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

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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

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