Châteauneuf-du-Pape literally means “The Pope’s new castle,” and is a legacy of that brief period where the papacy was in Avignon. Viticulture that began way back in the 14th century lives on to this day. It’s amazing to think anyone back then considering planting anything at all in the seemingly barren soil, but I’m so glad they did. The wines of Southern Rhone were the first that made me say, “Wow, I’ve never had anything like that from California...” The gnarly old vines that crawl along river-rock covered earth are unlike the pastoral Napa Valley.
The wines of Southern Rhone are different from their cousins in the northern part of the valley (Hermitage, Cornas, St. Joseph, Cote Rotie, etc) which are typically made from Syrah (there are exceptions of course). In the South, Syrah is still a big part of the blends, but there are up to 13 varietals used, Grenache and Mourvedre being the most common. These blends are so wonderfully balanced, showing the fruit of Grenache, while being full of spice, mineral and all the herbs you can imagine in the surrounding landscape.
Châteuneuf is on the higher end of Southern Rhone wines, but even for high-end French wine it’s remarkably affordable. The most notorious Châteuneuf-du-Pape is Château Beaucastel, and those are pretty pricey, but we sell one made from vineyards literally a stones throw away from their famous neighbor for less than half the price at $34.95 (Domaine de Cristia) and it’s a 2010 which was about as good a vintage as there’s ever been in the Southern Rhone valley. A Châteuneuf will age very well, and most avid fans don’t find what they’re looking for until the wine is 7+ years old, but that 2010 vintage is drinking very well for such a young wine.
However, most folks don’t jump all in and drop $35 on a bottle of wine if it’s their first foray into a new region. If that is the case, I have just the alternative for you. In fact, don’t consider them alternatives, but experiences in their own right. Wines from Gigondas and Vacqueyras nearby can be just as expressive and retail starting at $19.95.
The larger region surrounding these AOC’s and comprising most of the Southern Rhone valley is Cotes du Rhone. A Cotes du Rhone is a terrific food wine, typically ready to drink right away and is a perfect entry into the flavors of Southern Rhone. Our best-selling wine is Domaine des Bachantes, a 2010 Cotes du Rhone, and because of that amazing vintage is drinking like a wine of much higher pedigree and it’s only $11.95. We also have very affordable Cotes du Rhone from Kermit Lynch and J.L. Chave, and I learned a long time ago to try anything with their name on it.