Regional profile: Châteauneuf-du-Pape
A former seat of the papacy and inventive pioneer of appellation guidelines, the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape has new challenges to face in the 21st century. Matt Walls investigates
The southern Rhône powerhouse has innovation at its heart, and is well set for future change, reports Matt Walls
IN THE CONTEXT of the Rhône, what defines Châteauneuf-du-Pape is its scale. Everything about it is big: the sprawling terrain, the endless list of grape varieties, the array of producers and the sheer grandiosity of the wines. It is the pumping heart of the Rhône, giving context to the appellations that radiate from it.
The past 25 years have been a golden era for Châteauneuf, but as it faces changing consumer tastes and the seemingly unstoppable advance of global warming, the next 30 are looking less certain. The appellation is well equipped to address these challenges, however, and is making some difficult decisions now to safeguard its future.
Part of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s global renown is down to its history, alluded to in its name. The papal court moved from Rome to Avignon in 1309. Pope John xxII wanted an additional summer residence nearby – a kind of medieval Mar-a-Lago. he built one in Calcernier, 12km north of Avignon, on the east bank of the Rhône. The village became known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape (‘the new castle of the pope’). Papal feasts were legendary; by the time the papacy returned to Rome in 1377, extensive vineyards were established.
Châteauneuf’s fortunes waxed and waned, then in 1866 the region was struck by
‘Everything about Châteauneuf is big: the sprawling terrain, the endless list of grape varieties, the array of producers and the sheer grandiosity of the wines’
phylloxera, the louse that devastated most of France’s vineyards. As it recuperated, Châteauneuf fell prey to fraudulent merchants passing off inferior wines. So in 1919, Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié of Château Fortia led a group of local winemakers to draw up a growing area and production guidelines that formed the basis of the appellation contrôlée system used throughout Europe. There are countless myths and legends surrounding Châteauneuf: the story that these early regulations contain a clause banning the landing of flying saucers is entirely true.
Pebbles and wind
The appellation is spread over a vast 3,200ha, stretching 15km long and 6km wide. It consists of several low, undulating terraces, divided into 134 lieux-dits, or named sites. There is no quality classification system such as Burgundy’s – the tradition here is one of blending.
The appellation sits on a geological fault: soils chop and change between large pebbles, sand, red sandstone and limestone. These rounded pebbles or galets roulés are emblematic but misunderstood. It’s often stated that they warm up during the day and radiate heat at night, which aids the ripening of the grapes. But underripeness is rarely a problem in Châteauneuf – if anything, the opposite is true.
Ralph Garcin, new managing director of Château La Nerthe, sets the record straight. ‘It’s a myth – it’s not a good thing, it’s a bad thing,’ he says. ‘What you want is a difference in temperature between day and night,’ which helps retain freshness and aromatics. He explains that the real benefit of these
Left: the ruined papal château stands above a vineyard strewn with the region’s signature galets roulés pebbles
Above: Château Rayas’ woodland estate is interspersed with old Grenache vines