The Badass Rebel History of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Like so many French wine regions, it’s fun to say out loud – tres sexy, n’est-ce pas? – yet the average American has absolutely no clue about where it is or what its wine tastes like.

Let’s lift the veil of mystery.

First of all, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is an ancient town in the southern Rhône Valley. If you were to travel north, up the river from its silt-filled mouth at the Mediterranean Sea, you’d pass Arles and Avignon. Just before you hit Orange, there it is on a high bank about three clicks east of the riverbank: an ancient town of 2,000 people, dominated by the remains of a castle.

How ancient, you ask? Well, the Romans colonized the region two millennia ago, when the mouth of the Rhône was several miles north of its present location. The ruins of their public buildings can be found all over this part of the valley, including a kickass amphitheater near Orange.

See it smack dab in the middle?

The Romans planted wine grapes here, too, and it was a great spot for it: rocks, stone, sand, limestone and clay soil and a warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The village probably dates from the 10th century, but it comes by its name because Pope Clement, who was French, transferred the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1309. He spent a lot of time at Châteauneuf-du-Pape over the next few years and died nearby in 1314.

Editors note: for a beautiful, quality representation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, give the Domaine de la Vieille Julienne 2010 a taste. This legendary estate produces some of the world’s best juice and the 2010 is no exception. Drinking young, big and full of grippy tannins, this drop packs a haymaker of dark fruits. Drink now or age it for a few more years.

Subsequent French popes also favored the place. Pope John XXII built a large summer residence in town in 1333, the ruins of which still dominate the skyline today. Hence the name: Châteauneuf-du-Pape means “the new castle of the pope.”

Though the papacy moved back to Rome in the late 1300’s and the castle fell into ruin, the already well-established winemaking tradition continued. By the late 1700’s, Châteauneuf-du-Pape had earned kudos for the quality of its wines, which reportedly combined the best qualities of the Languedoc and Bordeaux.

Like the rest of Europe, the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape were destroyed by Phylloxera. In fact, the destructive pest struck here first in 1866 and laid waste to almost everything. By 1880, only 200 hectares of vines remained in the entire appellation.

Growers who had prospered for generations went bankrupt. Vineyards were abandoned. It took decades for the area to recover, partly because the wine was being sold at low prices and it wasn’t considered worth the effort to replant. From about 1900-1920, negociants used Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine mainly to add color and backbone to more desirable wines from Burgundy.

Editor’s note: the Domaine Roger Sabon 2015 is all tart-fruit raspberry on the front and minerality on the back. A charismatic yet elegant take on Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this is an excellent version for both experts and novices alike. The softer tannins won’t leave your mouth cottony yet finishes with enough pleasant brute force where laying it down for a few more years will serve you well. 

In 1924, Châteauneuf-du-Pape applied for official appellation status. It took 12 years for the fussy French wine brain trust to grant it. That sense of being dissed by the wine establishment has persisted over the decades, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape once had a reputation for being a bit of a rustic bad boy.

Its red wines (about 95 percent of total production) were considered full-bodied but rough around the edges, and its three dominant varieties – Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre – were traditionally not as valued as the characteristic grapes of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

In recent decades, though, the area has joined France’s big-boy ranks, with high scores from many judges and rising prices to match. Other nearby regions, such as Gigondas and Vacqueyras, are well regarded, but Châteauneuf-du-Pape is universally acknowledged to be the best wine region in the southern Rhône.

The reds share certain traits: red and black cherries, strawberry, kirsch, black pepper, ripe raspberry and garrigue (the quality of the herbs found locally). Its textures can be luscious, big and fruit-forward when young; two or three more years in the bottle gives them silkiness and finesse. Some can be left in the cellar for 8 to 12 years.

Editor’s note: throw this Domaine Giraud 2015 in your cellar (or wherever you keep the good shit). This fancy fruit and herbal drop has some power behind it. Although totally drinkable now, let it calm down for a few years to soften up the biting finish. Otherwise a great show-off wine to represent the region. 

The appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is 3,231 hectares in size. It’s about 8.5 miles long and 5 miles wide, delineated by the city of Orange with its Roman ruins in the north, the town of Sorgues to the south, the Rhône River to the west and the A7, a major highway, to the east. About 13,750,000 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are produced every year, most by small, family-owned estates.

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