Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a village about 20 minutes' drive north of the ultra touristic city of Avignon. Essentially, it's a hilltop village dominated by the ruins of a castle. The village dates back to the 11th century when it was called Castro Novo. Then it was a castrum or fortified village; the castle came later, built under the second of the Avignon popes, John XXII. It was from that time that the local wine became known as Vin du Pape.
A point that is not without interest is that Châteauneuf only became French in 1791. For a while thereafter, the village was known as Châteauneuf-Calcernier, reflecting the importance of lime kilns (used for the calcination of limestone) behind the village.
The story of the wine
When it comes to the wine, nineteenth-century Châteauneuf was a very different beast to today's version; much lighter and based on a raft of grape varieties (yes, even more than the current permitted 13!). The advent of canals and railways suddenly made these wines better known. However, phylloxera, the vine louse that devastated European vineyards in the late 1800s, came early to Châteauneuf. When the vineyard was reconstructed (by grafting vines onto American rootsocks, resistant to the louse), the grenache grape was often preferred over others for its ability to produce high alcohol content. People liked the style and demand soared, though in fact a major outlet was Burgundy to the north where the wines were often blended to improve the thin, light-bodied pinot noir. A method of protecting the authenticity of wines was needed heralding the inception of the appellation system which came in here before anywhere else, in 1936.
Today's Châteauneuf, the town
Back to the castle. Today, there is not that much to see. Over the centuries, stones were removed by the locals to build houses. Then the castle was partly blown up by the Germans and so what is left is hardly impressive. Most of the site is a not terribly secure car park from where steep cobbles lead down to the village. The view from the top though is not bad if invariably spoilt by industrial pollution ...
For all that rich history however, there is not really much to present-day Châteauneuf. It's a frankly disappointing place. Heaven knows what the coachloads of mostly American tourists must make of it. There is hardly anywhere to sit, and nothing to admire. And then of course there is the incessant noise of heavy traffic.
But what of the wines?
That is another story. That's where Châteauneuf is a special place. Just avoid the village! And as it happens that is not too difficult. Pretty well everything that is not built on is vineyard and the area under vine runs to 8000 acres. When the appellation came into play, politics played an important part. There must have been a good deal of toing and froing among the great landowners. The result is that not everything that is classed as Châteauneuf is at the same quality level, so understanding the land and who owns what is essential. Terroir in Châteauneuf is complex though it is best known for those vineyards strewn with large pudding stones (the famous galets roulés), a lucky leftover from the ice age. This is typically what you would see on the plateau of La Crau or Mont-Redon. But it is also true that some of the greatest wines come from fine sands.
Châteauneuf: Red and White
Châteauneuf comes in two colours though red is by far and away the more important. The reds are often grenache based though in the future that may change as some producers try to make wine with slightly less alcohol. Personally I am a great fan of mourvèdre and have a lot of time for cinsault and counoise. Syrah is also used and a little bit can add colour but generally, Châteauneuf is too hot for syrah. White, or more accurately, pink grape varieties can also be used in making red wine and they too can have the effect of lowering alcohol. White Châteauneufs are well worth exploring too. There are two schools of thought here: barrel-aged such as at Château de Beaucastel and no barrel at all, as at Château Mont-Redon. Barrel ageing tends to make the wines taste 'fat' and opulent. Mont-Redon is the reverse.
Made for food
Whichever colour you choose, Châteauneuf demands food. So where does one go to enjoy both?
There's not a huge amount of choice but for me, the most satisfying and rewarding involves a half-hour drive north to the village of Mondragon. La Beaugravière is a veritable institution owned and run by Guy and Tina Julien for well over 30 years. Dishes are of old France, and especially old Provence. He's famous for truffles between January and March but everything Guy does is wonderful. The wine list is staggering with pages and pages of Châteauneufs and more besides. These days though, one is often tempted by less prestigious names. But will Guy and his long suffering Tina be still there when the world gets back to normal? Let's hope so. In the meantime I have the memories of his oeufs brouillés aux truffes and a glass of aged white Mont-Redon to sustain me.
Find out more about the Rhône Valley's wines in Marcel's Ultimate Guide to the region
Read Nina Caplan's lyrical look at the Rhône – France's original river of wine