Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a historic village between the towns of Orange and Avignon, in France's southern Rhône Valley. It is famous for powerful, full-bodied red wines made predominantly from the classic southern Rhône grape trio: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. These three varieties are behind the vast majority of the appellation's red wines, although a total of eighteen are approved for use – a mix of red and white grape varieties.
Grenache is king in the vineyards here. It is used in every Châteauneuf red to some extent, and many are made entirely from it. The variety performs better here than in any other French region, and contributes juicy, jammy red-fruit flavours and high potential alcohol. After Grenache, the next most important varieties are Syrah and Mourvèdre. Syrah grows most successfully in the town's cooler sites, and brings structure and spiced black-fruit notes to the blend. Late-ripening, sun-loving Mourvèdre flourishes only in the hotter, drier vineyards, and adds dark depths and bitter-chocolate notes.
Counoise is the only other red-wine variety to be grown here in any significant quantity. The others – Cinsaut, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir – are planted only in small quantities.
The vineyards here also produce white Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, which are tangy, weighty and intensely perfumed. These are made from a number of rustic southern French varieties, most importantly Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette and Bourboulenc, but also a few which are entirely unknown outside southern France (Clairette Rosé, Grenache Gris, Picardin, Picpoul Blanc, Picpoul Gris).
The soils around Chateauneuf-du-Pape are pebbly and sandy, as is common in the southern half of the Rhône Valley. They are formed mostly of ancient riverbeds of various ages (the town and its vineyards are located just to the east of the Rhône river). The archetypal Châteauneuf vineyard is strewn with large pebbles known as galets, whose soft, rounded form stands in direct contrast to the gnarly, twisted vine trunks.
The climate here is Mediterranean and very dry (Châteauneuf-du-Pape is technically the driest of all Rhône appellations), which makes it all the more significant that arrosage (irrigation or watering) is strictly forbidden during the growing season. In extreme cases, the wineries must apply for special permission from the French government to water their vines.
The name Châteauneuf-du-Pape means "new castle of the Pope", and harks back to the early 14th Century, when Avignon was chosen as the new home for the Pope's court. The incumbent Pope at that time was Clement V, whose name also features in the ancient and prestigious Château Pape Clément in Graves. The town's name may be drenched in history, but as a wine title it has been prestigious for less than a century. Up until the early 20th century, the town's wines were anonymously grouped together with others from the Avignon area. This all changed in the 1920s, when Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié (owner of Château Fortia) drafted a set of quality-focused production conditions for the town's wines – a document which became the precursor of France's famous appellation system. The official Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation title declared in June 1929 was one of the country's very first, and remains one of the most prestigious even today.
Curiously, the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself is also famous for a municipal decree added in the 1950s that bans flying saucers from taking off, landing, or flying over the vineyards.