What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Champauvin Vineyard

Champauvins, covered with the famous galet, sits across a three-meter-wide path from Cheateauneuf

Updated to reflect the latest 94 pt 2016 Champauvins from Alain Jaume

As you may know, the name and fame of the Rhone Valley wine region called Chateauneuf du Pape dates from the 1300s when the Papacy temporarily moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon. The Popes built a summer palace north of Avignon on the crest of a big hill overlooking the Rhone Valley. Locals called it “the Pope’s New Castle” – Chateauneuf du Pape. As the Church spurred growth in the Rhone’s vineyards to meet its ceremonial and social needs, the name came to be applied to the better vineyards surrounding the hill.

Once the Pope returned to Rome, the name dropped out of use and the wines came to be known simply as “vin d’Avignon” until the Chateauneuf name was resurrected in the mid-1800s. The wines gradually gained respect within France until phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in the late 1800s.

In the early 20th Century, growers in the area realized that they couldn’t compete with the rapidly developing Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south for pure bulk wine production. Seeking to improve quality, in the early 1930s they banded together to resurrect the brand of Chateauneuf du Pape and establish rules for what wines could or could not use that label. Their approach ultimately became the basis for all France’s designated wine regions – the Appelation Controlee system. The rules specified maximum yields, minimum alcoholic strength (12.5%), and determined which grapes were of acceptable quality (a hard debate settled on a list of 13 varieties).

Mapmaking Gone Wrong
Cdp and Champauvins MapAnd they drew a map specifying which lands were allowable for Chateauneuf du Pape and which would be left out (and ultimately be labeled Cotes du Rhone).
To the south and west of the town of Chateauneuf, setting boundaries was easy. As the land sloped down towards the Rhone River, it eventually became too wet to support vineyards.

The eastern side was also easy, if not really based on vineyard character. The drafters simply followed the main road running from Avignon to Orange (now the A7 Autoroute) from the village of le Coulaire in the south and up to the end of the vineyards belonging to Chateau Beaucastel in the north. This sliced one of Beaucastel’s vineyards – called Coudoulet – in two, leaving half of the vineyard in and half out of Chateauneuf. Not entirely fair, but at least easy to explain.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery. The Jaume family farmed a collection of vineyards pretty much due west of Beaucastel and just under the Orange road. The vineyards have the same sub-soils and top-soils as Beaucastel, were covered by the rounded “galet” stones that are Chateauneuf’s hallmarks, and were planted to the same grapes. The logical thing to do would have been to simply continue to follow the road as it curved around to the west a little further and then allow the line to curve back down to the south to the river as the soils changed from red, iron rich gravel to more sand and limestone after the Jaume’s vineyards ended.

Instead, the drafters elected to abandon the Orange road just above Beaucastel and draw the boundary line down a narrow gravel path that ran right through the middle of the Jaume vineyards. The very fine vineyards planted in 1905 and still used for Grand Veneur Chateauneuf du Pape Les Origines plus another medium-sized vineyard became Chateauneuf. The 35 hectare Champauvins vineyard, identical in every way to the vineyards across the 10 foot wide path would be Cotes du Rhone.

Outstanding Wine the Best Revenge!
champauvin and galetIt’s hard to imagine how frustrated and upset the Jaume family must have been when they saw the new region’s map, and we know they protested and demanded explanations for years (but never got one). And, when you visit the Jaume’s at their modest winery just outside Chateauneuf, you get the sense that they still are not entirely over the injustice of making Champauvins somehow “less” than vineyards a few feet away.

Fortunately, under the leadership first of Alain Jaume and today of his sons, Sebastien and Christophe, the family’s Domaine Grand Veneur has decided that quality is its own revenge. They farm Champauvins like the Chateauneuf vines across the path, working mainly by hand (necessary with bush vines and gravel-covered soils) and using certified organic viticultural techniques. Yields are similar to their Chateauneuf vineyards, meaning the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes achieve fantastic ripeness without any excess of sugar or roasted, pruny flavors.

In the modern winery, the winemaking for Champauvins is “old school” all the way. Fermentations proceed slowly with gentle pump-overs to extract classic Rhone flavor and structure without adding any harsh tannins. Grenache (70% of the blend) ages in concrete tanks to help it retain color and fruit. Syrah and Mourvedre mellow in old oak casks, given them the tiny bit of air they need to round out without imparting any oak flavor.

The result is a wine chock-full of big, deep, aromas of kirsch, black cherry, crushed herb, wild lavender, black olive and dark chocolate flow from the glass. Those same notes flow across your palate in a rich, vibrant, wine that coats your mouth with flavor and leaves ripe, fine-grained, tannins lingering behind. If they wanted to, the Jaume family could give this the same heft and density that makes “true” Chateauneuf so cellar-worthy (if hard to enjoy young), but because it’s “only” Cotes du Rhone and cannot command Chateauneuf prices, they craft it to be open, supple, savory, and delicious right now.


Who is Xavier Vignon?

Xavier VignonIf you don’t already know the name Xavier Vignon, that’s because Xavier’s day job keeps him behind the scenes. Since completing studies in the art of winemaking and blending in Australia, Champagne and Bordeaux in the 1990s, Xavier’s consulting advice has been the “secret sauce” for more than 250 Rhone wineries, including Chateauneuf producers like La Nerthe, La Vieille Julienne, Beaurenard, La Mordorée, and more.

In 1999, he decided to try winemaking on his own, setting up shop in a small garage and asking his consulting clients to pay part of his fees with lots of wine he chose from their cellars. It was a just for fun experiment – until one of his friends (without telling Xavier) sent some bottles to France’s wine bible, Guide Hachette. All earned the Guide’s top rating and soon his phone was ringing off the hook!

Today, Xavier continues to consult and he continues to take part of his fees in the form of selected barrels of wines from clients’ cellars. Then, he blends those selections into glorious, rich, and nicely mineral wines. We have one on sale this week from $24.98 on a case, and it certainly displays Xavier’s talents. For this wine, Xavier blends fruit from Gigondas, a region of hillside limestone-covered vineyards that marries Rhone richness with unique levels of perfume, minerality, and power, with the great 2015 vintage, which Vinous says gave “monumental, soon-to-be-legendary” wines and “one of the most consistently excellent sets of Gigondas that I’ve ever had the chance to taste.”

xavier-vignon-gigondas_1.jpgBlend site and vintage and Xavier’s talent together, and you get a ripe, fleshy, and fruit-filled composition of 95% Grenache and 5% Mourvedre that explodes with rich plum, black raspberry and blueberry fruits framed by classic Gigondas accents of fresh violets, exotic spice and cracked black pepper. With its smooth and lightly mineral finish, this is a joy to drink right now. But there’s enough structure down under the fleshy fruit to reward five to seven years of cellaring if you prefer.

In short, Xavier Vignon Gigondas 2015 is a big, fat yum, and – at our $24.98 best in the USA case price, a 37% off must buy red for fall, winter, and beyond. Heck, our $27.98/ea bottle and $26.98/ea six-pack prices are the best in the USA, too. You really can’t go wrong here!

Finding Value in Sablet’s Soils in the Rhone


Sablet, France

Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac – the big names of France’s Southern Rhone region turn out some of the most exciting Grenache-based red wines in the world. But with growing fame comes growing prices, so value seekers need to get off the Rhone’s main wine path a bit and explore some of the Valley’s lesser-known villages, vineyards, and vigneron.

Which is why we were at the bi-annual Rhone Valley wine show in Avignon last March: looking for value. We found it in Ventoux, Vinsobre, Plan de Dieu and – in this case – in the slightly obscure Cotes du Rhone Village of Sablet.

The name refers to the village’s sandy soils (Sablet = Sand) dotted with patched of clay, a soil pattern shared with Gigondas which rises up just to the south of Sablet. As in Gigondas, Sablet’s soils drain water very, very, quickly, forcing vines to drive their roots deep into the earth in search of water and nutrients. It’s a touch warmer here than in Gigondas, giving more ripeness and supple textures but still showing better than average minerality and power.


Meeting Winemaker Pablo Hocht and the Avignon Rhone Show

Young Pablo Hocht, assistant winemaker at St. Cosme in Gigondas, has done a brilliant job of capturing and celebrating Sablet’s potential – if on a micro-scale! – in this luscious 2013 Cotes du Rhone Villages Sablet.

We’ve tasted a lot of Rhone reds made with less care and delivering much less pleasure but still somehow selling for $30+. The value in this satisfying, honest, and just plain delicious red is off the charts. Get some while you can.


Dom De Creve Coeur CdR Villages Sablet

Discovering Domaine Tix

Rhone Show at AvignonBack in March, Meg and I braved the gusty Mistrial winds to attend and taste several hundred wines at Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône, the bi-annual festival in Avignon featuring winemakers and wineries from across the Rhone Valley.

It was a delight to meet the energetic, slightly mischievous, Marie Pirsch and Philippe Danel of Domaine du Tix (Philippe will be at Chain Bridge Cellars on Saturday, Oct. 17!) – and tasting their wines one of the highlights of the show.

The level of style, polish, and sophisticated fun we found in each of their wines is unusual for Cotes du Ventoux, and that’s undoubtedly due to the estate’s charming owners. Marie and Philippe came to Domaine Tix in 2001 looking for a retirement home after successful careers in the fashion industry. They found about 10 acres of table grapes planted, a decrepit house, and soils and a microclimate so perfect for making authentic, delicious, Provençal wine that they couldn’t resist!

Dom Tix at Rhone Show

Philippe Danel will pour at Chain Bridge Cellars on Saturday, 12-4

After first grafting the table grapes over to wine varietals – all traditional grapes for the Ventoux area – Marie and Philippe gradually expanded their plantings, today farming about 20 acres in total. In 2006, they expanded their staff by one-third – hiring their nephew Vincent to take charge of the vineyards. When their brand-new, pocket-sized, winery opened in 2008, production reached today’s levels – a whopping 3,000 cases per year.

On the Slopes of Mount Ventoux
Domaine Tix’s vineyards are about 18 miles due east from Chateauneuf du Pape about 300 meters up on the western slopes of Mount Ventoux, the tallest mountain in this part of France (reaching nearly 2,000 meters at its peak). As in the rest of the Southern Rhone, there’s plenty of sunshine, which should make ripening Rhone grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan a snap.

Dom Du Tix Ventoux GarrigueBut ripeness in the shadow of Mount Ventoux is anything but certain. The elevation brings down temperatures a bit, but the real challenge is the cold air that flows down the mountainsides every night. The alternating warm days and cool nights help wine grapes retain bright acids and firm structures, but mean they need to be farmed carefully at low yields and with plenty of vineyard work in order to get ripe fruit flavors and supple tannins.

Marie, Philippe, and nephew Vincent clearly take the time to do the hard work needed to get fine grapes into the winery and then allow them to transform themselves into excellent wines. Even better, each wine is clearly infused with both classic southern Rhone character and a touch of playful style. These are wines that impress on first meeting and improve with longer acquaintance. All are very nicely priced, too, as they were brought to the USA just for us. I recommend them very, very highly!

Roaming the Rhone With Philippe Plantevin

5.9.13 038As much fun as classes that feature ‘special,’ high-end wines are, ones like last Thursday’s evening with Philippe Plantevin can be even more fun.  Why?  Because they offer you a chance to stock up on the kind of wine you can pull out on a Wednesday night guilt-free, or open several bottles of at a dinner party without wincing.

Even better is the fact that Philippe’s wines offer so much character, flavor, and concentration despite their modest prices.  Many of those who attended last week took advantage of this special evening and stocked their cellars, and luckily we have enough of most of what we served to let you do the same.

We started the evening the way we think every evening from about April 15 through September should start: with rose!  Though Philppe Plantevin’s wines have been staples in the store for many years, the rose was new to everyone, and now it’s definitely being added to the ‘buy every year’ list.  Just slightly fuller than a Provencal rose, but  not quite as rich as a Tavel, it sits in a perfect, balanced middle ground.

Then it was onto the 2011 Cotes du Rhone Blanc, this year with even more Viognier character, but still plenty of snap on the finish.  This wine is remarkable not only for its delicious tropical fruit flavors now, but because it ages amazingly considering its modest price point.

We tried two vintages side by side of the juicy, entry-level Cotes-du-Rhone – first the 2009, then the 2010.  The 2009 had really benefitted from its time in bottle, but the 2010 showed plenty of concentration and potential – since there isn’t much of the 2009, it’s a good time to stock up on the 2010!

The 2009 Visan was a real surprise for its concentration and savory depth.  Visan is a part of the southern Rhone that we don’t often see bottled on its own in the US.  Because of its higher elevation, it usually goes into blends.  So, Philippe is especially proud of this bottling, and we could taste why!

5.9.13 035

Next we tasted two older wines side by side.  First was the 2007 La Daurelle, the only wine from the estate that sees any time in barrel.  Reminiscent of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but at a fraction of the cost, it’s a wonderful example of a mature southern Rhone blend.  The 2006 Cairanne, though it doesn’t see any oak at all, was extremely impressive for its briny, savory, mineral depth.

Thanks to Olivier Daubresse of Vinifrance Imports, and most of all to Philippe Plantevin for a wonderful, fun, educational evening of delicious wines.

What We’re Tasting – A Baby Rhone and White (yes, white!) Pinot Noir

White Pinot Noir?  We thought it sounded crazy too, but then we tasted it.  Gugiarlo’s Pinot Nero Bianco from the tiny Oltrepo Pavese region in Lombardy really does smell like Pinot Noir in the glass, but lighter and brighter.  Ripe pear aromas come out first, followed by the aroma of really fresh apple cider.  On the palate it’s got nice richness, but finishes clean.  This is the perfect fall white – we spent several minutes talking about what we’d pair with it, from pork to butternut squash to salmon.  Delicious!

“Good wine needs time” is one of those cliches that exists for a reason, but sometimes the exuberance of a young, fresh wine is really appealing, too.  When we first tasted the new vintage of the Pigeoulet en Provence from Kermit Lynch importers, the product of a partnership between them and Daniel Brunier of Vieux Telegraphe, there was a simultaneous ‘woah!’  The aromas of ripe, just-picked berries almost knocks you over as soon as you put your nose in the glass – but in  good way!  Doug commented that it almost smells like it’s still fermenting.  On the palate it’s juicy and full, with bright, pleasing acidity.

While stately, mature wines have their place, sometimes a big mouthful of fruit is just the thing.  Perfect for grilled sausages or a big, thick sandwich piled with charcuterie.