The opportunity to experience the extraordinary blends in France’s Chateauneuf-du-
Pape is a rare treat for anyone serious about wine. Blessed with near perfect terroir and climate, the area is always in the discussion of the world’s best appellation. Nearly all the 280 wineries in Chateauneuf-du-Pape are owned by small families, not the case in Bordeaux or Burgundy. There are thirteen grapes approved for the appellation by the governing AOC, which also requires that they are all hand-pruned, hand-picked and essentially dry-farmed, allowing two irrigations per season during drought years. The famous “La Mistral” winds blow 100 days per year, a benefit during wet vintages and a challenge in dry ones. The production of rose’ or sparkling wine is also prohibited in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, allowing winemakers to focus on the best blend of grapes that most align with the terroir.
Translated “the Pope’s new castle” or “Chateau of the Popes,” Chateauneuf-du-Pape became a significant winemaking region in the 14th Century after the papacy was relocated to the town of Avignon. The “Avignon Popes” appreciated their
wine and were first to promote viticulture in this area, 10 miles northeast of their palace residence. It’s esteemed terroir has continued to produce superb local wines for eight centuries and is still revered today. With all the acclaim that Chateauneuf-du-Pape gets, one would expect them to be promoting tourism. They do not. It is authentic, a relatively small area with family farmers doing what they have done for centuries, create near perfect wines.
October was a busy month for winemakers, following up on the recent harvest. It was off-season and our time was limited, so we chose Saint Charles Cave,in the heart of the village, for our first tasting. Located in a 13th Century cave, Saint Charles represents
many of the producers and offers selections of the best the region has to offer. In addition, it also houses the La Cour Des Papes Restaurant that could extend our experience through mid-afternoon. Sitting on wooden benches in the cave, our young, knowledgeable host began to take us through his selection of wines from the region.
The Château de Vaudieu is one of the genuine 18th Century castles left in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, operated by the Brechet Family since the mid-1980s. Described as “a real mosaic of terroirs,” the vast vineyards of the Chateau represent very distinct micro-climates and elevations. Our tasting at Saint Charles Cave began with the Chateau de Vaudieu Blanc 2012 ($32), a mostly grenache blanc and roussanne blend that expressed a complex bouquet and rich citrus and mineral notes on the palate. The varietals were fermented separately in oak and stainless steel to form a dry wine that would be a perfect pair with seafood or shellfish.
The grenache dominant 2011 Clos Saint Jean Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($35-40), our second pour, is a classic wine from the region, full-bodied, dry, herbal with deep fruit and savory flavors. The grenache is aged in cement tanks while the syrah, mourvedre and bits of other varietals get the benefit of oak. Brothers Vincent and Pascal Maurel took over the winery from their father in 2003 and have produced very good vintages since. Robert Parker awarded this one, that I found online at klwines.com, with a 92-point score.
Covered by the famous diluvial red pebbles that protect them from the dry climate and La Mistral winds, the vineyards at Chateau Maucoil are said to consist of all Chateauneuf-du-Pape soil types. The 2011 Chateau Maucoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($30-40) is an old vine grenache dominant blend that adds 20% syrah, 10% mourvedre and cinsault, very fruit forward and balanced. This wine is produced only when the vintage is good and the 2011 was a very good one.
Our next wine was a big, earthy release, the only one created by the Barrot Family, long-standing growers producing 5,000 cases annually on 16 hectares in the appellation, divided among 24 different parcels. The 2011 Domaine Lucien Barrot et Fils Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($50), with 80% grenache, 10% syrah and five percent each cinsault and mourvedre, is made whole cluster, fermenting in large cement vats before aging up to 36 months in oak. Significant aromas of spices, herbs and earth are followed by deep, dried cherries and anise flavors of great length.
Their family has farmed the land since the 17th Century, but Domaine du Pegau was formed in 1987 by father, daughter team, Paul and Laurence Ferard. The grenache dominant Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee 2013 ($70), our next wine,is produced whole cluster and was the most masculine wine that we tasted. Aromas of ripe fruits and pepper precede rich, earthy flavors with soft tannins on the finish. All the major periodicals rate this wine in the 90-95 point range.
From another family with local roots dating back to the 17th Century, the Chateau de la Gardine was established in 1945 by Gaston Brunel, producing great red Rhone blends and a special roussanne-dominant white, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Château de la Gardine Cuvée des Générations Marie-Léoncie 2013 ($30). The 60-year old
vines lay atop limestone soil and, with early rains followed by a warm 2013 summer, the roussanne was allowed to fully ripen, creating a rich, buttery texture and full flavors. Although there is no malolactic fermentation, the wine is fermented and aged in new French oak. Many wineries in Chateauneuf-Du-Pape can be identified by the shape of their unique bottles and this wine is exclusively released in the “Gardine bottle,” broad at the bottom with long, narrow neck. Counter to tasting wine in the States, it is tradition in Chateauneuf-du-Pape to end with a white blend and this one was memorable. Approximately 70% of the Chateau’s wine is exported, so these wines can probably be found with a little effort. The group was enamored by all six wines and immediately discussed shipping a case home to the US. Soon, our practical sensibilities prevailed and we settled on a 2011 Chateau Maurcoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape to accompany our lunch.
Lunch at La Cour Des Papes was both distinct and memorable. Firstly, the large dining table is in the chef’s kitchen and guests are welcome to stand, roam and question the chef while he is cooking. The partly set menu in French was intriguing with dishes described as “filet de Canette e au marine au soja et champignons” or “Hachis parmentier d’epaule d’agneau et sa sauce de Chateauneuf-du-Pape” that were translated to “Filet of female duckling, pickled and raw with soy beans and mushrooms” and “Shepherd’s Pie with lamb and Chateauneuf-du-Pape sauce.” I opted for the raw duckling entree and “Cabillau” or codfish with butter and saffron as my “plat” or main course. Our chef, Julien, was not only patient with our questions, but serenaded us with song and entertained us with his humor throughout the entire meal that included a rich crème brûlée’ dessert.
La Cour Des Papes also offer cooking classes where patrons can learn new dishes that they prepare for their own meal. Our once in a lifetime luncheon was a bit extravagant but the Browns Valley Fork and Cork Society, six people strong, saved their pennies and were ready.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other nearby towns located between the cities of Avignon and Orange boasts nearly 8,000 acres of vineyards and produces as much wine as any other region in France. Those lucky enough to visit the area will be rewarded with beauty, history and the ability to purchase these remarkable wines at local prices. They are a bargain as long as you drink them locally.