Châteauneuf-du-Pape: critical mass


A quick intro to the wines of Châteauneuf…

Exploring the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape can feel unnerving. They feel ancient and strangely sentient. It is a unique and bizarre terrain; round bone-coloured stones that vary in size from a fist to a head piled on terracotta earth. You can’t help but think of the poor monks that first toiled over this disobedient ground in the scorching heat, plagued by the sound of screaming cicadas. Nowadays low vineyards stretch across this flat land as far as the eye can see, punctuated by the occasional exclamatory cypress.

The vines aren’t neatly trained on wires, they sit alone in rows like gargoyles with unruly green hair. For red wines, the locals mostly cultivate Grenache, with Syrah and Mourvèdre in second place – though there is a total of 14 possible varieties to choose from. Some select a few, others grow the whole lot. They also produce a little white wine, mostly fat, full-bodied blends of Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Roussanne and Clairette.

The reds may be known for their power, but they don’t brim with thick black fruits like, say, an Australian Shiraz. Grenache tends to give sweet red fruit and dried herb flavours, with a lavish, silky texture and generous levels of alcohol. The other grapes in the blend all add something of their own, whether it’s the peppery spice of Syrah or the body and texture of Mourvèdre. Complexity develops further as the wines age, the best evolving for decades.

The small, pretty town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself is located in the centre of the vineyards, six miles north of Avignon in the Southern Rhône. The ruins of the papal castle watch over it from on high. It is relatively unspoilt except for the lorries chugging down the narrow streets, laden with wine. There are countless signs at every crossroads pointing the way to the 80 or so local producers.

Châteauneuf has its share of mediocre growers, relying on its celebrated name to sell their wares rather the actual quality of what they produce. The most famous names may not be cheap, but the wines are extraordinary and arguably represent good value: Château de Beaucastel, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe and particularly Clos des Papes. Less expensive but high quality wines can be found at the following domaines: Chante Cigale, Domaine de la Mordorée, Bosquet des Papes, Roger Sabon, Font de Michelle and Vignobles Mayard. The best are bottled decadence.

First published in Living France magazine.