WineThe Collection

Clos des Papes 1978–2019

It's Rhône royalty, a stalwart of Châteaneuf-du-Pape. John Livingstone-Learmonth tastes his way back through four decades of the estate's classic red (plus half a dozen whites for good measure)

Words by John Livingstone-Learmonth

Photography by Xavier Young

clos des papes
The Collection

Across the 50 years I have been visiting the Rhône, Clos des Papes has been the very emblem of consistency in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I have known just two owners, Paul Avril and his son Vincent, who started in 1987. In those 50 years, evolution has occurred – but only in nudges. Over time, for example, the 20% of Mourvèdre in the flagship red has been increased, at the expense of the Grenache. Destemming used to be selective – in years such as 1984 and 1987, for instance – before it became systematic from 1991 onwards. The quality of the press wine, which was previously sold in bulk, has been improved. Other winemaking elements are unchanged. Vinification is still in pairs of grape varieties, with only a couple of light pumping-overs morning and evening. Raising in large 50hl barrels continues.

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The blend today is usually 55% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre and 10% Syrah, with 5% Vaccarèse, Counoise and Muscardin. (In wines before the mid-1980s, the Grenache was nearer 65%.) There has never been more than one cuvée per year from the 28ha of red grape vineyards, whose historical centre is the 3.4ha plot called Le Parc, the clos in the lee of the ruined château where popes once took their leisure. Yields are always low, averaging around 20hl/ha.

In style, Clos des Papes stands apart from most in Châteauneuf, its finesse maintained through all the bouts of fashion that bedevilled the appellation in the 1990s and, notably, 2000s. I expect freshness, filling and elegance, with a definite Mourvèdre angle that gives the wine a bright, rather pesky side, away from the lush, dense tones of more Grenache-dominated cuvées.

In Clos des Papes, I expect freshness, filling and elegance, with a definite Mourvèdre angle

As with all top estates, vintage respect occurs every year, and the wines age gracefully and well. Vincent Avril says, ‘It’s not acidity that lets our wines live – it’s the quality of tannins and structure. Hence, I look at the ripeness of the skins and the pips above all, more than the sugars.’ Avril has a leaning towards Burgundy, the region of his formal schooling, and there are vintages when the Grenache takes on a Pinot character, a classic example being the gorgeous 2014, with the 1988 showing mature Pinot touches on the nose.

Then there are the mighty vintages that track the Rhône’s most famous years; in my career, those have been 1978, 1990, 2010 and 2016. These all showed up well in the tasting, even if  the magnum of 1990 – very sun-swept for its time – was a little short of what it can display, perhaps tiring somewhat.

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The ability of Clos des Papes to age well was shown through two high-tannin vintages: the 2005 and 1988 (the former destemmed, the latter not). Both were stimulating. The 1988, meanwhile – often regarded as the kid brother of the 1988, 1989 and 1990 trio – eased past the other two on this day.

The summit of the tasting came in the very last wine, the 1978, a year that rode to the rescue of the Rhône after five variable vintages. It acted as an economic saviour and gave growers access to far-flung markets, bringing them much-needed confidence in their abilities. Avril commented that it was ‘all about terroir’, while guest Jean-Louis Chave called it ‘exceptional, from another epoch’. Avril set aside Methuselahs of this for his wedding — and hasn’t yet married. Quelle luxe.

Avril’s approach to white wine is straightforward: tap into the range of permitted varieties, vinify and raise in steel vat, and bottle the wine after six months, the malolactic fermentation blocked to retain freshness. It is composed of equal shares of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul; and since 2000, Picardan, Bourboulenc and Picpoul, the latter two of which, I am told, are ‘hyper-important for the acidity’. It is a wine that should be drunk in its first two years, then left for another eight years while it slumbers. Our expansive tasting, below, reflected this hiatus.

Clos des Papes reds and whites 1978–2019