To Chateauneuf-du-Pape: Stop Bickering!
By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor
Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhone is a pretty magical place. It's one of the largest appellations in France, about the size of St.-Emilion. But why don't we hear more about it? Think about it--when was the last time you had a bottle of Chateauneuf, let alone a great one?
I just came back from the Southern Rhone. It's quite a sight when you drive past Chateauneuf's low-yielding, severely pruned, old-vine vineyards. The vines thrive in a ground blanketed by large pebbles. You just know that this area must produce stunning wine. But it doesn't always. In fact, I sometimes wonder if Chateauneuf is asleep. The question pops into my mind especially when I taste some of the exciting wines coming out of neighboring Gigondas.
Now, I understand. It's a matter of men, not vineyards. You see, Chateauneuf-du-Pape has all the advantages on its side--sun, strict rules, terroir--to make fine wines. But local feuds among winemakers have caused some harm to the appellation.
"In Chateauneuf they lack a super will to make quality, and it is linked to the war between the syndicats, the trade organizations," says well-known Northern Rhone winemaker Marcel Guigal of E. Guigal and Chateau d'Ampuis. "They are too busy killing each other. It's always bad when there is a war. For people to do better you need an atmosphere of emulation. But when you fight, you're drained."
Of course, Chateauneuf isn't the only appellation in France where fiercely independent growers have formed spirited organizations that oppose each other. But Chateauneuf-du-Pape is an export-oriented appellation, which ships abroad about two-thirds of its yearly production of 1.1 million cases. (The United States alone imports over 220,000 cases of Chateauneuf wines.) Chateauneuf is a name that's gained household status among wine lovers all over the globe, much as Chablis, Champagne and Margaux have done. It's a pity, then, that this appellation doesn't live up to its full potential.
"I certainly agree that the appellation disappoints," says Jean Abeille of Chateau Mont-Redon, one of the largest estates in Chateauneuf, with nearly 300 acres of vines. "Chateauneuf isn't taking advantage of its resources and doing all it can with what it has."
The schism between winemakers doesn't help. On the one side is a group, known as Syndicat Local, representing the wineries within the boundaries of Chateauneuf. On the other side, the Intercommunal Syndicat represents the estates located in the outlying communes: Orange, Courthezon, Bedarrides and Sorgues.
For years, the appellation has been the scene of a power struggle between these two groups. "In Chateauneuf the people are fundamentally fighters and rebels," says Pascal Goyard, director of a group that helps coordinate tasks between the two warring syndicats. "Winemakers here are not fundamentally in disagreement, but they still have interminable quarrels."
Bruno Le Roy of Chateau Fortia is president of the Chateauneuf group. "People here are peeved at others over issues that are passed on from grandfather to grandson," he explains.
So, much of the feud is about power, not winemaking and other specific issues related to the quality of the wines. And this makes the situation even more annoying, at least from a consumer's perspective, because you wish the winemakers would attend to business, not politics, so they could make the best possible wines.
"Disagreement of this sort is never good," says Abeille, Mont-Redon's co-owner and a leader of the Intercommunal Syndicat. He wants a united Chateauneuf speaking and acting decisively together.
With the winemakers unable to agree, it should come as no surprise that much work in the appellation is now blocked. For instance, the two groups can't agree on how to promote the appellation, and they haven't approved a budget for promotional work, which has come to a standstill. No wonder we don't hear much about Chateauneuf.
Although they do agree on some ad hoc events, including one to be held soon in New York, much time and energy are wasted to get the appellation's factions to make a common decision.
Most wine-growing regions have their share of politics, but the difficult atmosphere in Chateauneuf-du-Pape may explain why the region is underperforming. To be sure, the appellation houses a handful of great estates. But tastings reveal uneven quality. You could say the same for other regions, including top communes in Burgundy, so why do so many people, this writer included, feel more disappointed by Chateauneuf?
The answer is simple. The place has given itself the most draconian regulations of any place in France, as Guigal points out. So you just expect the best to come out of it, and when that doesn't happen you feel let down.
Not only are the permissible yields--at 35 hectoliters per hectare for all red and white grapes, or 2.6 tons of grapes per acre--much lower than the legal limits elsewhere, but consider the following:
1. Producers must, by law, harvest by hand--machines are prohibited.
2. The harvest must be transported in relatively small boxes, containing no more than 50 kilos of grapes.
3. The wineries must eliminate a minimum 5 percent of their crop, guaranteeing that the top wines are made from the healthiest grapes.
4. The grapes can be harvested only when they have obtained a minimum natural alcohol content of 12.5 percent, guaranteeing that the wines are rich and ripe.
Add to this list the old-vine vineyards typical for the appellation--it's not unusual for estates such as Chateau Fortia in Chateauneuf-du-Pape to have vineyards with an average age of 40 years--and you expect super quality coming out of this area.
Certainly the top estates are making opulent, distinctive, generous and seductive reds. The leading wineries include Chateau de Beaucastel, Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe, Domaine de Villeneuve--its 1995 Vieilles Vignes is fantastic--and chateaus Rayas, Mont-Redon and Fortia--look for its smooth 1995 Tete de Cru, made with the help of enologist Jean-Luc Colombo.
But it's one thing to find a handful of great wineries. Another gauge of a region's overall quality is the bulk wines, and in Chateauneuf this is more important than elsewhere. As much as 50 percent of the area's wines are sold in bulk by wineries that make the wine but don't bottle it.
Prices for bulk wine have quadrupled since 1990, partly because Bordeaux prices have gotten out of sight and buyers are falling back on alternatives.
But the high prices have a corrupting influence, some suggest. "The vignerons feel they don't have to work hard or hassle when the wines sell so well anyway," says Mont-Redon's Abeille. "We're only 30 or so domaines that do top work, and we can't pull the others. I'll tell you why--the situation is too easy. When you get 9,000 francs for a 225-liter barrel, nobody is motivated to improve."
Guigal knows firsthand about this problem. He runs a large negociant business that produces wine from all over the sprawling Rhone Valley. Finding good wine in Chateauneuf is a challenge, he says.
In our Wine Spectator blind tastings we've found Guigal's Gigondas, also a negociant bottling, better than the one from Chateauneuf. For instance, we rated the 1994 E. Guigal Chateauneuf-du-Pape 72 points on the 100-point scale, or "average," while scoring its 1994 Gigondas 87 points, or "very good." Normally, we'd expect a Chateauneuf to be better considering the reputations of the two areas. Gigondas was upgraded to cru level from just a Cotes du Rhone-Villages in 1971, 35 years after Chateauneuf became an AOC.
The dynamism of the underdog Gigondas appellation isn't lost on the feuding denizens of Chateauneuf. "It's harder for an appellation to stay at the top than it is for one like Gigondas that starts much lower," says Goyard.
The lack of unity makes it impossible for the appellation to take decisive action about improving quality across the board. "Some estates are moving forward while others suffer from immobilism," says Abeille.
Good work is rarely achieved when an appellation is torn by animosity among its producers. Such circumstances chill personal relations and the free flow of information between the winemakers. What has made Napa Valley such a hotbed of innovation and progress are, among other factors, the openness, friendliness and collegial approach of its winemakers.
The same can be said about the new generation of Burgundians. Aged 30 to 45, they are now establishing themselves at the helms of their family domaines as their parents retire. And they come with a different mind set than their elders, who rarely left their villages or their cellars to exchange information with colleagues. The younger generation travels, tastes widely with other winemakers, experiments, remains open to new ideas.
But in Chateauneuf, says Abeille, "it's not pleasant for the young generation."
A few days ago, Guigal traveled to Chateauneuf, where he is hugely respected on both sides of the political fence. "I told them, 'you must build the future and have an appellation that's prosperous and united. There shouldn't be all these personal problems.' They seemed to understand. They are neither shortsighted nor stupid, so I believe it will all change in the good sense."
Let's hope he's right and that we will see an explosion of great Chateauneufs from all corners of the appellation in the near future.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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