by Cezar Kusik, Wine Contributor
The Rhone Valley wine region of France is roughly divided into the two sub-regions of Northern and Southern, which, considering their geographic positioning, differ dramatically in their climate, topography and geology.
Northern Rhone has a continental climate with overall cooler temperatures, more precipitation and less sunshine.
The landscape is rugged with steep hills along the banks of the river, and the soil is composed mainly of hardened granite. The Southern Rhone is gentler, and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea influences its mild weather. The land flattens here, and the soil becomes more agriculturally manageable, comprised predominantly of limestone and alluvial deposits. The farther south, the warmer it gets allowing for a wider range of grape varieties to be planted.
Twenty-plus wine grapes are grown in Southern Rhone wherein the north’s more restrictive climate, the choice of grapes is limited to only a handful. Finally, the north-south division is reflected quantitatively. The north boasts appellations of stronger pedigree and international renown: Hermitage, Côte Rotie and Condrieu, but it produces only about five percent of the whole Rhone Valley wines. The south, with its multitude of sub-regions, offers a variety of styles of wines of substantially different qualities. Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is, without a doubt, the region’s flagship and pride.
In the year 1305 the cardinal of Bordeaux, Bertrand de Got, was elected Pope of the Catholic Church and assumed the name, Clement V. Having had strong affiliations with France and exhibiting a bit of the classic French arrogance, he moved the capital of papacy from Rome to the French city of Avignon, giving birth to a line of the so-called “Avignonese Popes” who flourished until 1377.
The reign of Clement V was relatively short, only lasting until 1314, but in that period, he developed a reputation of an avid connoisseur and a passionate wine drinker. Burgundy was his wine of choice, but he didn’t shy away from wines of other regions. The city of Avignon lies along the banks of the Rhone River, where vines had grown and wines been made for centuries before the Pope’s residency in the region; their quality and reputation were sub-standard.
A small village in proximity to Avignon became a frequent vacation destination for the clergy of the era. It later came to be known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. During their rule, the Avignonese Popes contributed greatly to popularizing the viticulture in the region.
Did you know? Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to “Pope’s new castle.” Traditionally the bottles of wine from the region sport an engraving of a tiara, a ceremonial headwear of Popes.
Until the mid-19th century, Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines did not stand on their own and were mainly shipped in bulk up north to Burgundy.
At the end of the 1800s and during the early 1900s, the popularity of Châteauneuf -du-Pape rose to its peak, but without any legislative regulations, fraud plagued the region. Namely, wines and grapes from outside infiltrated the area to benefit from its reputation.
There needed to be action. Starting in the early 1920s, a local syndicate of wine enthusiasts took it upon themselves to implement laws and regulations to protect the authenticity of the local wines. As a result, in May of 1936, a decree was published to become the first wine-making Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France.
The region produces both white and red wines, with the reds dominating over 90 percent of the appellation’s production.
At the inception, Châteauneuf du Pape allowed 13 different grape varieties in their blends. Eventually, the number increased to 19 (10 reds and nine whites), with Grenache Noir leading (about 70 percent of the total vineyard surface), followed by Syrah, then Mourvedre and the rest of the gang.
There are 7,746 acres of vineyards in the region, which produce an average of 14 million bottles each year. Grenache is perfectly suitable for the region with its strong resistance to heat, drought and wind factors. It is high in sugar content, so alcohol management, especially in overly hot vintages, can become an issue. Also, because the grape is prone to oxidation, it is vinified in cement tanks.
The vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are bordered by the Rhone River from the west and are situated on rolling land and a vast plateau composed of diverse soil. One of the characteristic features of the landscape here are the galets, which are large, whitish pebbles carpeting many of the vineyards.
The highest concentration of pebbles can be found in the historic vineyard of La Crau. This site, which is farmed bio-dynamically, produces some of the best fruit of the appellation, and only a few top producers are privileged to source the grapes from it.
Red Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are almost always blends, and wineries have their unique recipes as to which grapes constitute the blend. Grenache, on its own, can sometimes lack acidity and tannins. Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault are often thrown into the mix to add density, firmness, and additional aromatic nuance.
At their best, the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be texturally sublime and generously flavorful. They have excellent aging potential, and when coming from acclaimed producers and good vintages, can easily last several decades.
Their flavor profile exhibits the warmth of the region. In their classic expression, the aromas are redolent of warm, summer farmland, Provençal herbs, white pepper, lavender, raspberry confiture and a sprinkle of better times to come.
Did you know? Mistral is a strong wind originating in the north and sweeping down south toward the Mediterranean Coast, often reaching speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour. It is most active during the change from winter to spring, often causing damage to the crops. During the summertime, it can actually have a cooling effect on the overheated vineyards.
Even though white wines constitute only about seven percent of the region, they should not be treated as an afterthought. The most prominent white varieties of the area are Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Bourboulenc. The whites are tougher to cultivate in the hot climate of the region, but in favorable vintages, the wines can be delicious with enticing flavors of tropical fruits of papaya, guava and mango. They can boast impressive richness, concentration, and complexity, allowing them to age gracefully for years.
Did you know? Châteauneuf-du-Pape has one of the wackiest wine laws in the world, one borne out of 1950s UFO hysteria. A municipal decree was passed and is upheld today, which states: “The overflight, the landing and the takeoff of aircraft known as flying saucers or flying cigars, whatever their nationality is, are prohibited on the territory of the community.”
Châteauneuf-du-Pape produces only a small percentage of all wines in the Southern Rhône region. Other appellations make wines in a variety of styles: reds, whites, rosés and dessert wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines tend to be on the expensive side. The neighboring regions often offer great alternatives for a fraction of the price: Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Lirac, to name a few. These satellite regions are full of young, ambitious winemakers who strive and often succeed in making a mark on the international wine scene.
Gigondas is considered the diminutive cousin of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; Vacqueyras, Gigondas’ little brother, where more and more quality wines that give Châteauneuf du Pape a run for its buck are produced yearly.
Beaumes de Venise, aside from making simple, easy-drinking red wines, produces Muscat Beaumes de Venise. This vin doux naturel is a youthful, delicately fortified sweet wine made from the intensely floral Muscat grapes. The rosés of Southern Rhône are dry, fresh and full of sunshine, making them great sippers and a versatile food pairing.
The Rhône Valley of France, like most classic European wine regions, comes with a rich, centuries-long history. Borders shifted, wars erupted, peace treaties were signed. Kings and other nobilities were throned and dethroned. Various cultural and artistic movements came and went. Technology pushed on, changing the landscapes and imposing itself on our daily lives. Wine, on the other hand, in its basic form has remained the same; always a witness and a participant in this inevitable evolution. And it is that human, historical and cultural aspect of wine which makes it special, makes it something much, much more than a mere fermented grape juice.
My Favorite Châteauneuf-du-Pape Producers
Château de Beaucastel Arguably the most acclaimed and famous producer of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this estate is owned by Famille Perrin and has a historical land-purchase record dating back to 1549.
In 1980, Château de Beaucastel partnered with Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles to send cuttings of Châteauneuf-du-Pape vines to the United States. Tablas Creek went on to set up a nursery, sharing their vines with the rest of the United States.
Château La Nerthe One of the older wineries in Châteauneuf-du-Pape with records that date back to 1570 and a winery built in 1736.
Château Rayas Rayas has long been a darling of American wine critics, thanks to the work of the current owner, Emmanuel Reynaud (a nephew of Jacques). The flagship wine is usually 100 percent Grenache. Their rare and amazing white is 100 percent Clairette.
Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Named after the optical telegraph tower built in 1821 by its inventor Claude Chappe, Vieux Télégraphe (pictured below) is positioned on an elevated plateau called La Crau, which is famous for its deposits of large rounded, river stones (galets roulés). To many, the vineyards on the La Crau plateau represent the top wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.