An Overview of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation and Its Wines

As a prelude to our next post in which we will temporarily leave Italy and review a French Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine, in this post we will provide a brief overview of the southern French wine region that goes by the same name, including its history, terroir, permitted grape varieties and winemaking practices.

In General

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is an area encompassing 3,200 HA of vineyards that is located in the southern part of the Rhône Valley, in France, between the towns of Orange (to the north) and Avignon (to the south).

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation Map

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation Map – Courtesy of Fédération des syndicats des producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Thirteen different grape varieties were originally authorized in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards (now they have been increased to 18), with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre (the so-called “GSM“) being the dominating varieties, as well as the traditional core grapes in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend (see below for more information about these grape varieties). Other permitted varieties include Cinsaut, Clairette, Roussanne, Muscardin and Picpoul.

Total production in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is approximately 14 million bottles per year. Although the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC regulations permit the production of both red and white wines, reds largely dominate (on average, 94% red versus 6% white). About 60% of all Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine is exported, with Switzerland, Belgium and Germany being the main importing countries.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape History

In 1309, distressed by factionalism in Rome, pope Clement V decided to move the papal capital from Rome to southern France and, as a result, the popes took temporary residence in Avignon, France. The so-called “Avignon papacy” period ended in 1377, when pope Gregory XI moved the papal capital back to Rome.

During the Avignon papacy, under pope John XXII, the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape became the summer residence of the popes. Pope John XXII granted the local wine the rank of “Vin du Pape” (meaning, “pope’s wine”), thus opening Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines the doors to the European nobility’s courts.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape: The Village and the Vineyards - Courtesy of Fédération des syndicats des producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Chateauneuf-du-Pape: The Village and the Vineyards – Courtesy of Fédération des syndicats des producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape later became one of the first French AOC wines, in 1936.

In 1937, the estate owners in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation territory created the famous bottle that is still used nowadays for their wines, with the embossed logo symbolizing a papal tiara placed above the keys of St. Peter with the inscription: “Châteauneuf-du-Pape contrôlé” written in Gothic letters around this emblem.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Terroir

Soil in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area can be very diverse: generally speaking, the western part is mostly limestone, while sand and clay soil with large stones occur on the plateaus; mixed sand, limestone and red and grey clay dominate in the northern part, while shallow sand and clay soil on a well-drained layer of gravel is typical of the south. The large pebbles that are typical of the area contribute to the quality of the vines and grapes by storing heat during the day and holding water.

The Harvest at Chateauneuf-du-Pape - Courtesy of Fédération des syndicats des producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The Harvest at Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Courtesy of Fédération des syndicats des producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The Main Châteauneuf-du-Pape Permitted Varieties – The “GSM”

1. Grenache (or “Garnacha” or “Cannonau“)

Garnacha is an old variety that has undergone several color mutations (there are a black-berried variety, a grey-berried one and a white-berried one) and whose origins are uncertain: it may be Spanish (most probably from the Aragón region) or it may be Italian (from the island of Sardinia, where it is locally known as “Cannonau“).

The earliest documented mention of Garnacha in Spain dates back to 1513, when it was referred to as “Aragones“, while its first mention under the name “Garnacha” occurred in 1678.

On the other hand, in Italy’s Sardinia island, the earliest mention of Garnacha, under the old local name “Canonat“, was in 1549.

If historical data make both hypotheses plausible in terms of where the variety originated, DNA data seem to indicate a Spanish origin.

Garnacha is also known in France under the local name “Grenache“.

Garnacha Tinta (Garnacha’s black-berried color mutation) is one of the world’s most planted varieties. It is prevalently used in the context of blends, notably in the one typical of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, which is generally referred to as “GSM“, standing for Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

In France, where it is known under the name “Grenache Noir“, it is the second most planted variety after Merlot, with a total of 94,240 HA of vineyards in 2009, almost exclusively in southern France and particularly in the southern Rhône district, where it is the prevailing blending partner in Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. These tend to be deep-colored, high in ABV and often tannic, with herby and spicy notes.

2. Syrah (or “Shiraz“)

Syrah is a black-berried grape variety that is indigenous to the northern Rhône region of France, where it was first mentioned in a document dating back to 1781 under the name “Sira de l’Hermitage“.

DNA analysis proved that Syrah is a natural cross between Mondeuse Blanche (a Savoie variety) and Dureza (an Ardeche variety) that probably took place in the Rhône-Alps region.

Syrah has historically been mostly grown in the Rhône Valley in France and in Australia under the name Shiraz, although recently its planting has become more widespread as a result of an increasing popularity of its wines.

3. Mourvèdre (or “Monastrell“)

Monastrell is a black-berried grape variety that originates from the Valencia region, in eastern Spain. The name derives from Latin and is a diminutive of the word “monastery”, suggesting that the variety was first cultivated by monks. The earliest documented use of the name Monastrell dates back to 1381 in the Catalunya region of Spain.

Monastrell later made it into France (probably in the XVI century) from the Spanish port-town of Sagunto near Valencia, which in Catalan was known as Morvedre, so in France the grape took the name of Mourvèdre.

Monastrell wines are typically high in alcohol and tannins and may have intense aromas of blackberry. Monastrell/Mourvèdre is widely grown in Spain and in France, and it is also cultivated in the USA (especially in California), Australia and South Africa, where it is sometimes known under the name of “Mataro“, which was the name of a Spanish town on the Mediterranean.

(Information on the grape varieties taken from Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012 – for more information about these and more grape varieties, check out our Grape Variety Archive)

Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Aging Cellar - Courtesy of Fédération des syndicats des producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Aging Cellar – Courtesy of Fédération des syndicats des producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Winemaking

Traditionally, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine has been fermented in concrete tanks. Since the 1980’s, however, many winemakers have switched to stainless steel vats, as they are more hygienic, are easier to clean and allow a more precise temperature control. Recently there has been a trend to go back to fermenting the grapes in newer, coated versions of the traditional concrete tanks, which have made them more efficient and acceptable by today’s winemaking quality standards.

Since Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are blends, winemakers can choose between two different fermentation techniques. One is known as co-fermentation and calls for mixing all the varieties in the blend within the same tank and fermenting them all together. The other technique instead calls for separate fermentation of the different grape varieties (so as to keep their main characteristics intact) with the resulting wines being later assembled in the final blend.

Alcoholic fermentation of red Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines usually lasts between one and four weeks and is generally followed by malolactic fermentation. The wines are then aged in stainless steel, epoxy or concrete vats and/or in oak barrels for 10 to 18 months. During this period, racking may take place one or more times.

(Main sources: Châteauneuf-du-Pape; Rhône Wines. For more in-depth information about Châteauneuf-du-Pape, refer to this excellent article on the Wine Cellar Insider)

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0 thoughts on “An Overview of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation and Its Wines

  1. Pingback: Same grapes different wines | Please Pass the Recipe

  2. Pingback: Wine Review: Domaine Chante Cigale, Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC, 2009 | Flora's Table

  3. ladyredspecs

    Very informative Stefano and a great introduction to your posts. We have an outstanding winemaker in The Barossa Valley Charles Melton that makes GSM labelled Nine Popes as he doffs his hat at the old world.I love it’s complexity and buy from him every vintage. I’m going to buy a French Chateauneuf- du- Pape and taste them side by side for comparison. Can you recommend a good vineyard? I’m afraid my knowledge of French wine is limited, oh, other than Champagne that is!

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you so much for your kind comment – I am glad you enjoyed the read. Thank you also for letting me know about Charles Melton: I have not had the opportunity to taste his wine… yet! I will see if I can source it in the NE of the US as I would love to give it a spin based on your description: unfortunately Australian wines are not so readily available around here, the selection we get is quite limited… We’ll see.
      Your experiment to taste a new world GSM side by side to an old world’s is also an excellent idea! In terms of CDP producers, I love both Domaine Chante Cigale and Roger Sabon, which I would wholeheartedly recommend if you can find them in your area. I would love to know the outcome of your experiment, by the way!
      Thank you once again for your comment. Cheers! 🙂

  4. Just Add Attitude

    I really enjoyed reading this post Stefano. Partly because I had visited the region (briefly) many years ago but mostly because my wine knowledge is so rusty and I really liked that it refreshed my memory of grape varieties, methods of production … 😉

  5. talkavino

    Very nice write-up, Stefano. I have a minor note here 🙂 – since 2009, AOC rules allow 18 different varietals in the CdP wines. There very few producers who were known as using all 13 grapes (Beaucastel was one of them), and I have no idea if anyone would actually use all 18, but nevertheless…

  6. Margot @ Gather and Graze

    Such an interesting post Stefano! Fermenting in concrete tanks?? Does that happen in many other regions around the world? Have to admit to drinking more than my fair share of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine in my early 20’s living in the south of France… though they were very much the cheaper bottles on offer! 😕

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you very much, Margot: I am glad that you enjoyed the read! Well, fermenting in concrete tanks has generally fallen out of favor for a while now, but in the old days it used to be fairly common in Italy too. In France some producers of fine Bordeaux wines still use concrete fermenters even in this day and age!
      Great that you got to experience and enjoy CDP wines: some are really outstanding!
      Thank you as always for your kind comments, Margot 🙂

  7. Dina

    Most interesting reading, you really have done your homework, Stefano. Love this old illustrations, I suppose it works a bit different today. And since this is the prelude, I’ll patiently wait for your photos in the next post. ? 🙂
    Hope the new week started very well for all of you,
    Dina & Co <3

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, dear Dina: I am glad you found it an interesting read. I also love those old photographs – they give us an interesting glimpse of those old times. Unfortunately there will be no photos of mine in my next wine post – it will simply focus on a review of a CDP wine that I particularly enjoyed… Sorry to disappoint you, Dina! I need to make time to prep a few photographs and resume my photo posts on C&C… Unfortunately time is what it is and there is never enough to take care of everything that you need to!
      Thanks as always for your nice comment and have a wonderful rest of the week 🙂

  8. Mary

    Wow Stefano this was really interesting – the history for these hundreds of years is perhaps what engages the visitors mind as they sip the wines they now offer in this region. Really enjoyed the old photograph ~

  9. Stefano Post author

    Reblogged this on Clicks & Corks and commented:

    Check out on Flora’s Table our overview of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region and appellation, including its history, terroir, permitted grape varieties and winemaking practices.
    Enjoy! 🙂