The town of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is overlooked by the ruins of a tower from the castle erected on a low hill by Pope John XXII in 1317. From here one looks over the old town, the Rhone river and the vineyards of this area which are known amongst wine lovers as introducing the appellation system to France in 1923. Appellation rules control which grape varieties may be grown and where and the alcohol levels of wine. The red wines, for which the area is famous, are blends in which up to thirteen different varieties are allowed, though Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre are most used.

A feature of the vineyards are the large rounded stones that completely cover the earth. In ancient times this was the bed of a huge river and the stones have been smoothed and rounded by the motion of water over centuries. When stones have to be cleared to plant a vine, they are replaced. The stones soak up sun rays and release heat slowly overnight, protecting vines from cold and frosts, and in the summer helping ripen grapes and give them an intense flavour.

Chateaunef-du-Pape means the new castle of the Pope, though the town was called Chateuneuf before Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to nearby to Avignon in 1309.

I recently visited Avignon again, this time on a Viking River Cruise. With the boat moored under Avignon’s city walls I took an organised coach tour through Chateaunef-du-Pape’s vineyards to a hurried crowded and disappointing tasting of three overpriced wines at a commercial winery’s tasting room.

But after inspecting the ruined castle and its views I walked down the short path into the old town and found a score of wine shops, many owned by small wineries. Here one can taste at your own pace and for free.

I didn’t have much time and was first attracted by Domaine La Consonnier whose sign said their Grenache vines are more than 100 years old. After tasting I bought Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2012, made from 85% Grenache and 15% Mourvedre. The family have been growing grapes and making wines for sale to negotients since 1890. In 2009 great-great-grandson Sebastien Cuscusa decided to bottle and sell the family’s wines direct to the public. This was a delicious wine, full bodied with a taste that brought back memories of the scents of the area.

Another shop that caught my eye was Domaine Croze-Granier. The shop was managed by grandmother who spoke no English and I speak no French. But I gather her family have farmed the property for five generations. From the wines I tasted I bought Domaine de la Croze Granier ‘Ancien Domaine des Pontifes’ Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2014, a blend of 80% Grenache, 20% Syrah & 10 % Mourvèdre from 60 year old organically grown vines.

I also picked up a bottle of Domaine de la Croze Granier 2013 Lirac, a deliciously drinkable blend of 70 % Grenache, 30 % Syrah which I enjoyed with lunch on the boat.

It’s unlikely that these specific wineries will be available in your local store, but give Châteauneuf-du-Pape a try soon. Their heavy bottles embossed with crossed Papal keys impress and they impress more in the glass with a richness and warmth.

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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

Disclosure: Peter F May paid in full for all travel, tastings and wine.

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