The most distinctive element of the terroir in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the predominance of rounded rocks called galets which reside at the foot of the vines. The rocks absorb the heat from the sun during the day and give it off slowly at night, providing some protection to the grapevines during inclement weather, although during hotter years it can result in accelerated ripening of the grapes (you may recall what I had to say about the chalk/limestone soils of Champagne in an earlier post). The abundance of stone gives the vineyards a certain beauty, as they contrast with the darker soil and green leaves.
There are several options for exploring the wines of the region, located in the Southern Rhône. In the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one can find many cellars which offer tastings of their wines, or you can visit a place like Vinadea, which sells over 200 wines from the region and offers free tastings of 5-8 of them each day. We combined the two, visiting Vinadea first to sample and browse, then we felt compelled to stop at an adorable 100-year old castle called Château des Fines Roches, owned by Domaines Mousset, where we sampled 9 different wines, all of which were good to excellent. We couldn’t resist taking a few bottles to enjoy on our Southern sojourn, including the Mas Grange Blanche, filled with the taste of red fruits, subtle gingerbread spices, and hints of sage and chocolate. The castle doubles as a charming hotel; it would make a fun place to stay on a future visit.
The Rhône Valley offers a wealth of terroirs as it stretches over 200km (125 miles) from north to south. It is divided into the Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône regions, and the most striking difference between the two are the grape varietals grown, leading to the production of very different wines. In the Northern Rhône, winemakers are limited to just a handful – Syrah for the reds, and Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne for the whites. That’s it! No other varietals are allowed to be grown in the region. It may seem quite strange to Americans, who are used to having the freedom to plant whatever and wherever they want, restricted only by how well the chosen grapes adapt to their new home.
In many parts of France, there are regional authorities called comités which lay down strict rules about which types of grapes may be planted in that area. This isn’t arbitrary; it’s based on hundreds of years of experience making wine from that area and is meant to protect the global reputation for quality, as well as eliminating unpleasant surprises for consumers who have come to know what to expect in wines from that particular appellation. Unlike in the US where consumers are used to choosing their wines based upon the grape varietal listed on the label (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.), in France the varietals are rarely listed on the bottle and instead consumers choose wines made in a given region or sub-region. The Rhône and Champagne are two examples of regions, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Aÿ are examples of sub-regions.
In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the best-known of the southern Rhône AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), there are up to 19 different grape varietals allowed, and their wines are commonly blends of several of these. The more commonly known varietals are Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Syrah, but of course there are also 15 more!
In addition to making lovely wines, some of which can age for a dozen years or more, one can also find marc, which is a spirit distilled from the skins, seeds and pulp of the winegrapes after they are pressed. It is then aged for 10 or more years in oak barrels, which softens the rough edges and gives it a honey-brown color. There is a wide range of marc available, much of it from other regions of France, such as Bourgogne and Champagne. Before I visited Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the few times I’d tried marc it tasted like paint thinner. I was reluctant to taste it again, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the 2001 Vieux-Marc made by Vieux Télégraphe, a very famous winery in the region. Complex and smooth, not unlike a fine Cognac, it made a delightful after-dinner drink.
What’s the story behind the name? In 1308, Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon, which necessitated the building of a new castle, hence the name which translates to “new castle of the Pope.” Today, most bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape bear a distinctive raised logo on the bottle itself, the papal seal of a 3-tiered crown and crossed keys (not to be confused with the pirate’s skull and crossed bones!). Some producers have simplified this logo, and it remains an easy way for wine lovers to find these wines on the shelves.
If you’re a Rhône wine lover who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, or if you travel there frequently, be sure to attend the Romancing the Rhônes Grand Tasting on September 6th, 2014, run by Barbara Drady and her company, Affairs of the Vine. Barbara always puts on spectacular events, introducing Bay Area wine lovers to a wide range of California producers (and others) who present their unique take on French varietals. She holds public tastings following competitions by varietal, called “shootouts“. Check her site for more information, or sign up to receive updates on her upcoming events.
If you plan to visit France and want an insider tour of the Rhône Valley, give me a holler!