Sunday, 16 August 2015

Châteauneuf-du-Pape - the wine of the Popes

Mention Châteauneuf-du-Pape to any lover of wine and he is likely to tell you immediately that it is a famous red wine of the south of France. What he probably will not tell you is that one Châteauneuf can be quite unlike another because in theory eighteen different varieties of grape may legally be used in its production.

In practice Grenache Noir accounts for almost three quarters of the vineyard area of Châteauneuf, with Syrah and Mourvèdre making up the great majority of the remainder. Nevertheless each vigneron still blends the wine to his own satisfaction. Having looked forward to my visit without understanding these facts, I was very surprised to find that wines of the same vintage can range from the frankly quite ordinary and disappointing to the really rather special. Of course your taste (and wallet) may easily vary from mine and therefore my best advice would be to try several and when you find the one that suits you best, stick with it.

Perhaps surprisingly in view of this diversity, Châteauneuf was actually the first of the Appellation Contrôlée rules in France and all vignerons within the region (about 3200 hectares) are subject to strict rules about what they can and cannot do.

The most remarkable thing I found was vines growing in what appears to be a glacial moraine. We were consistently told on our tour that the vines need to be stressed in order to produce the best grapes, pushing their roots deep into the soil in search of moisture. Well, I have to say I have seldom seen anything that looked less like soil than the acres of galets roulés or big round pebbles of the vineyard we visited. It seems the stones retain the heat of the sun and keep the vines warm at night, enabling earlier ripening. Well that's what they tell you anyway. This is certainly an unusual terroir.

What nobody tells you is that the village has only officially been Châteauneuf du Pape since 1893, though it was informally so called for centuries. Interestingly, it was already Châteauneuf (Newcastle) before Pope John XXII ordered the construction of the castle whose ruins now dominate the town. This construction was undertaken during the Avignon Papacy, though in practice the Avignon popes made little use of the castle until after the 1378 schism.

Like many another medieval building the castle became a stone quarry for subsequent generations.. During the Second World War it suffered the additional misfortune of being blown up by the retreating Germans.

But in this case we're really here for the wine.