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At my wine store and lounge, SOMM Wines in Fairfield, choosing the perfect wine to highlight a specific dish could be considered an art form. Each wine exhibits its own uniqueness, developed over years, sometimes centuries. It reflects the soil, region and particular vintage, but did you ever wonder how these dominant characteristics arose? Why do certain regions and varietals gain strength while others wither? Many outside factors, including religion, have shaped the history of wine and played a major part in the genesis of some spectacular wine regions. One such area in France’s Rhone Valley provides not only the quintessential pairing for the featured recipe but also an interesting history lesson.
The wine region Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CDP for short) translates to Pope’s New Castle and is a perfect example why we wine geeks get into the business. It combines our love of history and wine, illustrating how world events shape winemaking. In 1303, King Phillip IV of France, furious from years of bickering with the Papal States, kidnapped Pope Boniface VIII, setting off a cluster of disasters. When the Pope later died from his injuries in captivity, King Phillip IV proceeded to hand-select his own Pope, a loyal supporter of the French crown, and stationed him in Avignon, not Rome. Obviously Rome did not approve. Over the next 67 years, called the Avignon Papacy, seven different French Popes reigned simultaneously with their elected Roman counterparts. Imagine: two different men claiming to be Pope at the same time! Once the Papacy officially returned to Rome in the early 1400s, the French Popes were considered heretic, or "antipopes," and the Roman Popes were written into history as righteous.
This medieval manipulation of power directly influenced the plantings in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, only 7 miles from Avignon. Because King Phillip had brought worldwide attention and travelers to the region, he ordered the development of nearby lands to produce world-class wines, hoping to cement his legitimacy and support for Avignon. Wine was considered a necessity, not a luxury, to both the Papacy and Crown. Had King Phillip IV not intervened in church business, the wine industry in the Rhone Valley, Châteauneuf-du-Pape specifically, may not have developed into the powerhouse region it is today.
To illustrate the layers and depth of this region, I chose the delicious bottling Domaine de la Janasse, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France 2018 ($69.99). It drinks dark, rich and chewy with notes of fig, blackberry and raspberry fruit mingled with a touch of game and bramble. A combination of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, this old vine cuvee comprises 40 percent of its fruit from 100-year-old vines. It drinks like the land from which it is made: boastful, velvety, like a bear rug in front of a roaring fire. Unlike their meddling predecessors, Janasse farms the land organically and with very little intervention.
If history has taught us anything, it is that wine is an everchanging landscape with each vintage renewing our interest; however, the choices made centuries ago still impact the industry today.
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