The Southern Rhone: Châteauneuf-du-Pape
From Avignon, where we were staying, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is only a 20 minute drive. Even though this wasn't supposed to be a wine holiday, how could we be so close to such a well known wine town and not visit it? Driving towards the town through the vineyards our first impressions were that the Southern Rhone is actually very different from the Northern Rhone: not only is the climate much warmer, but it also has a more rustic feel. The vineyards themselves have a very different appearance, most obviously the fact that they are flat. In addition, the gnarled old bush vines are not trellised, but hug the pebble-strewn ground.
As a town, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is exactly how you would expect it to be: with its slightly-too-quaint stone buildings and narrow streets (left), it is a charming and noticeably affluent place, almost completely given over to wine tourism. We began by visiting the interesting wine museum at Pere Anselme (admission free), which is a good place to start.
From the hilltop castle, as far as the eye can see the town is surrounded by sun-soaked vineyards. It is a nice place to visit, but not a particularly good place to stock up on wine: cheap Châteauneuf-du-Pape simply doesn't exist, and many of the good producers are located out of town and can only be visited by appointment. In the town itself, there is an awful lot of plonk being peddled for high prices, and of the 70 or so producers, only a handful make really compelling wines. We visited a couple of caves, and without naming any names, in one we were received rather disinterestedly, in the other positively rudely.
We spent some time cruising through the vineyards that encircle the town. A characteristic feature of these is that the top layer of soil consists of a layer of large, smooth pebbles. These apparently retain the daytime heat and during the evening and night reflect it back to the vines, thus helping to ripen the fruit. The grapes are certainly ripe enough for the wines to reach alcohol levels of 14 to 15%, but despite this, many examples I tasted had a thin, dilute texture. Red Châteauneuf can contain up to 15 grape varieties, among which the most important are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, so in the hands of a conscientious grower good results are achieved, but the majority of wines you'll encounter here won't justify the high asking prices.
Despite the rather negative impression I've given here of the wines, we really did enjoy visiting the town and its surrounding vineyards, and all in all it is well worth seeing.