YV&C News Desk
A Taste of the Sun
Wines of the southern Rhone valley
Apr. 18, 2007 07:45 PM
Of all the words that comes to mind when describing the remarkable wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, glamorous is not high on the list. Here in the southern Rhone valley you won’t find multi-million dollar wineries or multi-star restaurants. And despite the name, there’s hardly a chateau to be found. But the wines are profound, complex, and in a world where it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between a cab from California and a boutique wine from Bordeaux they have a character that’s all their own.
This was driven home some years back as we drove north from Marseilles in an effort to make the best of a week when the sky turned from radiant blue to drizzly gray. It was October and, as often happens this time of year, sunny Provence was anything but. Wine tasting was clearly the only sensible option.
The town of Chateauneuf-du-Pape barely rises above a gently rolling plain on the right bank of the Rhone a scant hour’s drive north of the French Riviera. Old farmhouses poke out of the surrounding vineyard-covered landscape, their ordinariness belying the riches in their cellars. At award-winning Bosquet des Papes most of the muddy parking lot was occupied by a brand-new tractor and other unidentifiable farm machinery. The mistress of the house strode towards us outfitted in high Wellingtons and an oversized umbrella and pointed to the garage. Madame Boiron, the wife of the wine maker, led us in, right past the lines of drying laundry to a small, plain door in the back. But just because the cellar is camouflaged by the morning wash doesn’t mean the Boirons don’t take their wine very seriously. Bosquet des Papes makes wines in the traditional style, earthy, peppery and showing their best once they’ve aged a decade or more. The producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are allowed to mix up to 13 types of grapes into their wine though they can use just one if they choose to. Bosquet des Papes occasionally makes a wine using 100 per cent Grenache, but more typically they also add Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault to round out the wine as well as obscure local varieties like Vaccarèse and Counoise which give the wine its peppery notes. Once inside the cellar we soon forget the cold, damp wind whistling through the gnarled old vines ouside. As Madame Boiron pours the wine our glasses fill with the aromas of hot summer: of lavender, cherries and herbs. The wines taste of red fruit and licorice and spice.
Bosquet des Papes means “the pope’s grove” though it is unclear whether any pontiff actually owned the land around here. One pope did however build a fortress near the town of Chateauneuf when the papacy was exiled to Avignon in the 1300s, thus giving the appellation it’s name. The holy fathers apparently did not care much for the local wines though. The wines were long considered rough and rustic.
The local soil is as much a curse as blessing. Though perhaps soil isn’t quite the right term for the pebble and bolder covered fields striped with vines. But the rocks are indispensable, for they reflect and focus the summer sun’s rays giving the wines their characteristic intensity. Much like the sun-worshipers who descend on the beaches of the nearby Côte d’Azur, the grapes soak in the rays from both top and bottom. The danger is that all that sun can make the wines coarse instead of balanced. But in the right hands they are delightfully multi-dimensional. These days, the great wines of estates like Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, Château de la Nerthe, M. Chapoutier and Le Bosquet des Papes could hardly be accused of inelegance, with prices that reflect their craftsmanship. Yet controversy swirls around the wines, not due to quality but due to style.
It’s only short drive from the modern farmhouse of Bosquet des Papes with its traditional wines to Chateau de la Nerthe. The foundations of this particular chateau do go back some seven hundred years but as far as the wines go, they are ultra-modern. Ready to drink almost the day they are bottled with plenty of sweet fruit and vanilla. Don’t get me wrong, La Nerthe’s wines are delightful, though I prefer their regular bottling with its scents of chocolate, tobacco and spice to their top offering, the “Cuvée des Cadettes” and its more obvious pleasures. For me, it is perhaps too glamorous.
Still, as the steady drizzle outside the tasting room turned into a downpour, I was not about to quibble with just what sort of pleasure swirled in my glass.