No discussion concerning the wines of the Rhone River Valley is complete without some sort of reference to Chateauneuf du Pape. So what is this wine and what does it have to do with the Pope? Way back in 1308, Pope Clement V relocated the papacy to Avignon, located in the southern/Provencal region of France. For the next 70 years, the papal seat remained here and the Popes that occupied this seat were great lovers of wine. The grapevine had been cultivated in this region for several years by the Bishops of Avignon, but with the new prestige brought increased interest and investment in the nearby vineyards. The wines gradually increased in quality and under John XXII, they were labelled “Vin du Pape”, which later became Chateauneuf du Pape. In 1378, the papal seat moved back to Rome, but the course of history for these vineyards was all ready set.
Enough with the history, what the heck is the wine right? Well, simply put, it is a blended red wine – a white version is made as well, but for today, we’ll just focus on the red type. Chateauneuf du Pape can be made with 13 different grapes, but typically the blend is primarily Grenache with smaller amounts of Syrah and Mourvedre. This is the same blend typically found in many of the red wines of the Southern Rhone, including Cotes du Rhone, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, but the wines produced in Chateauneuf du Pape are typically the fullest, the most complex and the longest lived. One of the unique characteristics of the vineyards here is the galets or softball-sized rounded stones that the vines protrude from – these act to hold heat during the day which is later released at night, thereby helping to ripen the grapes.
So what does a Chateauneuf taste like? There are a variety of “house styles”, depending on producer, but in general the descriptors associated with good Chateauneuf would be seductive, gamy, spicy, rich and on and on. In many instances, you’re dealing with vines that are at least 50 years old and the resulting low yields produce wines with ample color, body and structure. Like the great wines of Bordeaux, these wines are capable of aging and improving for considerable amounts of time. Famed wine critic Robert Parker counts the wines among his favorites and was his favorable praise of the wines in the 1980’s that brought them to the attention of the world and more particularly the U.S. Some of the finest wines of the region can fetch $100+ dollars (Chateau Beaucastel, Chateau Rayas, et al) but the silver lining is the fact that a really good bottle of Chateauneuf can be had for $45-$50 or less. For a world class wine that “goes to the same school” as the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, this is a relative deal in the grand scheme of things. If you’re not sure yet, start with a good Cotes du Rhone and inch your way up to a Vacqueyras or Gigondas before you take the plunge – you’ll gain a sense for what the Rhone Valley is all about without spending blowing your wine budget all in one go.
A young Chateauneuf or any of the above mentioned Rhone reds love lamb, game and other grilled pieces of meat and don’t be shy with the olive oil, garlic and herbs and/or olives. In fact, these wines really shine with this sort of rustic, Provencal cuisine and act to improve the flavors of the food while the food improves the flavor of the wine. I highly recommend a 30 minute to 1 hour decant of the wine before consuming as well. At the end of the day, a taste of Chateauneuf du Pape will provide you with a virtual Provencal getaway, if only for a night, and a bottle of wine is a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to France these days. Happy eating and drinking in Asheville my friends.