The Châteauneuf-du-Pape region of wine production, which covers around 7,900 acres (3,200 ha), has an interesting history: one that dates back to 1309, when Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon. As he was a wine lover of mainly Burgundy, wine appeared on the tables in the villages of the region.
Initially, local production was not considered to be of fine quality, but gradually, under Pope John XXII, the area became known for producing “Vin de Pape,” latterly known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Moving forwards to the 20th century, with a few notable exceptions, the wines were used to beef up the lighter Pinot Noir wines of Burgundy. It wasn’t until 1936, however, that the area was established as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. What was produced in the region for many years tended to be bulk, generic wines, bottled by co-operatives and simply labeled, and the brand established itself without recognition of the producer.
Red CdP can be made from a permitted 13 grape varieties: Syrah was traditionally used to give color and spice, with Mourvèdre giving elegance and structure. There is also white wine produced in the region from mainly Grenache Blanc and Roussanne grapes.
The emergence of the region as one known for high-end quality occurred very recently—up until the 1970s there were only a handful of top producers: Château de Beaucastel, Domaine Vieux Télégraphe, Château Rayas, Château Mont-Redon, and Clos des Papes. Nowadays prices for some of the top wines are similar to the top domaines of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
The aforementioned producers are still very much the benchmark when it comes to quality; other producers worth following are Clos Saint-Jean and Domaine du Pegau. In terms of older vintages, be on the lookout for 1978, 1990, 1998, and 2001, which are all great quality. In particular, Château Rayas, the 100 percent Grenache, is one of the greatest wines in the world, with prices to match.
3 Things to Look for in Your CdP
1. On a first tasting, a great bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge should burst with rich raspberry and plummy fruit flavors. The wine often ends on a sweet, strawberry-like note, although the finish can be savory, depending on the vintage.
2. Thanks to the region’s plentiful fields of sage, rosemary, and lavender, a red CdP has a naturally herbal quality known as “garrigue.” As it evolves, look out for notes of dusted leather and game to accompany this herbal array.
3. Check the alcohol content: under appellation rules, a true CdP must have a minimum of 12.5 percent. While certain vintages offer an alcohol content that’s as high as 13–15 percent, chaptalization (the process of adding sugar during the fermentation process to increase a wine’s alcohol content) is strictly forbidden.
Banner image: The Pont Saint-Bénézet and the Popes’ Palace in Avignon, France. Alamy