Of all the places I could’ve gone wine tasting, I ended up in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. One of the most prestigious names in the oenology world! Go big or go home. Mind you — at the time, I knew next to nothing about wine aside from the fact that I enjoyed drinking it.
I happened to be in Chateauneuf-du-Pape just in time for harvest season but it wasn’t planned at all. I simply wanted to sample a few rosés, take my favourites home and cross off the “French vineyard experience” off my bucket list. And boy, did I just do that!
I visited a vineyard called Domaine de Beaurenard, just outside the main street of the village.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape: a Bit of History
The whole region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was developed during the 14th century when the former Archbishop of Bordeaux, Pope Clement V, boldly relocated the papacy to the nearby town of Avignon and had his papal palace built there. Overwhelmed by the quality of the soil in and around Châteauneuf-du-Pape, he largely contributed to the development of local vintages, as did his successor Pope John XXII — and there have been wineries in the area ever since.
Domaine de Beaurenard, more specifically, was established in the 16th century and has been passed on from one generation of Coulon to the next ever since. Even today, it still very much is a family-run business.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Visiting a Winery
The first step in any wine tasting experience is to actually visit the different rooms of the winery, from the showroom to the cellars. Daniel Coulon, the owner, showed me around the property explaining the purposes, challenges and function of each chamber we passed by. Running a winery, a successful one at that, is no small feat and the amount of work involved is quite tremendous. Having been in the business his entire life — much like a dozen generations of men before him — Daniel knew everything there is to know about wine like the back of his hand and was instrumental in helping me understand the delicate, complex world of vignerons.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of France’s 300 appellation d’origine contrôlée wines, an AOC, precisely like Bordeaux and Camembert — a French certification reserved for goods created under a strict set of rules in specific areas of France; this is why only the Champagne produced in the region of Champagne can claim to be called as such.
The reason Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are so special and so carefully looked after is that they use thirteen different varieties of grapes in different proportions from one winery to the next. They also benefit from a unique soil covered with a layer of pebble stones that retain the sun’s intense Provence heat during daytime and slowly release it at nighttime, thus hastening the ripening of grapes. This, as I soon found out, is quite unique to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Since I serendipitously timed my visit with harvest season, I actually got to see workers in the initial stages of wine-making as they hand-picked grape clusters from the sun-drenched vines of the entirely biodynamic, organic Beaurenard vineyard and placed in vats where they will ferment. This is a busy season for wineries across Europe and only a handful will be open to the public; best to plan accordingly.
Wine Tasting 101
I visited Châteauneuf-du-Pape back in 2011 and I knew next to nothing about wine at the time, aside from the fact that I immensely enjoyed drinking it. Admittedly, I was a little ashamed by my lack of experience when Daniel asked me if I knew how to properly sample wine during the post-visit tasting session but he graciously, and quite passionately, offered to show me the basics. I was the only one there and he seemed to have quite a bit of time on his hands that day, so I happily obliged.
Here’s what a lifelong wine-maker from prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape taught me about wine tasting:
- Colour: Is the wine translucent or opaque, bright red or purplish, yellow or greenish? The colour and clarity will tell a lot about the wine’s age. The more orange (reds) or the darker yellow (white), the older it is, for example.
- Swirl: Swirl the wine gently and take a first quick whiff. That’s when the bouquet is revealed, which will hint at the principal aromas in the wine.
- Smell: Sticking the nose deep into the glass, this is the second sniff, and normally where the underlying flavours come out.
- Taste: This part is a bit tricky — take a small sip but before you start analysing or worse swallowing it, keep your mouth just a tiny bit open so that you can breathe in and oxygenate the wine to fully enjoy its taste.
- Savour: The other name for this step is aftertaste and is quite self-explanatory. Does the wine taste the same as what you smelled during the swirling step? Does the taste remain on the back of your tongue or is it short-lived?
Now I feel a little bit more snob (or intelligent, it depends on how you see it). I’ll try not to over-use the word bouquet in the future, and not be THAT person who only drinks expensive wines during parties.