New Releases: Welcome to the Pleasuredome
BY NICOLAS GREINACHER | JUNE 29, 2023
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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