The C9P region in France has made wines since the time Avignon was the seat of the Pope. Here are a few things that set these wines apart from the other famous and expensive appellations of the world
RECENTLY, I was honoured by one of the oldest wine regions in the world. This was right after a skiing sojourn in Val Thorens and just before a hedonistic jaunt through the gastronomic delights of France’s good food capital Lyon.
The wine region, which issued the said summons, is known as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or C9P. The reason for the invite was my intronisation into the inner sanctums of this hallowed wine fraternity, one which has made wines since when Avignon was the seat of the Pope. Actually, the region has made wine for even longer and since much earlier, but it was the presence of the Popes that gave the region its initial bout of fame.
But what makes it so unique and different may not be so easily understood. Here are a few things that set these wines apart from the other famous and expensive appellations of the world:
1. Chateauneuf wines can be white or red, but never rosé.
2. The wines can be made from a blend of 13 permitted grape varieties. When one starts including the other coloured variants of certain grapes (like Grenache Blanc and Piquepoul Gris), the number goes up to 18! To choose which ones to plant and how to eventually blend them remains the choice of the winemakers. In most cases, winemakers work with three-five varieties, of which Grenache Noir is principle, followed by Syrah and Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carrignan.
3. The region is known for having vineyards covered in rolled white stones (like large pebbles) known as galets and these stones define the terroir of the region: retaining moisture in summers, protecting the soil surface during rains, absorbing heat in winters and reflecting it back at night to keep the vines from freezing.
4. The vines (mandatory for Grenache Noir and Mourvedre) are generally planted as small bushes (gobelet-style) to protect them from the harsh winds that besiege the area. Anything higher would be susceptible to breaks and diseases. Also, this planting style is great for the quality and ripeness of the fruit even though tending to such vineyards (as also harvesting) has to be manual and is rather labourious.
5. So defined has been the style of wines and so precise their focus on quality since time immemorial that when the appellation system was being devised for French wine regions, this was the first to be classified (circa 1936).
6. However, that didn’t stop the locals from making up their own laws. The region is so protective of its vineyards that a rule was passed in the 1950s allowing no UFOs to land, take off or fly over the area!
7. Among the popular producers, this time, I visited Vieux Telegraphe, which makes a lovely C9P called La Crau. Another house, which makes good C9P, is Pierre Usseglio & Fils, especially their Cuvee de Mon Aieul. Domaine l’Or de Line is one of the few biodynamically-managed properties in the region. Add to this list Rayas, Beaucastel, Clos de l’Oratoire, Chateau La Nerthe, Domaine de Nalys… I could literally fill this space with worthy references.
8. The one reason, in spite of its fame, I still feel C9P is yet to receive the merit it deserves is because, for the quality of wines to be found here, the price one pays is definitely a lot more affordably attractive than in other regions of similar stature. Gigondas next door may be cheaper, but if you compare Bordeaux and Burgundy to C9P, you will see that with stricter yield restrictions to ensure better concentration, it’s C9P that makes some truly laudable wines that are still accessibly-priced.
9. The one thing that I feel the region lacks is some clarity, as to how the wines are to be aged before being released. Sure enough, the price will reflect the difference between a wine that’s oak-aged and one that is not, but having a more formal system in place (like the Reserva in Chianti or the Crianza in Rioja) would help further distinguish the wine styles, which would make it easier for a consumer to choose a wine for drinking versus cellaring.
10. With my new key, I am now a member of the elite Eschansonnerie des Papes and this key allows me access to all the cellars of the region. While that is certainly an honour, I would do good to remember to spit at tastings during visits or else I could end up being stopped for drinking and driving and, as someone quipped, that’s when one would know the key’s real value: if not just cellars, but also cells could be opened with it.
The writer is a sommelier