The wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Words & Pix: Stephanie Yuen

To the casual wine-drinkers, the flavour and texture of the wine in the bottle are the allure. But for the producers, the terroir of the wine region is only the beginning. Truly so when talking about the vineyards and wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

An ancient, quaint village nests near Rhone River between Avignon and Orange, Chateauneuf was made famous by Pope John XII who lived in a beautiful castle he built in the early 14th century. A wine lover himself, Pope John XII made sure the area was enriched with olive trees and rightfully so, grapevines, thus the name "Vin Du Pape" referring to the wines of the area proudly surfaced.  Sadly, the demise of Pope John XII brought forward the abandance of both the castle and grape wine, followed by dark eras filled with havocs and turmoils.

As the area went through much obliteration, natural and man-made disasters, and changes brough upon by religous rulers and historic events, the town officially became "Chateauneuf-du-Pape" in 1893. The coming and going of Popes and political leaders throughout the centuries backboned the erection of a number of castles and palaces, yet wars and calamity destroyed the structures of many. Vin Du Pape, none-the-less, was the non-erasable evidence of significant grapevine growing and wine-making of Chateauneuf. The vital seeds sown long ago to make what Chateauneuf-du -Pape's noticeable wines of today.  As rich as its history, the wine-making chapters of Chateauneuf-du-Pape tell the stories of its people and its land.

Chateaunefu-du-Pape lies in the Southern Rhone area, occupying over 1700 hacters of the appellation.  Identified by four major types of soils: Marl (sand and clay mix), limestone, sand and clay, I saw massive vineyards covered with all sizes and shapes of pebbles and limestones; some white, some grey, some brown and some milky-yellow. Geological formation brought in soil diversity and the distinct characteristics of the grapes and the wines, though time and labour-intense vineyard management is forever a reality. I could only imagine the extra effort required to manuever on them when tending the vines and during harvesting.

Red wine production is a whopping 95% of the total volume, grenache is the dominating grape varietals (74.5%), followed by syrah, mourvedre and cinsault combined to occupy around 20% of the vineyard. Counoise, muscardin, vaccarese and terret are the remaining 5%reds. There are only 5% of white wine production, the varietals are grenache white, clairette, roussanne, bourboulenc, picpoul and an insigficant percentage of picardan.  

Aged in vault-like concrete tanks, oak vats and/or temperature-controlled steel tanks, Chateau-du-Pape reds, often a blend with grenache as the core, are known to be dark, forward, layered with fineness. These rich, layered wines are great pairing partners to Asian hot-pot fares such as 5-spiced Braised Beef Shank (Taiwan), Humba-style Pork Belly (Filipino) and Curry Duck (Thailand); as well as succulent dishes Nanjin's signature Smoked Duck (China), Spiced Teriyaki Chicken (Japan) and my very own favourite Oxtail braised in Hoisin, Coffee and Red-wine jus (East meets West). For those looking for candidates to fill up their wine cellers, there are plenty selections of great aging wines.

The whites go through a slower fermentation period at a lower temperature either in steel vats or oak barrels and a 3 to 6 months aging time. Fruity, round and smooth, some of them charmingly aromatic, are perfect for consumption an within 4 to 6 years most of the time. However, exceptional whites, depending on the varietals, can be kept for few years longer. Aromatic and perfectly chilled whites are made for sipping under the caressing sun, perhaps with a plate of cheese and cured meat.  It's crispiness, however, cuts through pan-seared foie gras with a whistle. There is always a spot for these fruity and round whites on Asian tables. Sip them with Honey-garlic ribs, sliced barbequed pork and wok-fried meat dishes; or even with a bowl of Tan Tan noodle or strands of Pad Thai.