Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a contrary place. Its motto may as well be ‘Vive la difference!’ Popes visited here when they ruled from nearby Avignon instead of Rome. It was, but also wasn’t, named after this papal presence. It’s the only place in France where UFOs are banned from landing. Grapes seemingly grow in beds of pebbles rather than soil. Wines are sold in bottles as heavy as dumbbells. And winemakers put more varietals into the same bottle than most wine drinkers have even heard of.
Where is it?
First of all, what is it? Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a village, an administrative commune, a wine region and an appellation all at once. Told you it was a contrary place.
It’s in the southern Rhône wine region in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in Southeastern France—a heartachingly beautiful and varied part of France.
Whereas northern Rhône vineyards hug the banks of the river, in the south they are spread out like a blob. Châteauneuf-du-Pape sits at the base of the blob, just north of where the Durance river joins the Rhône. Marseille is just over 100km to the south.
This is a sunny place, one of the sunniest in France, in fact, and vines grow well here. As do sunflowers. Van Gogh produced his famous sunflower paintings an hour’s drive away in Arles.
Rainfall is moderate, making the region’s climate slightly too wet to be classed as a true Mediterranean climate. Winters are coldish, but not freezing. It can be a windy place because it’s right in the path of the Mistral—the cold, northwesterly wind that blows in winter and spring, sometimes violently.
Vines grown on stone
The land around Châteauneuf-du-Pape is flat and gently slopes westwards into the Rhône. This isn’t a place of steep walls carved out over centuries by the river. It’s the kind of place where the river often flooded and changed its mind about where it wanted to flow. The one notable geological feature in the landscape is La Crau Plateau, an elevated area where you’ll find some of the appelation’s most famed winemakers.
The vineyards on the plateau look as if they have been planted into a sea of smooth, rounded pebbles. In fact, the stones were deposited on top of an iron-rich, clay-based soil, into which the vines are actually rooted. The stones act as a barrier that keeps moisture in the soil and also captures and radiates some of the sun’s warmth back onto the vines.
While characteristic of Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards, you won’t see these layers of rounded pebbles everywhere. In fact, on the shallow slopes of vineyards closer to the river banks, the micro-climates are slightly warmer, and the warmth of the sun captured by the stones and radiated up into the vines would actually hinder grape development and winemaking.
All the vineyards that produce grapes for Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are roughly within a 5km radius of the village. Those on clay-dominant soils produce big wines with tannins to match. Those on sandier soils result in the appellation’s more delicate wines.
Ante-papal, papal and post-papal name-calling
Wine has been made in and around the village for well over a thousand years. The first written records are from the 12th century, and it’s known that popes drank wine from the village during the Avignon Papacy, when popes resided at Avignon from 1309-1376. In fact, at one point, the papacy actually owned the village.
Several popes were regular visitors to the village and John XXII had a castle built there, which was partly intended as a summer residence. The ruins of the castle dominate the village skyline today. After the popes returned to Rome, the castle fell into disrepair and the villagers harvested stones from it for their own building projects.
So by now, you’re probably thinking Châteauneuf-du-Pape means ‘new castle of the pope’. You’d be right. And you’re probably also wondering, then, what the village was called before the papal castle was built—because you’re the kind of curious wine drinker who likes to probe a bit further.
Before Châteauneuf was Châteauneuf, it was called Castro Novo. In other words, Châteauneuf. Although that’s stretching it a bit because a castro was a fortified village, rather than an actual castle.
Castro Novo later became Castronovum Calcernarium, also known as Castronovo Caussornerio or Castrum Novum Casanerii. Eventually the French decided Latin, much like any other language that wasn’t French, was silly and the village became known as Châteauneuf Calcernier—a name it wore well for many centuries, even after the popes had decided Rome was home again.
In fact, Châteauneuf Calcernier wasn’t officially renamed Châteauneuf-du-Pape until 1893, despite being referred to as Châteauneuf-du-Pape by locals for over three hundred years in reference to its papal past.
The first French appellation
Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the very first French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. In fact, it’s here that the idea of French appellations was born. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bordeaux.
In 1923, local winemaker Baron Le Roy suggested that land suitable for growing ten varieties of vines should be identified, along with rules about how to make wine, and its minimum alcohol content. This was partly done because the local wine scene was rife with fraud. As a result, the first French appellation was born, over ten years before anyone else thought to do the same. Bordeaux wine regions didn’t start catching up until 1936.
Since then, the commune has become synonymous with some of the greatest red wines France produces. There is such a thing as white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but it’s very rare and only the finest and most curious of wine merchants would ever think of stocking it when they can source it.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a bottle
While winemakers in the region were originally allowed to use ten varieties of grapes, it was boosted to 13 in 1936 and to 18 in 2009. The current list is: Bourboulenc, Brun Argenté (Vaccarese), Cinsaut, Clairette, Clairette Rose, Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Picardan, Piquepoul Blanc, Piquepoul Gris, Piquepoul Noir, Roussanne, Syrah and Terret Noir.
The backbone of the stereotypical red Châteauneuf is Grenache. Around 75% of the local vineyards are planted with it, making it by far the most widely grown grape in the region.
Most winemakers would limit themselves to blending two or three grape varieties, maybe four if they were really courageous, or mad. But not the winemakers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Oh, no. After all, why limit yourself to a duo or a trio or a quartet when you can have a whole symphony playing in a glass of wine? So it’s not uncommon for wines to comprise of as many as 13 grapes. Grenache provides the foundation, while other grapes provide the nuances.
In theory, winemakers are able to adjust up to 18 different grapes to achieve the character of wine they are after. Consequently, tasting a Châteauneuf can be quite the experience. Raspberry and plums up front, giving way to more savoury flavours (game, leather, tar maybe), and Provençal herbs like rosemary and thyme. You’ll get some heat off the alcohol content. These wines wear big-boy pants and are a minimum of 12.5%, but will go up to an ‘I-think-I’ll-have-this-one-sitting-down’ 15.5%.
Because Grenache is the dominant grape variety and really doesn’t get on well with oxygen, Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are matured in stainless steel barrels for the most part. Oak isn’t shunned completely, but its use is short-term, rather than long-term when maturing red wines.
Once ready for bottling, the wine is put into thick, heavy bottles, often embossed with a big chunky coat of arms or other design flourish. Buy a half case of these and you’ve got yourself the makings of a gym set.
What about the UFO thing?
UFOs were all the rage in the 1950s. People were seeing them everywhere and France was no exception. There was a well-known story that one was spotted over Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Recognising a good PR opportunity when they saw one, the village authorities banned UFOs from flying over or landing in the commune. The law has been spectacularly successful. Not a single alien has landed since. Which says something about the intergalactic reputation of the local gendarmerie.