The Papacy stayed in Avignon for less than 70 years, a period that Church historians call "the Babylonian Captivity," before returning to Rome in 1377. But the vines they planted there began a tradition that has come down to wine lovers today as one of my favorite red wines: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, "The New Castle of the Pope."
The vineyards were planted in an unusually stony, rocky soil, a happy geological coincidence that catches and stores summer heat and thus fosters full ripeness in the grapes, creating the circumstances for red wine that's characteristically robust and full-bodied. Because of the region's long tradition, many varieties of grapes were used there, and modern law permits Chateauneuf to be made from any of a shopping list of 13 kinds of grape. In practice, though, although a few traditionalists like Chateau de Beaucastel use all 13, most wineries limit their blend to a critical few: Grenache, with its bold, ripe fruit, is predominant, with earthy Mourvèdre, peppery Syrah and sturdy Cinsaut usually included. (A white Chateauneuf-du-Pape is also made, but it's relatively uncommon, and quite frankly, the best examples are expensive and the cheap examples aren't very interesting.)
Because of the grape-blend variations, not to mention significant differences in wine-making style, Chateauneuf can be a variable wine. As noted, it is usually full-bodied and fruity, sometimes peppery, sometimes earthy, and sometimes - especially from producers who emphasize the style - full of "barnyard" aromas associated with the wild yeast brettanomyces that we discussed in our Aug. 16, 1999 edition, "Bad flavors in good wines." Vintage is also a consideration in this region; although most of the years of the '90s have been good ones in Avignon, the 1997 is not highly regarded; in contrast, the 1998s - which are just coming into the marketplace in most of the world - seem to be exceptionally fine, fruity and ripe and easy to drink when young, the reward of a long, hot summer in the Rhone.
Most Chateauneuf-du-Pape can be drunk with enjoyment while it's young, then goes into a sleepy period between about four to eight years after the vintage, then finally matures into an earthy complexity that most people find most enjoyable, although the conventional wisdom is that most of these wines are best drunk up before they're 15 to 20 years old.
The combination of history, scenic interest and very fine wine makes the Avignon region a great place for wine touring. I'm looking forward to a short visit there in May.
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A good, typical Chateauneuf
Very dark reddish-purple. Floral perfume and fragrant black pepper along with subtle leathery and earthy notes. Bright red-fruit and earthy flavors consistent with the nose, peppery and tart in a long finish. U.S. Importer: Ex Cellars Wine Agencies Inc., Solvang, Calif. (Feb. 9, 2000)
FOOD MATCH: Italian sausage.
If you live within reach of Washington, D.C., the same folks who put on the Boston Wine Expo are hosting a similar show there this weekend. For more information, see Washington Wine Expo.
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Vol. 2, No. 3, Feb. 7, 2000