The countryside around this famous wine center is a patchwork of rolling vineyards, of green-and-black furrows striping the landscape in endless, retreating perspective. Great gates and grand houses punctuate the scene, as symmetrical and finely detailed as the etching on a wine label, and signs—discreet but insistent—beckon you to follow the omnipresent smell of fermenting grapes to their source. Behind barn doors, under cellar traps, and in chilly caves beneath châteaux, colossal oak vats nurture this noble Rhône red to maturity. The pebbly soil here is particularly suited to the growth of vines: the small stones act like a wool sweater, retaining the heat of the sun’s rays and keeping the vines warm and cozy during the night.
Once the source of the table wine of the Avignon popes, who kept a fortified summer house here (hence the name of the town, which means "new castle of the pope"), these vineyards had the good fortune to be wiped out by phylloxera in the 19th century. The wine’s revival as a muscular and resilient mix of up to 13 varietals with an almost portlike intensity (it can reach 15% alcohol content) moved it to the forefront of French wines. The whites, though less significant, are also to be reckoned with.
There are caves de dégustation (wine-tasting cellars) on nearly every street; get a free map of the caves from the tourist office on Place du Portail. Also head to the discreet vignobles (vineyards) at the edge of town. Some of the top Châteauneufs (and the oldest) come from Château la Nerthe, Château de Vaudieu, and Château Fortia, and are priced accordingly. If you’re not armed with the names of a few great houses, look for medaille d’or (gold medal) ratings from prestigious wine fairs; these are usually indicated by a gold sticker on the bottle. Better yet, for the best selection of wines in one place as well as expertise to match, go with Vinadea, which is the official maison des vins of Châteauneuf.