'Pope's wine' gives drinkers a sense of place, history

Dave DeSimone
| 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 ddesimone@tribweb.com.

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