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Sublime Wine

The author in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

"It is a maudlin and indecent verity that comes out through the strength of wine."

- Joseph Conrad

Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the holidays

Even though I am a grown-up, my parents always give me money for the holidays. It arrives before Thanksgiving, in a autumnal-themed card accompanied with a little handwritten note that says something like, “Dearest Paula, we thought you could use your xmas present a little early this year, love mom and dad.” Within a few days of this delightful “surprise,” I receive an email from my mother detailing gift ideas for her and my father.

Every year from November through December, many of us Christian-bred adults become dissociated zombies wandering through nauseating shopping malls repeating an array of familiar mantras: I must find the perfect socks for Uncle Joe…What to get my secret Santa? In this anxious haze, you might find yourself asking what this Christmas gift-giving is all about? Why doesn’t my mother just keep her money and buy the gift herself?

I’m sure in the hearts and minds of some devoted Christians it is indeed a celebration of the birth of Christ, but for the religiously lackadaisical types, the laissez-faire practitioners, i.e. my family, the pale presence of Jesus in our lives was relegated to a painfully long Christmas and Easter church service. Admittedly, as a child struggling to sit still on hard, cushionless church pews, it was thoughts of the jolly, upbeat Santa Claus and the stack of colorful presents awaiting me that embodied my winter hopes and dreams—not the ill-fated baby Jesus.

It’s not that Jesus was entirely absent from our family’s celebrations. He was there only in miniature, as a manger prop, on top of which were piled the glitz and subterfuge of Christmas. Our little wooden manger was wedged under the spiny needles of the tree like a serious dollhouse, stuffed with ribbons of fake hay, which we children were not allowed to play with, though the cat always managed to knock a little stuffing out each year till the figures looked cold and non-inspirational.

To maintain sanity through this spiritually schizophrenic season, I am strategically paring down my engagements to sparse, meaningful gatherings with those family and friends whom I simply cannot bear to be without. And luckily for me and my propensity for fine wine, my mother’s check is always much larger than the cost of the gifts she is suggesting that I buy for her and my father.

For this year’s celebrations, I am inexplicably (remnants of repressed Catholicism?) once again drawn to the white and red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is a somewhat suspicious seasonal affinity, considering the origins of this region are intimately connected with the medieval papacy.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most important wine area in the southern Rhône region of France. It is also the name of a quaint village that is located just north of the city of Avignon, where the papal court temporarily relocated from Rome in the 14th century. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which means “new castle of the Pope,” was the summer residence for Pope Clément V and his successor John XXII, who is credited with planting the first vines of this now famous wine region.

When I visited Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the winter of 2003 with a group of American retailers on tour with a French wine importer, the area was experiencing a freak snowstorm, an exceptionally rare event in this Mediterranean-influenced climate. With a scarcity of shovels, no snowplows and dangerously icy roads, one four-wheel drive vehicle was procured and designated to pick up the four winemakers that we were scheduled to meet that afternoon in the infamous La Mere Germaine restaurant.

Located in the heart of the village, La Mere Germaine was founded by a chef to the presidents of France and is a well-known hub for wheeling and dealing wine. We huddled in a back room of the restaurant at a long, farmer’s-style dining table that overlooked the snowy, back streets of the village. For the next four hours I was seductively initiated into the wonders of French cuisine. Course by course, from thick soups smelling of Provencal herbs to duck confit and formidable slabs of foie gras, we sipped and analyzed the wines alongside the dishes. For each wine we queried the winemakers about the grapes, vineyards, soils, character of the vintage, and the potential to age.

The heavenly food, the intense expressions on the winemakers’ faces as they spoke through our translator about the history of the wines and region, the snow and the silence it brought over the village are forevermore fused in my memory with the wines I tasted that day. The world outside seemed to dissipate with the rush of snowflakes. The sentiments of our group were rarely at one, but on this extraordinary day, everyone expressed both deep contentment and awe at the ability of the wine to match and even surpass the culinary and visual comforts of our surroundings. The superb quality of the wine was unquestionable.

From that fated day onward, I came to believe, and I am not alone in this opinion, that the wines of the southern Rhône and those of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in particular are some of the most luscious and intellectually engaging in the world of wine.

The quality of any wine begins in the vineyard. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the vines are by law farmed only by organic or biodynamic methods. The vines are planted in ancient, glacier-made riverbeds covered with galets or “pudding stones.” These large, oval-shaped, smooth stones soak up the heat from the sun during the day and keep the vines warm through the night. They also provide excellent drainage so that the vines never suffer “wet feet.” The reflection of the sun off of the stones and onto the vines combined with a continual dry wind called le mistral keep the grapes healthy and mold free during verasion—he all-important turning point when marble-like tart green grapes begin to ripen into fleshy, sweet red grapes.

The purity in the vineyards is reflected in the wine. Hand-harvested grapes are gently pressed, left unfiltered, and then aged in large, seasoned oak barrels called foudres. The resulting wine is superbly crafted yet natural tasting with expressive fruit and herbal nuances, or garrigue, that is so distinctive of place that it is unlike any other. In addition to the uniqueness of the soil and climate, red Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a sort of “cocktail,” utilizing up to eight different red and six white grapes. In practice, Grenache, the region’s most celebrated variety, followed by Syrah, Mourvèdre, and a dash of Cinsault, dominates red Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Miniscule quantities of white Châteauneuf-du-Pape are produced from Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Picpoul, and Picardin—not well-known names to the wine novice! A mere seven percent of the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are white, but they are well worth seeking out. Medium to full in body, these wines are packed with stunning richness and flavors of orange marmalade, almonds, star fruit, honey blossom, and a crème brûlée creaminess. For value, check out a Côtes du Rhône blanc, which uses some of the same grapes.

Though it is one of the oldest wine growing regions in France, until recent years wine aficionados often overlooked the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in favor of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Not so nowadays, as collectors are turning to this region for excellence and value. Early drinkability is one of the many merits of red Châteauneuf-du-Pape, although it is capable of ageing 15 to 25 years. It is much more accessible and indeed, hedonistic, early on, without the long aging required to pull together a truly complex Bordeaux. Depending on the winemaker’s blend of grapes, red Châteauneuf-du-Pape may vary from dark and muscular wines, laden with blackberry, truffles, meat juices, and licorice to an almost Burgundian style bursting with red raspberry liqueur, kirsch, and roasted herbs. These wines soar with savory complexity and are perfect matches for slow-cooked dishes, such as braised meats, wild mushroom risotto, coq au vin, or lamb stew.

When shopping for a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape you will notice the wine comes in a heavy, Burgundy-shaped (shoulders sloping) bottle embossed with variations of the Pope’s tiara—a triple crown above two crossed keys—meant to symbolize the Pope’s spiritual authority over all secular rulers.

Perhaps one is never entirely free from childhood religious experiences, just as we are forever connected to our hometowns. This holiday season, as I tip a few bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and find myself lulled into the sublime memories of one snowy afternoon, I might have to unpack that scrawny manger. On second thought, maybe I’ll just pour a sip of cognac from the tiara of my ceramic Pope decanter and give thanks for the so many gifts that can neither be bought nor wrapped. Happy Holidays!

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