Not only is Châteauneuf-du-Pape fun to say, but it is also the most celebrated cru of the Southern Rhône Valley. Whereas Syrah is the main grape of the Northern Rhône Valley, Grenache is the main grape of the Southern Rhône. Like most wine regions throughout France, a river is what connects these two very different terroirs. The Northern Rhône is known for its steep granitic slopes, while the southern Rhône has vast plains and rough terrain.
Our profile today is on arguably the most famous domaine of the southern part of this diverse valley: Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe.
A Humble Beginning in 1898. Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe is almost synonymous with Châteauneuf-du-Pape (meaning “new home of the Pope”). The Brunier family behind this domaine has been making wine in the Southern Rhône for more than 100 years. The story begins with Hippolyte Brunier, who began making wine in 1898 with less than one hectare on a chunk of land called La Crau.
La Crau is on a stony plateau at one of the highest points in the Southern Rhône, between the villages of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bédarrides. Hippolyte was a humble farmer who saw possibility in the potential of La Crau—he was the first vigneron to plant on this plateau.
Due to its elevation, a communication tower was placed on this piece of land to transmit telegraphic messages between Paris and Marseilles. The decrepit tower was built in 1792, but Hippolyte felt it was an appropriate name for his domaine. His first vintage was 1900. The community enjoyed his wines—and that pleased Hippolyte greatly, no matter how hard it was to farm here with hail, the scorching sun, Le Mistral, and eventually Phylloxera (a devastating grape louse).
Farming a Rugged and Wild Terrain. The terroir of the Southern Rhône is rough and rugged. Galets Roulés dot the terrain as far as the eye can see. Galets are round rocks and pebbles covering the clay soils. The rocks are famous for retaining the heat from the sun helping to ripen the grapes.
Le Mistral, a powerful wind, is also an extremely important part of the Southern Rhône and Southern France in general. This wind, which forms in the Alps, whips down the valley through Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and helps to dry off and cool down the grapes. The most enchanting part of the Southern Rhône, to me, is garrigue. Garrigue is the wild brush that grows down here: think wild thyme, rosemary, and most of all, lavender.
The Brunier family is still behind Vieux Télégraphe; they currently grow grapes on more than 70 hectares, a very small proportion of which are white.
Hand-Harvested, Rustic Wines. The wines of Vieux Télégraphe almost bottle the rusticity of CDP, and especially La Crau. They are wild, rugged, unruly, gamy and alluring. You can get lost in the aromas in the wines from this domaine.
Daniel and Frédéric Brunier are the current proprietors of the estate, and Hippolyte’s great-grandsons. These brothers have created a second label from the domaine’s younger vines, called “Télégramme.” The cépage of these bottlings are primarily Grenache, with a supporting cast of Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault. They also make a Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc, with Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Roussanne.
The grapes are always sustainably farmed, harvested by hand, and never see new oak (except for the Blanc, just 10% or so). Their importer, Kermit Lynch, also urged them to stop filtering in the early 1980s, a practice which they still carry out to this day.
Let’s Drink CDP & Feast. Châteauneuf-du-Pape tends to be full-bodied with moderate tannin and moderate acid. It can sometimes take on a very jammy, raisin-y quality and for that reason is a great start into the Old World for New World wine drinkers. The rustic quality always shines through, which makes it an excellent pairing for game meats like wild boar and most other red meats, especially lamb.
DOMAINE DU VIEUX TÉLÉGRAPHE
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2015 La Crau
$90 bottle / $1080 case
65% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah, 5% Cinsault, Clairette, etc.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2016 La Crau
$80 bottle / $960 case
40% Clairette, 30% Grenache Blanc, 15% Bourboulenc, 15% Roussanne