Pope Benedict’s announcement last month that he would retire from the papacy sent shockwaves through the Catholic world. A sitting pope had not resigned from his post in nearly 600 years. In fact, the last pope to abdicate, Gregory XII, more politician than patriarch, was purposely elected to do just that in an effort to end what has become known as the Western Schism, the rival claims to Catholicism’s highest title by a line of Avignon Popes.
While media outlets rolled images of important moments from Benedict’s eight-year tenure, my mind panned over the vinous legacy of the Avignon Popes, and my palate’s memory reviewed a reel of sensory highlights, the anthology of taste impressions left by every one of the of the great bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape I had consumed over the years.
Rich, ripe, robust, and rustic—the red wines of the Rhone riverside village of Chateauneuf du Pape are among the most celebrated and important wines of France, and their origins and history lie at the intersection of the temporal and secular politics of 14th-century Europe.
The Papal court first decamped to an enclave in Avignon in 1309 when Pope Clement V, a Frenchman and the former Archbishop of Bordeaux, was elected by the conclave but declined to move to Rome. While he is said to have ordered the planting of vines in the region, it was actually his successor, John XXII who constructed a castle as a summer residence on the heights of the nearby village of Calcernier and developed a papal vineyard. A small castle had already existed there, thus the construction of the Pope’s “new” castle, or “Chateauneuf du Pape,” inspired what became the default vernacular name for the area. The village officially adopted the name in 1893.
After the schism healed in 1417, the Popes returned to Rome, and the region and wines retreated to relative obscurity. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the reputation of the “wine of the popes” began to spread as it gained regard for its fortitude and character. With renown, though, came risk, and in the early 20th century the wine was plagued by fraud. In 1923, in an early effort at what was essentially brand management, local producers codified a voluntary set of rules for the production of wines to ensure quality and typicity that would eventually become the basis for all French Appellation Contrôlée laws.
No fewer than 13 grape varieties were authorized for production. Chief among those were Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. For many fans though, Chateauneuf du Pape is about the glories of Grenache, which perhaps reaches its apogee in the soils and microclimates of the area. Grenache can be a notoriously fickle variety to vinify, but the reward, when grapes grown in the best sites are in the hands of the right producer, can be a wine of extraordinary nobility and complexity.
Gravel, clay, sand, and limestone make up the mosaic of soil types in the region, and many single vineyard sites comprise all four. Prevailingly, the various soils are covered by the famous galets roulés: large, brown, rounded, quartzite boulders that make the vineyards appear almost impossible to tend. These stones, however, are crucial to the signature ripeness of Chateauneuf du Pape, absorbing the heat of the midday sun and radiating it back to the vines at night. They also aid in the retention of soil moisture in the dry climate, preventing evaporation in the harsh sun. The fierce mistral winds that blow down the Rhone river valley from the Alps reduce rainfall and help counter adverse affects in the rare vintages that might see abundant rain.
The range of soils, grape varietals, microclimates and, more recently, winemaking techniques allows for much interpretation. Because of that, it is often said that there is no signature style of Chateauneuf, though all are typically full bodied and deeply colored, fiery and peppery, robust with a slightly rustic texture and aroma.
While there are many great domaines, a conclave of critics and connoisseurs would be hard pressed to agree upon a potentate. For many, Chateau de Beaucastel reigns supreme, making beautiful and elegant examples from a blend of all 13 permitted varietals. Diversely, Chateau Rayas commands a cult following, choosing mainly to make wines of 100 percent Grenache.
For me, the most classic and approachable examples come from the legendary “La Crau” plateau and the Brunier family’s Domaine de Vieux Télégraphe. The wines are typically full bodied, combining power and elegance. They are spicy and peppery, simultaneously rustic yet concentrated and full of rich and polished black and red fruits.
With bottles of Beaucastel, Rayas and others commanding prices well over one hundred dollars upon release, Vieux Télégraphe can typically be found at retail for less than $80. The family’s second wine, Télégramme, made from younger vines (though still all at least 20 years old) can often be found for half that and gives a glimpse of the greatness of the La Crau plateau, the highest terrace of the appellation, for a more down-to-earth price.
Despite the schism of sensibility and sentiment, it is ultimately up to you to taste through the region and determine for yourself the merits of some of the hundreds of producers. Popes and paupers alike can afford a gustatory trip to the Southern Rhone. Almost all Estate bottled Chateauneuf appears in its distinctive low, sloping shouldered bottle embossed with the papal emblem—the mitre (papal tiara) and St. Peter’s crossed keys. Your favored local wine merchant can help you make a selection that best suits your palate and budget. Santé!