If you asked a hundred wine lovers to list their favourite French white wines, Chardonnay from Burgundy would probably top the list. After that Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc from the Loire have strong followings, as do Alsace Riesling, Bordeaux blends and Hermitage whites. Then there are the niche grapes like Savagnin, Aligoté and Gewurztraminer. How far down the list would you have to go to find Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc? Ninety-five percent of the region’s production is red. Many of us may not even know that they make white wine, but they do. And because these rarities are prized for their fresh, rich fruit they sell out quickly.
Nobody I spoke to seemed to know how these wines age, so I decided to find out for myself. In October, I visited seven producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape white wine. After tasting the newest vintages, I asked my hosts to dig up something at least 10 years old and, with eight dusty and possibly magical bottles, I returned home to conduct blind tastings in order to see what the wines had become.
Since I had never tasted old white wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape before, I asked the producers what to expect. Jean-Marie Royer provided an overview of the region’s four main grapes. ‘Bourboulenc is very acidic and lower alcohol,’ he said while we were tasting the 2022 from the tank. ‘Grenache is higher in alcohol and more full-bodied. Roussanne as well. Clairette has more acidity and is floral. A lot of flavours. So, you can imagine your white with this blend.’
Domaine Chante Cigale’s Cuvée Tradition has a similar varietal breakdown, and sales manager Jimmy Audouard explained its evolution: ‘I think the Roussanne plays a bigger part after a few years. With our whites you usually see three different phases. The fruit phase in the first three or four years with freshness and balance. After five or six it’s a bit closed and the nose is less interesting. You don’t know what is happening. Is the wine dead? After six years it usually reopens to jammy fruit, more honey. Not sugary or sweet but a completely different, richer, balanced wine that is creamy and has a lower level of acidity.’
Though it remains a special grape, Roussanne’s position is threatened in part by climate change. ‘The vine growers who don’t have any Roussanne don’t plant it,’ said oenologist Frédéric Maillet, whose wife’s family owns Château Jas de Bressy and Château des Fines Roches, two of the participating wineries. ‘When you have some Roussanne, you know that from one year to another the production can be very, very different. Two drops of rain and it is afraid. Some of the workers call it white Syrah. Not easy to ferment. In the winemaking it’s always oxidation, reduction, oxidation, reduction. Sometimes if the [service] temperature is too low, you think it’s reduction. But we have Roussanne and we like it.’
Patrice Magni is the only producer I visited who makes a single varietal wine from this finicky grape, and he does it in new oak, though his oldest available bottle was a 2016. Roussanne can make growers nervous, he said, because the grapes achieve full maturity so quickly. ‘You have to be on your guard always. One minute it could have a plastic green colour, then with a weekend of sunshine and the Mistral it will become bronze.’
Château de Vaudieu’s Laurent Brechet is also a fan of this precocious grape which ‘can burn quickly in the sun. But when it doesn’t, it’s just like magic!’
At Domaine du Pégau, owner Laurence Féraud’s Austrian cellarmaster, Andreas Lenzenwöger, has been focussing on increasing acidity through biodynamic viticulture and, most recently, leaf-cover experiments. In their Cuvée Réservée – the wine chosen for our blind tasting – they let Clairette play the lead. ‘When we drink a Châteauneuf-du-Pape we need power,’ admits Laurence, ‘but that doesn’t mean high alcohol or heaviness. It means something round and big in the mouth with fresh acidity from Clairette.’
Grenache Blanc is considered the region’s white king, though, in the words of Louis de St Salvy, the cellarmaster at Château de Nalys, ‘he’s a very complicated king’ who likes warmth and can go without much water, but when alcohol soars he sometimes loses his balance.
As I walked through Jas de Bressy’s vineyards with Frédéric Maillet, he drew my attention to a few bunches of Grenache missed by the harvesters. ‘There are more tannins in the skins of the Grenache here than in Fines Roches’ he said. ‘When it’s turning grey you have more tannins; and when it’s young the fruit can be a little harsh. But as it is ageing the tannins are interesting. That’s why in the Jas de Bressy blend we use 50% oak.’
Château de Vaudieu’s Clos du Belvédère cuvée is the appellation’s only single-varietal Grenache. ‘It’s not easy to make,’ said Laurent Brechet. ‘One-third new oak, one-third barrels that are one or two years old, and one-third fermented in the tank. We have found a good balance between the three. We keep the fruit in the tank and add some complexity with the barrels.’ The challenge with Grenache is to pick at just the right time. Growers want to keep acidity but they also know they must wait for the requisite maturity to give the wine structure while avoiding oxidation.
Armed with all of this inside information, and having tasted the young white wines at the source, I had high hopes for success in the blind tasting. Here is the wine list, from oldest to youngest.
1 Château de Vaudieu Clos de Belvédère 2007
2 Château Jas de Bressy 2008
3 Domaine de Nalys Eicelenci 2009
4 Domaine Jean Royer Blanc 2011
5 Domaine du Pégau Cuvée Réservée 2012
6 Château des Fines Roches 2012
7 Domaine Chante Cigale Tradition 2013
8 Domaine Patrice Magni Cuvée Roussanne 2016
‘If I get a couple of the wines wrong,’ I told my wife, who assisted me in the tasting, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow and taste the wines in the same order. But don’t tell me which bottles I get right or wrong. Just tell me how many answers are correct.’
The number was two.
To lift my spirits, she served two of the other wines blind at dinner. Tasting slowly, with a little more in the glass, I was able to identify both correctly, so I approached the second blind tasting with confidence.
‘Again, you got two right,’ my wife sighed, ‘but they’re different from yesterday’s correct answers.’
‘What? Did you change the order of the bottles?’
Domestic trouble was brewing. That evening she selected two more wines to serve with dinner and, once again, tasting slowly, I got them right. Progress! On day three I conducted the final tasting and submitted my answers. Then I watched in disbelief as the bottles were brought to the table without sleeves. The only one I had correctly identified was Domaine du Pégau Cuvée Réservée 2012. With 60 percent Clairette, this trim, dry wine was clearly different, but how had I missed all of the others? What was wrong with my palate?
One conclusion is that varietal hunting may not have been the best way of identifying these wines. Three had marked minerality, but once the sleeves were removed, I discovered that one contained four varietals; another was mostly Roussanne; and the third, nothing but Grenache. Perhaps after 10 years the grapes take a backseat to terroir. I was also surprised to find that some of the younger wines were darker than the older ones, with more evolved flavours.
As taste is personal, it is difficult to say which wines were best, but the fresh, structured Domaine (now known as Château) de Nalys 2009, with its delectable ripe pear nose, was one of three favourites. Château de Vaudieu 2007 and Domaine Chante Cigale 2013 were the others. The Vaudieu wine opened with an aroma like thyme dipped in honey and it had unmatched palate complexity. Throughout the blind tastings, I was convinced that it must be a younger wine because it was so full of life. Conversely, the amber hue of Chante Cigale made me think it was an older Roussanne-dominated wine, and not something made from four different grape varieties. No matter. This wine was seductively floral with succulent fruit and perfect weight. Another wine that was more difficult to recognize than expected was Domaine Patrice Magni Cuvée Roussanne 2016. Although it did have a honeyed profile and a bitter, oaky finish, there was much more to it than that. Emerging petrol on day two made me turn in the direction of Grenache and become completely lost. On the other hand, I was sure that the full-bodied Château Jas de Bressy 2008, with notes of prunes and pecans and evident oak, was in fact Patrice Magni when they were separated in age by eight years.
And then there was Château des Fines Roches 2012, a wine that I had tasted at the cellar door and discussed at length with Frédéric. When I compared the two sets of tasting notes, the ones written at home suggested an older, richer wine than the fresh, linear one in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Perhaps over time the evolutionary paths followed by two bottles from the same vintage can diverge? Finally, Domaine Jean Royer 2011 showed more purity and precision than I had expected from a blend. All of the wines seemed to have crossed varietal boundaries in developing intriguing complexities while maintaining freshness and structure.
There have also been important changes in the way some of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape white wines are made, so the profile of the new vintages may not reflect standard practice a decade ago. The trend today is to extract less, with some oak barrels replaced by concrete eggs to give the wine a round mouthfeel without additional weight.
On my list of favourite French white wines, Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s name would be right near the top. In a word, these wines are beguiling. When I asked Louis de St Salvy how he thought they age, he compared them to Burgundian whites. ‘Both can be a gamble,’ he said. ‘Sometimes burgundy doesn’t go that far but they have an advantage with Chardonnay. It is a powerful grape with natural acidity that can age quite well. Here, I think single Roussanne can do it. Single Grenache too, but it’s very sensitive. And with the blends I think you can have good combinations and some very nice surprises.’
I can certainly vouch for the surprises. If you’re planning a holiday dinner, I can’t think of many wines – aside from champagne – that give as much pleasure as a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc… provided it isn’t served blind. A recent vintage paired with oysters and scallops will get any dinner off to a good start, and an older one, with an aged Comté cheese, should make the perfect ending. Happy holidays!
Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in France in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.