In 1309 Pope Clement V settled in Avignon, France, and turned Rome into a branch office of the papacy. It's not clear whether he went there for the wine, but if he did, he made a great choice.
That's because just to the north, across the Rhone River, is an area where the soil is so stony that virtually the only crop that will grow there is the sturdy grapevine. Amid those vineyards, Clement's thirsty successors established a new castle (chateau neuf) where the papes could get away from the debauchery and dirt of Avignon proper. Thus was born Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the village that would give the world some of its most powerful and fascinating red wines.
Avignon's glory days ended 67 years later when Pope Gregory XI, obviously no wine connoisseur, left southern France for Rome, where the wines aren't in the same league. The French city amused itself for another four decades with a string of of rival pontiffs, known to history as the anti-popes, but somehow it just wasn't the same.
The French papacy doesn't make any of the Vatican's highlight films. The Avignon popes were, after all, some of the less holy Holy Fathers. Still, they were good for the wine business in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and without them the region faded into obscurity. Far from the court at Paris, Chateauneuf wines never achieved the fame of Burgundy. And lacking easy access to the Atlantic, they could never compete with Bordeaux for the affections of British imbibers.
It's only now, more than 600 years later, that Chateauneuf-du-Pape is beginning to recover some of its old eminence. While some claret fiends persist in labeling Chateauneuf as a rustic, overly alcoholic wine, anybody who has ever tasted a 1978 Chateau Rayas or a 1981 Chateau Beaucastel can attest to the depth, fragrance and complexity a mature Chateauneuf can achieve.
Best of all, the glorification of Bordeaux and Burgundy has left the Rhone -- especially the southern Rhone, including Chateauneuf -- relatively undervalued. No, Chateauneuf-du-Papes aren't as cheap as they used to be, but you can still find quite a few excellent examples for less than $20 a bottle. Comparable quality would probably cost you $40 in Bordeaux and $60 in Burgundy.
Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape (there's also a white, but that's another story) is just coming off an extraordinary run of great vintages, 1988, 1989 and 1990. The first two are in the market now, and savvy wine consumers will make every effort to stock up.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape has particular charms for the impatient wine consumer. In many cases, it will take years to reach its peak and then last for decades more, but seldom does it ever go through such a closed-in phase that it is unpleasant to drink. The same can't be said for Bordeaux.
Like Bordeaux, most Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a blend of grape varieties. There are 13 legally approved grapes that can go into the mixture, but only grenache, syrah, morvedre and cinsault play an important role.
The best three or four Chateauneuf estates have begun to climb beyond the reach of most wine budgets. Chateau Rayas will run you $50, if you can find it, and Chateau Beaucastel has jumped from less than $20 to about $30 because of its magnificent performance in 1989.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of gems among those that remain. Based on recent tastings, here are some of the best:
*1989 Les Cailloux, Lucien and Andre Brunel ($20). This is a classic! It combines power and elegance as few wines do. It's simply packed with flavor -- blackberry, black raspberry, minerals and spice. One of those rare wines that's delightful young but that will last decades. Bravo!
*1989 La Bernardine, Chapoutier ($19). Intense and complex, with loads of ripe fruit and nuances of chocolate and spice. You can drink it now, but in five to 10 years it leaps to even greater heights.
*1989 Cuvee du Belvedere, Le Boucou ($17). A big, rich wine with a seductively supple and silky texture and intense pepper and earth flavors. There's enough backbone to last a a decade, but it's so delicious now you might as well just drink it. A great value.
*1989 Vieux Telegraphe ($20). This popular wine has firmed up since I tasted it last fall and is now showing greater depth and power. It's an enormous wine with loads of blackberry and spice. A few years of cellaring will help.
*1989 Chante Cigale ($20). This is a big, rustic, tannic wine that requires some patience. It shows enormous potential, with delicious flavors of earth and herbes de Provence, but real grace and smoothness is at least five years off. Tasted twice, it showed significant bottle variation.
*1989 Domaine de Montpertuis, Paul Jeune ($20). There's a lot going on here -- generous fruit, chocolate, leather, herbes de Provence. It's a bit tight now, but in five to 10 years it could be a star performer.