CHÂTEAUNEUF-du-PAPE: Home to one of the world’s greatest red wines – and UFOs?

The old Château with the iconic “galets” pudding stones and low growing “bush” vines

The best Châteauneuf-du-Papes are among the most natural expressions of grapes, place and vintage anywhere

Robert Parker, Wine Advocate

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of worlds – let alone France’s – most iconic wine regions. It helps to be one of France’s largest (you could put all the North Rhône wine regions and their production in Châteauneuf with room to spare for example). It also helps to be on the main tourist route to the Mediterranean holiday resorts to the South of France, south of Burgundy and onto Marseille. But without doubt these great red wines (and a few hedonistic white examples to boot) are some of the richest; some might say “heady” of all the great French regions – maybe occasionally too heady for some…?

In September 1954, in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a railway worker named Marius Dewilde claimed that late one evening his dogs started to bark, so eventually he followed them outside to the train tracks (he lived near the local train station). According to the report in the New York Post at the time,

“A spate of reports of extraterrestrial visitors to France, coming from regions where the wine is more noted for its strength than its vintage, spread yesterday [Sept. 14] with the speed of a space-cadet. Marius Dewilde, a metal worker who lives at Quarouble made known yesterday that he had seen what seemed to be two Martian visitors at his garden gate last Friday night. They alighted from a cigar-like machine which came to rest on the railway just outside his domicile. M. Dewilde described the visitors as of small stature, clad in something resembling a deep-sea diver’s costume. They had the appearance of human beings, M. Dewilde continued, but when he approached them the machine in which they had arrived set forth with a green beam of light which paralyzed him. When he recovered his sensibilities, the cigar was taking off and the two beings had disappeared. The authorities have since noted unusual marks on the cross ties of the railway as though they had been made by the tail skid of some flying machine”.

The then local mayor of Châteauneuf, Lucien Jeune, and village council sprang into action — in order to protect their vineyards. They quickly passed a municipal decree to keep aliens out of the local skies and the vineyards –

Article 1. — The overflight, the landing and the take off of aircraft known as flying saucers or flying cigars, whatever their nationality is/are prohibited on the territory of the community.

Article 2. — Any aircraft, known as flying saucer or flying cigar, which should land on the territory of the community will be immediately held in custody.

Article 3. — The forest officer and the city policeman are in charge, each one in what relates to him, of the execution of this decree.

Maybe the Mayor had a good eye for publicity, but to date these laws appear to have been successful, with no reports of “flying cigars” or other strange flying objects in or around Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This decree still applies to this day by the way.

Loosely translated the name means “The Pope’s new castle”, which refers to the time when Pope Clement V established the papacy in nearby Avignon (in 1308) and built the (now semi derelict) castle. The wines were well known in the UK as early as the 1700s – and throughout tumultuous periods of pests, diseases and wars they have established a reputation in the world as strong as any wine – just look at all the New World copies there are of the Châteauneuf blueprint. The region was formally classified as an OOC in 1936, and today around 3.2k hectares are under vine making over a million cases of wine on average each year.

Part of the allure of the wines has been the often referred to fact that they can use up to an incredible 18 different grape varieties in the blends! This fact causes nightmares for wine trade aficionados who are regularly tested to name them all – and nearly always fail! The “big three” black grapes, which make nearly all the greatest red examples, are Grenache (72% of plantings), Syrah (10%) and Mourvèdre (7%). Grenache, no surprise, always dominates the blend – sometimes   exclusively as in the revered wines of Château Rayas. Sometimes a bit more Mourvèdre is used – as in the famous Château de Beaucastel.

Classic old bush vine Grenache – some serious trunks here!

Most vines are also characterised by being grown in a low cropped bush vine style which is self-supporting. This is largely enforced by the arid growing conditions – it gets extremely hot in the summer (nearly 3,000 sun hours per year) and can get very cold in the winter – especially when the famous north wind the Mistral is blowing through. There is virtually no topsoil, epitomised in the famous lieu-dit of La Crau where the vines sit in the famous, old glacial pudding stones, or galets.

Most of the wine made is red, but producers can also make white Châteauneuf, which is usually rich, smooth, and textural with notes of dried stone fruits. The main grapes used are Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette and the whimsically named Bourboulenc. Rosé Châteauneuf is outlawed. 

Top red examples are characterised by an exotic cocktail of red fruits, Indian spices, liquorice, and liqueur like qualities; and always with limited reference to, or need for, oak. It is also worth noting that when top Châteauneuf-du-Pape passes its 10th birthday in the bottle it takes on truly glorious, savoury dimensions which are simply thrilling. And most styles – whether white or red – have a low-key emphasis on oak, with little new wood used in the production.

With over 320 estates and 180 wineries – plus a complex soil and microclimate patchwork – it is no surprise that the styles and quality of the wines can be variable. There is no formal hierarchy or classification system for any of the single vineyards or estates, so an understanding of which estates and producers are considered the finest is important.

Domaine de la Solitude is in the front rank of estates and making increasingly finer wines these days. The 38ha estate can trace its root back to the 13th century and today is run by the Lançon family – and from 1999 this Domaine has really lifted its game. In general, the cuvées tend to include an above average amount of Syrah in the blend (especially the older vine deluxe cuvée Barberini), although the main component remains Grenache. Both 2015 and 2016 were fine vintages in the region – and these wines can be enjoyed now or cellared for another 5 – 10 years.

Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge

Domaine de la Solitude Cuvee Barberini Chateauneuf-du-Pape

And no surprise that these wines work very well with rich and hearty meals, especially red meats, and game – either roasted or casseroled. Also try with char grilled vegetables such as aubergine, courgette, leek (or onion) and peppers – with a blend of tomatoes and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar! 

Finally, frankly, there are no real imitators to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Others may blend their grape varieties, most famously in Australia, but they basically create a different, if still particularly good, wine. There is simply nothing else on the planet – which may have attracted the visitors mentioned earlier – to match a great Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As The X Files might have said – “I Believe”!