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Châteauneuf du Pape.  (Photo: Flickr user, jghil)
Châteauneuf du Pape. (Photo: Flickr user, jghil)

Châteauneuf du Pape

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Last week, I recounted about the recent trip to the southern Rhône specifically the regions near the small village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Pop 2100) my colleague Dave and I had the opportunity to undertake. We were invited by Caves de Rasteau, one of the largest and oldest cooperatives in the region to taste their wines, participate in dinners pairing their wines with the Black Diamond, the black Périgord truffle. While it was a fantastic trip, full of excellent food and unbelievable wines, I neglected to mention the area where we stayed.

Of all the wine regions of France or for that matter the world, Châteauneuf du Pape is perhaps the most famous and historic, all at the same time. The name roughly translates to "New House of the Pope" and the history of this region and its wine is firmly entwined with papal history. Located between Avignon and Orange just off the A7 highway in the southern Rhône, the area has been under vine cultivation since before Roman occupation, around the second century B.C. By the first century A.D., grape growing had been widely developed by the Romans, mainly to supply their army with wine.

The name was first recorded in 1157 and by the 13th century, the village of Châteauneuf, with its 1000 inhabitants, had begun to grow prosperous and had developed a flourishing vineyard of approximately 700 acres.

In 1308, Pope Clément V planted additional vine stock. Clement was already an accomplished grape grower having planted his own vineyard known as Château Pape-Clement, when he was Bishop of Bordeaux and he would regularly travel to village of Châteauneuf to inspect his vines. Since Clement was French and for political considerations, he decided it would be better to remain in France and so the Papacy moved to Avignon where it remained until 1378.

Clements successor, Pope John XXII, regularly supplied wine from Châteauneuf to the Papal residence. He was without a doubt the prelate who was most instrumental in developing the reputation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. He was also responsible for building the papal summer residence in the small village of Châteauneuf. The castle was partial destroyed during World War II but two of the palace walls remain standing on the hill overlooking the village.

Not much is known of the grapes that were planted during this time but in 1808 vines were planted from local “old plants” along with new plants from Spain. Since the growers wanted to enhance their wines and improve quality, they tried many new grape varieties. Towards the end of the 1800’s, one man, Joseph Ducos, planted on his estate ten carefully selected grape varieties. These were to become the basis of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Those grapes are Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Muscardin, Camarèse (aka Vaccarèse), Counoise, Picpoul, Clairette and Bourboulenc.

As of 2009, AOC rules allow for Chateauneuf du Pape to contain up to eighteen varieties but for the most part, only Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre are used for the reds, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Clairette and Picpoul for the whites.

Weekend Wine Picks:

The 2008 Domaine Paul Autard Cotes-du-Rhone ($27 PWS) is an 80% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre blend, is loaded with fragrant aromas of sweet raspberry, kirsch, strawberries, spice box, leather and smoke. The palate is well structured with rich flavours of black and red fruits, spice, garrigue, soft acidity and firm tannins. This is not a fruit bomb but an elegant, refined wine. Fantastic to enjoy now for the sheer pleasure of it but will reward with 3-5 years of cellaring.

Produced from a tiny 20 acre vineyard, this ultra-traditional estate produces minuscule quantities of just one wine made of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre, which is a stunningly pure and complex Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The 2007 Clos de Brusquières Chateauneuf du Pape ($60 PWS) is a dense, concentrated wine, traditionally-styled with its intense, lush, black raspberry fruit, new saddle leather, licorice, fruitcake, smoked game, tobacco leaf, cigar box and Provençal herbs.  Full-bodied and powerful with soft acidity and firm yet supple tannins, this wine could do with another 1-2 years of cellaring and should last for 10-15 years.

The 2009 Mon Amis Rouge ($14 PWS) is a classic blend of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. Loaded with soft blackberry, cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit with hints of licorice, menthol, dried herbs and cream, the aromas carry over to the palate. Surprisingly dry with just enough structure to make it "easy drinking", try this wine with rabbit or chicken chasseur, slow-braised beef ribs or lamb stew with thyme.

The 2007 Caves de Rasteau ‘Prestige’ Rasteau Cotes du Rhône Villages ($38 PWS), a blend of 50% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre, comes from 50 year old head-pruned vines. Incredibly dense with a ruby/purple colour, the intense black raspberry, cherry, cassis and kirsch liqueur-like fruit is followed by gorgeous aromas of licorice, smoke, incense, leather and a hint of oak. The texture on the palate is pure hedonism with its full-bodied character of black and red fruit, herbs, incense, and spice. This wine literally tastes more like a Châteauneuf du Pape ($60 per bottle) than a Cotes du Rhone Village. The finish is full-bodied, and opulent with soft, velvety acidity and very firm tannins, which is in keeping with this top-notch vintage. Cellar and drink this marvelous wine over the next decade.

For a great tasting Rhone white, the 2009 Louis Bernard Cotes du Rhône Blanc ($15 LDB) is a brilliant pale yellow colour with hints of green, aromas of fresh peaches, apricots and nectarines with a splash of lemon-lime, orange marmalade and white flowers. Crisp, clean and dry with flavours of nectarine, ripe pear, peach, almonds and minerals. Excellent with pan-seared basa with mango salsa.

A classic Rhône blend of 75% Grenache & 25% Syrah, the 2008 Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône Villages ($16 LDB) is an delicious Cotes du Rhone showcasing a vibrant purple-red colour, aromas of super-ripe blackberry, cassis and raspberry with violets/roses/lilacs and sweet black licorice. The palate is full-bodied with layers upon layers of black fruit flavours, silky tannins and a concentration that puts this humble Cotes du Rhone way above its status. The creamy texture reveals a lush, velvety intensity with a long finish making this an irresistible wine to enjoy now but will reward with 2-3 years of cellaring.

In Vino Veritas

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