Chateauneuf du Pape is one of the most famous wine subregions in the southern part of France’s Rhone Valley. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, it barely existed until Pope Clement V relocated the papacy to the town of Avignon in 1309. Clement and subsequent Popes were so taken by the region’s wines that they worked tirelessly to encourage and promote them beyond their local area.
The wines from the area continued to gain in reputation until phylloxera hit in the 1870s. As it recovered from this, the area was plagued with wine fraud where wines were misrepresented and counterfeited. This led to the institution of rules (and the forming of France’s first appellation) starting in 1923. Rules dictated how/where grapes were grown, what varietals, yields, and alcohol levels. Today the area’s wine production is strictly regimented. And the result? It is certainly one of our favorite French wine regions.
Chateauneuf du Pape is More Than Just Wine
The Chateauneuf du Pape village is about a half-hour drive north of Avignon. It is perfect for a visit or for a day trip. While the wine drew us to the area, we also admired the village. It is a lovely little village along the Rhone River with beautiful historic chateaus, buildings, and ruins of the Pope’s Castle.
But let’s not forget our real purpose to stop in the area. We wanted to learn more about one of our favorite wine regions.
Stones in the Vineyards
Chateauneuf du Pape has four primary soil types: limestone, sandstone, sand, and rounded pebbles that were carried by glaciers and flooding waters from the alps. Each has a role in different regions. But the stones provide the characteristic terroir of the region. The stones help hasten grape ripening as they retain heat during the day and release it at night. They also provide a protective layer that helps to retain soil moisture during the dry summer months.
Chateauneuf du Pape Musee du Vin
When visiting the area, the region’s Musee du Vin is a good place to start. The very informative and inexpensive museum (from E6 for a 45-minute audio tour and tasting of three wines) explains the history, terror (different terrains and weather conditions), grape varieties that are grown and used, and farming and production techniques of the different 120-mile long Rhone River Valley winegrowing regions.
Before entering the museum, you can see a collection of old wine-making equipment.
Upon entering the building, an audio tour takes you through many insights into the region, including:
- The origin of the classification system, and the 17 Crus that reputedly produce the highest-quality wines. The initiation of the system enriched producers who were within the lines that were drawn and “disenfranchised” those who produced equally credible wines from similar terroir that fell just outside the line.
- Many of the wineries remain in the ownership of the same families for several generations (often three to five). In contrast, large corporations or conglomerates in many of the world’s other premier regions have bought many leading wineries.
- Red wines represent 97 percent of the region’s production, with whites accounting for only 3 percent. The wines from 1978, 1990, 2001, 2010, and 2020 are among the most consistently best vintages.
- Thirty-one grape varietals are grown in the region. Grenache dominates in the south and Syrah in the north. While the wines can be either red or white wine, red wine dominates. Until recently, the appellation rules did not allow the production of rosé.
- The temperature variation of the regions, the moderating effect of the river, and the critical role of the Mistral wind in limiting rain and drying the grapes when it does rain.
- The southern Rhone Valley region has adopted Mediterranean farming techniques of low-density planting and supporting vines on low stakes (partially to shelter grapes from the particularly strong winds). The northern Rhone has adopted northern French approaches of higher density planting and higher trellising.
- Fermentation and aging vessels have evolved from amphora (clay vessels) to large oak tanks and smaller barrels, concrete, and stainless steel. Winemakers may age their wines 6, 12, or 18 months depending on the desired complexity, tastes, and price points of the wine.
After the tour, you can choose to taste either three or five Domaine Barville wines. Given our need to run to an appointment, we opted for three. We enjoyed the 2021 Haut de Barville stainless-aged white and 2020 Domaine Barville Chateauneuf des Papes.
Touring Château de Beaucastel
From there we continued our education with a vineyard and winery tour and tasting at Château de Beaucastel, a major wine producer.
The Perrin family purchased an olive oil farm in the early 20th century after phylloxera wiped out France’s wines and most estates had shifted to other crops. They replanted the farm with phylloxera-resistant U.S. rootstock and evolved the winey over five generations. Today it has about 300 acres of organic and 100 acres of biodynamic vineyards. The vineyard is affiliated with the global network of Perrin Group wineries.
The tour provided a great deal of information about the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation, its regulations, grapes, terroir, and production methods. For example:
- Red grapes (especially Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvedre) account for about 95 percent of the production of Chateauneuf du Pape’s 320 wineries with Grenache accounting for about 95 percent of all red grapes.
- Southern Rhone white wine consists primarily of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulec while Northern white wine consists primarily of Marsanne, Roussane, and Vignier.
- White grapes are sometimes intermingled into Chateauneuf red grape vineyards and may be co-picked and co-fermented with reds.
- Beaucastel and others typically destem most reds before fermentation but typically ferment white grapes and often Syrah with their stems to provide tannin, spice, and body.
- Beaucastel uses new oak barrels and tanks to impart more tannins and flavors to heavy-bodied wines but neutral oak to lighter-bodied wines.
Chateau Beaucastel is going green. They are digging large channels to capture rainwater, building wind turbines to capture some of the wind power of the Mistral winds, and producing most if not all of their own power. It is planting trees in the middle of its vineyard, not only to capture carbon but also to provide homes for bats (which eat bugs that feed on crops) and to help shade grapes from the intense sun.
The ubiquitous pebbles that cover the ground help preserve the soil’s moisture, reflect heat during the day and release it at night. The limestone bench improves drainage while also adding acidity to the soil while the underlying clay layer retains water. The Mistral winds also help by reducing rainfall (by blowing away rain clouds) and help to dry the grapes after it does rain. The winds provide particular benefits when rains interfere with harvest by rapidly drying the grapes and preventing mildew.
Preparing for Climate Change
Nature plays many key roles in reducing the impact of the heat and 300 days of sun the southern Rhone receives. Grasses around the vines help preserve moisture and nutrients while also competing with vines for surface water. Vine roots are forced to go deeper to reach more groundwater. However, Beaucastel and other leading wineries in the area are responding to climate change.
Hotter summers are not the greatest concern of climate change here since nature and Southern Rhone farmers are used to accommodating high levels of heat. But warming weather temperatures brings other challenges. Warmer temperatures do not kill as many harmful insects and bacteria. It also contributes to earlier vine flowering, which can be more easily killed by regular early April frosts.
To combat hotter weather, Beaucastel and some other wineries are planting more ground cover that absorbs heat. To better shelter grapes from direct sunlight, they are planting trees in the vineyards and altering canopy management. They are also diversifying grape plantings. For example, Beaucastel is replacing Syrah (which shuts down when high heat raises alcohol levels) and other heat-sensitive varietals with later ripening and white grapes.
Chateauneuf du Pape Wine Tastings
Learning about the region was interesting but we were also here to taste them. We particularly enjoyed the deep black fruit flavors with an earthy background and touches of leather, herbs, and spice with smooth finishes of the reds. Our several tastings found several of these, not to speak of a number of complex, smooth-finished whites and pleasant Cote du Rhones that we enjoyed. For example:
- Chateau de Beaucastel. Perhaps it was because it was our first tasting in Châteauneuf du Pape. Or maybe it was the wines we were poured. Or perhaps our tastes are similar to its winemaker. But whatever the reasons, we enjoyed nearly all the wines we tasted at the winery. These include the 2020 Chateauneuf du Pape white (100% barrel-aged Roussane), 2019 Cote du Rhone red (60% Grenache, 30% Mouvedre, and 20% Syrah and others), several Mouvedre-dominant Chateauneuf du Pape reds (2019, 2012, 2010 and the particularly enticing 2007.
- Domaine de Saint Seffrein is another place where we enjoyed most of the wines. Among our favorites were the 2020 red Cote du Rhone (80% Grenache, 20% Syrah) and the fruit-forward 2019 Chateauneuf du Pape red (GMS with some Cinsault) which we preferred to the tight 2020. We especially enjoyed the nicely aged Mouvedre-dominant (65%, supported by Syrah and Grenache) 2016 Terre d’Abel.
- La Nerthe also poured a number of winners (at least from our perspective). These included our standard favorite 2020 Chateauneuf du Pape blanc, the 2018 Chateauneuf du Pape rouge, and two of its more special wines. The 2017 Cuvee des Cadets (a GSM produced from 65+-year-old vines and aged for 18 months versus the standard 12) is silky smooth. So too, although less expressive to our tastes, was the 2017 Les Clavelles. Les Clavelles is produced from select blocks only in its best years and is Nerthe’s only red fermented in whole clusters rather than destemmed grapes.
- Chateau Fortia also had a few wines to our tastes. These included the 2021 Chateauneuf du Pape blanc, the fresh, 2017 Chateauneuf du Pape rouge (which was unusually made from 85 percent Syrah and without any time in oak), and the 2017 Chateauneuf du Pape Secret des Terres (a GSM blend of which 80% was aged in oak, 20% of which was new).
- Chateau Mont-Redon is where we enjoyed the 2021 Chateauneuf du Pape blanc and especially the 2019 Chateauneuf du Pape rouge. We also tasted two wines whose grapes are sourced from neighboring communes: a very big, but pleasant 2018 Gigondas was made from 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah and a very big, tannic, 2000 GSM from Lirac.
Chateauneuf du Pape 2020 and 2021 Vintages
Although 2020 was a hot, dry year, it did not have long periods of extreme heat. The fruit was relatively slow to ripen, had low alcohol and tannin levels, and had reddish (rather than darker) fruit flavors.
2021 had an April frost and a rainy harvest season. It was a very good year for whites, but inconsistent for reds which will generally have darker fruit and lower levels of alcohol.
Although it is too early to assess prospects for the 2022 vintage Beaucastel, for one, is cautiously optimistic. Since it grows particularly large percentages of Mouvedre, it claims that it can leave its berries on the vine longer and since the Mistral winds dry the grapes, its reds will benefit from the additional juice in its fruit.
Chateauneuf du Pape Restaurant
We only had the chance for one lunch in the area. Le Verger Des Pape has a lovely location with wonderful views over the village, river, and vineyards. Although we enjoyed the foie gras terrine with green tomato chutney, we were less enthused by our two other dishes. The cheese and artichoke quiche with tomato confit was watery and tough. The grilled lamb riblets and shoulder were overcooked. Nor were we excited by a glass of 2019 red Cote du Rhone from Saint Henri. Oh well. Go for the view.