'Pope's wine' gives drinkers a sense of place, history
By Dave DeSimone
Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The Conclave of Catholic Cardinals' recent papal elections riveted attention on the Vatican in Rome. After two days of voting, the new Pope Francis greeted the faithful.
Centuries ago, in 1305, a much different papal election unfolded with profound implications for wine. A highly politicized, deadlocked Conclave finally tapped the French-born Archbishop of Bordeaux who became Pope Clement V.
The new pope refused to leave France and transferred papal administration to Provence in southeastern France. Known as Le Comtat Venaissin, this independent papal enclave encompassed thousands of stony rolling plains around Avignon.
Seven French popes presided in France until 1378, when Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome. The second of the Avignon popes, John XXII, adored Burgundy wines; yet, he resolved to improve the wines made around Avignon.
Perhaps convenience and lower costs inspired him to drink local wines rather than import Burgundies from the north. Whatever the motives, regional wines gained fame as Vin de Pape, or “Wine of the Pope.”
Pope John XXII favored a princely lifestyle. He directed the building of a castle in a rustic village near Avignon for a summer residence. Similar to Castel Gandolfo, the castle near Rome where the modern, Pope-emeritus Benedict now resides, the French version became known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. or “New Castle of the Pope.”
Today, the village uses the name Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but only remnants remain of the actual castle that featured large gardens, vineyards and olive tree groves. Perched on a hilltop for defensive purposes, the castle originally included a large central building with four towers and a pontifical wine cellar.
The floor above the cellar served as Pope John XXII's ceremonial hall for festive banquets. The sybaritic pontiff reserved the castle's top floor for his private apartments.
After the popes returned to Rome, winemaking remained an important regional product even as the wines' international prestige diminished. As in all of France, the nettlesome phylloxera mite devastated Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards in the 19th century.
After recovery in the early 20th century, northern wine producers bought Châteauneuf-du-Pape's famously robust reds for blending. Added to northern wines from Burgundy and elsewhere, they boosted alcohol and body to produce more balanced table wines.
The system, however, undermined Châteauneuf-du-Pape's reputation, integrity and, most importantly to southern winemakers, prices in the marketplace. Eventually Château Fortia's Baron Pierre le Roy led Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers to adopt production rules designed to ensure minimum quality.
Relying on limited yields, prescribed grape varieties, and a delimited production area, the rules served as a model for France's mod ern “Appellation d'origine contrôlée” or AOC. The system now prevails throughout France.
At its core, the AOC system enshrines the concept of terroir. That is, wines produced from specific grapes grown in certain, defined areas with common climate, geology and traditions should reflect fundamental traits that define each terroir's distinctive personality and sense of “place.”
In Châteauneuf-du-Pape's case, this means limiting the production to grapes grown in about 8,000 acres in the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, itself, and surrounding communes of Bédarrides, Courthézon and Sorgues. The area features arid, rolling plains of clay, sand and limestone covered with galets — smooth, round pebbles of varying sizes — and garrigue — wild, aromatic scrubs such as lavender, thyme and rosemary. Hot summers and cold winters with the infamous, hard-blowing Mistral wind also shape the fruit's character.
The AOC rules permit blending nine red-skinned varieties with nine white- (or pink-) skinned varieties, including the obscure bourboulenc and the wonderfully named piquepoul blanc — the “white lip stinger.” As a practical matter, most red Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines blend primarily grenache noir, syrah and mourvèdre.
In a nod to the appellation's papal roots, an embossed version of the papal seal and regalia adorns today's distinctive Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottles.
Try the terrific 2009 Domaine Pierre Usseglio et Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape “Tradition,” France (Luxury 36299; $49.99). Made from a blend of grenache, cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre vines ranging in age from 35 to 75 years, the wine embodies classic Châteauneuf-du-Pape at its well-balanced best.
Inviting ripe raspberry aromas meld with liquorices, fresh herbs and smoked meats. Flavors of ripe, dark fruits mix with savory, meaty notes balanced with fine acidity and smooth tannins. Try it with lamb stew. Highly recommended.
Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Gorman: Pitt should be happy with Dixon
- Burrell’s Edwards 1 of 4 WPIAL wrestlers to reach PIAA Class AA finals
- Penguins notebook: Maatta leaves lasting impression with Selanne
- Trade to Penguins caps frenetic period for winger Stempniak
- Ex-NHL player Moore frustrated $38 million lawsuit still in courts
- St. Vincent falls in Division III tournament
- Steelers restructure Brown’s contract to become salary cap compliant
- ‘The Honeymooners’ actress Sheila McCrae dies at 92
- Burrell girls eye improvement even after easy win in PIAA opener
- Derry’s Phillippi upset in PIAA quarterfinals
- Free-throw shooting keys Fox Chapel’s opening-round win