Crushing on Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Few French wines roll off the tongue (and down the gullet) with as much pleasure as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is impossible to say without drawing out each syllable as you might when uttering a lover’s name. The wine’s moniker, meaning “new castle of the pope,” came to be when the Popes of the 14th century hijacked the papacy from Rome to Avignon, a city in Provence’s southern Rhone Valley. With 8,000 acres under vine, Châteuneuf-du-Pape is the largest appellation in the Rhone Valley, producing more wine (94 percent red, 6 percent white) than the northern Rhone Valley in entirety. 

This locale, the largest appellation in the Rhone Valley, produces as many as 13 varietals for its eponymous wine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Prior to World War I, the wine of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was considered vin de médicine and sold in bulk to Burgundy as a quick fix of alcohol for their often anemic Pinot Noir. In 1923, as a means of protection against the deluge of fraudulent wine that followed phylloxera’s devastation in the 1870s, Châteauneuf-du-Pape introduced a set of rules governing the production of wine. These rules became the prototype for the entire French system (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC), adopted in 1936, and permitted Châteauneuf-du-Pape to use up to 13 different grape varieties in its wines. The region’s crown jewel, Château de Beaucastel, takes advantage of this privilege, but most estates use a predominance of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre with each grape bringing its own thing to the party. Voluptuous Grenache is the bombshell in the low-cut dress, spicy Syrah is the mysterious guy in the corner, and dependable Mourvèdre is the tireless host refilling glasses. Percentages vary and the other 10 permissible grapes may make rare appearances, but Grenache is always the center of attention.

The dark intensity and primordial earthiness of Châteauneuf-du-Pape make sense when you consider its terrain. Galets, ancient Alpine glacier stones that resemble dinosaur eggs, cover the ground, retaining the underlying soil’s moisture as well as the heat from the region’s 2,800 hours of annual sunshine. The legendary mistral winds, which blow as fast as 50 mph for 150 days during the summer and winter, may drive residents crazy, but are a boon to vineyards, acting as a natural pesticide and herbicide. Provence’s heat grows very ripe grapes which, in turn, produce a high-alcohol wine, but not at the expense of finesse. In fact, the minimum alcohol requirement for Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the highest in France at 12.5 percent, but even in the hottest vintages, the wine wears its virility well.  

Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s mystique is that it is just as delicious in its youth as it is in its maturity. Drink it now or 25 years from now and you will have the same gamy notes of leather, tar and beef blood mingling with pie filling-like fruit of black cherries, blackberries, and black currants. The herbs so prevalent in Provençal cooking, called garrigue, grow wild amidst the vines, and lend hints of lavender, thyme, and garlic to the wine. And, because Grenache is prone to oxidation, cement tanks are used for aging (rather than porous oak barrels), so the wine’s sense of place shines unadulterated by oak’s cloak.  

A wine so entwined with papal history seems an unlikely candidate to be as lusty and hedonistic as Châteauneuf-du-Pape; but, just like the well-heeled, sun-tanned, captivating guest who never seems to age, it can’t help but be the life of the party.

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