Châteauneuf-du-Pape New Releases: Welcome to the Pleasuredome


Traveling to Châteauneuf-du-Pape this spring brought up mixed emotions. I felt incredibly privileged and filled with a childlike sense of joy to taste and review these unique wines for Vinous. Yet the tragic passing of Josh Raynolds was an ever-present topic and usually the first part of any conversation. Every producer I met shared their most vivid Josh memory, such as a winery tasting as early as 6:00am or very late in the evening, where Josh almost had to be kicked out so the winemakers could go to sleep. Josh exemplified dedication, resilience and an unyielding work ethic. It soon became evident that he touched an incredible number of people, leaving profound grief behind. May his memory be cherished for as long as water flows down the Rhône River, as testament to his lasting impact on those who knew him.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is famous for its old vines planted on galets roulés, which are essentially rounded pebble stones over sandy, iron-rich clay.

A Little Refresher

Initially established on May 15th, 1936, Châteauneuf-du-Pape was officially the very first French wine to achieve an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). It became an AOC before other prestigious French wine regions such as Bordeaux, Alsace or Champagne. This prevented the unauthorized use of the name by individuals or entities outside the region and helped to form a distinctive regional identity. Some of those initial rules have stood the test of time and remain in full force today. Therefore, wine production in Châteauneuf-du-Pape remains highly regulated, with strict guidelines on grape varieties, yields and winemaking techniques, undoubtedly contributing to the maintained quality and reputation of the wines.

All 13 permitted varieties (18 if we count in also the five color variants, for example, Clairette Rose) can be vinified together or separately, regardless of their color. Different grapes can be co-fermented, as is frequently practiced with Syrah and Viognier in the Northern Rhône appellations. Small portions of white varieties add floral and citrus aromas when co-fermented with reds. This may reduce the overall alcohol if the white grapes carry less sugar than the reds and boost color stability as well as intensity. That said, Grenache and its variants represent roughly 70% of all planted grape varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape today.

Many winemakers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape own vineyards in different areas within the appellation and are blessed with diverse soil types. Domaine Bosquet des Papes, for example, owns 32 hectares of vines scattered across 45 parcels. Soil types include: galets roulés, which are essentially rounded pebble stones over sandy, iron-rich clay, sandy soils, and finally, éclats calcaires that have an increased proportion of limestone. Blending from different parcels and soil types has been the key to complex and balanced wines since the AOC’s inception.

Approximately 3,130 hectares (7,734 acres) of vines are in production in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC, of which 35% are either certified organic, certified biodynamic or in the conversion to organic process. Currently, 220 producers are making AOC wines, and the region is home to many family-owned wineries, such as the Perrin family’s Château de Beaucastel, the Férauds’ Domaine de Pegau and Domaine Famille Isabel Ferrando (previously called Domaine Saint Préfert). Keeping these wineries in the families for generations helps to pass on a wealth of knowledge regarding grape growing and winemaking, including the most relevant topic of our time: how to ensure freshness in this warm Mediterranean climate in the context of climate change.

Lastly, but not any less relevant, local winemaking families could simply enjoy their wines' commercial success and pleasure in the various delights the South of France offers, yet the contrary is the case. These are hardworking people dedicated to achieving the full potential of what the earth has given them. Paul-Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes is one of the most respected winemakers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When I visited Avril this year, his fingers were covered in a darkish taint as he had been sealing large-format bottles requiring manual labor. And for many years, I have seen Emmanuel Reynaud of Château Rayas driving a modest grey Volkswagen. It is soothing to know that winemakers here remain humble and focused, which is generally reflected in the wines they craft.

Aging cellars at Château de Mont Redon, the largest land owner in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The Quest for Freshness

The quality of any wine is ultimately determined by its overall balance, length, intensity and complexity. While wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape seldom have any problem achieving the latter three, balance is the most challenging. The reds, in particular, desperately require compensation for Grenache Noir’s naturally elevated alcohol levels, as it accumulates high sugar levels quickly. Furthermore, while the AOC stipulates a maximum yield of 35hL/ha, many wineries work with much lower outputs, ensuring a certain amount of flavor concentration—all that alcohol and concentration very much call for balancing measures. Add climate change’s rising temperatures to the equation, and those calls are getting louder and more frequent. On top of all that, consumer trends have gradually shifted away from overweighted one-glass wonders. Today, Châteauneuf-du-Pape winemakers have no choice but to dedicate their full attention to the art of balance in their wines. This, I believe, is the most relevant topic in relation to winemaking in Châteauneuf-du-Pape today and in the years to come.

The timing of harvest is one of the most important tools a winemaker can use to control the perception of freshness and, ultimately, a finished wine’s balance. Although still apparent in some wines I tasted, the trend of waiting long past the moment of phenolic ripeness to obtain over-ripe, sometimes even cooked fruit aromas and elevated alcohol levels has become less common in recent years. A few cooler-climate site exceptions remain, such as the northeast-facing, tree-sheltered vineyards of Château Rayas, where the harvest is sometimes carried out as late as November.

The last couple of years have seen an increasing trend to use more of the well-known Syrah and Mourvèdre in a blend, but also the likes of Cinsaut and Counoise—one of the great advantages of having a vast choice of permitted varieties. Cinsaut is known for its red fruit aromas and low tannins. It offers a significant benefit as it can compensate Grenache’s ripe fruit flavors while contributing a lower alcohol content, ultimately enhancing the freshness and balance of the finished wine. Counoise provides spicy aromas and firm acidity, elevating the perception of freshness. Jean-Paul Daumen, who produces wines of striking intensity and concentration at Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, has clearly done his homework. Even at 16% alcohol or more, his wines are impeccably well-balanced, carrying a remarkable sense of freshness. It’s no surprise that Counoise and Cinsaut are found much more frequently in his reds than 20 years ago. “In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we are fortunate to have a wide selection of grape varieties, and we can vary the blends depending on the climatic conditions or the different terroirs,” Daumen remarked during my visit. César Perrin of Château de Beaucastel is another winemaker increasingly using Counoise to his advantage. Perrin explained that Counoise contributes alcohol levels of 12 to 13% and bright acidity to a blend, raising the overall perception of freshness.

Jean-Paul Daumen and his son Antoine at Domaine de la Vieille Julienne.

Thierry Usseglio and consulting winemaker Baptiste Olivier from Domaine Famille Usseglio have taken the idea of blending different grape varieties even further. At Domaine Famille Usseglio, the newest wine is called Châteauneuf-du-Pape Clos No.18. It was made in one entire co-fermentation of equal proportions from all 18 permitted varieties. Describing this as new may sound paradoxical, as AOC rules allowed such a wine to be made in the past. Usseglio and Olivier reviewed all available options within the AOC rules and created something that may seem outside the box, while it always hid there. The result is a fresh and complex wine playing in a category all its own. I can only encourage readers to taste it.

Stem inclusion during fermentation can contribute aromas often characterized as spicy or herbaceous and potentially add tannins to the final wine. Furthermore, young wines made this way can develop a distinctively savory taste. At the same time, whole cluster fermentation increases pH and reduces acidity. This leads to a softer mouthfeel, but the reduction of acidity might be counterproductive to the quest of maintaining freshness. The actual percentage of whole clusters used must be thought through very carefully, also because the effects can potentially dilute the sense of terroir. This can happen when the stems introduce too much of their own flavors, such as herbal or vegetal notes, which can alter site expression. Judging from the wines I tasted, thoughtful stem inclusion can help to make these wines more aromatically complex and improve the mouthfeel without compromising their sense of place. This year I tasted some wines fermented entirely with whole clusters, such as the deliciously funky Cuvée Les 7 de Pignan from Domaine Bosquet des Papes.

Fermentation temperature for reds has seen a significant shift over the past years. The higher the temperature, within a reasonable range, the greater the extraction. When powerful and concentrated wines were in fashion, such as the 2007 vintage, it was common to ferment reds at around 30 to 32°C (86 to 89.6°F). Today, things have cooled down. Didier Négron, the winemaker at Domaine Roger Sabon, confirms that while he used to ferment at the temperatures above, today, he works within a range of 23 to 25°C (73.4 to 77°F). “Since we practice long macerations, we have all the time necessary to extract tannin and anthocyanin compounds, and we prefer to work at lower temperatures for a slightly different aromatic result,” he explains. This is echoed by Julien Barrot of Domaine la Barroche, who reports fermenting his reds between 25 and 26°C (77 to 78.8°F), which is roughly 5°C (9°F) lower than in the past.

Freshness and balance in wines necessitate a close look at acidity. Harvesting late reduces the acidity in the grapes, making timing even more critical, but taking care of the acidity starts long before harvest. Julien Barrot remarks that he focuses on providing good protection for the grapes from the sun through canopy management, citing the parasol effect. It refers to the vine’s leaves acting as a parasol, naturally shading the grapes from direct sunlight. This can be enhanced through specific pruning techniques, such as the gobelet pruning method, which encourages vigorous growth and its foliage to provide better protection for the grapes.

However, the elephant in the room when talking about acidity is acidification. This topic might very well be the biggest mood-killer when interacting with winemakers. Hardly anyone openly admits to acidifying their wines. The truth in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is that acidification is not prohibited in the AOC rules and may be applied within certain limits. One winemaker confirmed to me that the limit in terms of acidification is 150 grams per hectoliter (g/hL) of must. He explained that it is not uncommon for wines in the region to be acidified, especially in warm vintages, although generally by amounts lower than the permitted limit, in the range of 60 to 80g/hL. Detecting if a wine has been acidified is an art of its own, especially since this information is virtually never disclosed by winemakers or on technical data sheets. At this early evolutionary stage of the sampled wines, I didn't pick up anything acidity-related that threw me off.

The perception of freshness can also be adversely affected by oak for various reasons. When being fermented and/or matured in new oak, a wine can pick up distinctive cloves, wood smoke and vanilla aromas, contributing richness and weight. Furthermore, extended maturation of a wine, in barriques for example, leads to gradual evaporation, increasing weight and alcohol and creating a fuller body. Unsurprisingly, the use of new oak in Châteauneuf-du-Pape has decreased over the past ten years. This isn’t something new; it’s more of a return to the period before the fashion for extremely concentrated and powerful wines. Where new oak is used today, it is either in small proportions or via larger vessels, such as demi-muids or foudre. Many reds see no oak, entirely fermenting and maturing in concrete vats or stainless-steel tanks. Some wineries are trying to increase the complexity of their wines by using a mix of different vessel types and sizes, which I’ve occasionally referred to in my tasting notes.

All the above-mentioned grape-growing and winemaking options have been around for a long time, although some of them had just been forgotten or briefly fallen out of fashion. Because all these choices remain allowed by the AOC, today, winemakers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are well-positioned to face the climatic challenges of the present day, at least when it comes to rising temperatures.

The castle ruins in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are a testament to the region's ancient history.

White Châteauneuf at a Glance

To complete the Vinous database, I tasted wines from six different vintages. When it comes to quality, the individual producer proves to be more influential than the vintage itself. Whites from Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes and Famille Isabel Ferrando outperformed all others. But these wines aren’t inexpensive. Some of them cost more than the reds. However, considering the current white Bordeaux or Burgundy market, price tags for white Châteauneuf suddenly become reasonable, especially since these wines are usually made in smaller quantities than in Burgundy. Only about 5% of all wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is white. As a result, these are relatively rare to find and sell out quickly if they ever get on the market. Their popularity among sommeliers worldwide has been solid for a long time. You’ll find white Châteauneuf-du-Pape on many fine dining wine lists as they pair well with various dishes, such as seafood or poultry. They also work magnificently for apéro riche, a lavish pre-dinner spread. They are white wines of pleasure.

Yet if you crave high acidity in white wines, white Châteauneuf-du-Pape won't be the best choice for you. An aromatic profile and moderate levels of soft acidity generally characterize these medium to full-bodied wines. Similar to the reds, white Châteauneuf-du-Papes are often blends, with Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne and Bourboulenc leading the pack. Each of those varieties brings a different set of characteristics to the table. While Roussanne famously contributes herbal tea aromas, Clairette can add hints of fresh citrus and stone fruits, white flowers and sometimes a subtle fennel aroma.

One of the main questions surrounding white wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape is their ability to age. It is important not to confuse personal preferences for oxidized aromas with overall quality. If a wine can develop tertiary aromas and flavors while still maintaining balance, it can age. If there’s no more of that to be gained, a wine may hold. But if those aromas and flavors start to diminish and the balance of a wine is compromised, there is no need to hold on to a bottle. It is common knowledge that aromatic grape varieties, such as Roussanne, are usually not destined for a long life in bottle as their main asset; the primary aromas and flavors will fade. And don’t forget that one of the most important structural components needed for any wine to age in bottle is the acidity, which keeps everything in balance. As mentioned above, white Châteauneuf-du-Pape only has moderate levels of acidity, which can be traced back to the attributes of the permitted varieties. For example, some of the tasted white wines went as low as 2.35g/L of total acidity.

When tasting the whites, I was surprised by the frequent presence of tertiary aromas and flavors in vintages as young as 2020. I found petrol, dried ginger, honey and beeswax in only three years old wines. Many of those whites were delicious and left a distinctively saline aftertaste. Their aromatic profile may develop, but I doubt they will improve. That said, I experienced gorgeous old white Châteauneuf-du-Papes, but there’s only a handful of producers and cuvées where extended bottle aging might be beneficial. As a rule of thumb and in contrast to the reds, I recommend enjoying these whites right after release until around six to eight years of bottle age.

Paul-Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes proudly holds a magnum of the 1915 vintage, the oldest bottle in his cellar.

The 2019 Reds

Vintage 2019 was characterized by a spring with moderate temperatures and no frost events. The weather turned warm but not scorching as summer approached, with occasional heat waves. Furthermore, the region was blessed with moderate and well-timed rainfall just before harvest—favorable weather conditions yield healthy grapes, free from disease. Following two vintages with lower-than-average yields in 2017 and 2018, 2019 was a welcome change, with an average overall yield of 30.39hL/ha.

There are plenty of 2019 reds offering vast amounts of pleasure. Clos des Papes, Clos Saint-Jean, Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, Domaine du Pegau, Domaine Pierre Usseglio and Famille Gonnet produced stunning wines. Nevertheless, I didn’t re-taste those 2019s that Josh had already tasted. On the other end of the quality spectrum, surprisingly, many wines show bothersome tannins. In fact, out of all the red wines I sampled from 2019, I encountered unpleasantly firm, coarse or rustic tannins in roughly a third. Although this snapshot does not represent the entire group of reds produced in this vintage, it still shows an apparent gap among different producers when it comes to managing tannins.

Tannins are a type of polyphenol that can be derived from grape skins and seeds. Stems can also contribute to polyphenol levels if used in macerations. The amount and type of polyphenols that end up in the must depend on various viticultural decisions, but this is far from a precise science. Good viticulture involves ensuring that both phenolic and sugar ripeness converge and reach their optimal levels at the same time. Canopy management that provides shade and protects berries from sunburn may result in excessive fruit covering, preventing tannins from fully ripening. On the other hand, too much de-leafing and thus exposing the grapes to scorching sunlight can also increase the risk of astringency down the line. And with Grenache in particular, the overall level of tannins in the skins and the final wine also depends on the degree of water stress, with higher stress leading to more tannins.

In the cellar, too-frequent pumping over can over-extract tannins more than punching down, as the latter is a gentler technique. A too-long post-fermentation maceration can also over-extract tannins since they are more soluble in alcohol than water. Consequently, more tannins are extracted at the end of fermentation than at the beginning. Furthermore, too-high fermentation temperatures can cause over-extraction of tannins: as the temperature increases, so does the level of extraction. Lastly, overly protective winemaking methods, in combination with any of the issues above, could mean that the maturing wine is not exposed to the oxygen needed to soften those tannins.

That said, a vast range of viewpoints on tannins exists among winemakers, critics and consumers. According to my palate, it doesn’t matter all that much if tannins are more on the soft and smooth or firm end of the spectrum as long as they are ripe and well-integrated into the wine. Unpleasantly firm, coarse or rustic tannins are neither particularly enjoyable nor positively contribute to the quality of the wine. One can always argue that such tannins may unwind with extended bottle age and that patience is all that’s required. While that eventually may (or may not) be the case, I can’t see why consumers should take that bet when at the same time, the vast majority of wines have well-integrated and undisruptive tannins, even at a young age.

Proprietor Isabel Ferrando with one of her brand new 1,500 liter Galileo concrete vats.

The 2020 Reds

In 2020, the vines were able to brace themselves against the typically dry conditions of the growing season thanks to the above-average rainfall that occurred in late autumn and winter of 2019/2020. During the spring and early summer months, Châteauneuf-du-Pape received ample rainfall, while moderate yet warm temperatures prevented excessive moisture in the vineyards. Regardless of COVID-19 restrictions, producers were fortunate to work the vineyards with minimal constraints, adhering to strict safety measures. By mid-June, precipitations stopped, and temperatures began to climb. Despite the summer's relatively low rainfall, warm weather remained moderate, except for sporadic heat spikes in late July and early August that ultimately benefited the grapes by raising their sugar levels. Preparing for harvest, producers had to adhere to strict protocols such as mask-wearing, frequent sanitization, and the challenge of finding sufficient labor. However, the harvested crop was in excellent health, ripe and abundant, leading to average overall yields of 31.95hL/ha, the highest since the 2016 vintage.  

The tannic flipside of the coin is less apparent in 2020. The number of wines with rustic, coarse or unpleasantly firm tannins is still significant but lower than in 2019. It also seems that overall balance was achieved more easily in 2020. But while some producers got better results in 2020, others did so in 2019.

Like its predecessor, the 2020 vintage delivered a wide array of qualities, ranging from underwhelming to the stark opposite. Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, Clos Saint-Jean, Domaine de la Charbonnière, Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, Domaine de Marcoux, Domaine du Pegau, Domaine Isabel Ferrando and Domaine Roger Sabon offer divine drinking pleasure. In addition, readers have a large number of awesome wines from many other producers to choose from if they wish to stock up.

This year’s lineup at Château de Beaucastel.

The 2021 Reds

From a winemaking perspective, 2021 was much more challenging than its two predecessors. Average yields came in at 27.40hL/Ha, 10% less than in 2019 and almost 15% lower than in 2020. After a relatively mild and dry winter, the year started with a marked spring frost on the 7th and 8th of April, causing widespread damage. In the afternoon, before the ice hit at -3°C (equivalent to 26.6°F), Paul-Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes recorded a temperature of 26°C (equivalent to 78.8 °F) in his vineyards. The harsh result: 40% crop loss with final yields at a minuscule 15hL/ha. Following a relatively cool spring, the summer was characterized by a series of brief, intense heat waves, with precipitation levels ranging between 55mm and 77mm. The maturation process of the grapes did not experience major water stress, thanks to rain showers in early August. Towards the end of summer, it was apparent that 2021 would be a late harvest due to an extended vegetative cycle, primarily caused by cooler-than-average summer nights, which proved beneficial for preserving acidity.

In September, intermittent rainfall on the 3rd (10mm) and 15th (80mm) and several autumnal storms impeded harvesting, necessitating some winemakers to modify their picking methods and causing overall delays. After the first fermentations were finished, it was generally noted that the alcohol levels were lower than in previous years. For example, the reds of Domaine Roger Sabon all came in around 14.5% alcohol, which is 1% less than 2020 and 2019. While lower alcohol levels were frequent in 2021, there are some exceptions, such as the Mon Aieul from Domaine Pierre Usseglio at 16%, similar to previous vintages.

Given the challenging growing conditions, I was concerned about encountering unripe tannins, aromas and flavors. Overall, I tasted only a few wines that showed inferior tannin quality, which is less than in 2019 and 2020. The distinctive feature of 2021 is the abundance of bright acidity, neatly complementing flavor concentration, which gives the wines a delightful sense of elegance and freshness. The generally lower alcohol levels further contribute to their refined character.

In short, 2021 exudes grace and freshness, complemented by widespread tannin quality, good structure and sufficient but not excessive concentration. When talking to winemakers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I often sense that some hold a more reserved opinion of wines produced from less opulent years compared to more powerful and flamboyant vintages such as 2019. But au contraire: the 2021 reds have broad appeal. Firstly, they satisfy pleasure-seeking Châteauneuf-du-Pape enthusiasts who remain loyal to the region. Secondly, they please those who appreciate refinement and freshness in addition to drinkers who prefer wines without excessively high alcohol levels. Provided prices remain reasonable, 2021 should not be a tough sell, also considering the reduced quantities.

The reds of Château de Beaucastel and Château Rayas are shaping up to be benchmark wines in 2021.

Empty Château Rayas bottles are displayed near the entrance of the winery. Interestingly, the 1933 is labeled as 1er Grand Cru.

A Brief Outlook on 2022

Two thousand twenty-two posed fewer trials for winemakers than 2021, though it still presented difficulties. The growing season started with a slightly early bud burst. However, the vegetative cycle was challenging for the rainfall deficit, a dry and mild spring and the exceptionally early, hot, and dry summer. On the 15th of August, stormy weather accompanied by some rainfall hit the region. Regrettably, some sectors of the appellation were also affected by hail. As a result, average yields came in as low as in 2021, only reaching 27.55hL/ha. Fortunately, the reliable Mistral wind swept through the vineyards and largely saved the sanitary state of the grapes, which were generally harvested in good condition. Although I didn’t taste any reds from 2022 during this trip, the few whites I sampled showed well.

Looking at the Markets

There is an evident trend among drinkers in the United States towards fresher and leaner wines with lower alcohol levels. As a result, wines with elevated alcohol similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, such as Côtes-du-Rhône, are selling less easily compared to a few years ago. But wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape have the advantage of a relatively large fan base and are widely recognized by consumers, both inside and outside the US. This renommé offers some protection against deteriorating demand for higher alcohol wines, but only to a limited degree. The situation is similar in Europe, with overall demand weaker than a few years ago. What’s interesting is that in the near past, wineries asked importers to purchase large volumes of traditional entry-level wines to grant an allocation of the rare cuvées. These days, importers order much less of those cuvées because they have become harder to sell than entry-level wines. With a few exceptions, prices remain stable, which is good news for consumers.

I look forward to tasting the latest wines of Gigondas and Vacqueyras toward the end of the summer and the various Northern Rhône appellations in autumn this year.

I tasted the vast majority of the wines from this report in Châteauneuf-du-Pape during March and April 2023.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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