Chateauneuf de Pape
Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
not nearly as widespread and important as the Bordeaux
blend, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend has become increasingly
important in recent years.
In contrast to the Bordeaux blend which excels in temperate climates that run cool to warm, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend performs best in climates that run warm to hot. Climate warming and an international trend favoring full-bodied, spicy red wines have focused more attention on sun-loving Southern Rhone varieties. In this article I outline the history of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend and describe the characteristics of its most important varietal components.
The focal point of the development of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend has been the wine known today as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The wine's name refers to a village in Southern Rhone Valley around which the vineyards were planted. The town was the site of the Avignon Popes' summer chateau and vineyards in the 14th century. Before the arrival of the Popes, the village was known as Calernier, but the fame of the Popes' chateau encouraged inhabitants and non-inhabitants to call it Chateauneuf-du-Pape, "the new castle of the Popes". In the 18th century, the wines of the area were known simply as vins d'Avignon (wines of the Avignon area), as the city of Avignon lay just to the south. Much of this wine was exported to Burgundy where it was used in blends to add body, particularly to the wines of cool and wet vintages. During the early 19th century, the wines were called Chateauneuf-du-Pape-Calcernier. According to John Livingstone-Learmonth, author of The Wines of the Rhone (1992, Faber and Faber), contemporary descriptions of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine of those years consistently describe it as a much lighter wine than it is today. He writes that Commandant Ducos, a member of a family who owned the domaines of Condorcet and La Nerte, recommended the varietal recipe of 20% Grenache and Cinsault, which gave the blend "warmth, liqueur-like sweetness and mellowness", 40% Mourvedre, Syrah, Muscardin, and Vaccarese, which gave "solidity, durability, and color, accompanied by a straightforward, almost thirst-quenching flavor", 30% Picpoul and Counoise, which gave "vinosity, charm, freshness, and accentuation of bouquet", 10% Clairette and Bourboulenc, which gave "finesse, fire and sparkle".
Phylloxera arrived in the 1870s. Severe wine shortages caused by the phylloxera epidemic set the stage for rampant wine adulteration and fraudulent labeling. Responding to this crisis in 1923, Baron Le Roy of Chateau Fortia convinced producers to agree on production regulations for the wine. The criterion for vineyards producing Chateauneuf-du-Pape was terrain that was so infertile and arid that thyme and lavender were able to grow. A minimum alcoholic strength was stipulated - 12.5% - which remains the highest minimum in France. Producers had to perform a triage in their vineyards, directing the best grapes towards Chateauneuf-du-Pape production. The production of Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rose was forbidden. A maximum of 35 hectoliters per hectare was specified as a base yield. These regulations became the model on which the national French AOC regulations were based.
Originally in 1923 there were ten varieties - three more were added in 1936. Of the thirteen varieties allowed, the red Chateauneuf-du-Papes are Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvedre, Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picardin, Cinsault, and the whites are Clairette, Roussanne, and Bourboulenc.The high number of allowed varieties compared to other AOCs suggests that pre-phylloxera Chateauneuf-du-Pape was a blend of many varieties. After the phylloxera, Grenache dominated the blend because it easily produced the high alcohol wines that merchants wanted. In his book, Livingstone-Learmonth mentions that during the 1920s, Paul Avril of Clos des Papes sold his Grenache for twice the price of his Syrah-Mourvedre blend. Grenache remained dominant throughout the 20th Century. In 1989, Livingston-Learmonth conducted a tasting of vintages spanning three decades. He estimated the average percentage of Grenache in the various blends of the various producers to be 80%. In 1991, a survey conducted by the Growers' Federation showed that 79.5% of growers' vineyards were dedicated to Grenache. More recently, Robert M. Parker, Jr. in his Wines of the Rhone Valley (1997, Simon & Schuster) estimated that the typical Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend consisted of 65% to 70% Grenache, 10% to 15% Mourvedre and Syrah, and small percentages of the remaining varieties.
The origin of the Grenache vine variety was probably in the Province of Aragon in Spain. The Spaniards use the word Garnacha. In the 1400s, the Spaniards brought the variety to Sardinia where it came to be known as Cannonao. During the last half of the 17th Century, plantings spread to Navarre and Rioja, then to the Roussillon area of France, and eventually to the Southern Rhone Valley. The best expression of Grenache in Spain has been at Priorato, but the blending in of international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah makes it difficult to clearly identify Grenache in the final wines. Grenache is also widely planted in hot dry areas in Australia and California where it is often used as a filler grape for jug wines or as a base for fortified wines.
Grenache's resistance to heat, drought, wind, and oidium has made it an excellent candidate for warm, dry and windy climates. Grenache wines have a light ruby-red color which rapidly evolves into mahogany with age. Red fruit aromas, usually cherry, dominate the bouquet, which, at normal yields and unadorned by winemaking flourishes, is very simple in character. Alcohol percentage is normally high. A lack of both tannin and acidity makes the wine vulnerable to oxidation. Despite these limitations, Chateauneuf-du-Pape growers in the early 1900s planted more and more Grenache. It was their best cash crop. Nowadays, with quality Chateauneuf-du-Pape able to sell at good prices, the better producers limit yields below the maximum and do such a good job in the cellar that Grenache-dominant wines can show quite a bit of complexity. Exceptional producers such as Chateau Rayas, Chapoutier, Les Cailloux, and Henri Bonneau use as much as 80% to 100% Grenache in their blends.
During the 1960s, France's Ministry of Agriculture advocated planting enough Cinsault to account for 10% of the blend. With its relatively pale color, low acidity, high pH, and its tendency to be over-productive, quality producers in later years slowly replaced their Cinsault vines with others. Certain wine producers value obscure members of the Chateauneuf wine blend family. The late Baron Le Roy of Chateau Fortia advocated Muscardin in place of Cinsault. He felt it gave good aromas and freshness to the wine. However, its vegetation sprawls over the ground complicating work in the vineyard, and its wines have a low alcohol degree. Baron Le Roy was also a strong proponent of Counoise. Its wines give peppary smells and a good acidity. Chateau de Beaucastel puts 5% of Counoise in their blend, an unusually high percentage for the zone. Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir, and Vaccarese add little to the blend. Their use is negligible.
While Syrah originated in the Northern Rhone Valley, its arrival in the Southern Rhone in any great quantity is more recent. The earliest mention of its use in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape was at Domaine de Condorcet in 1878. During the 1970s, Syrah began replacing Cinsault in the vineyards. It's darker wine color, smoky and spicy nose, and thick tannins, though, can easily mask Grenache character. Australia has long had extensive plantings of Syrah. In fact, these have been the most extensive in the world. Aussie fascination with Cabernet Sauvignon during the 1970s and early 1980s encouraged farms to uproot Syrah vines. In the mid-1980s, Robert M. Parker, Jr. published his The Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence.The popularity of this book among wine collectors and members of the trade brought the Northern Rhone Syrahs and Chateauneuf-du-Papes to the attention of wine connoisseurs and wine producers around the world. This factor, along with the rise of Aussie identity in the 1990s, helped Australians identify Syrah, or "Shiraz" as they called it, as something valuable and something very Australian. California's Rhone Ranger movement in the 1990s expanded the use of Southern Rhone varieties, particularly Syrah. In the late 1990s, interest in Syrah spread to Washington State. There are also substantial plantings in Argentina and South Africa. Although Italians have yet to master Syrah as a varietal wine, the vine is being widely planted throughout Tuscany for use as a blender with Sangiovese. Plantings have also expanded outside the Rhone in France, particularly in the Languedoc. Though more resistant to fungus disease than Grenache, Syrah is less tolerant of heat and drought. Because it is harvested earlier that Grenache, ambient temperatures during the harvest period are higher. Syrah grapes can ripen too quickly at such temperatures. If brought in overripe, the wines lack fruit aroma and acidity.
The last Chateauneuf-du-Pape grape with potential is Mourvedre. In the 1980s, Mourvedre became fashionable in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape area. Known chiefly as Monastrell in Spain, it too has a Spanish origin, probably in the Valencia region. Though it is widely planted in east-central Spain, very few interesting Mourvedre varietal wines are made there. As is the case with Grenache, the best example of Mourvedre is found in France, just inland from the seaside fishing village of Bandol on the Cote d'Azur. Mourvedre is the principle grape variety in Bandol AOC red wines. The vine is one of latest ripening on the planet. It is difficult to ripen dependably unless it is grown within a few miles of a large body of warm water such as the Mediterranean Sea. The wines sport a moderately intense red-brown color, a red-berried and gamy nose, and strong tannins in the mouth. There are also substantial plantings in Australia where the wine has been used for blending. California has some pre-prohibition vines in Contra Costa County, just west of San Francisco. In California and Australia, Mourvedre has also been called Mataro. In both these countries, a handful of producers making interesting varietal Mourvedre - Cline Cellars, for example, from California and Hewitson from South Australia. Going back to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Chateau La Nerthe and Chateau de Beaucastel champion the variety. Mourvedre pairs seamlessly with Grenache. It subtly adds color, aroma and tactile structure to Grenache without masking it. Grenache and Mourvedre marry well in blends.
New World wine industries have tended to place the much more popular Bordeaux blend varieties in climates that have assured grape ripeness. Seeking regular ripening, they often erred on the side of selecting overly warm sites. Climate warming has lately been pushing these sites even farther away from being marginal with respect to their physiologic maturation of the grapes. As a result, the New World Bordeaux blends are increasingly too overripe in the nose and too alcoholic in the mouth. The trend in European viticulture of the 1990s was to plant red Bordeaux vine varieties in regions warmer than Bordeaux, ones that resulted in less vintage variation in the wines. France's Languedoc-Roussillon region and Italy's Tuscan Coast are examples of this trend. Producers in these regions are coming out with similar overripe versions of red Bordeaux. Such sites are, in general, better suited for the vine varieties in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend. Interest in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend in these New and Old World areas will likely increase in the future &endash; that is, unless another Ice Age heads our way.