Châteauneuf-du-Pape is perhaps the most complex of the great southern Rhône wine regions. The enduring cliché is the fruit bomb caricature: brash, alcoholic, and overplayed. Even today, certain oenophiles regard the appellation as a monolith. But the reality could not be more different; Châteauneuf-du-Pape comes in various guises, from medium-bodied (and elegant) reds to exotic, powerfully structured wines. As with the Northern Rhône, there is a considerable diversity of styles – including white wines – due to winemaking, viticultural philosophy, and terroir variances. If you seek intellectual depth from your favorite tipple, look no further than Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
However, the appellation is undoubtedly facing enormous challenges today. Climate change pushes vines – and their growers – to their endurance and ingenuity limits. At the same time, the global market has shown an almost intractable bias towards the reds of the Northern Rhône. Yet the region’s devoted and charismatic winemaking community perseveres. Their passion for these glorious wines and the welcoming attitude shown to newcomers are among the most delightful things about visiting Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The wines, scenery, and gastronomy are all waiting for you.
Geography and terroir
The red and white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are centered around a pretty village situated between Orange and Avignon in the southern Rhône Valley. The geographical area under vine is far wider and more expansive than the northern section, with the city of Montelimar marking a boundary that separates the two sub-regions. Nevertheless, it is probably one of the most beautiful places in south-eastern France – a timeless landscape of garrigue-covered hills that the Romans once inhabited.
Indeed, the area boasts a rich and colorful history; the Papacy chose Avignon in the early 1300s as their new home for the Pope’s court. The nomenclature translates as “new castle of the Pope,” moved under the jurisdiction of the incumbent at the time: Clement V. Châteauneuf-du-Pape also has the distinction of being one of the first French vineyards to create a formalized appellation structure. Baron Le Roy, the owner of one Château Fortia, decided to unify the region in the 1920s to market its wines better. His undertakings set out the geographical boundaries, production rules (the appellation only allows a yield of 35 hectolitres per hectare), and grape varieties – very much a precursor to the modern appellation “d’origine contrôlée” system.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is renowned for having the highest minimum alcohol level in France: 12.5 degrees. In the textbook Mediterranean climate of the southern Rhône, however, even 13.5% alcohol would be considered anomalously low. With increasingly torrid summers and very mild winters, maintaining acidity and freshness is the overriding priority in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. If the grower is not careful, unctuous sweet berries will be the fruits of their hard work, with a potential alcohol of 16 degrees.
Fortunately, the terroir is heterogeneous, with abundant higher altitudes and cooler sites. These are judiciously exploited by the best winegrowers, who seek to combine strength with freshness and poise. The hallmark, indeed, of great wine!
Nevertheless, Châteauneuf-du-Pape does have a terroir that is emblematic of the region. The topography is littered with galets – these are heat-absorbing stones that reflect warmth into the vine canopy. Their impact is arguably diminished in hot years, yet galets are especially useful in cooler vintages. Such conditions still occur in the southern Rhône, despite the onward march of global warming. Elsewhere, the soils can vary from sand and alluvial matter to clay-rich terroir. In warmer seasons, clay’s ability to retain moisture gives winegrowers a decisive advantage.
Unlike Burgundy, Châteauneuf-du-Pape has never embarked upon a formalized classification of its terroir. However, all agree that the finest site is La Crau, the region’s unofficial ”Grand Cru” vineyard. It is located between the villages of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bédarrides, at the extreme southeast of the appellation boundaries. Here, on a plateau full of the signature galets, magic happens. No one is precisely sure why La Crau always produces the most structured and complex wines. However, the ancient alluvial deposits, silica, and robust red clay undeniably play an important part. But there is a certain mystery to La Crau, and that’s how local growers like it.
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To put it mildly, there is no standardized winemaking formula in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The appellation regulations permit 18 different grape varieties (red and white) in the final cuvée. However, most producers prioritize three red grapes: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. Then, smaller amounts of Cinsault, Counoise (an esoteric localism), and Vaccarese may be added to the blend. However, individual preferences vary wildly, depending on desired style and vintage factors. In addition, there is fierce disagreement over the role the new French barrique should play, while carbonic maceration is becoming more popular for fruit-driven wines intended for drinking young. Others favor using whole bunches and stems to add tannic heft and structure in the vat. On the other hand, too much can lead to astringency and bitter tannins on the finish.
So how can we sum up red Châteauneuf-du-Pape? It is fair to say that the critical mass of premium wines offer upfront fruit and richness on the mid-palate, yet they are approachable from a relatively young age. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache (which usually plays the dominant role) does not boast a massively tannic structure, even in its youth. Instead, these are wines driven by red fruit, spice, and balanced levels of relatively high alcohol. However, skilled winemakers will always ensure that their creations refresh and challenge the palate.
The seminal Châteauneuf-du-Pape red is undoubtedly Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe La Crau. Anyone fortunate enough to try a glass will confirm that the finesse, potency, and complexity have no equal; imbued with aromas of garrigue, smokey dark fruit, and spice, the palate is always balanced and racy, with flavors of raw meat, forest floor, and raspberry. But the freshness and gorgeous ripe acidity truly elevate Vieux Télégraphe above its peers.
Traditionally, producers owned plots across several terroirs in the appellation, blending different wines to enhance complexity. However, the obsession with single vineyards has touched the southern Rhône; single-site bottlings, often expensive, are becoming more widespread. They range from exceptional to over-made alcoholic behemoths.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, often neglected in favor of the red, is also well worth seeking out. Grenache Blanc usually provides the backbone, supported by Roussanne, Picpoul, and/or Bourboulenc/Clairette. With bottle age, they develop considerable finesse and attractive scents of lemongrass, honeysuckle, and wet wool. A delicious plus when paired with local cuisine.