A forward-looking wine always has a past
In the 14th century, when popes where French and Avignon had taken Rome’s place as the papal headquarters, Châteauneuf was used a summer residence for the sovereign pontiffs. At this time Pope Jean 22nd built the château which is now in ruins following the ravages of the religious wars and the last world war. Pope Jean 22nd was a lover of the wines from Châteauneuf and he and his successors greatly contributed to spreading the reputation of the village’s wines.
As the centuries went by the reputation of the wines from ‘castelpapale’ grew and grew and in 1923, the first production rules were laid down.
Regulations published in 1929 marked the official birth of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation.
This strict set of regulations inspired the creation of the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) system.
In 1936, after the creation of the I.N.A.O. in 1935, Châteauneuf was the object of the first ever AOC decree.
A unique terroir
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation area was officially established in 1933. The appellation’s 3,150 hectare surface area is located on the left bank of the river Rhône between Orange and Avignon and includes 5 communes: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Courthézon, Orange, Sorgues and Bédarrides.
The appellation area is a geographic but also a geological entity, offering a wide diversity of soil types. One of the geological characteristics of the vineyard’s soils is the presence of rounded quartz stones – the famous ‘galets’ in French - at varying depths mixed with red, sandy clay. The sea beds of the secondary and tertiary eras formed the subsoil for the vineyards by deposits of sediment – the ‘safre’, a soft sandstone -, the waters of the Rhône in the quaternary period stripped quartzite from the Alps and through friction and erosion ‘rolled’ them down to be deposited on then seabed soils in the appellation area. After this, the combined actions of the retreat of the sea waters and river erosion sculpted the relief of the terraces and hillsides running down to the current bed of the river Rhône.
This exceptional, stony soil environment has conferred an exceptional wine making vocation upon Châteuneuf-du-Pape: daytime heat is absorbed by these large stones and slowly released into the soil during the night, thus regulating the ground temperature and enabling the berries to reach a very high level of maturity.
Rich sunlight, healthily swept by the Mistral winds
The appellation is located in the driest sector of the Rhône valley, where the relief is swept by a northerly wind known as the Mistral. Thanks to this regular wind brushing aside clouds the appellation enjoys over 200 days’ sunshine per year. In spite of very hot and dry summers (30°), spring and autumn rainfall enable the soils to build up high levels of water reserves to help the vines in their struggle against the summer droughts.
The beneficial action of the Mistral (around 120 days of strong winds per year) means that the vines remain in perfectly good health with excellent concentration in the berries upon maturity.
Grape varieties : an alliance of 13
This Appellation has a unique characteristic in France: Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines may be made from an alliance of 13 authorised grape varieties that each wine maker can conjugate as they wish in relation to the character and style they wish to give their wine: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Counoise, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul and Picardan.
Grenache is the majority variety in the Appellation (around 80 %). It can certainly be said that Grenache shapes the fundamental character of Châteauneuf-du-Pape by contributing aromatic potential, roundedness, fleshiness and a notable alcoholic richness.
It is increasingly combined with Syrah: this antique variety has, over the past forty years or so, steadily increased its influence in the Châteauneuf vineyards and offers colour and aromas of red fruits, truffles, spices and black coffee. Another historic variety from the south of France is the Cinsault, which with its delicate character brings finesse and balance to wines. Mourvèdre, an emblematic Mediterranean variety, adds character to the wines by its tannic presence and nuances of undergrowth. The spicy originality of Counoise with hints of nutmeg and green pepper, the floral notes of Muscardin and Vaccarèse and the freshness of the Terret Noir offer a bouquet of subtle tastes and textures enabling every vintage to communicate its own personality.
For the whites, the alliance of Grenache Blanc and Clairette makes for floral vintages with characteristic freshness and real ageing potential. The additional contribution to this blend of Bourboulenc, much sharper, and Picpoul, for its freshness and delicate aromas, further strengthens the ageing potential of these wines. Similarly, Roussanne contributes delightful promise for ageing with its pronounced aromas of honeysuckle and iris roots and after several years’ maturation, notes of incense and beeswax. There is Picardan too with its slightly musky finesse.
All these varieties are vinified either together or individually and not all are present in each Châteauneuf wine, some are even relatively rarely included.
Generally speaking for the red wines Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault are the most frequently used varieties. For the whites, many blends include Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne and Picpoul.
Production Conditions : the keys to quality
Châteauneuf-du-Pape production regulations were laid down in the 1936 decree and reiterated in the decree published on 2nd November 1966, they remain amongst the most draconian conditions in France:
- Severe pruning to limit the yield (goblet pruning with two eyes)
- Exclusively hand harvesting with obligatory selective sorting, which is unique in France. The percentage of grapes obligatorily removed upon sorting varies from 5 to 20% depending on the year. The grapes that don’t make the cut are vinified apart to make the ‘rapé’ which can, at best, be sold as a Table Wine.
- The yield is strictly limited to 35 hl/ha, the lowest yield out of all the French appellations.
- Minimum natural alcohol content: 12.5°, the highest of all the fine wines.
- A vineyard with a characteristically high average age of vines (36 years on average) with numerous parcels holding much older, even centenarian, vines.
Vinification : ancestral tradition and modern techniques
- Harvest: hand harvest – legal obligation – in 50kg cases or small containers
- Sorting of the harvest: obligatory selection: the ‘râpé’ (non selected grapes) are separated from the harvest
- De-stemming, pressing and cap-punching techniques are applied according to grape varieties, maturity conditions and winegrowers' choices
- Vatting: 2 to 3 weeks in concrete or stainless steel tanks at controlled temperatures with frequent pumping over
- Malolactic fermentation: systematic
- Maturing: mainly in casks and oak barrels
- Bottling: from the 2nd year after the year of harvest with ageing in underground cellars
- Harvest: hand harvest – legal obligation – in 50kg cases or small containers
- Sorting of the harvest: obligatory selection: the ‘râpé’ (rejected grapes) are separated from the harvest
- Pressing: immediate pressing
- Fermentation at controlled temperatures (15 – 17°)
- Malolactic fermentation: not systematic
- Maturing: infrequent, occasionally in 225L barrels
- Bottling: generally between 4 and 12 months after the harvest
In addition to the severe measures imposed by the decree defining the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, the cultivation and vinification techniques have been enriched by the experience of generations working to continuously improve all aspects of the wine making process.
New procedures are therefore a regular occurrence in terms of techniques used to apply the methods which, on the other hand, are the fruit of long and seasoned experience.
For example, the harvest de-stemming technique has developed considerably over the past ten years. Elimination of the stems enables optimal maceration and reduces the astringency in the wines in their youngest days. This new technique changes nothing in the wines’ ageing capacity.
During vinification, the cap punching technique has been widely taken up. The action of plunger cylinders installed in each tank imitates foot pressing while breaking the cap formed on the top of the wine in the vat providing optimal colour and tannic extraction.
New oak barrels are also increasingly used. This is partly for white wine vinification but mainly for ageing red wines as a complement to the traditional casks.
Thanks, in part, to the development of de-stemming and cap punching techniques the red wines in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation have gained in elegance. As to their strength and power, nothing has changed through the use of these techniques. However, the assertive presence of fruit tannins further enhances the wines’ concentration and density - to the great satisfaction of wine lovers the world over.
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