THE BOTTLE OPENER
I HAVE to report a doubly happy occurrence in the Bennett household the other weekend, which must have been connected to the election of Pope Francis. First I was shifting around some of the boxes in my cellar, and came across a case of wine I had completely forgotten about – a 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape from Domaine des Senechaux, which I bought a few years ago. Second, when I decided to try a bottle, it absolutely blew me away. It was one of the loveliest wines I’ve had in a long time, with a sumptuous blackcurrant taste.
It reminded me of a time around 18 months ago when I was sitting with a Chinese businessman I know, staring at the wine list. I knew I couldn’t order Claret or Bordeaux, since nothing in my budget would be good enough. Instead I opted for Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
“What’s this?” he asked. I explained a little of the history of the wine, which was made for the Medieval popes in exile, while he marvelled at the heavy bottle with the papal hat and regalia pattern on it. He was astonished when I told him the price.
“You really shouldn’t tell me all this – when people in China find out we’ll just push the price up,” he said, only half joking. I hope not – at least not yet, since Chateauneuf wines are fast becoming some of my favourites and are a tremendous place to find value for wine drinkers like me who are being priced out of other regions.
A little history. In 1308 Pope Clement V was forced to relocate the papacy to Avignon for a spell. While he was fond of a drop of Burgundy, some of the neighbouring vineyards also pandered to his tastes (understandably) and their wines became inextricably linked to him. The French wine growers, never shy of a little marketing, realised in the 19th century they had a sure-fire seller on their hands and have since milked the papal connection for all it is worth. In fact, in 1932, it was awarded the first Appellation Controllee (AOC) in the whole of France, protecting it from fakers and forgers.
What makes Chateauneuf wines interesting is not only their power, but their diversity. They have all the intensity you would expect from vineyards this far south and are helped by the low yields the local rules insist on. But, unusually, the AOC rules allow growers to include bewildering combinations of grape varieties in their blend – no fewer than 14 for the red wine alone.
In practice, most are dominated by Grenache with some Syrah and Mourvedre, but some wine makers use as many as ten, with wonderful names such as Picpoul Noir. The result is a huge variety in the style of the wines, which gives you the opportunity to explore. There are traditional Chateauneufs and modernists, which tend to be made from 100 per cent Grenache and are far lighter. I get the feeling this is a vibrant wine making region, where innovation is welcomed, in contrast to its stuffier Burgundian neighbours in the North.
And it has to be said, this is a region that is having a good run of vintages and attracting increasing amounts of international attention from people like my Chinese business friend. Chateauneuf wines have never been a bin end bargain but I detect some worrying signs of inflation, particularly among the top producers. I’m planning to put some more aside while I can still afford to.
THREE TO FOLLOW
One for the weekend
Blason des Papes 2008; £13.99 Waitrose (on special offer) A good starting place for anyone who wants to explore the region and toast Pope Francis.
One to impress the neighbours
Clos de l’Oratoire 2007; £23.00 Majestic
A wonderful, traditional Chateauneuf from a sublime year.
One to tuck away
Domaine des Senechaux, 2011 (£17.50 in bond, Berry Bros)
The younger brother of my cellar find. Excellent value from a fast-rising producer in the region.