rhone wines needed to be considered against the “river of reliable, highly competitive wines from California.” Sentiment soon turned. In 1982, Robert Parker Jr. wrote that several of the finest estates had “become available for the first time at prices that are hard to ignore.” He first traveled to Chateauneuf du Pape in the early 1970s and his love for the wines spawned renewed interest. He wrote of recent vintages back to the “simply magnificent” 1978. Until this summer, my experience with these wines never included vintages prior to 1978 because they are forgotten, predating most interest.
Chateauneuf du Pape is an old wine producing region with a history that has changed quite dramatically within the last century. The traditional wines are revered by all of my friends now but for others this was not the case in the past. In Frank Schoonmaker’s and Tom Marvel’s post-Prohibition The Complete Wine Book (1935), the authors wrote that it was “until recently one of the least trusthworthy for sale in France”. They did note that the passing of the Chateauneuf du Pape rules in 1923 made the wines “fairly reliable”. They listed it as the third most important Rhone region after Cote Rotie and Hermitage.
The 1923 Chateauneuf du Pape laws were the results of the efforts of Baron Le Roy, proprietor of Chateau Fortia, and several other growers. As a partial effort to curb wine fraud, they developed rules for any bottle of wine that was labeled from Chateauneuf du Pape. They delimited the boundaries for the appellation, the acceptable grape varieties, and minimum alcohol level amongst others.
In Frank Schoonmaker’s revised Encyclopedia of Wine (1965) he elevated Chateauneuf du Pape to the most important region of the Rhone. He recommended the estate bottled wine as the best with Chateau Fortia as one of his handful of recommendations. There were still just a handful of estates bottling wine in the 1970s. In fact, in 1978 only 20% of the wine was bottled in the village with the rest sold in bulk.
John Arlott, a wine journalist for The Guardian, also lists Chateau Fortia as amongst the best in his even smaller list from 1974. At the time, there were some 330 proprietors tendings vines with a proportion owning only two to three hectares. With many proprietors operating at a small scale a symbiotic relationship with negociants developed.
John Livingstone-Learmonth, Drink Rhone, expressed to me in email that for many domaines, negociants were a way for their wine to be known and to reach a broader market. As a result, the domaines supplied their best product without any feedback from the negociants on vineyard work.
Paul Jaboulet Aine, founded in 1834, is one negociant that is still a major force today. The Hermitage “La Chapelle” remains a benchmark for Northern Rhone wines. Today we would not include the Chateauneuf du Pape “Les Cedres” as amongst the best of the region but it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
With less domaines bottling their own wine, the range of wine available for the negociants to blend was quite good. I know this for a fact because I have tasted the 1964 Paul Jaboulet Aine, Les Cedres, Chateauneuf du Pape and 1964 Chateau Fortia, Tete de Cru, Chateauneuf du Pape.
On a recent summer evening I cut the capsules then pulled the corks on two bottles of Chateau Fortia and Paul Jaboulet Aine. The Chateau Fortia, originally exported to Northern Italy, made its way to Switzerland before coming over to America. The Paul Jaboulet Aine is an ex-domaine bottle. Both were imported by Mannie Berk of the The Rare Wine Company.
Paul Jaboulet Aine is a negociant with original vineyard holdings in Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. John Livingstone-Learmonth explained how Northern Rhone merchants felt they should have Southern Rhone wines in their portfolio. These were marketed towards French restaurants and the export trade. Thus the Chateauneuf du Pape “Les Cedres” is a brand name. Paul Jaboulet Aine purchased wine and not grapes for our bottle of 1964. Only vineyard owners were entitled to use a bottle bearing the name and crest of the region. Thus the bottle of Les Cedres is plain but the Tete de Cru is embossed.
The previously drunk 1964 Domaine de Beaucastel was a mouth filling marvel of fruit and life that benefitted from air. The 1964 Paul Jaboulet Aine, Les Cedres, Chateauneuf du Pape also developed with air, revealing sweeter dark and textured flavors. It did not reach the same heights but it was still excellent; a wine I would like to drink again. It is rich in flavor, leaving impressions of substantive weight that are supported by acidity with a surprising kick in the end. The 1964 Chateau Fortia, Tete de Cru, Chateauneuf du Pape is more advanced, signaled by both the color and the nose. The flavors are on the red fruit side and clearly more funky. It is most pleasurable if drunk up in a timely manner.
The 1964 vintage is in many regards positively ancient for Chateauneuf du Pape. It is also extremely rare in America. There are no bottles listed for sale, ensuring it remains a largely forgotten vintage on our shores. Thus to have tasted three bottles in the span of one month puts me in a rather unique and exciting position all thanks to my friend Mannie Berk. These wines not only speak of a different style of winemaking in Chateauneuf du Pape they also represent a bygone period when negociants were the major forces capable of producing outstanding wine. They are traditional wines that did not bend to the early-drinking vinification fad nor the press.
1964 Chateau Fortia, Tete de Cru, Chateauneuf du Pape
Imported by the Rare Wine Co. Alcohol 13.5%. The wine is slightly cloudy with an older color. The nose smells of old wine with animale notes. There is a sweet entry with tart red fruit, and that animale note. It fades with air becoming more metallic. **(*) Drink up.
1964 Paul Jaboulet Aine, Les Cedres, Chateauneuf du Pape
Imported by the Rare Wine Co. Alcohol 13.6%. This bottle developed well. It is a rich, inky wine with old wood notes. With air it opens up to reveal sweet blue and black fruit. This textured, darker wine is supported by acidity which noticeably goes down the throat. This is a great example of fully mature, substantive Chateauneuf du Pape. **** Now but will last.