From the New Palace of the Pope

June 2018

For so many centuries now the Pope has resided at St. Peter’s in Vatican City that we forget there was a time when French bishops who became Popes chose to live at Avignon on the Rhone River in southern France. Not far from there they enjoyed relaxing at their summer home in the country, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The ruins of that ancient summer residence still stand, overlooking one of the world’s great vineyards, one that makes wine that is particularly at home with the robust style of food we enjoy in our short but delightful barbecue season.

Smoked ribs, seared steaks, grilled Portobello mushrooms, rotisserie chicken – all that delicious fare that justifies our waiting through all the other seasons, this time of dining out of doors, on the deck, by the lake – demand a wine of great vigour to stand up to the strong flavours, but at the same time one that is easy, accessible and versatile in the relaxed setting of our summer patios. No wine accomplishes all this nearly so well as that fabled elixir from the country home of those long-ago Popes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Made from a blend of up to thirteen different grape varieties, both red and white, the three principal varieties grown today are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, sometimes with token quantities of a few others (Cinsault, Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoule, Vaccarese…) included for sentimental reasons. The vineyards are so stony it is hard to believe anything could be farmed there. Varying in size from golf ball to bowling ball, the rocks soak up the heat of the Provençal sun all day, then hold it through the cool of the night. All the while the hot, dry Mediterranean wind they call the Mistral blows across the flat land. The result is one of the most forceful, most characterful, most exciting wines on earth. Filled with the heat of its vineyard, voluptuous with the flavours of ripe fruit, vibrant with the memory of centuries of turbulent history, powerful enough to stand up to the heartiest barbecue, sophisticated enough for the most elegant soirée, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is an iconic wine without peer.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is fully enjoyable in its vigorous youth, but also ages well for a decade or more, keeping all its awesome power as it adds elegance and complexity over the years. Sold in dark, heavy bottles bearing an embossed papal crest on the shoulder, this is fairly expensive wine, with prices beginning around $45 and climbing rapidly from there. Remembering the axiom: you get what you pay for, this represents solid value in very high quality wine. But inevitably, those high prices invite competition from around the world. Australia ships their version usually labelled GSM for the grapes used in the blend. Nearby neighbours of Chateauneuf-du-Pape also try to compete; comely Gigondas draws closest, Vacqueyras tries hard, and other wine towns known as Côtes du Rhone-Villages all offer competing products. These are good wines at good value prices, but none can approach the intense fire, the rich savoury splendour and the sublime grandeur of the great historic one they all try to emulate.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape today remains a delightfully charming small rural town. Locals and tourists doze around its central square and fountain, shaded by giant plane trees. Restaurants, tasting rooms and boutiques abound, and the countryside round about is filled with remarkable archaeological sites going back to prehistoric times. From marvels of Roman engineering to incredible phenomena of nature, this is a region of immense historical significance and interest. It also just happens to make one of the greatest wines on earth!

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog,
© Paul Inksetter 2018

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog,
© Paul Inksetter 2016

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