Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most widely known and most iconic region in the Rhône Valley...no mean feat, since Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are very famous appellations. The literal translation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is "the Pope's new castle." Like many other top French wine regions, Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a long history guided by the benevolent involvement of numerous figures within the church and monarchy, the perfect climate for wine production, heavy regulations for quality control, and a general reputation for classy wines.
However, Châteauneuf has one major and discerning difference from most of the other world-famous French wine appellations. That difference is size. Whereas most of the top AOCs of France are a few hundred acres in size or less and maintain limited production numbers in order to keep quality uniformly high, Châteauneuf is approximately 9,000 acres in size. Its production of over 15 million bottles of wine per year (about 95% of which are red wines) is enough to subsume the entire northern Rhône in sheer quantity.
As you will find in this article, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the few French wine regions that, over time and with the collective experience of thousands of producers, has managed to turn its large size to its advantage. As a result, it is closer to a Western wine region than a typical French region, with offerings ranging from $10 bargain bottles to $400 boutique collectibles.
The most important town in Châteauneuf's history is Avignon, a large regional hub which lies north of Châteauneuf's vineyards. In the year 1308, one of the important men in the history of Burgundy wine, Pope Clement V, moved his papacy to Avignon. He remained a sponsor of Burgundian styles, but also became enamored of the local wines. Due to his assistance, the Châteauneuf wine industry grew significantly in size, and the popes after him continued to support viticultural efforts in the region. It is due to this that the region is dedicated to the Pope's new castle, as the pope's move was obviously a formative factor in this region's winemaking history.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the region became increasingly well-known. Despite the setback of the phylloxera epidemic, by the early 20th century Châteauneuf's wines had attained world renown. In order to protect their vineyards from wine fraud, an alarmingly popular practice at the time, top producers developed a list of regulations in 1923. Though well-founded and influential in improving the general quality of Châteauneuf wines, the rules included many amusing criteria. One famous bylaw prohibited the operation of flying saucers in or near the vineyards; this superstitious law supposedly is still on the books today.
In 1936 Châteauneuf became the first AOC in the Rhône and one of the first in France.
Climate and Viticulture
The vineyards of Châteauneuf are flat. The Mediterranean climate really divides Châteauneuf from its competitors in the northern Rhône, making the vineyards a few degrees warmer most of the year. The difference seems small, but has a major effect on what grape varieties do and don't thrive here. Without temperature extremes in the climate, the wines themselves tend to be much more gentle.
Châteauneuf is so large that generalization about the soil is difficult (in fact, more difficult than generalizing about the northern Rhône's soil). However, most of the great vineyards have soil consisting of clay covered by tiny quartzite pebbles. These distinct pebbles are not found anywhere else in the world, but only recently have viticulturalists began to realize their significance. These pebbles retain heat at night, and as a result keep the vines warm 24 hours a day. As a result, the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are rich, ripe and balanced.
A total of 13 grape varieties are allowed in Châteauneuf, a surprisingly high number considering the appellation's tight regulations. The main grape of the region is Grenache. The mainstay of the northern Rhône, Syrah, isn't quite as popular here, but is one of the secondary varieties along with Mourvèdre and Cinsaut. Famous for their richness and the complexity of their sweet fruit flavors, the majority of Châteauneufs are excellent for everyday drinking at everyday prices, but don't compare to the truly great wines of Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie. However, the upper class of wines, usually distinguished by the coat of arms on their bottle necks and, more often than not, high prices and ratings, often match Hermitages in depth and subtlety. These greatest of Châteauneufs can often age for thirty years.
White Châteauneufs generally are made from white grapes Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne. Notably, the two white grapes that are most popular in the northern Rhône, Marsanne and Viognier, are not allowed here. Apparently the slight difference in climate is enough for the grapes to produce poor results in a region not too far away from areas where they make excellent wines. The white wines that are made in Châteauneuf are notably inferior to those of Hermitage, but are nonetheless good, with rich, dense fruit flavors.
Compiling a list of major producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape was not an easy task. The unrivaled combination of quality and quantity in this appellation means that there are dozens of producers whose wines can be characterized as nothing less than great. Generally, rated wines and/or those with a mitral label (a coat of arms) on their bottle necks, are considered reliable; the following producers are only the most exclusive or famous of the region. This list by no means contains the only good producers of the region or even the only great ones; it is just a sampling of the absolute crème de la crème here. And even under these stringent criteria there are still a dozen producers that have to be included!
- Château de Beaucastel: Arguably the most acclaimed and famous producer of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Beaucastel has racked up as many 100-point ratings from Robert Parker and his ilk as any Bordeaux 1er cru or Burgundy Grand Cru wine. Their production is almost completely limited to Châteauneuf. Since the late 1990s their basic Châteaneuf has been a notch above many other producers' cuvées, with powerful but vivid aromas of smoke, black fruit, herbs, kirsch, earth, and minerals. The Roussanne-based white is lush, full and broad, with powerful and clear yellow tropical fruit flavors. The Roussanne Vieilles Vignes is the second best wine at the Château, with the same flavors as the basic white plus pungent, smooth notes of flowers and minerals. The top wine here is the superlative Hommage a Jacques Perrin, which is a truly one-of-a-kind, creamy-textured, flamboyantly weightless $500 cuvée filled to the brim with a diverse array of flavors. Almost every flavor known to man has been cited in this wine, but among the commonly noted ones are berries, game, and herbs.
- Domaine Henri Bonneau: Bonneau makes an excellent basic Châteauneuf, with vivid, sweet red fruit flavors, a silky texture, and impressive smoothness. The Marie Beurrier is significantly better than the basic wine, with similarly luscious fruit flavors but a notch more depth and complexity. The Cuvée Speciale is pricey but offers extraordinarily solid, dense, surprisingly chocolaty-sweet berry fruit flavors. The Réserve des Celestins is much more vibrant, with explosive scents. With a chewy, ultraconcentrated mix of sweet fruit flavors and dark, gamy notes, Bonneau's top cuvée, La Crau, is one of the best wines of the Rhône.
- Les Cailloux: Producer André Brunel's line of great wines begins with the basic Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which offers up vivid dark fruit and floral scents in a counterintuitive combo of florality, smokiness, minerality, and thickness. The Blanc is a rich, fat mix of floral and mineral fruit flavors. By far the best wine is the Cuvée Centenaire; this cuvée's completely open yet massively complex array of flavors includes nuances of dark fruit, incense, herbs and powerful florality.
- Clos des Papes: These non-cuvée red and white styles from Châteauneuf have become increasingly good in recent years. The white is fresh and smooth but powerful, with strongly smoky yellow fruit flavors and minerality. The red is a complicated, spicy concoction of scents: fruit, game, and deep, complex herbal elements are layered together impressively.
- Clos St-Jean: Not to be confused with the Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru vineyard in Burgundy, this producer makes good basic Châteauneuf-du-Pape but achieves phenomenal results with two red cuvées. The Deux es Machina is a monstrously spicy, silky-smooth blend of berry fruit and herb flavors, while the La Combe du Fous is more floral and candied, with impressive sweetness and complexity.
- Domaine de la Janasse: The basic wines here are decent, but the white Prestige is much more impressive, with silky, floral exotic fruit flavors and surprising richness. The Vieilles Vignes is a monster of a red wine, costing only a little more than the basic red but offering a much more powerful bouquet of black fruit, wood and coffee flavors. The Cuvée Chaupin is cut from the same cloth, but has more intensity and spiciness.
- Domaine de Marcoux: Even the basic red wine is great here, with lively, perfumed sweet fruit and floral flavors, herbal power, and smokiness, but the Blanc is a more competitive mix of complex orchard fruit flavors and intense minerality. The Vieilles Vignes is a top-class cuvée, with complex but silky and lush berry fruit aromas that have been called Burgundian.
- Domaine du Pegau: This dedicated producer's Cuvée Laurence is a great wine but must be relevated to third here, despite extremely complex fruit and herb flavors. Made in a similar style, the Cuvée Reservé is more consistent, with smoky, wild, gamy fruit scents. The Cuvée da Capo is outrageously expensive and worth every penny to its fans; the intense, potent flavors are of fruit and spice.
- Château Rayas: The Blanc here is one of the best whites of the appellation, with pure, honeyed herbal and mineral flavors. The Pignan is a very good red, with flavors of red fruit, rose and spice. Unusually, the basic non-cuvée red is the best, with structured, spicy flavors of exotic red fruit.
- Domaine Roger Sabon: There are several good wines here, but the Le Secret de Sabons is the truly great cuvée. This rustic wine has classically Châteauneuf flavors of red and dark fruit plus complicating aromas of earth.
- Domaine Pierre Usseglio et Fils: Usseglio makes two cuvées that brush the top limits of this appellation in their best years. The smooth, candied but massively powerful Cuvée de Mon Aieul is a classic "iron fist in a velvet glove", with musky black fruit flavors but a contrasting silky texture. The Reserve de Deux Frères is even more impressive, with creamy, rich flavors of fruit, dark chocolate, and powerful spice.
- Domaine Vieux Télégraphe: This remarkable producer's most underrated wine is their Blanc, which is one of the great Châteauneuf white wines due to its combination of smooth yellow fruit flavors and oaky butteriness. However, the domaine is most famous for their La Crau, a great red cuvée made from this appellation's most highly respected vineyard. Feminine in texture and style, the elegant La Crau has super-complex flavors of game, red fruit, herbs, and minerals.
Surprisingly for an appellation of its size, Châteauneuf-du-Pape has no official subappellations. There are, however, several well-known vineyards whose names often appear on the wine bottles. The La Crau vineyard has the highest concentration of pebbles in Châteauneuf, and makes many of its best wines; it is doubtful that this is a coincidence. Domaine Vieux Télegraphé owns most of the vineyard and makes very impressive feminine wines; Bonneau's minority share makes for a chewy, more masculine style.