Over 150 cellars call Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône home and make wines that have been gaining a reputation as well as they age in the cellar. While there are 18 permitted grape varieties, the workhouse is Grenache which comprises 72% of the vineyards and gives them their robust, yet elegant qualities. These vineyards slather the rolling hills and the unique round stones called galets roulés lay at their gnarled old feet.
Literally meaning, “the new castle of the pope” the importance of this region and the general push that lead to what we see today started in the 14th century. Simply put, with the ascension of Pope Clement V (who was formerly Archbishop of Bordeaux) to the Papacy in 1308, a decision was made to upend the seat of the Catholic Church from the Vatican in Italy to Avignon in France. This naturally didn’t go over well but somehow lasted for 70 years.
This has a profound effect on the region as beyond being the seat of Catholicism, it ushered in a wave of French popes who were wine lovers and spurred the cultivation of vines in the region, specifically a touch north of Avignon in the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It was Pope John XXII who succeeded Clement V that really worked to boost the quality of the wines coming from the region and the ruins of the castle on the hill about the village were originally part of a much larger fortification that he ordered constructed during his papacy.
The Vatican regained control as the Catholic seat, but they didn’t go down fighting as several “antipopes” attempting to continue as if nothing had happened and gave way to the Western Schism that officially ended in 1417. After this point, while Avignon fell off the radar to a large extent, the wines coming from the region continued to be well-regarded. This could have easily continued to this day except that in 1866 the phylloxera louse arrived and decimated all the vines over a period of several years.
Once replanted, the region actually sold a great deal of their production to Burgundy as well as Bordeaux who both used it as a blend component to their wines to give them more body, which in the case of the former is understandable given the light tendency found and now treasured in Burgundy wines. Several large producers emerged in the 19th century though that still exist today: La Nerthe, Condorcet, La Fortia, Vaudieu, and La Jacquinotte (Solitude).
But overall, it wasn’t terribly easy going in these days as the region was plagued with fraud which led to what were the first Appellation Contrôlée rules to be put forth in France. This was the start of true quality wines to emerge from the region and heralded in a generational winemaking culture. While the wines of Châteauneuf managed to continue their allure throughout the 20th century, they started again to come to glory due to international wine critics.
Robert Parker, the American wine critic who is both loved and loathed has been and will probably always have Bordeaux as his top pick in wines. But, starting the later 1970’s, he found Châteauneuf to have great potential although only a handful of wineries were finding it. Such wineries of note during this time included those previously mentioned as well as the now legendary Vieux Télégraphe, Mont-Redon, Clos du Mont-Olivet, and Clos des Papes among others.
British Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson has been covering the region in depth for several years as well. Her and Robert’s voices brought others to the region and put a spotlight on it that had been overshadowed a great deal on the international scene by other French regions. But it wasn’t just the critics, it was also the young winemakers who started to take over from their parents and, after working at cellars outside their home region, returned with a sense of great invigoration.
One of those in the new vanguard is Julien Barrot of Domaine du Barroche. His family had long been viticulturists and winemakers in the village, but they sold off everything in bulk. After backpacking around Europe and Australia, he came back home and in 2003 started to bottle all of their wines. Wine critics and lovers have avidly been paying attention to what he’s been producing, especially the Pure and Signature.
Claire Fabre of Le Vieux Donjon is another youthful face in the crowd and is in fact the president of the Young Winemakers association for the region. She is the granddaughter of the founder Marcel and, much like Julien, has taken over the winery in recent years after traveling and working abroad in regions such as California. While the estate only makes one red and one white wine, this Grenache-based red has made wine critics giddy and was one of Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2012.
It’s important to note that while most of this appellation is within the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape it does include parts of the village of Courthézon, Bédarrides, and Sorgues as well as the much larger and important Orange. Due to this wide breadth of land, while the galets roulés are probably the most photographed soil of the region there is a greater variety than this with limestone, sand, pebbles, and others. It allows for a large variation in the grapes as well as the relatively unknown white wines of Châteauneuf.
While the region by and large produces mostly red, whites make up about 7% of the total production and are steadily growing in popularity. The reason for this is that wineries are able to produce a full bodied white wine with a great deal of character and balance that our modern palates have evolved to enjoy. Of special note are those from Domain Nalys and Clos du Mont-Olivet but every year it seems that more wineries are releasing a white which shows the evolution constantly underway in Châteauneuf.