Châteauneuf-du-Pape: The News of Old

Châteauneuf-du-Pape: The News of Old

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a classic French wine region that is core to defining the winemaking of the Southern Rhône, but it is also undergoing a moment of reinvention. Châteauneuf-du-Pape could easily rest on its fame and be content with never changing. Over the past decade, however, and especially in the past five years, there’s been a tidal wave of change as the region’s producers readjust to meet the reality of now. 

A Short History

The area of Châteauneuf has been settled since the Mesolithic era, from about 12,000 BCE. The generally moderate temperature and the abundant water from the Rhône River aided human settlement. The Roman period left a significant mark on the area, particularly with the rise of more organized cities. This is easily observed by visiting the nearby city of Orange, where the exceedingly well-preserved theater and other ruins attest to the high level of development at the time.

There is documentation that, in the 11th century, there was a castrum novum, Latin for “new castle”, at the site of what is now Châteauneuf. The castle seen today on the hill had a predecessor, which explains why the iconic ruins are known as the “pope’s new house.”

But the real shift in history came with the Avignon popes who began their run with Clement V in 1305 and fully moved the papal capital from Rome to Avignon in 1309. This lasted until 1376 before descending into the Western Schism, wherein there were, at one point, three popes.

It was Clement’s successor, John XXII, who built the now-famous castle from 1317 to 1333. He had helped improve viticulture in the area and was quite fond of being removed from the hustle and bustle of Avignon yet still close enough to manage the Papacy. According to archives, in 1334 there were some three million vines planted around Châteauneuf. With the death of John XXII, his successor, Benedict XII, and all subsequent popes moved back to Avignon, with its massive Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace), and the castle of Châteauneuf as well as the vineyards was largely abandoned.

Once the Avignon Papacy ended and the seat of power returned to Rome, Châteauneuf entered a period of heavy decline. A very harsh winter in the 17th century killed many vines (as well as olive trees), and then the plague of phylloxera arrived from England. It first appeared in mainland Europe in the mid-19th century, in the Rhône Valley, just across the river from Châteauneuf in Roquemaure, in 1865, and was first documented in Châteauneuf in 1866.

During this time, the castle fell into further disrepair. Eventually, only the donjon, French for “keep,” was still standing. Restoration work was undertaken from 1906 to 1910, but Germans who had been occupying it during World War II blew up the ammunitions that they’d been storing there, leaving it in its current condition, as a stony beacon on the hill, much smaller than it once was.

AOC Classification

The wines of Châteauneuf were always in demand and often used as an additive to give the historically thin wines of Burgundy a bit of soul—something that seems impossible today. The winegrowers of Châteauneuf were very aware that fraud and the importation of grapes from outside the region were serious issues, and, starting all the way back in 1894, they began working to protect the integrity of their region. Their efforts finally came to fruition in 1923 with the formation of the “winegrowers union,” with Baron le Roy de Boiseaumarié, the owner of Château Fortia, as its first president.

A trained lawyer, Baron le Roy went to court in Orange and legally established the boundaries and production methods of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Curiously, the region includes parts of the neighboring Courthézon, Bédarrides, Orange, and Sorgues, with Châteauneuf composing only 53% of the total surface area. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée was entered as law in 1933 and followed by updates in 1936 (full codification), 1966, 1992, and 2008. While other codifications had been created in the past (Port, Tokaji, and Chianti Classico, for example), this was the first that established a framework leading directly to those that followed. It formed the basis on which all other appellations were to be established in not only France but also Europe and the world at large.

A Diversity of Soils

What unifies Châteauneuf is its winemaking history, as there is neither a singular soil type nor a uniform elevation/orientation that would define a terroir on which other, subsequent appellations were based.

The Nîmes Fault, a main fault in southeastern France, runs through the region and is bisected by the Roquemaure Fault. These two features, combined with the erosion of the Rhône River over millennia, have resulted in an extremely varied landscape, as parts of the underlying soil have been exposed. There are remnants from the Tertiary period evident in limestone; during the Miocene and Pliocene eras, when the Mediterranean Sea covered the Rhône Valley, marl and sand were laid down. Gravel and stones arrived during the end of the Tertiary period to cover the sands. Then, as the Rhône River washed through the area, these sediments became exposed during the Quaternary period.

This is an extreme simplification, as an exploration of the nuances of Châteauneuf’s complex soil composition could fill a book. It has, in fact: the Syndicat des Vignerons de l’Appellation d’Origine Châteauneuf-du-Pape has published Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Histoire Géologique et Naissance des Terroirs, by Georges Truc, a deep dive into the subject.

Curiously, the soil type for which Châteauneuf is perhaps best known and photographed is in La Crau, an area comprising several lieux-dits, located due east of the village. Here, galets roulés, which are large, rounded stones (sometimes called pudding stones), dominate the vineyards, with the vines wedged between the stones.

In my first visits to Châteauneuf, over a decade ago, it was still affirmed that these were prime vineyards, as the stones radiate the sun’s heat absorbed throughout the day during the night, encouraging full ripening of the grapes. Yet these galets roulés are not present in the majority of Châteauneuf. Most of the vines sit on sandstone and clay-based soils with smaller pockets of sand; this is beneficial because these soils are cooler. The galets roulés are now a problem. The massive heat wave that swept across France in 2003 was an initial wake-up call, and winemakers in southern France say that, for them, the climate-change vintages became a more consistent issue beginning in 2015, growing even more difficult since then. Ripening is not a challenge; the question now is how to slow maturity as much as possible.

Today, vineyard visits with such wineries as Bosquet des Papes or Domaine la Barroche will include stops at the lieux-dits of Pied-Long, Pied de Baud, or others in the northerly corner of Châteauneuf that have a slight orientation to the north, are on sandstone soils, and are at an elevation of 110 meters (360 feet). But the salvatory soil for Châteauneuf these days is sand. Anyone with sand eagerly points it out, as it’s the region’s coolest soil. It also doesn’t hurt that the iconic winery of Château Rayas has sandy soils as well, a feature that may lend their very expensive wines extra appeal. Yet Rayas is also surrounded by some of the few forests within the appellation, which contribute an additional cooling effect.

The Grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

In addition to the various soils with which they work, Châteauneuf winemakers have a sizeable selection of grape varieties from which to choose. Depending on how they are counted (treating individual color mutations as separate or not), there are either 13 or 18 varieties. The red grapes include Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Vaccarèse (Brun Argenté), Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul Noir, and Terret Noir. The white varieties are Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Clairette Blanche, Clairette Gris, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc (Folle Blanche), Picpoul Gris, and Picardan.

In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, unlike most appellations in the South of France, there are no minimum or maximum requirements, and white grapes can be added to red wines. Grenache, however, is by far the leading variety, composing around three-quarters of all plantings. But each grape has a role, as various varieties help balance the final blends. Syrah, for example, provides color, and Cinsault lends acidity.

Similarly, white varieties, which currently compose 8% of the total production, are blended to make the white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which are typically made mostly with Grenache Blanc. Increasingly, however, varietal wines are emerging, and they’re being made from not Grenache Blanc but Clairette Blanche, which is proving to be very well adapted to the region. This characteristic has also been noticed elsewhere, as in the neighboring Gigondas, for example, where white wines were recently approved, with a minimum of 70% Clairette Blanche required. 

The Châteauneuf vineyards total 3,150 hectares (7,800 acres), producing 95,000 hectoliters of wine as of 2023. Officially, 35% of the vines are under organic or biodynamic certification. There are still vineyards with scorched grass, a telltale sign of glyphosate usage, but, over the past decade or so, they have become increasingly rare as the younger generation takes over and prioritizes soil health.

A Changing Style

In February 2024, I was leading a tasting of Châteauneuf wines in Zagreb, Croatia. The red wines were mostly from the 2021–22 vintage, with one from the 2010 vintage. This span highlighted the extent of change occurring in the region.

The 2010 was from Château Fortia, known as the property of Baron le Roy, and it was larger, darker, and higher in alcohol, or at least seemed higher in alcohol, than the wines of 2021–22, which were from Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine la Barroche, and Château de Nalys. As to which wines were preferred by the audience, it was split fifty-fifty between those who favored the newer, lighter style and those who believed the older Châteauneuf was how the wines “should” be.

If the clock were rolled back to 2010 for these wineries, the wines would reflect a similar style, in that Châteauneuf was indeed “bigger” a decade ago, in addition to 2010 being a “big” vintage. It’s amazing that now, despite warming and more erratic growing seasons, many producers are achieving more elegant wines. This is a grand generalization, of course, as there are still plenty of wines with over 16% ABV coming to market, but producers seem to be defter at achieving balance overall.

When I visited the cellar of Domaine la Barroche with Laetitia Barrot, who runs the estate with her brother Julien, she pointed to the massive cement fermenters on the main floor of the winery that was built in 2015. She explains that Julien, who is also the domaine’s winemaker, “only uses these for fermentation, and then we transfer the wine to the foudre below. The oak impact is extremely minimal in the cellar, as the newer vintages simply don’t need it in the way that [those of] my parents did.” At its core, it’s an extremely simple process, but, Julien finds, it results in good wines in the bad years and outstanding wines in the great years.

Claire Fabre, the winemaker at Le Vieux Donjon, takes an even simpler, time-tested approach, working in a cellar lined with massive 50-hectoliter barrels that are notable for not only their size but also their age, as most of them date back decades. Starting with healthy grapes from the vineyards, she vinifies them with little fuss, co-fermenting all varieties, and then ages the wine for 12 months before bottling. Her process exemplifies what’s great about Châteauneuf: if vineyards are managed well, everything else falls into place.

A New Approach to Viticulture

Many changes are evident in the vineyards today. Florent Lançon, the eighth generation of his family to run Domaine de la Solitude, is cultivating vineyards that are more diverse, with a range of crops and co-plantation of varieties. In one vineyard, Lançon tore out 10% of the rows and planted them with various plants, such as herbs, citrus trees, and even chili peppers.

“It’s good to have vineyard diversity to reduce temperatures and repair the organism,” he explains, “but I can’t lose all the productivity, so I’ve planted all these other things to start up a distillery where we’ll be making our own spirits.”

Lançon also has sheep in his vineyards. He explains, “They’re great to have in the vineyard until the vines bud, as they keep the vegetation down without the need for machinery passes, thus reducing the use of gasoline. The sheep get fed for free, and we get manure for free. It’s quite a good deal for everyone.”

Lançon is also a firm believer in the co-plantation of varieties. He’s intentionally mixed the plantings in the vineyards to alter the harvest and balance the crop, similarly to what Fabre—as well as many others these days—does at Le Vieux Donjon. These winemakers are embracing the field blend and the benefits of having so many different varieties to use in Châteauneuf. There are, however, those who co-ferment and those who, like Lançon, ferment each variety separately but still believe in cultivating diversity in their vineyards.

When I visited a new, small vineyard of Domaine la Barroche with Laetitia Barrot, she noted that it was planted to Counoise, rather than to a mix of varieties. Counoise is an extremely minor variety, with under 0.5% of the vineyard area. 

Why not Grenache, Mourvèdre, or one of the other stalwarts of the region? “We need the later ripening aspects of the Counoise,” Barrot explains. She continues, “For pure Grenache these days, we’re looking to the highest points in Châteauneuf.” These happen to be mostly along the north-facing plateau in the northwest that everyone is far prouder to show off, despite its lack of photogenic appeal, unless the distant Mount Ventoux has recently been dashed with snow.

All these aspects of Châteauneuf are pointing to its future, but most apparent was the one I learned of when visiting a new vineyard of Clos du Calvaire. There, the owner and winemaker Françoise Roumieux’s children, Nicolas and Coline, showed me something incredibly striking: a pear tree.

Few would consider the tree noteworthy, but Châteauneuf has always had monocultural vineyards. This is a common issue in many wine regions, but, in the South of France, the wine industry has realized that it is a major problem. As shown in the 2021 French documentary Vignes dans le rouge, having only vines in the vineyards is amplifying the extreme weather conditions of recent years. Vegetation, and specifically trees, stabilizes the biosphere of the vineyards and ultimately helps cool them. 

That was exactly the intention for this vineyard of Clos du Calvaire. The trees that were scattered about appeared foreign, out of place, seemingly a mistake, as a vineyard should theoretically be a yard of vines. But this is a new approach, and one that will likely become increasingly common.

Of course, there are detractors who say that the trees will have little impact, decrease yields, or cause uneven ripening. Another issue is that trees disrupt the mandated planting densities of vineyards for the appellation, but Nicolas told me that they’re working directly with the syndicate to legalize their use, as they seem to be an easy tool to confront the effects of climate change. Planting trees is notably less cost intensive than shifting to organic farming (practiced by many producers in Châteauneuf, such as Clos du Calvaire and Domaine la Barroche) or fully biodynamic practices, as at Domaine de la Solitude.

Looking Ahead

The recent developments in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are exciting for consumers and promising for the region. To contend with the core issues potentially arising from a high-alcohol grape, such as Grenache, winemakers are picking earlier (often two weeks earlier than just a decade ago) as well as producing it in a lighter and more delicate style. They’re also using techniques such as blending the grape with other varieties to achieve balance, and focusing on key locations that, though once climatically too cool, are now ideal to make their star wines.

A new, youthful generation has arrived at the family wineries in their 20s, full of energy to confront the challenges of winemaking today. They’re readily aware of the stark realities to come and are working to make their vineyards as future-proof as possible.

While temperatures continually flirt with 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) during the summer, winemakers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are hopeful that ongoing research will widen their options for adapting, and that the celebration in 2023 of their centennial marked the first of many to come.


You Might Also Like



Châteauneuf-du-Pape Wines (website). Accessed June 6, 2024.

Hudin, Miquel. “A review of ‘Vignes dans le rouge.’” June 26, 2021. Accessed June 6, 2024.

Karis, Harry. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book. Roermond, Netherlands: Kavino Book Publishing, 2009.

Truc, Georges. Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Histoire Géologique et Naissance des Terroirs. Syndicat des vignerons de l’appellation d’origine Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2022.

Parents Comment Children