A Poor Man's Chateanuefby Neil Rosen
I have never been a big fan of wine snobbery. Sure, it is entertaining to poke fun at the wine novice’s unqualified swirls and base comments. It just isn’t a good way to make friends. So as a wine expert I found it much more enjoyable to try to relate to the inexperienced masses than to shun them; no one wants to live his life alone. Thus, while many people believe wine appreciation is reserved for the bourgeoisie, I want to contend that it can be an activity for the common man. How does this work?
Well, wine people love to call certain wines a poor man’s something or other. This is a common claim which generally means, wine A is a cheaper substitute for B - wine B being a famous collectable sort of wine. Although most wine folk contend that A could not be as good as B, this really is one of the world’s major wine mistakes. There are many instances in which the quality of wine A rival that of B. Basically, expensive wine (wine B) is not always worth what you pay-its name recognition and resulting demand usually inflate its price. Typically, half of what you are paying for in a boutiquey collectable wine is its famed reputation, a result of years of good work, and sometimes smart advertising. While one wine may be the hallmark of quality, it is not absolutely unique; there is always an obscure army of poor man’s wines trying to take its place. The trick is to pick from this obscure army.
CASE IN POINT
A few years ago, the notion of a poor man’s Chateanuef du Pape would have been a little misleading; it is not necessarily a wine that screams upper class. Chateanuef highly regarded as the most notable appellation of the Southern Rhone Valley of France, the southern Rhone has always been known for producing big yet sloppy, high alcohol, monolithic reds respected more for their forcefulness than grace. So why then would you be searching for a poor man’s version of this style of wine? Well, over the past few years prices fetched for CDP have rivaled those of top estates in Bordeax and Burgundy. The top cuvees from well regarded estates like Chateau Rayas and Beaucastel have passed the $100 mark in recent vintages. To keep drinking well, we must find alternatives.
CDP does not sit alone in the Southern Rhone, in fact it is but a pin-prick in the patchwork quilt of interesting appellations. Although wines from these appellations can have some difference in quality, they do have one thing in common: Grenache. It is the pride of the south, and you will not find a wealth of better examples of this grape than the Southern Rhone. In fact, most people who have tried to plant Grenache in other parts of the world have had disappointing results. While a Grenache from California can often drink placid, fumey, one dimensional, and be quite expensive, a Southern Rhone red is often rich and chewy, showing juicy, sweet, gobby, fruit, dynamic earthy spices, chewy tannins, and a relatively low price tag.
To ensure your poor man’s Chateanuef does not reflect poor quality, you may want to use these simple rules. Wines from certified appellations such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras & Lirac can often drink as well as CDP for a good fraction of the price. An even better source of value is the larger appellation of Côte du Rhone Villages that sits a step above the more popular Côte du Rhone in classification. Wines from this appellation are subject to stricter production requirements, and at times can put their commune names on the labels. Better CDP Village can be found labeled as Rasteau, Cairanne, Beaumes-de-Venise, and Sabley. As well, the southern Rhone has had an unprecedented run of three amazing vintages: 1998, 1999, and 2000. Not only has the quality of fruit been far above normal standards, the vines have been quite productive, creating an uncommon balance between quality and quantity. Currently, you can find great wines still available from all three vintages.
Now, for example, if you put up a quality $15 Côtes du Rhone Village against a $150 CDP, you would probably find the CDP to be the more substantial wine. Then again, you might find the fact that you could buy 10 very good bottles of Côtes du Rhone Villages to one outstanding bottle of CDP to be radically disproportionate. As well, if you compared the same Côte du Rhone Village against a $40 CDP you would probably find them to be very similar. Furthermore, the chance that you will find a good CDP in a wine shop is challenged by the fact that you have to compete with many wealthy wine snobs looking for the same thing. Try to keep all this in mind and you should be able to drink with the best of them.