Historic Chateauneuf - The Catholic Connection
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed May 10, 2002. For more information go to wineloverspage.com.
Back in the '60s, a maker of deli rye bread came up with a memorable advertising campaign that featured an American Indian taking a bite out of a sandwich, under the slogan, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Real Jewish Rye."
It occurred to me that the vignerons of the Southern Rhone could borrow this concept: You certainly don't have to be Catholic to enjoy Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but a few years spent in parochial school might ease the effort of sorting out such producers of the region as Clos des Papes ("Walled vineyard of the Popes"), Cuvee du Vatican ("The Vatican's blend"), Bosquet des Papes ("The Popes' thicket), and, Domaine Pontifical ("The Pontiff's winery").
How did all this church imagery end up on wine? It goes back to a byway of history, nearly 700 years ago, when Pope Clement V, fearing political turmoil in Rome, moved the headquarters of the Catholic church to Avignon on the Rhone, bringing along all the papal court and hangers-on ... and, of course, their thirst for good wine. They planted vineyards in the region's unusual stony soil, and made hearty red wines called Chateauneuf-du-Pape, "The new castle of the Pope."
The Papacy returned to Rome after 70 years, a period that Church historians call "the Babylonian Captivity." But the wine stayed on, and seven centuries later, still made very much in the ancient tradition, it remains an international favorite.
Chateauneuf may be made from a blend of 13 grapes, including a few white varieties; but many of them are rare today, and few producers use them all. Grenache, with its bright, berry-scented fruit, is the predominant variety, and you'll usually find the black-pepper fragrance of Syrah and the earthy notes of Mourvedre in the blend. (It's worth noting, in fact, that the popular Australian blend called "GSM" - Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre - pays homage to the Chateauneuf tradition - and it's no coincidence that one noteworthy example of this Australian style is Melton's "Nine Popes.")
For the record, the 13 permissible varieties are Bourboulenc, Cinsaut, Clairette, Counoise, Grenache, Mourvedre, Muscardin, Picardan, Picpoul, Roussanne, Syrah, Terret Noir and Vaccarese.
I'm looking forward to visiting this region again during next month's Rhone and Provence tour. Offering a heady blend of fine wine and food and intriguing history, it's a first-rate wine destination.