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Heady Times, Heady Wines: Climate Change and the Enduring Appeal of Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape
By Panos Kakaviatos
Jun 25, 2019
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A joyful ceremony earlier this month to induct new ambassadors to the official fraternity of Châteauneuf-du-Pape -- the Eschansonnerie des Papes -- ended with soulful singing in the local Occitan dialect.

Participants gathered in a restored cellar section of the ancient Châteauneuf-du-Pape castle to enjoy opulent reds from the famous southern Rhône wine region, served Middle Age-style from amphorae.

Established in 1968, the Eschansonnerie des Papes now counts some 3,500 Eschansons, who are not only wine industry representatives and restaurateurs, but also individuals from all walks of life.  They are chosen for induction into the club, after proving their passion for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is known partly for permitting a blend of up to 13 different grapes.  They include artists and athletes, musicians and entrepreneurs.  Last year for example, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang was inducted.  For the 15 June ceremony this year, Wine Advocate critic Joe Czerwinski and Costco wine buying director Annette Alvarez-Peters counted among 15 new Eschansons.

Participants sang along to the fraternity anthem, La Coupo Santo or, “The Holy Cup,” which is printed in the menu in French and in the Occitan dialect, as La Cansoun de la Coupo.  The refrain -- below -- strikes metaphorical significance today:

E versanto, Vuejo à plen bord, Vuejo abord, Lis estrambord, E l'enavans di fort !

[And overflowing, May you pour abundantly, May you pour in streams, The enthusiasm, And the energy of the strong!]

Indeed, the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape have become stronger in terms of richness and alcohol in recent years, partly due to climate change, which is raising some concerns among vintners about the need to preserve balancing freshness as climate change progresses.  Alcohol labels, as indicated on labels, are sometimes seen at 16% in recent years.  And that is just the official indication…not necessarily the actual percentage.

One method to maintain freshness is lowering the percentage of the main grape, Grenache (which ripens easily and reaches ever-higher degrees of alcohol) with red varieties such as Counoise.  Thomas Perrin of the famous Château de Beaucastel explains: “It has a big advantage as a late-ripening grape, and it suffers less from the heat of the sun in the summertime than Syrah or Grenache.”

As climate change makes spring weather less predictable on top of being downright hotter, winemakers like Paul Avril of Clos des Papes have been gradually upping the percentage of Mourvèdre, which is not as fragile as Grenache during the flowering period.

Already authorized since the appellation was founded in the 1930s, blending in white wine is seeing renewed interest, says Michel Blanc, president of the federation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers.  Some estates, such as Domaine de Beaurenard, have been blending white grapes into certain red wines already, and they say that the trend is catching as rising alcohol levels due to climate change make it “clearly important” to consider adding white grapes into blends for balancing acidity, says estate co-owner Victor Coulon.  Picpoul and Picardin, for example, add low levels of alcohol and “fine acidities” to the blends, he explains.

Amidst the talk of climate change, the ambiance was festive and fun.  The setting for the Eschansonnerie des Papes reminds us that Châteauneuf-du-Pape has weathered many a storm.  The castle has witnessed much turbulent history, from the wars of religion throughout the Middle Ages, to World War II, when the Germans used it as an arms depot and observation post.  As Allied armies advanced towards their position, the château garrison blew up the arms and munitions before leaving in late August 1944, destroying the entire northern part of the château.  Only the cellars and the south side of the keep remained intact.

Set amidst the vines from nearby terraces and hillsides of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the candlelit dinner honored the new Eschansons for the appellation, confident in the enduring appeal of this great red wine.