The world knows Châteauneuf-du-Pape but the Rhône region has other great reds that are better value for money. For publication in the week of 29 April 2019.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the best-known wines from the Rhône region and prices have soared along with the wine’s reputation. The wines can sell for hundreds of Euros a bottle in France, and much more around the world.
But the Rhône offers some other excellent wines, as a recent trip to the 10th Discover Rhône festival showed.
The name Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates as “the Pope’s new castle” and the history of this appellation is linked with papal history. In 1305 Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, was elected Pope but refused to live in Rome.
Four years later he shifted his court to Avignon. Seven successive Popes made up what became known as the Avignon Papacy from 1309 to 1376. Benedict XII, the third of the seven, ordered the building of a palace that became known as the Palais des Papes. It is one of the largest Gothic buildings in Europe. The 10th Discover Rhône festival took place in the palace (shown below).
Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine became linked with the papacy even though the Popes tended to drink burgundy. But they did order the planting of vineyards around the Rhône. Prior to WW1 the bulk of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was sold to Burgundy as “vin de médecine” to boost the strength and alcohol level of burgundy.
The bulk of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine is red with about 7 per cent whites. Appellation rules do not permit rosé to be made. The wines have traditionally been stored in heavy bottles embossed with Papal symbols. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is huge: It alone produces more wine than the whole of the Northern Rhône.
Because of Châteauneuf’s reputation, land prices have risen markedly in recent years, with people reportedly paying 450,000 to 500,00 Euros a hectare.
On the other side of the Rhône River land is much cheaper at around 45,000 to 50,000 Euros a hectare. There you will find some outstanding wines such as in Lirac. In 1947 when Lirac became an AOC it was the first to produce red, rosé and white wines. Last year more than four in five bottles were red, with 10 per cent white and 5 per cent rosé.
Vines have been grown in Lirac for at least 2,000 years. The town of Roquemaure on the river became an important port for exports. Historians tell us that when Hannibal left Carthage to attack Rome with his 38 elephants and 38,000 troops in 218AD he crossed the Rhône River at Roquemaure.
The port is also said to be the place where, in 1862, the phylloxera louse that devastated much of Europe’s vineyards first arrived in vines ordered by a local merchant. But that is only one version of the origins of the disease.
Decanter journalist Matt Walls is writing a book about Rhône wines. “If Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a lion, then Lirac is a panther,” he said, noting the feline yet powerful nature of the wines. He attributed the finesse and freshness of Lirac to the large number of woodlands in the centre of the appellation that provided biodiversity, and the clever use of the Cinsault grape in blends.
Some of the best tasted at the Discover Rhône festival included the 2018 Chateau Le Devoy Martine rosé and the 2017 Chateau Boucarut rosé. A highlight was a chance to compare the 2015 Chateau Montfaucon Baron Louis red with the 2005 vintage of the same wine. The latter showed how these wines age gracefully. Think herbs of Provence and balsamic notes encased in a soft tannic structure, and intensely drinkable.
Rodolphe de Pins, owner of Chateau Montfaucon, and Lirac colleagues presented a fine dinner for visiting journalists at Numero 75 restaurant in Avignon. There we tasted several excellent wines. The 2015 Domaine d’Arbousset’s La Vigne d’Yvon, certified biodynamic from 2016, and the 2016 Domaine Coudoilis Hommage, along with the 2010 vintage of Chateau Montfaucon Baron Louis, were some of the highlights of a fine evening.
Another relevant feature of the Rhône is the age of vines, with many estates producing from vines at least 50 years old. In the Rhône “old vines” actually means a half century, rather than the 35 years in many other parts of the world.
Lirac vineyards are laid out in terraces on hillsides and in garrigue scrubland. The area has a Mediterranean climate with plenty of heat in summer. But the famous Mistral which blows from the north tempers the heat and protects the vines. This powerful but icy wind also keeps vines healthy by sweeping away insects and any chance of disease such as fungus.
To the north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape we find two other exciting Rhône “crus” (these are the 17 best regions in the entire Rhône): Gigondas and Vacqueyras. They are sometimes described as “siblings” of the biggest appellation, but they produce wines that are quite different from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Andrew Jefford, the noted Decanter columnist, points out that people typically think of the Rhône in terms of the tiny North and the much larger South. But the South needs to be differentiated, he said. “Gigondas is only 25km from Châteauneuf-du-Pape but it is completely different.” Jefford describes Gigondas as the “northerner of the South” because of its freshness. The AOC sits on a high-altitude island with moderate amounts of sunshine whose terroir gives the wines subtlety and minerality. The image shows examples of Gigondas wines with their distinct logo on the bottle.
A feature of some of the best wines tasted was the tendency to use whole-bunches of grapes with stems, and to ferment in concrete. Noted wines included the 2016 Chateau de Saint Cosme and the 2016 Domaine La Bouissiere Tradition. Almost all the wines in the Gigondas AOC are red.
Vacqueyras wines are also almost entirely red. Grenache is the main grape, allied with Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvedre as in Gigondas. The wines are similar to Gigondas in the sense of finesse and freshness combined with power. Historical records show wine has been made in Vacqueyras since the Middle Ages. It has about 1,460 hectares of vines and winemaking is the main economic activity in the region.
One of the best wines tasted was the 2016 Domaine de la Ganse l’Affirmé, with its formidable red and black fruit aromas and deep sense of promise in the mouth. The image shows the symbol or logo of Vacqueyras. It means winemakers need to use special bottles, which tend to be more expensive than ordinary vessels.
Next week’s column will consider some of the other southern Rhône “crus”: Vinsobres, Rasteau and Cairanne.
Disclosure: Organisers of the Discover Rhône festival supplied hotel accommodation for three nights for Stephen Quinn plus two fine dinners. Quinn paid his own travel.