Tuesday, September 21, 2010

International Grenache Day: New House of the Pope

Dating back to at least 1157, vineyards have been planted in southeastern France (see location at right) along the Rhone River. Records dating back that far indicate that Geoffrey, the Bishop of Avignon, planted vines and personally managed his own estate in his fief in Chateauneuf.

By the 1300s, Pope Clement V, the former Archbishop of Bordeaux, had planted additional vineyards in the area around the town of Avignon, but it was not until the papacy of John XXII from 1316 to 1334 that the wines from the region began to gain their reputation. John XXII made certain that wine from Chateauneuf was regularly supplied to the Papal residence. He also is responsible for the first appellation in the history of Chateauneuf, originally known as Vin du Pape and that was later to become Chateauneuf-du-Pape. John XXII also built the papal residence in Avignon.
Little is known regarding the particular vines that were originally planted, although there is mention of Counoise being a gift to the region from Spain to Pope Urban V (1362-1370). The wines of Chateauneuf were known for their superior quality and sold for 33% more than the general wines of the region. The reputation grew and, over time, the wines were transported by land and sea to the major cities of Europe and later America.

The region (extending from the city of Orange to the city of Avignon along the east bank of the Rhone) prospered for several hundred years until the 1860s when phylloxera decimated the vineyards. By that time there were records of 13 varietals planted in the vineyards in and around Avignon. These varietals are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Muscardin, Cournoise, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Roussanne, Terret Noir, Picardan, and Vaccarese.

The Chateauneuf du Pape region languished as it struggled to rebound from the destruction of the vineyards by phylloxera and, up until the time of World War I, the majority of the wine was shipped to Burgundy as vin de médecine to be added to Burgundy wine to bolster the finicky Pinot Noir wines.

The wines that were labeled as Chateauneuf du Pape were plagued by fraud, as other areas sought to profit from the area’s long-held reputation. Appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) rules (Chateauneuf du Pape was the first region with such rules) were developed by Baron Le Roy, owner of Château Fortia, that regulated the varietal make up of the wines, as well as the crop yields and alcohol levels, as many of the grapes yield thin and insipid wines at high crop levels. The Chateauneuf appellation has the highest minimum alcohol content of any appellation in France - 12.5%. However, most Chateauneuf du Papes nowadays don't have a problem in reaching 14% alcohol.

The original AOC rules (1923) allowed 10 varietals, but were soon expanded to the 13 noted above. That said, almost all of the red wines from Chateauneuf du Pape are dominated by Grenache.

Based on 2004 statistics, Grenache covers more than 72% of the 3,100 hectares (7,600 acres), followed by Syrah with a 10.5% coverage and Mourvedre at 7%. Grenache is particularly suited to the terroir of Chateauneuf du Pape, as it loves the heat and full sun in the Mediterranean climate. The soils in the north of the region are characterized by the galets roulés, round quartz pebbles and stones over red clays, although soils farther removed from the Rhone are more sand than clay-based, and more gravelly toward Avignon. The stones tend to trap the heat of the sun during the day and radiate that heat at night, keeping the vineyards warmer in the evening and accelerating the ripening process.

Grenache in Chateauneuf du Pape produces a spicy sweet juice that can have a jammy consistency when it is fully ripened. The wines tend to be soft, but often have a high alcohol content. Syrah is typically blended to provide a depth of color and black pepper spice, while Mourvedre adds refinement and backbone to the wine. Some estates produce 100% Grenache wines, while a few producers insist on using at least a token amount of all thirteen permitted varieties in their blend. The only estate that grows all thirteen varieties and uses them consistently in their wine is Château de Beaucastel.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wines are often described as having strawberry or raspberry flavors with earthy and/or gamy overtones and hints of tar and leather. A common aroma descriptor given to these wines is that of garrigue, so named for the low scrubby vegetation that grows along the Mediterranean coast. The best explanations of this aroma vary from dried Herbs de Provence to the aroma of broken twigs and leaves one smells while walking through the woods.

Historically, much of the wine was considered tough and tannic in their youth and requiring of at least 4 to 5 years of bottle age to mellow, but they did tend to keep their rich spiciness over time. Since Robert Parker began reviewing the wines of Chateauneuf in the 1980s, there has been a trend toward the wines being more approachable at bottling to appeal to a broader commercial audience. Unfortunately for fans of the wines, this trend towards a more fruit-driven, approachable style has also corresponded with a four-fold increase in prices in the past 10 years.

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