Friday, March 13, 2009

The Pope’s New House is All about Wine

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a village dedicated to wine, and even comes with a papal blessing. The name translates as the "Pope’s new house", and at one time it was. Pope Jean XXII had the chateau built in 1320, and it became the summer palace of future Popes of Avignon. The chateau was destroyed by the Protestants of Montbrun in 1562, and the town ravaged by Calvinist twice during the Wars of Religion. If only they’d drunk the wine first, all of this unpleasantness could have been avoided.

The final blow came during World War II when the retreating Germans destroyed the chateau. Now only two walls remain of the building that defines one of the most interesting wines of the Southern Rhône. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is made from up to thirteen grape varieties. Yes, you read that right. I can hardly imagine blending five grapes in a Meritage blend, how do they manage thirteen? Quite well, thank you, if the 2005 vintage is any guide.

There are three key elements of any Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The base grape is usually Grenache, the workhorse of Southern Rhone wines, and also of Spain where it is called Garnacha and is Espana’s most heavily planted grape. Its sweet berry flavors and low tannins make it an ideal candidate for the Rosé wines of Tavel and Lirac. The structure and tannin comes from the Syrah grape, and Mourvèdre adds muscle, deep color, and jammy blackberry favors. What they do with the other ten grapes I haven’t a clue, but I see them as brush marks on the canvas created by the three main grapes.

I recently tried two very different Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, both from the very good 2005 vintage. The 2005 Pere Caboche Mirande Châteauneuf Du Pape was closer to what I expected in this wine, jammy fruit, good tannins, raspberry in the nose and cherry and plum in the palate. A good entry, but a bit more heat and less balance than the second wine a 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape La Tiare du Pape (the Pope’s Crown).

This is a wine from the Skalli Family Wines Americas, more specifically the Maison Bouachon vineyards. Blackberries and cherries and plum predominate on the palate, but with more subtlety than the Pere Caboche Mirande. The three principal grapes constitute 97% of the wine with a number of other grapes rounding out the blend.

I must confess I didn’t allow enough time for the wine to open up before sampling, and picked up more depth as it had more time to breathe. I’d recommend a full hour in a carafe before indulging, as is true for many of these wines. I had also expected a bigger wine after trying the Maison Bouachon Cotes-du-Rhone, and that colored my first impression. Many of us bring our expectations to a wine, and it can have a negative impact on our appreciation.

If you have not had a chance to sample Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, or had tried them long in the past, now is the time to savor the wines of this village, blessed by a Pope during its founding, and blessed by the warm weather and stony soils of today. Salut!

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