Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of those rarities, a classic which regularly lives up to its billing. Its dense red-to black-fruit palate, warming alcohol, weight in the mouth and firm but pliable structure ticks many boxes. It is powerful but not intimidating, dry but not austere, Old World in restraint but modern in approachability. So what are the reasons for its continuing success?
At the heart of most outstanding wines styles lies a great grape variety. Think Pinot Noir in Burgundy or Sangiovese in Tuscany. Our friends in France might prefer to start with terroir but people are increasingly buying and drinking by variety. Step forward Grenache/Garnacha into an unaccustomed limelight. The supple, modestly coloured, full-bodied, usually soft tannined Grenache has not really been a star in the past. Its greatest expression in France was hidden behind the appellation we are considering, accompanied by Mourvèdre, Cinsaut and latterly Syrah. In its native Spain it used to play second fiddle to Tempranillo in Rioja. It really took the Australians to make wines from old vine Grenache and the meteoric rise of modern Priorat, Spain, to gain it promotion back to the top division of international grape varieties. Today Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be proud of its secret: the dominant grape variety of the red wine is normally Grenache.
But grape variety on its own does not guarantee excitement. Grenache on average soils produces competent wines but nothing to shout about it. The remarkable wines often come from old vines and/or from poor, well drained soils which reduce the vigour of the plant and encourage it to put its energies into ripening fruit. Here the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation really excels. The large, 3,200 hectare area has complex geology and resulting soil types. And most importantly the soil types are tastable in the glass.
Geologist Georges Truc argues that the most important of the soil types is the sand and sandstone which produces elegant wines of great finesse in a pretty hot climate. The key is that even the sand has a healthy 15% of clay which has great water-holding capacity, thus enabling vines to thrive in long, hot summers. The wines from vines on sandy soils are known for their finesse.
Secondly, there is, as in so many great wine regions, a healthy proportion of calcaire, limestone. These soils result in excellent white wines and also reds with evident tannins and a shade less power than other soil types, helpful in blending.
Finally there is the celebrity terroir, the highly photogenic galets roulées, pudding stones. These stones form a vast area of mulch in parts of the appelation, a surface cover, which enhances drainage, retains heat and radiates it back in the night, contributing to ripening, … and makes the vineyards a complete nightmare to work in. Just walking over the galets is a challenge, never mind pruning, spraying or picking grapes from these vines. This soil results in powerful, rounded, full-bodied wines. Even rigorously scientific Georges Truc gets romantic at this point: the tannins in these wines are more rounded, like the galets themselves. From a vine growing point of view, what really matter is what lies below the pudding stones. But even when you know that you can’t help but marvel at vines growing out a sea of large, rounded stones.
There are not that many regions which have great red and white wines – Bordeaux and Burgundy are the exceptions which prove the rule. But Châteauneuf has a small, 10%, production of highly distinctive whites. These too are blends from Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette and increasingly the northern Rhône Roussanne. The wines are a white version of the reds – substantial, mouth-filling, relatively high alcohol, with nutty, mildly floral notes and despite relatively low acidity, a capacity to age.
Wine makers in Châteauneuf do appear to have a sensible attitude to oak. Rather than using barriques as a source of flavour (and prestige), the wine itself is allowed to play the star role. Wineries tend to have a range of sizes and ages of barrel, everything from the 600 litre demi-muid to large, traditional foudres. Those wines which had experimented with barriques were keen to tell you why they had stopped buying new barriques and where going back in a more traditional direction to either large oak that they would use for many years or neutral containers, stainless steel or cement. Fruit quality first, wood as a way of allowing the inherent quality to shine in a evolved, textured way.
The southern Rhône is a great source of highly drinkable great-value wine. Where would we be for French classic reds without Côtes-du-Rhône or the increasing well known single villages of Rasteau, Gigondas and many more? In that company Châteauneuf looks expensive as the best wines from the south’s most famous appellation. Domaine Barroche’s super cuvée, Pure, made from 100 year-old Grenache vines on sandy soils is €70 a bottle at the cellar, though you will have to force yourself to buy some of the delicious standard wine to get your hands on it. Ch. de Beaucastel, perhaps the region’s best known property, is £50-£70 a bottle from a top London wine merchant. But if you begin to compare the top wines with mid-range Bordeaux or Burgundy you realise what an absolute bargain they are. And even the supermarket versions are more than worth a try for a big, warming, flavourful glass with the barbecue in summer or in front of the fire on a winter’s evening.
With thanks to Fédération des producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape who sponsored this visit, October 2014