Six names to look out for
There are few old-timers in the town who don’t have a story to tell about Rayas, Châteauneuf’s most storied estate – particularly its idiosyncratic former owner Jacques Reynaud. The estate is cool woodland interspersed with old Grenache vines grown on sand. The winery building is little more than functional; the barrels within ancient and grey. The liquid inside is a shining, transparent ruby. It’s a wine of great purity and finesse that at once defines and transcends the appellation.
Domaine la Barroche
Propelled by young siblings Laetitia and Julien Barrot, Domaine la Barroche is one of the most dynamic estates in Châteauneuf. Their family has a long history in the region, and they make the most of some very old vines and excellent sites. They embody a contemporary style; a precise, detailed and transparent expression of Châteauneuf terroir. Their impressive new winery near the centre of the village should give them a steady foothold to reach even higher.
Domaine du Banneret
Jean- Claude Vidal was an architect in Toulouse when he took on the tiny 1.5ha family estate; he made his first two vintages under the guidance of Châteauneuf legend Henri Bonneau. The estate has since grown to 4ha and is managed by his daughter Audrey. They favour a traditional approach: a single red cuvée, all 13 varieties co-planted, no destemming and a long maturation in old barrels. Their ageworthy and complex red has recently been joined by a precise and highly drinkable white called Le Secret.
Le Vieux Donjon
' Not modern, not fashionable; just always unchanging.' Claire Michel’s modest description of her family’s house style is essentially accurate, but it doesn’t do justice to the quality here. From the 16ha estate they make a single red cuvée, as they find the finished blend has more richness and complexity than any individual parcel. It’s a classic, unflashy, satisfyingly textural style that flirts with rusticity yet ages gracefully. Their white cuvée is also very well made.
Château La Nerthe
One of Châteauneuf’s oldest, largest and most picturesque estates has a new manager. Ralph Garcin, previously of négociant house Jaboulet, is the latest in a line of modernising figures since the estate was acquired by the wealthy Richard family in 1985. He has tinkered with some varietal blends, dialled down the oak influence and is working with a greater proportion of whole bunches. Barrel samples of the 2016s show a more vivid, precise, contemporary style; one to watch.
Domaine de la Vieille Julienne
Since taking over the family estate at the northern limit of the appellation in 1990, tall, twinkly-eyed Jean-Paul Daumen has gradually converted it to biodynamics. The co-planted vineyards are spread over seven north-facing terraces. The top ones are predominantly limestone and produce Les Hauts Lieux, a powerful, long-lived cuvée. The lower banks have a higher proportion of sand, producing a finer, immediately drinkable wine called Les Trois Sources. His Réserve is produced only in the best years. These are characterful, wild expressions of Châteauneuf.
pebbly sites, such as the most famous lieu-dit La Crau, is the water-retaining layer of clay ‘just like butter’ underneath.
The landscape is buffeted by the northerly Mistral. It’s a boisterous wind, but it helps keep disease at bay; 25% of Châteauneuf’s output is now organic. Florent Lançon of up-and-coming Domaine de la Solitude hopes that one day this will hit 100%. It’s idealistic, but perhaps not impossible considering the widespread adoption of organic viticulture among the new generation of growers.
The Mistral also contributes to clear skies and a sunny climate. It’s hot here – and getting hotter. Rainfall is becoming erratic and difficult to manage. Irrigation for mature vines isn’t authorised in this part of the world, but if they are facing water stress the appellation can make an appeal to the authorities to irrigate – otherwise the vines can shut down and stop ripening. This used to be an emergency measure, but the request is now being made for parts of the appellation almost annually.
Growers are forced to wait for the water situation to become critical, then wait for the go-ahead before they can intervene. It’s far from ideal. In the words of Thierry Sabon, owner of Clos du Mont-Olivet and president of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s producers’ federation: ‘It’s not when you’re nearly dead that you need to call a doctor.’ Producers are pushing for a permanent lifting of the ban on irrigation, and it looks likely this will go ahead in some form. Some consumers have reservations about irrigation, and lengths of hosepipe won’t improve the landscape, but producers must adapt to survive in a changing climate.
How many grapes?
There are 13 grape varieties allowed in the appellation. In order of amount planted, these are: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Picpoul, Picardan and Terret Noir. If you include all mutations, such as Grenache Blanc, Clairette Rose and Picpoul Noir, the total number is 22. Privately, many estates admit to having further varieties dotted around their oldest vineyards.
At 80% of plantings, the most common is Grenache Noir. It gives Châteauneuf its richness and generosity, but it’s prone to high alcohol levels. Châteauneuf has always been potent, but data from the producers’ federation shows grapes are ripening earlier. Alcohol levels in the wines are rising. An obvious answer might be to pick sooner, but it’s not that easy – sugars are building faster but flavour ripeness isn’t advancing at the same rate.
Some producers argue this isn’t a problem if the wines taste balanced. But as some hit 16% alcohol or higher, it can make matching the wine with food, or sharing a bottle with a friend, challenging. Increasingly, producers are exploring the potential of ‘fringe’ varieties such as Counoise and Vaccarèse since they ripen at lower levels of alcohol. Guillaume Gonnet of Domaine Font de Michelle and his own eponymous label says: ‘In 10 years I haven’t planted any Grenache,’ instead replanting Mourvèdre, Counoise, Clairette and Bourboulenc. He points out they are lucky to have this option in Châteauneuf; other regions have far fewer grapes to play with.
Modern to contemporary
Until recently, the tradition in Châteauneuf was for estates to produce one red cuvée (and perhaps a single white one – at just 7% of production, white Châteauneuf is relatively rare but can be unforgettably luxurious).
The 1989 vintage saw the first Châteauneuf ‘cuvées spéciales’ – Clos du Mont-Olivet’s La Cuvée de Papet and Château de Beaucastel’s Hommage à Jacques Perrin – released to great critical success. More properties followed suit, and it rapidly became the norm. Some had something specific to express – old vines perhaps, or a particular parcel. Others simply picked late, went for greater extraction and increased the amount of new oak; the results weren’t always pleasant to drink.
The ‘modern’ style – late picked, sweetly fruited, concentrated, sometimes oaky – was ushered in at the same time as the cuvée spéciale era. Some, such as Clos St-Jean, have made this style their own and found remarkable commercial success on the back of high scores. But the trend is now towards less extraction, less oak and lower alcohol. ‘We are no longer in the era of extraction,’ says François Perrin of Château de Beaucastel; ‘we’re in the era of elegance – but our elegance.’ Contemporary Châteauneuf still has a big frame, but it has lost weight and its tailoring is sharper.
The green shoots of this new era are visible, but they’re emerging in an ever more
challenging climate. The 2016 vintage may have been near-perfect, but the prevailing climatic trends are clear. Fortunately, Châteauneuf’s diversity of terroir and grape varieties gives it options, and growers are acting to safeguard the appellation’s future.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape has faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges over the centuries – and there’s no doubt the Rhône powerhouse will adapt and thrive for many more to come.
Right: Jean-Paul Daumen of Domaine de la Vieille Julienne
Right: Château La Nerthe is one of the oldest producers in Châteauneuf
Above: Thierry Sabon, owner of Clos du Mont-Olivet and president of Châteauneuf-duPape’s producers’ federation