A visit to Domaine du Pegau, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

We knew we couldn’t be late for this particular wine tasting.  We had an appointment at Domaine du Pegau in Châteauneuf-du-Pape to get to, and my father and I were really trying hard not to get lost. Getting lost very easy to do in this part of France, yes, even with a GPS.  Potentially the highlight of our trip, this was going to be the tasting where we would learn first hand what it really takes to make top wines.  Pegau has received several 100-pts scores from Robert Parker.  Parker himself claims to have purchased every vintage of their wines since 1979.  We couldn’t wait to see what made this winery so special.

Of course Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a name you’ll hear bounced around a lot from people that know wine, or like to think they do. The Rhône Valley is made of of two parts, Northern and Southern Rhône. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a village located in the Southern Rhône, considered one of the most iconic vineyard areas in the region.

As we drove into the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape it looked like every other wine region in France; vines that seem to go on forever, surrounded by clay and stones, old tractors and winery machinery.  One thing to note is that unlike the steep slopes of the Northern Rhone, it is fairly flat here and it is made up of small producers who have built a reputation of top quality wines.

What we found when we arrived at Pegau was even more impressive. The winery is owned by Laurence Feraud and her father Paul.  It is not a commercial winery, and is really not set up for tours.  We met Didier, Laurence’s assistant who ushered us into an underground garage/cellar for a tour and tasting.

No high tech production here.  There are no fancy vats, and certainly no stainless steel or new oak. Definitely not the kind of pristine environment that you might expect from the home of top scoring wines. Instead we found old bottles lining the windowsills, cases of wine and magnums lying around, rolls of labels and old machinery still in use. Having seen many production facilities in California that try so hard to be perfect, this once again reminded me that quality wine is made in the vineyard, not by fancy machinery.

Didier gave us a tasting of five wines from the 2010 vintage.  I don’t think I spat out any of the wine that day.  Both red and white Châteauneuf, it was as expected, all excellent.  As a boutique winery, they only produce 75,000 bottles per year.  Some of their top wines go for 400 Euro per bottle.

Paul Feraud, the owner, came into the winery while we were there to check some bottles.  We couldn’t help but comment on his Australian rugby jersey.  Of course, my father and I, being from New Zealand, had a good laugh about this.  Rugby is certainly a hot topic in this region of France.  It turns out that Monsieur Feraud is in fact an All Blacks fan.  So glad we cleared that up!

Our visit to Pegau was a great example of what it takes to make quality wines. The fact that Pegau makes incredible wines, even with a simplistic approach illustrates that winemaking is not about technology, but it is far more complex.  The combination of the region’s unique terroir (sand, limestone and clay, light, climate, landscape), age of the vines, the family business that focuses attention to detail and has a long history, the history of the area and traditional knowledge combines together to make something quite special, and difficult to reproduce.  There’s nothing like a visit to a domaine like this in France to transform your knowledge and understanding of how great wine is made.

Facts about Châteauneuf-du-Pape

  • The region has 8,000 acres under vine and approximately 60-70 estates
  • It is the largest appellation in the Rhône
  • It produces only two wines: red (94% of production) and white
  • All wines in the region are bottled in a signature bottle with insignia
  • Grenache is the dominant variety (nearly 80 percent), followed by Syrah, Mourvèdre and tiny quantities of Cinsault
  • Allowed white grape varieties include Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Picpoul and Picardan
  • No mechanical harvesting allowed

Expert tips:

  • Make appointments ahead of time and know which producers you want to visit
  • Do not do too many appointments in one day.  Two is ideal with a break for lunch.
  • Expect to get lost.  Even with a GPS (and you will definitely need one), you may encounter construction or machinery on the roads which will slow you down.  Make sure you have plenty of time between appointments.
  • Drink plenty of water and do not taste on an empty stomach.  If you are driving you’ll probably have to spit most of it out.  A great excuse to buy more wine!
  • Ask the winery which restaurants they recommend nearby, often they will point you to great local places and be able to make a reservation for you.