Here is the article I have been waiting to write! One of our favorite wines, one of our most popular wines, from a region you may never have heard of, is Châteauneuf du Pape!
Châteauneuf du Pape is located in southern France, around the city of Avignon, in the Rhône River valley. This river, originally named Rodanos, now called the Rhône, was important because it was the easiest land route for commerce from the Mediterranean to the north, and for wine to travel south to the Mediterranean for export. In ancient times merchants shipped wine back to Rome and Greece in barrels, bringing the area great prosperity.
A POPE LIVED IN FRANCE??? WHO KNEW?
In 1305, King Phillip IV of France used his influence to get the archbishop of Bordeaux, Bertrand de Got, elected Pope. Bertrand owned a vineyard near Bordeaux, and took the name Clement V as Pope. In 1309, Pope Clement moved the papacy to Avignon, in the southeast of France, promptly planting the first top-quality vineyards. His successor, Pope Benedict XII (1334-1342), ordered a papal palace built in Avignon, giving Châteaueauf du Pape its name, which translates to “New Castle of the Pope.” The region was officially named Châteauneuf du Pape in 1893. Nine successive popes lived in Avignon, each extending the papal vine planting area, which later became what we now know as the Côtes du Rhône. Even after the Papacy moved back to Rome in 1377, the Rhône wines continued to be shipped to the Pontiff and his entourage from Avignon, along the Rhône and across the Mediterranean. By the time of Francis I, (1494-1547), Côtes du Rhône wines were very popular with the French royal court. Gradually their fame made their way to Britain from Bordeaux, and, from around 1780, the wines of the lower Rhône were being enjoyed by British consumers.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the vines of the Rhône and other French regions were plagued by phylloxera, an aphid which attacks the roots of the vine. Grape growers abandoned their vineyards and lost their livelihood, and by 1880, only about 500 acres of vines remained in the entire area. In 1890 a cure was found, but the vines had to be replanted, which could not be done right away because it was too expensive. When replanting did begin and regrowth returned, so did success. Fearing imitators and fraud, winegrowers including Baron LeRoy, prominent owner of several châteaux, organized and codified the special qualities of Châteauneuf du Pape, its area, and certain production requirements. To further prevent counterfitting, they created an official embossed bottle with raised lettering, a symbol of the Papal tiara, and two crossed keys which represent the Vatican. From glory, to despair, and back to glory, the region now has 7,746 acres of vineyards, which produce an average 14 million bottles of wine each year.
TERROIR (THE LAND)
What makes this area so special? It’s not just drawing a line on a map, it has to do with the area’s terroir, which is a French term for the composition of the soil of an area. Châteauneuf du Pape is in a wide river valley, the top of the soil is carpeted by rocks known as Galets roulés (rolled pebbles.) Though they are typically the size of softballs, these rocks hold the heat of the day, but also keep the soil underneath moist, holding just the right amount of water for grapes in this style. The hot Mediterranean climate, though stable, is mitigated by a cool, sometimes constant breeze generated by the Alps called the Mistral. It also spares the grapes from mildew and ripens them a bit earlier in the season.
Châteauneuf du Pape producers are allowed to use fourteen official grape varietals in wine production. Only Chateau de Beaucastel uses all fourteen. The most prominent ones are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Grenache has a characteristic taste of raspberry and black pepper spice. Syrah has flavors of blueberry and blackberry and white pepper spice. Mourvèdre, has kind of earthy strawberry flavor. This combination of varietals is used so often, it is commonly referred to as “GSM.”
The wines of this region reflect both old and modern styles. Still, they share the common characteristics of fresh red and black cherries, strawberry, kirsch, black pepper, black raspberry, spice, earth and garrigue, which is the flavor of the fresh herbs typical of the region. It’s not an accident that the red wines taste of these flavors, it’s by design. The legal restrictions on the appellation limit how much wine the vineyard can produce, keeping the style of the wine rich and not thin. And limiting the amount of oak used in the barreling restrains the toasty vanilla-caramel flavors of the wood, which might detract from the true style.
One of the great qualities most red Châteauneuf du Pape wines share is the wide range of drinkability. Most Châteauneuf du Pape wines are delicious young. The majority of these wines do not need to be aged or cellared before they can be enjoyed. The fact that they have the ability to age and develop is equally important. The texture of the wine can be lush, lusty and luscious when young, and take on a silky characteristic with age. While only 7% of the wines from this region are white wines, they are some of the most full-bodied, rich white wines in France. While these wines can be diverse, due to the different varietal used in production, many have flavors of stone fruit and flowers.
The red wines of Châteauneuf du Pape pair beautifully with lamb, beef, veal, duck and wild boar. The white wines of the region pair beautifully with shell fish, fish, puff pastry, chicken, and asparagus soup.
We’ve found these wines to be very popular here locally. Our customers tell us that they are rich and satisfying, full of flavor, but not as overbearing as a cabernet. That means they are perfect for any meat off the summer’s backyard grill, there’s no need to wait until the cool of fall to enjoy one!