The ‘New’ Chateauneuf du Pape

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | dec. 2017

The great pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης” (You can't step into the same river twice). He meant that everything is in the process of change, that change was the way of the universe. Chateauneuf du Pape is no exception. There are changes taking place in this iconic French Rhone Appellation that may alter the character of its wines significantly for the unknown future. But before we get to the changes, it might be helpful to understand how the chateau got to this point in history. This was a favorite wine of mine during college because of the historical significance. It always impressed the girls and maybe they thought that since it was a religious wine of sorts that maybe their date was a really nice guy with honorable intentions.

When Bertrand de Got, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, was elected as Pope Clement V in 1305, he transferred the papacy to Avignon and stayed there off and on until he died in 1314. The next pope, Jacques Duèze, took the name John XXII in 1316. He had been the Bishop of Avignon so he was right at home in the region and began the real transformation of this area by pumping money from the church coffers into castles, forts and building, as well as, improving the agricultural practices of the area, including viticulture. At the time the wine produced in Chateauneuf du Pape was pretty basic stuff and was usually consumed within the year it was produced. John lived until 1333 and the next four popes did not occupy the castle but continued to pump money into this region of France. The last pope to occupy the Avignon castle was Clement VII (the Anti-Pope after the great Catholic Schism) after which the papal palace, fort and houses went into 400 years of disrepair. All that is left are a few ruins, but the papal investment in agriculture survived this decline to produce some of the world's greatest wines.

The iconic Perrin Family runs Chateau Beaucastel in this region and produces some of the most expensive, long-lived, delicious wines in the world. The notable 1978 vintage, almost 40 years old, is still vibrant and sells for about $180 per bottle. The family has raised grapes in the area since 1549, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the modern wine that we are familiar with today was developed. Prompted by Louis Pasteur's work in sanitizing wine production equipment and the invention of modern glass bottles that could be sealed, consistent quality and age-worthiness became reality.

The wines of Chateauneuf du Pape are blends of a variety of grapes. The traditional blend consists of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault; however, by law there are 13 varieties that are allowed including Clairette, Bourbonlenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarése, Picpoul, Picardan and Terret Noir.

The appellation sits on a geologic fault: soils chop and change between large pebbles, sand, red sandstone and limestone. The rounded pebbles or galets roulés are emblematic of the area but misunderstood. Anecdotally, people have hyped the idea that the galets absorbed heat from the sun during the day then emitted that heat at night helping the grapes ripen. In reality, this characteristic is not a good thing, as I wrote about the extreme temperature differences between night and day in the Russian River Valley last month, the freshness and acidity of the grape juice is dependent on that large temperature difference. The galets lessen this difference which tends to drive the alcohol levels higher. Other geologic characteristics are the closeness to the Ligurian Sea which provides the Mistral winds. The winds, in addition to drying the soil, keep the skies sunny. It is hot here and it's getting hotter; so much so that farmers have, on occasion, requested emergency authorization to irrigate (normally forbidden in France). This is the conundrum facing the growers in Chateauneuf du Pape: do they stick with the classic varieties Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, which are known for producing high alcohol wines in the 16 percent plus range or modify the blend to reduce the effects, especially of Grenache, that raise the alcohol levels. Currently Grenache comprises 80 percent of plantings. One answer proposed was to pick the grapes sooner, but the sugars build faster than the flavors, which produce an out of balance wine. One grower, Guillaume Gonnet of Domaine Font de Michelle, hasn't planted any Grenache in 10 years; instead he's been planting Mourvèdre, Counoise, Clairette and Bourbolenc. He is grateful that he has these varieties available because under French law a new variety like Cabernet Sauvignon could not be planted and still carry the appellation name. These four grapes tend to moderate alcohol levels but retain freshness, tannin and flavors. The “modern” style — late picked, sweetly fruited, concentrated, and oaky — is being displaced by less extraction, less oak and lower alcohol. Françoise Perrin of the venerable Chateau Beaucastel was recently quoted as saying “We are no longer in the era of extraction, we are in the era of elegance, but our elegance. Chateauneuf du Pape still has a big frame but has lost weight and its tailoring is sharper.”

The wines I've picked out represent movement toward that new era. Two of them have stuck with the original formulaic blend — Grenache and Syrah — but one has added 10 percent Mourvèdre and Cinsault.

The first wine is the Delas Chateauneuf du Pape, 13.5 percent alcohol, $40 at Woodman's. This wine is from grapes grown on red sandy clay and quartz stones. The climate is the driest area of the Cote du Rhone where the Mistral wind is predominant. This wine is 90 percent Grenache and 10 percent Syrah. This is a traditional blend but harvested before full physiological ripeness which gives the wine needed acidity. The grapes are picked, crushed, destemmed and fermented in open concrete tanks for 10 days. After pressing, malolactic fermentation takes place in the same concrete vats in order to soften the tannins. The wine is then filtered into 60 hectoliter tanks for aging up to 14 months. The aromas are of spice, nutmeg, tamarind and black pepper. The color is a deep garnet red with licorice flavors. This wine would pair with any type of meat off the grill. The Delas will age for at least 10 years.

The second wine is the 2012 Chateauneuf du Pape Les Olivets of Roger Sabon, 15 percent alcohol, $30 at Woodman's. This wine is an Eric Solomon Selection (Whom I respect greatly). The Sabon is one of the highly extracted wines in the “old” style of Chateauneuf du Pape. There are lots of jammy flavors and an almost raspberry liqueur character. The best match for this wine would be a deep, dark, wine braised beef roast with porcini mushrooms or some barbecued beef ribs with Asian spiced barbecue sauce. My experience is that these high alcohol wines don't age well, so drink up.

The third wine is the 2014 Clos de L'Oratoire des Papes Rouge, $50 at Ridgeview Liquor on Ridge Road. This wine was my favorite of the three with moderate alcohol (14.5 percent). We had this wine with braised short ribs Sunday afternoon. This wine was awarded “The Year's Best Rhone” in “Wine and Spirits” magazine, February 2017. I like the Art Nouveau label that was designed in 1928, but the taste is worth every dime I paid for this bottle. It is spicy with black licorice and pepper with surprising aromas of sweet acacia blooms (These trees are the ones with the long black pods that bloom in the early spring with intoxicating sweetness). The aromas evolve to camphor and mint with flavors of black cherries and strawberries. The wine has a clean beautiful ruby color that is reminiscent of rose petal indicating great care in the winemaking process. I will be buying more so better hurry to catch this one.

I will be looking closely at the changes going forward as these savvy vintners make changes in the blends. Change is good!

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