The Northern and Southern Rhone Valleys are exceptional wine regions which share a river. They share a few grape varieties too. But, overall, the two growing regions are extremely different.
The Northern Rhone is a small, steep, narrow valley of granite slopes and cool-to-moderate climate. Syrah is its only red wine grape. The southern Rhone, including the Chateauneuf du Pape AOC, is almost the exact opposite—broad and warm with a long list of allowable grapes. Let’s start there. Here’s what you should know about Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation is physically small, but dominates the mindshare of people looking for age-worthy and luxurious wines from the Southern Rhone. The AOC is roughly 15 miles long and 8 miles wide with the town of Orange is near its center. The Rhone River and A7 highway run north-south and bisect the region.
The appellation is not densely planted, with only 8,000 acres of vines. Those are scattered among five communes: Bédarrides, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Courthézon, Orange, and Sorgues. The planted acres are further divided into 134 lieux-dits, named vineyards which are officially recognized.
The Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC is famous for its cobblestone soil—deep piles of softball-sized rocks. But there’s more to the geological landscape than that. The variations give different accents to the wines, but more because of the water-draining, fertility, and heat-holding capacity of the various soils than their specific mineral composition.
© photo "CEP DE GRENACHE" - Coll. Fédération des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Underlying most everything in the area is marine sedimentary soil, the oldest being limestone. Newer deposits include clay, marl, and sand (or sandstone). All these are remnants of the times, as recent as 2 million years ago, when the Mediterranean sea covered the entire area.
When the sea receded, due to global cooling and the formation of glaciers, new soils were formed. Some were deposited by the flow, and occasional flooding, of the Rhone River. These soils tended to be silty or sandy, but could also include larger rocks, tumbled smooth by the river. Glacial movement accounted for many of the biggest stones though. The exact texture of a local soil also depends on the terrain: flat or sloping, elevated or low-lying.
The primary influences on the climate of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are the Mediterranean Sea, the latitude, and the Mistral winds. The sea is, by far, the most significant. The huge and relatively warm body of water moderates air temperatures throughout the year and, because of its warmth, doesn’t generate a lot of clouds or rain.
These two circumstances are so significant that the type of climate they induce is actually named Mediterranean. That climate type isn’t common on the planet, but occurs in many places far from that sea, including the United States’ west coast and much of southern Australia. It’s an ideal climate for viticulture.
The growing season is long, dry and warm or hot. The vast majority of rainfall comes during the mild winters. Frost may come during spring and rains in autumn, but they are rarely extreme enough to seriously threaten a vintage.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape has a latitude of 44°, compared to 38.3° for Napa Valley. Therefore, there’s 30-40 minutes more sunlight each day during the heart of the growing season in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but 30-40 minutes less in fall and spring, resulting in a shorter growing season and fewer sunlight hours overall. That helps balance the greater average daily temperature in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The Mistral is a wind that blows south through the Rhone Valley. It can be severe, but is more so during winter and spring than during the growing season. If it comes at the wrong times during spring, it can affect fruit set and eventual yields. During the growing season, the most common effects are either causing the vines to shut down for the day to avoid dehydration or blowing them dry after a rare rain.
Any time of year, but especially when vines are in full leaf, the Mistral can reach speeds which physically damage vines, so many are tied up in a goblet shape which the wind passes around, rather than trained out for vertical shoot positioning (VSP) which would catch the wind. Conventionally trellised vines could be shredded leaves or broken by the wind. [VSP is largely unnecessary anyway, since its primary aim of maximizing sun exposure is hardly necessary in the area.]
© photo “Vignoble au Printemps” - Coll. Fédération des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Vintage variation exists in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but poor vintages are very infrequent. Most vintages effectively ripen slow varieties, such as Mourvedre, but don’t over-ripen the quick ones. The region’s predominant style of blends, as opposed to varietal wines, also gives producers flexibility, helping to assure consistent quality from year to year.
The aforementioned blends are created from 22 potential varieties. [Some people say 13 varieties, but that means, for example, counting Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, and Grenache Rosé as a single variety.] The 22 varieties include six white varieties and three gris. However, due to both climate and demand, less than 7% of the wine produced in Chateauneuf-du-Pape is white.
Grenache Noir, which is the backbone of almost every red wine in the region, accounts for nearly three quarters of all vines. Syrah and then Mourvedre are the next most planted varieties. Syrah alone makes up about the same amount of acreage as that of the next 19 varieties combined. The foremost among those is Cinsault.
Grenache Blanc leads among white varieties, followed closely by Clairette. Roussanne and Bourboulenc are nearly even with each other. They combine for about the same acreage as Clairette.
This thin-skinned, Spanish grape variety came to the vicinity of Chateauneuf-du-Pape roughly 200 years ago. It’s acreage increased tremendously with post-Phylloxera replanting in the mid-to-late 19th century. At that time, Grenache’s easy ripening, fruit-forward personality, moderate tannins, and generous alcohol were welcome relative to the less friendly varieties that preceded it.
In these days of global warming, those characteristics may be less ideal. Fortunately, by law, Grenache Noir must be head-trained in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. While that may have been, in part, to protect the vines from Mistral winds, it also slows ripening. That, coupled with increased planting of Syrah and Mourvedre over the past 20 or so years, means blends can still find balance.
Credits : © Photo Grappe de Grenache - Eva Goutorbe Coll. Fédération des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Though Syrah is the only red wine grape of the Northern Rhone and is the second most-planted in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, its position in the latter region is fairly recent. 60 years ago, Syrah acreage there was negligible.
The key to Syrah in Chateauneuf-du-Pape is location. It does well in well-drained, stony soils that limit vigor and berry size. Northern facings, which limit sun exposure, help keep ripeness at reasonable levels too. When all is right, Syrah adds dark color, tannic backbone, black fruit, and savory notes to what could otherwise be overly happy, red-fruited wine.
Mourvedre is also a Spanish variety, but has been prominent, even dominant, in various regions of southern France for a good 600 years. For most of that time, it made an often overwhelmingly tannic wine. Hence, its colloquial name in some areas translates to “dog strangler.” It’s little wonder that Mourvedre's decimation by Phylloxera in the mid-19th century was taken as an opportunity for almost wholesale replacement with Grenache and other more pleasing varieties.
Today, there’s ample opportunity for Mourvedre to get properly ripe. And it thrives in exactly the places Syrah does not. So, the two varieties don’t compete for real estate. Like Syrah, it contributes tannins, color, and black fruit flavors. But it brings somewhat different savory notes than Syrah, while doubling down on the leather.
Cinsault loves hot, sunny climates. Its ability to tolerate them without getting flabby or overly alcoholic led to a rise in Chateauneuf-du-Pape plantings starting about 50 years ago. The goal was to balance Grenache’s ripeness.
Though it makes good varietal wines in some regions, it’s always a blending component in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and usually a minor one. On its own, Cinsault lacks structure, doesn’t age particularly well, and its aromas and flavors are nice, rather than dynamic.
Another Spanish variety, Grenache Blanc is now more important in France than its home country. The character and quality of Grenache Blanc wines can vary wildly, depending on growing conditions. It ranges from full-bodied, low acid, generously alcoholic, and under-flavored in hot, dry regions to light, fine-boned, juicy, and pretty when both ripening and yields are carefully managed.
In Chateauneuf-du-Pape, its character lies between those extremes. It provides more acidity than some of the other varieties common there, but is still voluminous on the palate. Aromas lean toward orchard fruits, occasionally with floral highlights.
Clairette is a leisurely ripener, so it works well in the hot, dry situations that lead Grenache Blanc astray. It adds weight and alcoholic richness to Chateauneuf-du-Pape blends, white and red, without being obtrusive from a flavor perspective.
Roussanne can make compelling wines on its own, but is more often a factor in blends. It offers acidity, dry extract from the grape pulp which contributes light, tannin-like structure, and generous body. Like the varieties above, Roussanne has an orchard fruit and flowers personality. But it also offers compelling side notes such as honey, almond, and even coffee.
Roussanne ages well, which adds to its value both standalone and in white or red blends. The aging curve is unique though. The wine is very good when young, then disappears for awhile only to come back strong several years later. So, drink its varietal wines young or drink them 10+ years from vintage, but not in between.
This variety, origin unknown, is another heat-tolerant grape. Its character is mild, but the high acidity adds life and brightness to blends. Varietal Bourboulenc wines are exceptionally rare.
The Other Grape Varieties of Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Red: Clairette Rose, Counoise, Grenache Rose, Muscardin, Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir, Vaccarese
White: Clairette Gris, Grenache Gris, Picardin, Picpoul Blanc, Picpoul Gris, Terret Blanc, Terret Gris
AOC Regjulations & Wine Styles
Irrigation is generally prohibited during the growing season. It may be allowed in drought years, but only twice per season and only with special permission.
No mechanical harvesting is allowed. Everything must be by hand. Grape sorting is mandatory. Maximum yield is 370 gallons/acre.
The wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, red or white, are almost always blends. There are, however, a few wines that are 100% varietal. Minimum allowable alcohol is 12.5%. Of course, these days, top wines are much more likely to be above 15% than below 13%.
Blend percentages are not regulated by the AOC. However, any blending of white grapes into red must be done before fermentation. Rosé wines are not allowed. And all wines sold in package sizes of 3L or less must be in bottle—there’s no box wine labeled Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Wines are often fermented or aged in oak barrels, but it’s not required. However, non-barrel oak is not allowed. In other words, oak powder, chips, cubes, and hanging staves are prohibited. Chaptalization is also illegal.
Crédits: @ Domaine de le Charbonnière
Winemakers have flexibility on other techniques. They may or may not include stems in the fermentations. The cap may be managed with either punch down or pump over. Stainless steel, concrete, epoxy, and oak vessels are all allowed and in a wide range of sizes.
In most years, only about 40% of all the AOC wine is bottled and sold under the producers’ brand. 6% is made by cooperatives. The rest is sold through negociants or as bulk wine. Roughly 60% of all Chateuneuf-du-Pape wine is exported.
There is vintage variation in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. However, achieving proper ripeness isn’t really an issue. Some vintages are riper than others, but as the climate warms, even the lower ripeness years produce compelling wines. Vintages have more of an effect on yield—due to bad weather during flowering and fruit set or late-season hail—than on quality. And, as with other world-class wine regions, top producers will not damage their brand by shipping inferior wine.
Drinking and Aging Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine
The character of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine varies widely by producer. For insight into those personalities, I suggest this article by Eric Asimov for the NY Times. He also addresses value. (While the top wines have gone up in price quite a bit, the best bottles in Chateauneuf-du-Pape are easily 5x less expensive than those from many other famous regions.)
As in most regions, no rule-of-thumb with respect to aging is true across the board. There’s too much variation between producers, based on the terroir of their vineyards, the blend, and their winemaking choices.
Any of the wines can be consumed upon release. You may lose out on potential development. You may need to decant the wine or let it open in the glass for some time, to maximize aromatics and soften the texture. But none of them are so tannic that they are unapproachable.
Photo courtesy of Clos du Mont Olivet
Some wines aren’t suitable for aging. But those from the most respected producers—and often selling for relatively high prices—are. Though I certainly wouldn’t recommend holding your wines this long, I’ve had very long aged wines from the region that were stellar. Some time ago, I attended a private party at Domaine de Beaurenard for the owners’ 50th wedding anniversary. Among the wines they poured were a 53-year old red and a 35-year old white, both of which were wonderful. In general, I’d suggest drinking top whites at 2-10 years or so and reds at 5-15.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and especially nearby Avignon, have history that has filled hundreds of books. I won’t recount it here, except to mention that, for a lengthy period, Popes did, in fact, live there.
The history of wine in Chateauneuf-du-Pape is also important though. It affected all of France and, from there, the world.
Wine production there dates back to the Roman Empire. It continued through the Middle Ages. In the mid-14th century, 45% of plantable land held vines, more than was devoted to grains. Quality steadily increased too and, by the 18th century, the wines had quite a reputation.
Challenged, as were many fine wine regions, by counterfeit wines made elsewhere, Chateauneuf-du-Pape took a pioneering step. In 1894, they created a wine-growing syndicate for the area, to work toward higher quality within and to quash fakes without. It was a short-lived initiative, but was followed in 1905 by another commission and, in 1919 by a law that officially defined the region’s boundaries.
Not having succeeded in squelching fakes, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape winegrowers syndicate appointed lawyer-grower Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarie its president in late 1923. He and the union worked steadily on studies, documents, and laws. By 1931 they had a firm definition for the region and wines. In 1936, that definition became law and Chateauneuf-du-Pape was a legal appellation of origin. That effort, the first of its type in France, was inspirational. Boiseaumarie was tasked with taking on similar efforts on a national basis and thus the AOC system was born.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wines to Try
JJ Buckley always has a great selection of top-quality wines from this AOC. Here are a few to consider.
2018 Domaine de Saint-Prefert Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc Mostly Clairette, with Roussanne making up the balance
2018 Pierre Usseglio Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc Mostly Clairette with Grenache Blanc the main accent
2018 Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf du Pape
2015 Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee Reservee
2017 Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape
2017 Le Clos du Caillou Chateauneuf du Pape La Reserve
2015 Clos du Mont Olivet Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee Papet
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, and educator. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine) among others. He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred is founder of Wine Writers' Educational Tours, an annual, educational conference for professional wine writers. He also leads private wine tours and conducts tastings and seminars in person and via Zoom. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator, Northwest Wine Appellation Specialist, and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers three times.