Six names to look out for

Decanter - - CHATEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE - Matt Walls is DWWA Re­gional Chair for the Rhône

Château Rayas

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: 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

Right: Jean-Paul Dau­men of Do­maine de la Vieille Juli­enne

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