Once upon a time, way back in the 14th century, Popes left Rome and settled in Provence. They lived a lavish life in an elaborate castle, the Papal Palace, in Avignon, a bustling city on the Rhone just west of L'Isle-la-sur-Sorgue.
When Popes tired of the ritz and glitz they escaped to the country, just a short jaunt north, to stay in a castle commissioned in 1317 by Pope John XXII, known as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Here they spent summers, roaming vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees on the 10-hectare property and perfected the art of wine making.
Today, 264 wineries exist on the expanded 3,000-hectare property where red is king, and Le Grenache grapes rule.
Renate, Carolanne and I hired a taxi to explore what has become an internationally famous wine region. We passed mile after mile of patterned vineyards and came to what is left of the castle ruins – one fragmented wall, a dungeon, and several cellars tucked into a descending stone walkway where tourists and locals frequent for wine-tasting.
We stepped inside the dark, cool musty cellar of Cave du Verger des Papes and were greeted by a dashing young man, Guy Bremond. He told us the cave was discovered only ten years ago–and then, full of rocks. When the debris was cleared away, a third-B.C. Roman quarry emerged. Once our eyes adjusted to the dimness, he led us through the dankness to a sunken 10 by 10 foot space containing two vats used for wine production 2,200 years ago. He pointed out the rectangular vats where men once crushed grapes with their bare feet and the semi-circular basins which caught the liquid. Lavender, honey, water, and Provencal herbs were added before the concoction was thrown back into the vats to ferment.
Wine making continued through the ages, and flourished during medieval times until the War of Religion. Popes grew the vines and produced the wine which supplied the Vatican up until last century. I peered closer to read the 1940 labels on dusty bottles and the wooden crates stamped Vatican. I noticed that my fingertips felt rough after touching the gritty, porous sand-colored Safre walls.
As Guy led us to the wine tasting area, he informed us of the strict rules that regulate the wine-making. Grapevines must grow on the ground. Small stones surround the vines to provide warmth and protection – the reason why Chateauneuf's red wines are so powerful and robust. No chemicals are allowed. Watering vines are forbidden. And grapes are picked by hand, ensuring that pickers bypass the 2 to 3 grape grapillion clusters that are too acidic. Harvesting is limited to only 35 liters per hectare, compared to quadrupled amounts elsewhere, such as the Bordeaux. Vines are destroyed after 120 years, as they no longer produce enough grapes.
"Are you ready to taste some wine?" Guy asked, setting goblets in front of us. We nodded. "Although wine making is heavily regulated, there are no rules for the white," he said, pouring 2002 Clos St. Henri into our glasses. We were familiar with this wine from dinner at Le Jardin, a citrusy white blended with jasmine and honey. Smooth and delicious, but, unfortunately, not for sale.
Next was 1999 Chateau de la Gardine, a white wine made with 100% Roussane grapes from an 80 year old vine. Aged in oak barrels, it tasted of smoke, wood and honey and was more concentrated and would be good with goat cheese.
And then it was time for the red. He poured a 2001 Clos St. Henri (16 Euro) that followed the strict a formula of all reds: 70% Le Grenache grapes, 20% Le Mourverde and 10% Syrah. We wrinkled our noses at the bitter taste of tannin, hardly noticing the fruit and oak. "It still needs to age, and will be better in four years," Guy said.
We went on to taste three additional red wines blended with blackberry, black currant, licorice, black cherry and even banana. The finale was a test.
He poured a 2001 L'Incompris, 100% Muscat grape (19 Euro) dessert wine. "Exhale, then take a small sniff to find the first fruit," he said. Sniff. None of us guessed correctly. Mango. "Now," he said, "Swirl it around and take a longer sniff to find the 2nd fruit." Peach! We were getting good at this. But the next sniff left us clueless. Pineapple? No, that was the 4th fruit. The third was lychee, which none of us were familiar with, a white fruit inside a nut. "Now tell me the flower." That was easy for all of us–rose.
"You passed," he said, his eyes twinkling. "You may taste now." And so we did. Sweet and fruity. A perfect complement to a flaky pastry filled with cherries, apples, raspberries, or Daniel's hazelnut cream...
Renate swirled her glass, closed her eyes and sniffed. "Ooh, do I detect mango? Peach? The slightest twinge of pineapple?" She got serious for a moment. "You know, I'd like to try this experiment on my husband. Can I buy a bottle?"
But of course. And so the purchases began. And although tempting, we kept our bottles wrapped for the remainder of the week, eager to share a bit of Provence with our friends and family.