Exploring Châteauneuf-du-Pape

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Of all of France's major wine regions, I've easily drunk fewer bottles from Châteauneuf-du-Pape than any other locale (and I'm including both the Jura and Savoie!). I don't know why. It has nothing to do with preference or personal taste to be honest. Every time I get the chance to taste the Rhône Valley's most treasured cuvée I wholly enjoy the experience, which is why I brought a bottle of the 2014 Domaine Tourbillon "Vieille Vignes" to a wine class I was teaching last night. I was hosting a comparative tasting between Californian and French wines for newcomers to wine and by the end of the night just about everyone there was asking for thirds and fourths of the Châteauneuf. 

"What is that wine?" they asked with curiosity. No one had ever heard of the name, so I answered.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a region in the southeast of France that was named after the seventy-year run of the papacy in Avignon (château = castle; neuf = new, du Pape = of the Pope). It's typically a blend of many grapes including Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, and other regional grapes, but the recipe can vary depending on the stylistic choice of the producer and the vintage. For example, the 2014 Tourbillon "Vieilles Vignes" is a blend of 60% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah, 7% Cinsault, and 3% Muscardin, but the Grand Reserve expression is a straight split of 70% Mourvèdre and 30% Grenache. Planted in stony hills that roll through the valley, the terrain is famous because the rocks heat up as the day goes on and keeps the vineyards warm at night, speeding the ripening process of the growing season. 

What I think newcomers to French wine like (and last night particularly enjoyed) is the ripeness of the style and the approachable fruit flavors that present themselves right when you pull the cork. The Tourbillion was full of fresh berries with savory herbs and a bit of a smoky, peppery note that added complexity. It was tasty and familiar, yet unlike any other wine in the room. It had body and weight, but it was also crafted with delicacy. I think everyone found the style utterly charming. Tourbillion handpicks all the grapes for the wine and sorts through the bunches carefully before the fermentation and vinification occur. You can taste every bit of that care in each sip as the wine is clean, fresh, and lively on the palate. 

I tend to think of Châteauneuf-du-Pape as a ripe and opulent wine (which it can be), but bottles like the Tourbillion VV remind me every now and again that the wines can be quite delicate and finessed at times. There's a lot to explore with CdP and so many different producers making varied styles from a variety of microclimates and vineyard conditions. You can't really pigeonhole Châteauneuf-du-Pape into any one thing. That's why I definitely need to dedicate more time to understanding it. 

-David Driscoll


David Driscoll