Châteauneuf-du-Pape- Part 1

With winter in full swing, I thought this week I’d focus on a region known mainly for big, powerful and spicy reds that are just the ticket (alongside an open fire) to ward off the chill. But this isn’t a straightforward region to just blow through; I’ll need 2 weeks to di ti justice. So today I’ll be delving into the history and legislation of the region, and next week I’ll go through the geography, climate and varieties of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation of France’s Southern Rhone to ascertain what makes the wines so sought after and well known.


So first up, the name- it’s a bit of a mouthful! The wine region is named after the town Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which translates to “Pope’s New Castle” and relates to the relocation of the Papal court from Rome to Avignon by Pope Clement the 5th in 1309. Now one question you might ask would be why move the whole Papal court? Well, it might have something to do with the new Pope being born in Gascony, which Avignon happens to be a part of- just a guess… The story goes that Pope Clement V and his successor John XXII ordered vines to be planted in the city’s surrounds to provide wine for the sacrament. Before the move of the court, the town was called Calcernier after the limestone quarry nearby, and these empty chalk caverns come in handy as a 14 degrees cellar perfect for ageing wines big, tannic red wines.


Now many might think that this wine was an instant hit, and the wines were immediately famous, however this was not the case. The relocation of the court of the Pope from Rome was a very controversial move, and after 67 years and 7 Popes (they seemed to not last as long back then as they do today!), the court was officially moved back to Rome. During this time and for centuries after, wine made in this region was of little consequence, simply called Vin d’Avignon, and in terms of quality it did not compete well against the high quality wines found to the direct north in Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Cornas, and was more expensive than the cheap and cheerful, mass produced wines to the south. The region still had a following among the French court as the “French Pope’s wine”, and slowly started to improve and gain recognition- interestingly enough the wine was very popular in the USA. I’m guessing this was because the wine could be shipped from the major port just down the road, Marseilles, direct to the Americas. This fame and fortune continued through 18th and the first half of the 19th century until it was a stowaway from the Americas that would flip these fortunes on their head. This is the part in my weekly tales where the devastation of Phylloxera destroys everything.


And I truly mean everything; Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a unique blend of varieties (more on them later), and by pure bad luck, all of these varieties has a severe susceptibility to the tiny yet deadly Phylloxera louse. Due to the warm, dry climate (again more on that later) which was a near-perfect imitation of conditions in its home in the southern USA, Phylloxera settled into the vineyards comfortably and spread like wildfire, almost completely wiping out the wine industry here long before it was a problem elsewhere. Reconstruction took decades and was exceedingly expensive, but vignerons were not willing to give up on this ‘sacred’ plot of land. But then things got even uglier…

Wine fraud is not a new thing. Passing one bottle off as a more famous (and expensive) bottle from a better appellation has existed for millennia, and in the very early 20th century, when the depression hit, the US market dried up due to Prohibition and World War 1 took hold, many surrounding regions to the south of Châteauneuf-du-Pape used some ‘desperate’ tactics to get a sale. Some blended their wines with higher valued and quality wine and charged as if it was all Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and others just relabelled their wines as this more prestigious appellation, all in an attempt to earn a bit more money during these tough times. This of course totally destroyed the appellation’s reputation. And then in 1923 came the man who would change not just the fortunes of this appellation, but would change the whole world of wine ; Baron Le Roy, owner of Château Fortia.


The Baron took the reins of his family’s estate right in the middle of these troubled times, and came up with an interesting plan to remedy them. He lobbied government to put laws in place that would define rules for producing Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These included a delimited region within which grapes could come from, researched as the best pieces of land, as well as grape varieties allowed to make the wine, the use of only the highest quality bunches (known as triage), and a minimum alcoholic strength of 12.5% (a direct strategy to combat fraud; alcohol is very easy to measure and cheap imitations coming from lower quality regions could never reach this level of ripeness). These rules, passed into law in 1923, became the basis of all Appellation Controlee legislation in France. Through the following decades, several other countries followed France’s lead and put into place similar regional control legislation in an attempt to protect their valued quality wine regions. Many of the rules introduced by Baron Le Roy remain in place today in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, showing that this region is famous for more than just wine!

Tune in next week for part 2, where I’ll delve into the region today; its soils, climate and the grape varieties allowed, all of which are integral aspects of what makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape the quality wine it is today.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager