Chateauneuf du Pape is a wine worth exploring for its history as well as what it has to offer in taste.
This French AOC, comprising almost 7,500 acres of vineyards, is located in the southern Rhone Valley. It is probably one of the best know and most highly regarded Rhone appellations today. That, however, was not the case for much of its long and storied history.
The area is the site of a decisive historic battle between the Romans and the Gauls in 121 BC and later, it was the Romans who initiated viniculture here. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the church became the principal instrument of winemaking throughout southern France. The Templars settled there in the mid twelfth century and gave the area the name Castrum Novum (New Camp or New Fort). The village name later became Chateauneuf-Calcernier, which paid tribute to its earlier name as well as the area’s sandy and rocky soil. It wasn’t until 1893 that the village formally adopted the name of its wine, “Chateauneuf du Pape” as its own name. After Pope Clement moved the papacy to Avignon in 1308, the area began to be utilized as a summer papal residence. The castle that subsequently became synonymous with the wine and the village was built by Pope John XXII in 1320. This Avignon Pope was a promoter of the wines produced there and it was he who first called the wines “Vin du Pape”, which much later evolved to Chateauneuf du Pape.
The wines from this region have widely varied in presentation due to the variations in soil conditions, a range of winemaking styles and the wide number of grapes historically utilized. The AOC regulations in effect today were not established until the late 1930’s and still permit up to 13 red and white varietals to be utilized in the red Chateauneuf du Pape. Grenache is always dominant and must be 50% of the final product, which must be aged at least one year on oak. This allows a wide range of expression in the wine. The Chateauneuf du Pape most often imported to the U.S. is generally a Grenache Syrah and Mourvedre blend. You may also encounter some utilization of Counoise and Cinsault in these. The growth in popularity of Chateauneuf du Pape as a French export is largely due to exposure given by two prominent wine critics, Janis Robison and Robert Parker, Jr. Parker’s promotion of the wine, in particular, gave impetus to a fourfold increase in the average price of Chateauneuf du Pape in this country in a single decade. (No wonder the Chateauneuf Winemakers Union lobbied to have Parker made an honorary citizen of their village!)
In The Wine Guy's humble opinion, it is the GSM and similar blends in which this wine finds its best expressions. Complex fruit characteristics, smooth tannins and superb, subtle, lingering finishes abound in the better selections. Chateauneuf du Pape is a wine well worth exploring!