Home > Editorial > Châteauneuf-du-Pape and climate change


Published: 5th March 2024



Mark Pardoe MW, Wine Director

As the Southern Rhône gets ever warmer, Mark Pardoe MW explores how Châteaneuf-du-Pâpe withstands rising temperatures

The effects of climate change and global warming are subjects discussed at every tasting and meeting we have with our suppliers. Either in the context of how wines have been influenced by that year’s weather, or in what can be done to mitigate some of the current effects or likely challenges in five, ten or twenty years’ time. These conversations are almost always in regions where previously moderate or marginal conditions have been usurped by extremes of temperature or storms. But there are some regions where these challenges have been more mainstream for a much longer period.

An introduction


Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one such region. A large appellation covering 3,200 hectares and lying a little to the north of Avignon in the south of France, it is famed for its soils of galets roulés. These large pudding stones are renowned for their ability to reflect the day’s heat throughout the night – although in a climate that is already hot (average temperatures are at least 30 degrees throughout the summer and nowadays peaking at over 40 degrees), this benefit seems superfluous. However, the region’s soils are not homogenous, and vary between alluvial deposits in the commune of Sourges, close to the river Rhône, and pockets of sandy limestone in Courthézon towards east of the region.

The point is that Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a hot region, and always has been. In its prototype appellation laws, created in 1923, the minimum alcohol level required back then was a minimum of 12.5%, the highest in France, and chaptalisation was not permitted. Getting grapes ripe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape has never been an issue.

Where other regions are considering adaptations such as planting other grape varieties or more radical viticultural practise, like shading the vines with nets or using irrigation, the basic raw materials in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are already in place. During a long conversation on this subject with Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes, he pointed out that the grape varieties permitted for Châteauneuf-du-Pape are already adapted to a hot and dry climate, because of their long and historical use.

The greatness of Grenache


Grenache is the backbone of the region’s greatest wines and, in some cases and most famously at Château Rayas, it is the only grape variety used. Other than for a few trail-blazing cuvées, it is a minimum of 70% in almost all blends. Yet Grenache’s stamping ground extends well beyond and much further south than Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

It is grown throughout the Languedoc and with great success in Roussillon at higher altitude and in Sardinia as Cannonau. It is also widely grown in Spain where, known as Garnacha, it is responsible for the great wines of Priorat as well as being used in Rioja and Navarra. There are even old vine parcels surviving the scorching and dry summers around Madrid, typified by the extraordinary Pegaso wines of Telmo Rodriguez. Grenache is no stranger to heat, drought and adversity.

In Vincent Avril’s view, in Grenache Châteauneuf-du-Pape already has the perfect raw material for great wine from a hot climate. Its thin skins and natural low acidity mean that it must retain the freshness in its wine by other means. It is driven by its unique white pepper and red fruit notes and sweet, spicy textures which come to the fore on Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s best terroirs.

Safety in numbers


But there is also the famous matter of the region’s other twelve permitted grape varieties, including some white varieties. Enshrined early after the establishment of its appellation laws, many are now bit players and were likely permitted originally because of the local climatic challenges even a century ago. Most important now is probably Mourvèdre, which certainly needs warmth to fully ripen. There are a small number of Châteauneuf-du-Pape which feature the variety as a predominant component, mostly famously Château de Beaucastel’s Hommage à Jacques Perrin, or even as a mono-varietal, as made by Stéphane Usselgio. Counoise and Cinsault, both with some characteristics in common with Grenache, are also interesting options. The flexibility of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s laws mean that a changing blend across locally adapted varieties is also an option.

OThe weak link is probably Syrah which, whilst being adapted to warmer conditions, tends to contribute flavours than can be too jammy or rubbery, and is certainly better adapted to the granite slopes of the Northern Rhône. At forward-thinking Châteauneuf-du-Pape estates, Syrah is likely to play a less important role in the future.

Looking to the future


In Vincent Avril’s view, and it is one that is widely shared, the biggest future challenge for Châteauneuf-du-Pape will be drought. Since 2021, irrigation has been permitted and in the south of the region, the alluvial soils can be drenched by diverting some water from the Rhône. But young vines without established root systems are especially vulnerable and the key must be maintaining healthy and bio-diverse soils. Vincent has long had cover crops which help to reduce the ambient temperature by several degrees, he only tills his soils and introduces sheep to his vineyards in autumn and winter to trim and fertilise the vegetation.

In each wine region I have visited recently, 2022 seems to have been an exceptional year, with wines of freshness and character made everywhere, despite the conditions of drought and heat. The wines of both the Southern and Northern Rhône are no exception, despite the challenges being more amplified – not forgetting the tornado of hail that ran through Le Crau and deprived Vieux Télégraphe of any crop that year.

Of course, the higher temperatures of recent years are not sustainable if they continue to rise further. But in the case of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the answer appears to be to concentrate on existing strengths, and not to reinvent the wheel. Although it is not possible to predict how long it will last, and perhaps for the moment and as Vincent suggests, the region is enjoying a golden moment.