Châteauneuf-du-Pape- Part 2
Last week in part 1 we covered the all-important history and legislation of the Southern Rhone’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, and how these things shaped the region as we know it. Today I’ll go into the region as it stands in the modern world; its climate, soils and grape varieties in an attempt to piece together what makes this region so unique.
So first up the weather. As many of you who have tried wines from this region might be able to guess from the rich, spicy and sometimes 15% alcohol style of wine produced here, Châteauneuf-du-Pape gets very hot in the summer. These high summer temperatures give Châteauneuf-du-Pape the highest minimum alcohol (12.5%) of any region in France, and the addition of sugar to increase alcohol (known as Chaptalisation and allowed in the cooler northern regions) is strictly forbidden.
One of the most unique aspects of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the soil of the area, and the manifold effects this has on the grapes and wines. Many of you would most likely recognise a picture of the famous vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape because of the old, gnarled bush vines atop large rounded rocks, known locally as galets but also called ‘pudding stones’. These stones were formed millennia ago when the river would run through this region, and smoothed the top layer into large pebbles. These are warmed by the sun during the day, and then release this heat onto the low-trained bush vines overnight. This supposedly allows ripening of sugars to occur all afternoon and evening, and gives the wines their trademark full body and heady alcohol. It must be noted though that while these pudding stones are famous, they are not ubiquitous; they are found mostly on the north facing slopes that need this overnight warming effect. South-facing vineyards which receive the full force of the sun do not really need any help in ripening, are instead sandy calcareous soils without a galet in sight.
Grape varieties are another thing that makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape so unique. When the original appellational legislation was written back in 1923, 10 grape varieties were allowed in the blend, then in 1936 another 3 were added, and today an incredible 18 varieties are allowed to be used to make Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In reality though, many of these are either completely irrelevant, or of such a minor role as to be of interest rather than an important part of the wine. Either way, I’ll quickly run through them;
Grenache is king here, being the most widely-grown variety, and like Nebbiolo in Barolo/Barbaresco or Gamay in Beaujolais, this is the best expression of this grape on earth, and one of the few places where it makes world-class wines with high price tags. Today many producers make their wines out of mainly, if not all, Grenache, which does best when kept to the legislated low yields. It gives red berry fruit aromas, high alcohols, and can give a raisin-like flavour to the wines if not treated carefully. This is due to a condition particular to Grenache called coloure, which is where some berries in each bunch do not grow, and instead raisin on the vine in the warm weather (see the picture above). If not carefully picked out, this concentrated raisin flavour shows in the wine.
Mourvedre is the next most grown. It usually inhabits the warmest sites as it struggles to ripen, even at the best of times, and gives the much-needed acidity to the blend, as well as structure and a pretty perfume. The perfect foil to Grenache.
Syrah is next, and is a bit of a legacy variety from the Northern Rhone, planted when they were achieving higher prices than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is planted in the most shaded, cool sites, and gives chalky tannins, blue fruit aromas and a pepper note wines.
Cinsaut/Cinsault is a back-up variety due to its ability to thrive in drought years. It gives a pretty red cherry fruit character to the wines when used.
Counoise is a rare but high-quality blending addition, which gives bright acid, white pepper and a floral lift to wines when used. Ripens late so is a warmer vintage specialist.
Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picqupoul Noir and Terret Noir are the other varieties technically allowed; though such small plots of each are grown it is difficult to attribute specific flavours or roles to them. Mainly a page in viticultural history.
As for the white wines, which make up about 1 in 13 bottles produced in this region annually, they can be made from;
Roussanne is the most widely planted, and has shown some flair as a single varietal in this region. It brings fleshy palate weight, stone fruit aromas and phenolic grip to the wines.
Grenache Blanc brings alcohol and sweet citrus fruit to the party
Clairette thrives in poor, dry soils and adds perfumed aroma and acidity to the blend.
Bourbolenc adds fresh acid which it holds even in warm vintages. It is used to freshen the whites in these hot years.
Clairette Rosé, Grenache Gris, Picardin, Picpoul Blanc and Picpoul Gris are again extremely rare and are another page in the history books.
A final note on the wine styles is the lack of any Rosé- quite unusual for the south of France where this style is the money-maker for many producers. Making Rosé was forbidden in the original 1923 laws, and it was done basically to give the finger to the producers in the region directly across the River Rhône in Tavel. At the time, the Rosés of Tavel were dirt cheap (how that has changed today!), and this law was put in place by Baron Le Roy to separate his regal Châteauneuf-du-Pape from this poor, common region over the river. Today, as Rosé undergoes a growth never before seen (especially those from the southern Rhone!), there would be a few Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers who would be cursing this political move almost a century ago!
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