Châteauneuf-du-Pape has been on fire lately. With spiraling prices and an explosion of points fueling that rise, it’s both hard to ignore Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, and perhaps harder still to buy them. These wines were once the purview of all wine drinkers—slightly rustic at one time, exuberant bistro wines filled with rich fruit flavors in a style that allowed for immediate consumption and yet rewarded some cellaring. 
Somewhere along the way, over the past decade or so, things changed. The wines somehow become remarkably better, if we are to believe the critics. Of course, “better” in so many cases often means bigger, and oakier, so whether or not the wines are actually more appealing is left open for debate (though there is no denying that they have become pointier). Points of course translate into dollars, more points equaling higher prices, so things are not all hunky dory in the land of Châteauneuf-du-Pape lovers. I’ve never been enamored with most of these wines, finding them a little simple and at times hollow for my palate. But there are always exceptions to any rule and the wines do have legions of followers. The question of the moment is are the wines worth the going rates?
I met with my regular Tuesday night crew recently to blind taste through eight examples. Only six of the wines were actually from Châteauneuf-du-Pape; the other two wines were from the Gigondas and Vacqueyras appellations, which are also Grenache-based wines from appellations very close to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Before moving onto the wines themselves, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the vintage, 2010, one that is widely regarded as a standout. Grenache is a grape that easily produces wines with alcoholic punch, so I am always concerned about vintages that receive high praise.  Early praise for a vintage often results from a fine growing season and ripe fruit at harvest. While I don’t advocate for under-ripe fruit per se, I do believe that a vintage that produces perfectly ripe fruit may not always produce the best wines. 
Some of the “stand out” vintages in the Southern Rhône over the past years? 2007 and 2009 spring to mind, and they are both, for my palate, too ripe—even if that’s what passes for perfectly ripe these days. The wines of both vintages are marred by a lack of freshness, excessive alcohols, and jammy flavors. Give me something under-ripe anytime if that is what “perfectly ripe” has become.
2010 certainly has garnered its share of accolades. Decanter trumpeted it as one of the top three vintages of the past 40 years, and Robert Parker has called it a great vintage, almost as good as the aforementioned 2007, which of course scared me a bit. Reading on though through Parker’s announcement gave me hope, as he commented on the higher acids and mentioned that the wines are not as exuberant, flamboyant or unctuously textured as the top 2007s, but they have the advantage of being slightly more delineated and focused, with greater freshness. Things were looking up.

2010 turns out to be a bit of an anomaly for the Southern Rhône, one in which yields were tiny, on average down by a third, in some places less than that due to a difficult crop set. Weather during the spring interfered with flowering and the resulting small crop had to deal with an exceptionally dry summer (that fortunately was not excessively hot). September drifted along with usefully warm weather before rainstorms hit towards the end of the month—an event that could threaten a crop with both dilution and mold if the weather doesn’t cooperate, but cooperate it did. October continued the part set during the summer months with dry, relatively warm weather that allowed the vineyards to recover from the rains and afforded vignerons a rather wide window to pick through.
The small yields of the vintage—and small berries in some cases—should endow the wines with great richness and power, though the long hang time did allow producers ample opportunity to fully ripen the tannins. And with it’s cooling September and October nights and lack of heat spikes, the long season allowed or the fruit to be harvested with slightly higher than normal acidities. The result should be wines of great depth and richness, well structured for the cellar but also be quite charming and attractive today. In short, they should be classic wines, and while the prices are perhaps a touch higher than previous vintages, if they live up their promise one would expect the prices to increase due to the short crop. 

All in all, the vintage really did seem attractive, but there’s only one way to find out, and that of course is by tasting the wines. What I found met, with some exceptions, my expectations. There was no shortage of alcohol here, but that was to be expected and has always been part of the Châteauneuf package. Several of the wines really stood out for me, in particular the Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, and Texier Vielle Vignes, which were my top three in that order. 
Other wines were both impressive and enjoyable, but fell a little short of my expectations. The Vieux Telegraph in particular was a surprise,showing off notable clove and spiced oak notes that I did not expect from this heretofore traditional producer. Vieux Donjon seemed to under-perform, a little soft and loose and yet unforced, finishing with a long leanness that bodes well for future development. I would not be at all surprised to find out I have under-rated it based on its performance tonight. Of all the wines it reminded me most of the wines produced a decade or more ago, which is probably a good thing.
And finally there were the Vacqueyras, which showed well in a slightly oaky modern style, and the Gigondas, which showed the excesses of that style, plastered as it was with extraction and dry tannins, proving that even in the best of vintages there will be wines that don’t appeal to one palate or another.
Of course this was a small sample set, though with some significant names, so any comments on the vintage can only be broad-stroke generalizations, the tools of the trade for a wine writer. I would say that there is a lot to like here, though the pricing for the wines makes it difficult to recommend any but the very best and most attractively priced. One caveat is that these are ripe wines with much of the fresh red fruit typically found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape replaced with more powerful black fruits, a distinction worth noting. If you like Châteauneuf-du-Pape then very definitely start trying these wines. They are certainly attractive and may never be more affordable, but for those of you with but a passing interest in the wines of the Southern Rhône, the prices for these wines might be prohibitive. Turning your attention to the less expensive appellations such as Vacqueyras, Gigondas and the Cotes du Rhône Villages might be a better strategy. Now on to the wines.

My first place wine, the group’s first place wine
Sweet and dusty on the nose, this shows aromas of tight red fruits flecked with mineral and allspice notes. On entry the texture is quite silky with black cherry fruit that is threaded with a contrasting medicinal edge. There is lovely purity and aromatic fruit, violet and sweet spice notes that are wrapped up in a restrained, slightly chewy package. The finish is long and pure, exhibiting excellent tension and focus in the mouth and right through the end. A bit reticent today but really very fine. 94pts
My second place wine, the group’s third place wine
This is very aromatic with a little hint of lift coming from some VA. A bit of an old school nose here with violets, olives, and a bit of teriyaki all layered over dark strawberry fruit.  Smooth and polished in the mouth, showing a level of refinement that is surprising. This delivers masses of seamless slightly dark and liquory fruit supported by fine-grained tannins that extend across the long, slightly sweet finish. Very youthful. 93pts
My third place wine, the group’s seventh place wine
Smoky and a little sweet on the nose with aromas of sweet slightly stewy cherries framed by touches of chalk, old wood, beef and a little chinato spice. A little chewy on entry, this exhibits light raspberry syrup and cherry fruit with great clarity. The tannins are fresh and youthful and while they cut the finish a tad short, the fruit rings like a bell in the mouth. Classic Châteauneuf weight and balance. 91pts
My fourth place wine, the group’s fourth place wine
This had the most complex nose of the night, filled with spicy sweet/tart red fruit, fines herbs, a little beef jerky, and dustings of coffee and black pepper with a developing olive note. Smooth in the mouth, this seemed a little soft next to its peers, with a palate that showed fine dark berry fruit framed by flavors of olives and herbs that recalled the nose but lacked a bit of focus and definition. Perhaps with a hint of brett as well, as there seems to be a touch of band aid here. The finish shows fine length and finesse, leading me to believe that time will be kind here, giving at least the impression of age-worthiness. 89pts
My fifth place wine, the group's eighth place wine
This shows big olive, beef jerky beef jus and hoisin aromas on the nose over a base of jammy blackberry and sweet cherry fruit, accented with a hint of vanilla.  Matte and extracted on entry, there’s a lot of dark fruit and black pepper here in a muscular, focused style. This seems a touch closed today, though there is plenty of black fruit and medicinal notes to keep things interesting right through a powerful, clean finish that shows a hint of cinnamon. 88pts
My sixth place wine, the group’s sixth place wine
Tight and dark on the nose, with hints of old wood and cloves along with a dry earthiness, all lurking under blackberry fruit topped with hints of pepper and menthol. Smooth and a bit matte in the mouth, with some dry tannins embedded in a core of plummy fruit that’s framed with hints of meat, coffee and sweet spices. The mouthfeel is a bit foursquare here, with nice black cherry fruit on the finish. 88pts
My seventh place wine, the group’s fifth place wine
Gamy and leathery on the nose with nice aromas of dried herb, tea, medicinal flowers and dark fruit. Fresh and transparent in the mouth, this is very Grenache-driven with fresh red fruit and nutty herbal accents. While a bit simple this is quite enjoyable with all that wild strawberry fruit supported by stemmy tannins; lingering on the long finish. 87pts
My eighth place wine, the group’s second place wine
The nose here is fine and focused if entirely dominated by the aromas of crushed blackberry, boysenberry and blueberry fruit. On the palate this is low, broad and extracted with dark fruit and powerfully woody tannins that saturate the palate and cut the finish short. This wine lacks balance and is dominated by unpleasant tannins and extracted fruit. 83pts