An In-Depth Look into Châteauneuf-du-Pape – Part 1

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the world’s most prestigious wines, produced in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and in 4 neighboring villages. Located in southeastern France between Avignon and Orange, this small town is surrounded by centuries of history. This AOC is famous for its diversity of grape varieties (it is legal to blend up to 13 varieties together in the same wine) and the large round pebbles on which vines grow (see picture below). However, Châteauneuf is MUCH more than this: endless combinations of soils/sub-soils, grape varieties, exposure to sunlight and winemakers’ personalities make up for wines with plenty of nuances and taste profiles. Let’s look a little further into that fantastic wine place.

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June 2015-Pebbles on clay

As stated previously, one of Châteauneuf’s well-known characteristics is its diverseness of grape varieties. At the end of the 19th century, Joseph Ducos owner of Château La Nerthe (I wrote an article last year about that beautiful estate, they produce one of the finest wines in the appellation called “la cuvée des cadettes”) started growing all of the following varieties: Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Picpoul noir, Cinsaut, Clairette and Bourboulenc on top of the already existing Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. He was convinced that these grapes all fit the local climate and terroir perfectly. About 50 years later, the 1st appellation decree (every wine appellation in France has a legislation with strict rules regarding grape varieties, viticulture, winemaking methods etc…) proved him right and authorized the use and blending of these 10 grapes in addition to Terret Noir, Picardan and Roussanne.

This decree is still in use today. However, the Grenache has become over the years the N°1 grape of the appellation and often represents 70-80% of the blends.

Another original facet of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the variety of its soils and sub-soils. Plenty of limestone to the west, big pebbles covering red clay on plateaus, sand and clay in the northern part of the appellation, marl to the east… In other words, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a geological wonder. Also, let’s not forget about micro-climates and hillsides’ exposure to sunlight which both  play a decisive role in wine’s quality and contribute to that region’s incredible versatility.

Why is it important to describe all of this? Because what makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape so unique is its flexibility. Winemakers are allowed to blend whatever varieties they want (within the 13 cited above) in whatever proportion they want (something very rare in France). Consequently, they are free to blend multiple grapes from different areas in order to give complexity to their wine (this is what’s done in most southern French wine regions). And more importantly, they are also free to produce a real terroir-driven single varietal wine (much like what is done in Burgundy and northern regions) which really represents a specific place (for instance a distinct hillside or a plateau) with its soils characteristics, climate and so on… This flexibility is pretty much unmatched in France.

Having said that, it is easy to understand why trying to describe Châteauneuf’s taste profile in one or two sentences is almost impossible as many different styles of wine coexist.

When buying a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape or visiting the region, it is important to understand that each estate usually has 2 labels (sometimes more). The main one is frequently called “cuvée tradition”, it is the “go-to-wine” of every winery and is often a blend. It is supposed to be pretty consistent every year. Besides the cuvée tradition, most estates also produce a higher quality wine or something they consider special, something that should be bottled on its own. Depending on the winery this wine can come from old vines, or from a specific plot, it can also be a single-varietal grown on a distinct terroir etc… These labels are more expensive but more often than not, they are original and worth tasting.

In part 2, I’ll get into more details about the different areas of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and how their terroirs affect the taste of the wine. I’ll also review some bottles.

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