Sep 20: Chateauneuf Du-Pape wines are renowned globally, thanks partially to the nomenclature itself, with the Pope making it a summer residence in Avignon barely 20 kms from the vineyards and partially due to its unique soil but the popularity of the region escalated after the second world war, writes Subhash Arora who visited the region and a few of its wineries earlier this month and found them excellent for special meals and occasions, giving top Bordeaux wines run for the money and offering even better match with Indian cuisine
Vine cultivation, already known to the Gauls in France, was widely developed by the Romans over 2000 years ago in Chateauneuf. Monks cleared land and cultivated these vineyards while Bishops got the extended vine cultivation. In 1157, in keeping with Roman tradition, the Bishop of Avignon, planted vines and managed his estate to make communion wine. But by the 13th century the village of Châteauneuf, grew rich and developed flourishing vineyards.
In 1308, Pope Clément V, the first Pope to settle in Avignon planted additional vine stock before he died a few years later but was one of the first wine producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape(CDP). The Pope John XXII got a regular supply of wine from the village. Because of the history the wines came to be known as Vin du Pape, and later as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He was also responsible for building the famous château, the remains of which houses the headquarters of the "Echansonnerie des Papes", a brotherhood since 1967.
The vineyards developed considerably from the 18th century onwards. Thanks to the wine quality Châteauneuf-du-Pape remained prosperous until the phylloxera that hit in 1866. The first important changes occurred just before the outbreak of the Second World War when mechanisation was first introduced.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape vignerons were the first to set production guidelines for themselves. French first AOC Appellation was given to Baron le Roy's energy and expertise, the boundary regulation and production conditions in 1933 and the rules are still quite similar even today.
Grand Cru Appellation
The region is blessed with a great diversity of soil with an additional advantage of Le Mistral, the unique phenomenon in this part of France where winds with high velocity lash across the region keeping them fresh and dry. It is one of the “grand cru” wines produced in the Rhône Valley. During the Quarternary Ice Age (the icy part of the age from 2.6 million years ago to the present), the waters of the Rhône brought down the famous round pebbles from the Alps to the highest vineyard terraces. The inland seas of the Secondary and Tertiary eras had previously deposited the successive layers of sediment that make up the vineyard subsoil. The combined action of receding seas and river erosion has sculpted a relief of terraces and slopes stretching as far as the present course of the Rhône. The predominantly stony ground provides Châteauneuf-du-Pape with an exceptional wine-producing asset.
The vineyards also benefit from the long sun hours, averaging 1000 hours n in summer; 7 hours each day at 25°C.d the effect of the Mistral wind reduces rainfall thus countering its adverse effects.
The Technical Division
Appellation's Technical Division offers help in Research and Development for its members and employs a full-time staff headed by an experienced oenologist. There is a modern laboratory fitted with state-of-the art equipment. This Technical Division performs regular wine analyses, and advises the growers during vinification and ageing. In addition to their main activity of following through the wine-making process, they also perform occasional large-scale surveys on such aspects as grape varieties and clones, soil analysis etc.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation d ‘Origine Contrôlée Rules
The appellation is controlled by the Decree of 1936, modified by others later. A total of 13 grape varieties are allowed to be used. Most producers use Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault with a dash of other varieties to tweak the wine to their style. This number was increased to 18 in 2009 by including 5 more variants of the initial grapes. Grenache gives the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines their character. This variety is predominant in the Appellation (80%). The grape varieties may be vinified either together or separately. Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault are used essentially for red wines. Counoise, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir and Muscardin also exist. White wine is produced from Clairette, white Grenache, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul and Picardan.
Yield is limited to 35 hectolitres per hectare of vineyard. In reality 25-33 hL is normally the production. Picking is by hand and sorting selectively when harvested. Minimum natural alcohol content must be 12.5° though most re above 14° these days. Aging is done in mainly wooden casks (50 hl) and oak barrels of 225 litres for specific grape varieties. Bottling is allowed from 2nd year onwards and matured in cellars. White wines can be bottled 3 months after harvesting.
Rose is not allowed in CDP. I was told there is a gentleman’s agreement with Tavel which makes only Rose and depends on CDP for its requirement of red and white wines.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are generous, well-structured and tannic. They can easily be aged and stored for 30 years or more. As a result of new stalk-removal and punching of the cap techniques, the elegance of red wines has been enhanced without affecting their strength. Wine concentration and density are increased by the marked presence of the fruit tannins.
The area of production is about 3,200 ha- slightly lower than the total planted area in India.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Courthézon, Bédarrides, Sorgue and Orange are the only 5 villages (comunes) that may produce this wine- 72,000 to 106,000 hL of which is produced in an average year. The production of 12.5million bottles (slightly over a million cases) sold very year is much less due to low yields.
CDP is primarily a red wine producing region with 93 % of red wines and 7 % of white wines. There are 320 wine-growers producing Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. 95 % of the wine production comes from private cellars and 5 % from a cooperative cellar. 27% of the vineyards are already organic or biodynamic, more are being added. With constant push towards Exports 75% of the total production is being exported. The traditional foreign markets are still Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. It was first introduced into Great Britain, The United States and Canada, Holland and the Scandinavian countries were tapped over 20 years ago and have proved to be steady markets.
To put things in proper perspective, at 3400 hA CDP has surface area similar to the whole of India. More wine is produced here than in the whole of northern Rhone. But Napa Valley is 4 times larger and Bordeaux is 34 times larger than CDP.
Before World War 1 most of DCP was sold in bulk, mostly to Burgundy which added this to their blend to give more alcoholic strength. The quality driven producers have seen a significant increase since 1970s and today CDP defines the Southern Rhone. CDP defines time frame of 14th century when the Pope shifted from Rome to Avignon, around 20 km from these vineyards. They had papal residence for 6 centuries. Known then as Chateauneuf Calcernier, but with time it was changed to Chateauneuf du Pape.
Visiting Chateauneuf du Pape
After visiting Maison Vignerons, the office of the Syndicat des Vignerons de Chateauneuf du Pape of Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, with Michel Blanc and Isabelle Ogier who has been earlier working with Chateau de Nalys till a few months after it was bought over by E. Guigal in 2017. Both have been to India to promote wines from this region in the past and so understand the difficulty in marketing such super premium wines. A few producers like Brindco, Aspri, Hema and Red Elan have been importing these wines.
I had an opportunity to visit Domaine de Pegau being run by Laurence Feraud and her father and taste the range that climaxed with a tasting of De Capo, a €300 bottle. I met Celine Sabon, family member of the family-owned Clos du Mont Olivet followed by a visit to the futuristic winery Chateau Gigognan set amongst vines and a beautiful Relais. Visit to Maison Brotte and their must-see museum, being represented in India by Red Elan ended the second day.
Next day was a Tasting of excellent wines from the iconic producer M. Chapoutier followed by a visit and Tasting at another iconic and powerful producer Chateau de Beaucastel which has a massive plan to renovate the winery and expand it as Pierre Perrin explained to me. Interestingly, they floated a global competition for the Architect and ended up selecting one from Mumbai, who had never designed a winery before.
I was warmly welcome by another fine producer Pierre Fabre of Château Mont-Redon, who personally showed me around even though they did not allow visits on that day. Domaine du Grand Tinel is pretty much in the village and walking distance from the Pegau guesthouse where I was staying and was happy to meet Béatrice Audu Jeune and her sister at the winery.
The climax was of course, the intronisation at the Ban des Vendanges dinner and inducted as an échanson by Danielle Renaud who I had met in India adn other platforms overseas several times and who had been helped by Isabelle Ogier in preparing the induction notes. The presentation of a Magnum of Chateauneuf du Pape was a tangible memory of a wonderful trip to this iconic region that is already due for a revisit.