The transformation of Châteauneuf


A much shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. The title refers to the place – but the wines are in transition, too. More to follow.

From 2005 for at least 10 years, until Richard Hemming MW took over, I went to Châteauneuf-du-Pape towards the end of the year to taste the latest vintage in bottle (see my more than 3,000 Châteauneuf tasting notes). I would sit in the headquarters of the local growers’ organisation and, in between tasting literally hundreds of masked bottles, gaze out at views like the one above with Provence’s miraculous November sunshine on the golden vines, the white cone of Mont Ventoux in the distance.

The weather was the best bit, a welcome change from cold, grey London. The worst bit was the extraordinary lack of good hotels and restaurants in Châteauneuf, a pretty, historic, extensive village responsible for, and sharing a name with, one of the most famous wines in the world. Because I was for many years loth to take to a steering wheel with a bloodstream full of 15% wine, I stayed at the town’s one, extremely modest (one-star?) hotel and ate badly. But eventually I had had enough of nylon sheets, and discovered that the Perrin family, who make some of the best Châteauneuf at Ch de Beaucastel, had converted a house in the much smaller village of Gigondas not too far away into stylish accommodation with the excellent restaurant lOustalet (shown below) round the corner. This turned my visits to the southern Rhône into a positive pleasure, although the half-hour drive was a bit of a trial.

Resto l'Oustalet

I was invited back to Châteauneuf last month to celebrate the centenary of the formation of the Syndicat des Vignerons de Châteauneuf-du-Pape and was completely amazed by the transformation of the place. In the first half of the last century Châteauneuf was on the RN7, the main road from Paris to Italy that was then known as the Route des Vacances (the holiday road). With its wine connections, it was a perfect stopping point for hungry travellers, not least once Germaine Vion (who had cooked for the French president) established herself in a hotel-restaurant right on the main road by the village’s famous fountain (pictured in the distance below). She made La Mère Germaine even more famous.

Chateauneuf fountain

By the early years of this century the establishment was in a sorry state. But then came the Strassers.

Arnaud Strasser is the Belgian-born co-vice chairman of the board of the company that owns Casino supermarkets. Isabelle Strasser is a Parisienne French teacher who, like her husband, is mad about wine and food. After years of corporate life, six of them in São Paulo, they were looking for a change. They’d always loved the light in Provence, and favoured the Mediterranean over the Atlantic where her childhood holidays were spent.

So in 2016 they bought a wine estate in the southern Luberon, Domaine de la Pousterle, which Arrnaud describes as ‘a beautiful mas which seemed like a refuge from Casino and Brazil’. Isabelle then set about putting into practice some of the theory learnt at wine classes in Paris by pulling out some of the old vines and planting white wine grapes. The first vintage of Cuvée Isabelle, mainly Rolle and part-aged in trendy glass Wineglobes, was 2020. (Rolle is the same as popular Vermentino, a name the Italians have successfully lobbied to have restricted to their wines.)

But for all Arnaud’s commercial experience, they found selling Luberon wines an uphill struggle and decided what they needed was an estate with a much more famous appellation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, to put Vignobles Strasser Radziwill on the map. Eventually, in 2019, they managed to acquire the estate that used to be known as Domaine La Millière near La Vieille Julienne in the sandy north of the appellation, the sector known as Cabrières. They were attracted by the old, relatively late-ripening vines there and the fact that they were already certified organic, and have renamed it Dom le Prieuré des Papes, adding to the extraordinary number of religiously named Châteauneuf producers, rebuilt the slightly cramped cellars and added a wine shop. On the day we visited last month they were expecting a group of visitors for a tasting later and clearly have their sights set on oenotourism.

The produce of a second Châteauneuf estate, Les Girard du Boucou in a rather warmer part of the appellation, will be absorbed into Le Prieuré des Papes, having been bought at the end of last year.

But this is far from the only expansion of their southern-Rhône empire. In 2020 they bought Dom du Moulin Blanc in Tavel, the appellation that used to produce heavy rosé but now makes some really fine, distinctive pink wine that can age well and is a worthy partner for food, not just for poolside sipping. And in 2021 they added the 60-ha (148-acre) Dom de Coyeux in Beaumes-de-Venise in the hills to the north of Châteauneuf. So their viticultural holdings are already very substantial, but it is what they have done in the village of Châteauneuf itself that is truly distinctive.

In early 2020 they embarked on an adventure that even they admit is ‘un peu fou’, a bit crazy. They apparently had just three days to make up their minds to buy the rundown old Mère Germaine hotel and restaurant, and took the plunge just before lockdown. They have now completely rebuilt it – not an easy site with thick stone walls, masses of steps and road access only from a tiny one-way street from the bottom of the village – but it does have a panoramic view over the Rhône Valley and, in its first year, that most precious of assets for any budding restaurateur in France, a Michelin star. (See Nick's review in From Paris to the Med.)

On the day we lunched there, very deliciously, with the Strassers and their chief winemaker Christian Agut, we were surrounded by Asian and American tourists. Châteauneuf, pictured below from the ruined castle above the village, is once more on the map.

Châteauneuf from above

And they haven’t even stopped there. They have redone the hotel where I used to stay so that it’s now full of rather beautiful artefacts and giant beds with linens whose thread counts can only be dreamt of, and have opened a shop selling local foods and wine and a large, more casual rotisserie, Le Comptoir de la Mère Germaine, on a new piazza that also houses a wine bar and café. Claude Avril, brother of Vincent Avril who makes the exceptional Châteauneuf Clos des Papes, must take some credit for the renovation of Châteauneuf. He has been mayor since 2020 and, not surprisingly, has welcomed the Strassers.

Being a Belgian and a Parisienne, with a winemaking team recruited from South Africa and Gascony, they were well aware that they came into the village as outsiders and that it may take time to be accepted. But Arnaud is extremely proud of having already been made a member of the local ceremonial wine brotherhood, the Échansonnerie des Papes. At the Grand Conseil of the Échansonnerie in the Palais des Papes in Avignon last month, listening to three hours of intronising (enthroning) speeches by his fellow wine producers, he was wearing his long red-velvet robe with pride as Isabelle looked on. (He is the tallest man in the back row.) It’s all very different from life in the boardroom.

Enchansonnerie June 2023

Wines made in Châteauneuf

Some of the best examples tasted recently. Note that low-alcohol Châteauneuf does not exist.

Clos du Mont-Olivet, La Quête Cinsault 2021 IGP Gard 14%
€13.37 Les Vins Concaves, Belgium

Clos du Mont-Olivet 2022 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 15%
£45.25 Gauntley’s of Nottingham, $52.99 Cask Fine & Rare Wines, NY

Tardieu-Laurent 2018 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 14.5%
£274 per case of 6 Blanco & Gomez

Ch La Nerthe, Cuvée des Cadettes 2019 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 15%
£55 Vino Fandango

Dom le Prieuré des Papes, La Bessade 2019 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 15%
£67.48 Armit Wines

Clos du Mont-Olivet, La Cuvée du Papet 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 15.5%
£800 per case of 12 ib Uncorked, $148.99 Rye Brook Wine & Spirit Shop, NY

Ch de Beaucastel 1981 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge
$350 Rockwood & Perry, NY

Ch Rayas 2005 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 14%
£1,140 (per bottle!) Richard Kihl, $1,740 Wine Empire, MA

See our database for tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates. More stockists on Wine-Searcher.comSee all our articles tagged Châteauneuf-du-Pape.