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Eat & Drink » Wine

The Pope's Vino

Singing praises for Chateauneuf-du-Pape

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I’ve heard people say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” Well, that describes my relationship with Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I’m not an especially religious person, but I’m positively evangelical about singing the praises of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the pope’s wine. It’s my favorite.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is both a wine and a place. It’s a wine region in France’s southern Rhône, which is also home to two other wine regions: Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Southern vineyards also produce most of France’s Côtes du Rhône. It’s a beautiful place in Provence, with a sunny Mediterranean climate, where olive trees abound and lavender scents everything. Although, if you’ve ever been there, you’ve probably experienced le mistral, the cold wind that blows down from the Alps and rips through the Rhône river valley. This is actually a good thing for wine grapes, since le mistral cools the vines down. Those cool temperatures help the grapes maintain acidity.

But about the Pope. Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates as “new castle (or château) of the pope,” dating back to the 14th century, when the pope resided in the walled city of Avignon, just south of what are now the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards. It was the French Pope Clement V who, in 1308, relocated the papacy from Rome to southern France. Well, fast-forward a few centuries, and today, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the world’s most sought-after wines. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the more expensive ones.

I should note that when we talk of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we’re really talking about two wines. There is both Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge et blanc—red and white. I love the floral, gorgeous Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc, but for our purposes here, I’m referring mostly to Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge, which is by far the more popular of the two.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is relatively large by French standards—about 8,000 acres—but still only about a quarter the size of Napa Valley. In the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you can wander from wine cave to wine cave, sipping dozens of different Châteauneuf-du-Papes from various producers. Many are quite tiny, little mom & pop operations. Others, like Château de Beaucastel, are opulent. I fondly remember a Sunday afternoon in Châteauneuf-du-Pape when I managed to lock myself and my companions out of our car. It could have been worse. We made friends with the winemakers at the little cave where we’d stopped, and managed to plow through quite a lot of Châteauneuf-du-Pape while we awaited our rescue from France’s version of the AAA.

There are 13 grape varieties permitted in making Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but by far the most popular one—accounting for about 80 percent of the grapes planted in the southern Rhône—is Grenache. In red Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you’ll usually also find Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Muscardin and a few others. The vineyards are farmed organically or biodynamically; the climate of the area precludes the need for pesticides and herbicides. And, while you might expect a flimsy little summer-cottage-type wine to come from this Mediterranean environment, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is anything but. These are dense, rich, intense wines with gravitas. The best ones are powerful enough to evolve for 15 to 25 years. I have a bottle from the 1989 vintage that I’ve yet to open.

An entry-level Châteauneuf-du-Pape from a producer like Château La Nerthe will run you about $42, and there’s a lot of good Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the $50 to $70 range. However, if you want to bring in the bigger guns—say, Château de Beaucastel, Le Clos du Caillou or Château Rayas—plan on spending over $100. I recently spotted a bottle of 2009 Château de Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin going for $1,000. But, hey, it’s still cheaper than great Burgundy!

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