Chateauneuf-du-Pape translates into ‘New Castle of the Pope‘. When the French popes moved to Avignon during a turbulent period for Rome, they wanted to source their fine wines locally (they were already huge fans of the wines produced by monks in the Burugundy Region). Chateauneuf-du-Pape (near Avignon) was a perfect place for the Pope’s court in the early 14th century and vineyards.
After the popes left Avignon, winemaking continued despite the loss of an illustrious, monied local patron. Believe it or not, around a hundred years ago the bulk of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was sold to Burgundy to add to their local wines to boost the strength and alcohol levels. In 1923, it got its own Appellation Contrôlée (AOC). These regulations set the minimum alcohol level of the wines and set limits on yields as well as which types of grapes could be grown in which area.
We drive through Chateauneuf-du-Pape with a few farmers. They were astonished to see the soil filled with rocks, pebbles and sand. Locals explained poor farmland is usually good for something else, like growing grapes.
At a tasting, the leader explained that grapes like people, are not interesting if they are not challenged. In Chateauneuf-du-Pape, like Burgundy, the grapes are challenged. Not only is the soil lacking in organic matter, the climate is hot, dry and windy. Irrigation is forbidden. Viticulturalists must apply for special permission from the French government to water.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s local rocks (galets roulés), retain the sun’s heat and release it at night. Locals believe that this permits the grapes t ripen more quickly and work as a mulch to prevent too much evaporation from the soil. The strong winds (the mistral) carry away moisture, intensifying the grape’s flavor.
There are different ways of pruning plants. Before leaving the US, I left very specific instructions on how I wanted my Crepe Myrtles pruned. Winemakers are equally fussy about pruning. Bushvines are common even though yields are limited.
We learned that in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, they often use cement tanks instead of barrels. Their main grape is Grenache, which is prone to oxidation. Wood barrels allow more oxidation and so these grapes often sit in cement tanks while their Pinot friends from the next row over get to age in wood barrels.