Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which is translated as “The Pope’s New Castle,” has history tracing back to the ancient Roman times. Pope Clement, who was an avid wine lover, moved to Avignon in the early thirteenth century and decided to plant vines on the stony land that surrounded the landholdings of his residence. It is said that the Pope had spent time in other regions like Bordeaux, and so when he made a move to Avignon, it acquired its name “The Pope’s New Castle.”
The succeeding Pope, Jean the XXII or John XII, was a fan of Chateauneuf du Pape wine. He, therefore, took the wine culture note higher by improving viticulture practices in the region by erecting a castle and planting vines in 1317.
By the time the Popes were leaving for Rome at the end of that century, Chateauneuf du Pape viticulture had been adapted by many French citizens who by then owned small vineyard parcels. For this reason, Chateauneuf du Pape remained an important identity character in the region even after their departure.
The Phylloxera epidemic struck in the mid-18th century. Growers lost their livelihood and abandoned their vineyards. The region restructured after several decades. By 1880, only about 200 hectares of vines remained in the entire appellation. This was a huge blow to the wine industry that had gained recognition for their Chateauneuf du Pape quality and tastier wines in the late 17th century.
The industry didn’t immediately bounce back because of the labor and financial intensity of replanting the Chateauneuf du Pape vines. Due to this, the first major landholder Baron Puerre Le Roy, started to control a lot of lands. In 1919, he facilitated the drawing of official boundaries of the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation. This played a major role in controlling the terroir and necessary geography extent of the planted vines and the grape varietals to be used in its production.
It was agreed that the grapes be planted in Chateauneuf du Pape and some areas of Orange, Courthezon, Sorgues, and Bedarrides. The grapes had to be exclusively handpicked. Also, the vine had to be at least four years old be to seen fit for Chateauneuf du Pape’s wine production. The vine density, on the other hand, was allowed to strictly be between 2,500 and 3,000 (not to go below the former nor exceed the later).
Development and Appellation
If other grape varieties were subjected to the climatic and geographic conditions of Chateauneuf du Pape, they would struggle to survive. The soils found in this region are a combination of rocks, stone, sand, limestone, and clay with fewer winters.
Ironically, these stones and pebbles play a key role in the development of the grape as they reflect light to the vines and absorb heat during the day. The heat is then radiated to the vines during the cooler evenings, which in turn helps in the formation and ripening of the fruit. In the end, these rocky terroirs produce concentrated, full-bodied, ripe wines with great intensity.
The different communes in which the appellation of Chateauneuf du Pape happens have different terroirs, and so the intensity and character differ with the location of the appellation. For instance, in Orange, which is to the northern part of the appellation, there is more sandy and marl and less large stones and rocks. Wines from this region are elegant and supple.
While the clay soils are responsible for the richness and concentration of wines, the limestone soils contribute to the intensity of aromatics in the wine. Old vines also play a significant role in providing signature notes in the overall taste of the Chateauneuf du Pape wines.
The strong mistral winds from the Rhone River also play an integral role in shaping the structure of Chateauneuf du Pape wines by providing the much-needed moisture to the vines, especially during hot weather by cooling down the soils and vines.
The winds also keep the fruit clean and remove excess water from the immediate atmospheric surrounding of the grapes. Other than that, these winds provide a more hygienic environment and help reduce potential disease as well as insects/ pests as they sweep through.
There are five communes/ estates in the appellation of Chateauneuf du Pape wine, including Chateauneuf du Pape, which is the largest area, followed by Orange, Courthezon, Sorgues, and Bedarrides. These are further divided into 134 different Lieux-Dits.
The largest Chateauneuf du Pape that constitutes 53% of the entire appellation is in the western part of the region, with 1,706 hectares of vines in 76 lieux-dits. The second largest is Courthezon, which is located in the northeast section of the region with 663 hectares of vines in 26 lieux-dits and takes up 20% of the appellation.
Orange forms 12% of the appellation. It has 398 hectares of vines in 6 lieux-dits forms 12% of the appellation, located far north and western sector of the region. It is the third-largest commune. Following that is Bedarrides, situated to the southwest of the region with 353 hectares of vines in 23 lieux-dits. This makes up 11% of the entire appellation. Sorgues is the smallest of them all, situated in the far south of the region with only 128 hectares of vines in 3 lieux-dits, making up 4% of the appellation.
The famous and largest sub-appellation in the southern Rhône Valley, France, is known for its full-bodied, seductive, and spicy reds. It is considered the most important vine area, with over three thousand vineyards and over eighty growers in the region. The yields are so high that it produces more wine than the whole of the northern Rhône combined.
Like many wines, Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s is rich in flavor and aromas reminiscent of baked raspberry, garrigue, black cherry, olive tapenade, lavender, and baking spice. All this complexity is enhanced by the blending several of the permitted grape varieties in its production (both red and white), Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre included.
These three varieties are behind the known vast majority of red wine styles. These three varieties combined bring forth the juicy, jammy red-fruit and the spiced black-fruit and bitter-chocolate notes alongside the great structure and high potential alcohol.
A larger percentage of production of Chateauneuf du Pape is devoted to the production of red (close to 95%) and the remaining smaller percentage devoted to making white Chateauneuf du Pape wine. The white Chateauneuf du pape wines from the vineyards are tangy, weighty, and intensely perfumed. They usually are blend form of rustic southern French varieties, including Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne, and Bourboulenc.
While some Chateauneuf du Pape wines are known to be lush, lusty, and deliciously enjoyed when young, some consumers desire the silky characteristics that these wines take on as they age. Wines from old wines are rich in flavor and concentration, a rich nutty, and vanilla taste if they have been aged in oak barrels.
Most vine estates in Chateauneuf du Pape are small, privately owned, and managed estates with just a few exceptions. The Mont-Redon, for instance, which is by far the biggest estate in the region, has 100 hectares of vines and only 24 winemakers with vineyard control that exceed 30 hectares.
Averagely, thirteen million vintage bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape are produced every year. Several growers participate in the private appellation of the same. Some growers sell their harvest to négociants or cooperatives, which, in turn, contribute to the high production of the Chateauneuf du Pape wines by producing about forty-five cases of wine bottles.
Several old vines are said to be over 100 years old, and these old vines logically produce low yields, but the intensity levels of concentration in the fruits are very high. Thus, their inclusion in the production process adds a great depth of flavor, character, and complexity to the final wine product.
Interestingly, the old wines are intentionally not allowed to grow tall to protect the fruits of the vines from the frequently harsh mistral winds from the Rhone River. These winds can tear their way through the region, which can consequently compromise on the final quality of the wine.
The growers decide to either destem the grapes or not to. The decision on the aging vessel to be used as well as the aging length of the wine are key determinants to the style, character, and quality of the wine to be produced.
Fermentation and Aging
Other than the careful handpicking and selection of the target grapes, the other major step to be thoroughly observed in the development and production of Chateauneuf du Pape wine is the destemming process. The amount of stem to be removed needs attention to as this will be the overall determinant of the style of wine (whether modern or traditional).
Fermentation processes follow immediately after the destemming and pressing of the grapes. Like any other wine process, the fermentation of Chateauneuf du Pape usually lasts anywhere between one week to a full month. White Châteauneuf du Pape wines are aged for a short time compared to the red wines. This process either takes in the traditional cement vats, massive stainless-steel tanks, or the large French oak barrels. Again, this is dependent on the desired style.
After the fermentation stage, the wine undergoes a malolactic fermentation process, which allows for the conversion of the hard-malic acids in red wines into softer lactic acid wines. Usually, the white wine grapes wines that are harvested from Southern Rhone valley are very low in acidity levels and thus need not undergo the malolactic fermentation. The malolactic fermentation aims to convert the strong malic acids into a lower and softer palatable form.
Unlike the red Chateauneuf du Pape wines, white Chateauneuf du Pape wines that have been fermented in either stainless steel vats or French oak barrels usually are bottled and quickly sold to retain their freshness. This is not the case with their red counterparts.
The fermentation of these red wines could take between one year and two years, depending on the specific wine and the desired taste, but some wines are aged for a longer period than that.
It is said that one of the most versatile and great food-pairing wines is Chateauneuf du Pape. It is an exciting wine with a great character and a wide variety of styles, ranging from the considerably big, bold, and rich types to the elegant, sexy, opulent and refined category.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are found in both the white and red styles, which are also categorized under either traditional or modern production.
With such diversity, Chateauneuf du Pape can be coupled with nearly everything. It can work with rich seafood and grilled and braised dishes. Foods like grilled beef, duck, veal, braised chicken, cream sauces, select vegetable stews, and cassoulet work well with Châteauneuf du Pape. Asian dishes are also a nice pair with Châteauneuf du Pape as the natural freshness, and spicy quality of the wines neutralize the spiciness and give a soft landing on the palate.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are made available in both the modern and traditional varieties and styles. The difference between the two is brought about by the ripeness of the grapes used, effective yields, number and length of stems used, and, most importantly, the percentage of new oak barrels used in aging the wine.
Most of the traditional winemakers do not destem the grapes used in the production. They do not store the wines in oak barrels. Instead, they prefer to age the wines in neural and old, massive barrels made from cement-lined vats or foudres (large oak casks with a capacity of between thirty to sixty hectolitres) that are widely used in the region.
On the other hand, modern production technologies prefer to destem their grapes and use oak barrels in the storage and aging of the wines. The use of oak contributes to the soft notes, lush and polished textures in the end. The oak barrels also add an overt smell and taste of vanilla or coffee, a characteristic loved and hated in equal measure by some people.
There are said to be close to 100 special cuvees and selections of Châteauneuf du Pape produced. Only small amounts of most of these luxury production wines are made. They are ranked among the best and finest wines in the world. Indeed, in many cases, the market produces just a few hundred cases. Bonneau Cuvee Celestins is one of the high-end wine varieties in this category.
Traditionally, there are the tangy, weighty, and intensely perfumed as well as the full-bodied juicy and spiced black-fruit and bitter-chocolate note variety.
Some varietal wine brands in the market today include:
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine de Marcoux
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, Château La Nerthe
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine de la Janasse
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Clos des Papes Paul Avril et Fils
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cuvée Reservée, Domaine du Pegau
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine des Saumades – which is a dark fruit profile of blackberry compôte and plums.
- Famille Perrin Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Sinards 2017
- Clos des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2013
- Andre Brunel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Cailloux 2013
- Chateau de Beaucastel Rouge, Hommage à Jacques Perrin
Of Quality, Vessels, and Climate
Four critical factors mostly dictate the quality of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. To start with, the harvesting choices of the varietal grapes permitted in the production. The number of grapes may not necessarily amount to a thing, but of importance is an exclusive handpicking process. This significantly contributes to the quality of the wine.
Secondly, the choice made by the growers and winemakers to whether destem the grapes or not to plays an integral role too. Most traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are made from grapes that have not been destemmed. Modern wine styles, however, advocate for the destemming of the grapes.
Thirdly, unlike the white Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines which do not undergo an aging process, red is Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines allowed to age for even up to two years and longer. This is because the white wine variety is low in acidity and loses its freshness quite quickly.
Lastly, the decision on the aging vessel to be used as well as the aging length of the wine are key determinants in the style, character, and quality of the wine to be produced. The traditional technologies do not use oak barrels to store or age the resulting wines. Instead, neural and old massive barrels made from cement-lined vats or foudres are used. Modern wine style production, on the other hand, uses oak barrels in the aging and storage of wine.
With the growing climate change menace, harvesting, and production of Châteauneuf du Pape has significantly been forced to undergo a paradigm shift. The grapes that used to be harvested in October are now collected in September.