The Amateur Gastronomer spent the month of August in Provence, France. This is the first in a series of articles on the region.
What better way to kick off a three week trip to Provence than by tasting wines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape?
Our first weekend in the south of France happened to coincide with Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s annual Fête de la Véraison, the festival of grape ripening. For a weekend at the beginning of August the town is transformed into a medieval village to celebrate both its heritage and the upcoming harvest, complete with street performers, knights competing on horseback and of course, plenty of the famous local wine.
For its vast stretch of vineyards, the actual town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is fairly small. Five narrow roads branch out from the main square, with ruins of the 14th century château keeping watch from above. Even without the people in medieval costume it’s easy to imagine yourself stepping back in time, with the old tan and gray stone buildings and their weathered window shutters adding splashes of color.
My husband and I arrived just in time for the parade that kicked off the day’s festivities. Dozens of people dressed up as noblemen, peasants and even a prisoner walked through the streets. They were led by drummers and bagpipe players, with a group of donkeys bringing up the rear.
We started off slowly, tasting a few whites and reds while taking in the sights of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We checked out medieval themed gifts, compared cheeses and saucissons, smelled soaps made in Marseille and somehow resisted the urge to buy nougat and marzipan. We walked up to the château ruins for a great view of the surrounding vineyards and Mont Ventoux in the distance. By mid afternoon I had lost track of how many wines we tried, though the half a dozen bottles we carried around helped us remember our favorites.
In contrast to our experiences in wine shops and restaurants back home, we found many wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape to be extremely affordable. I almost didn’t trust my french when I heard that the delicious Syrah Grenache blend we were sipping cost only 5€ a bottle.
We quickly discovered this was the norm — during our three week visit we enjoyed many great bottles that cost between 5€ and 10€ from all of Provence’s wine regions. I guess in Provence the saying ‘wine is cheaper than water’ is fairly accurate.
One of our favorite wineries in Châteauneuf-du-Pape was Domaine Comte de Lauze. It is located right in town and is one of the few wineries that still does all the wine production there (the grapes grow in nearby fields). The owner took me on a tour, showing me the large stainless steel fermenting tanks on the ground floor, then down a narrow staircase to show off the barrels in the cave below ground.
Comte de Lauze’s red — a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault — was rich and silky with flavors of black cherry, licorice and pepper. At around 20€ it was on the more expensive side of the wines we tasted at the festival. The winery also produces a nice Côtes du Rhône for 8€50. It’s lighter in body and in color than the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with bright red fruit notes.
Like with many of the wines we enjoyed during our three weeks, you’ll be hard pressed to find these reds in the United States. As the owners explained, Domaine Comte de Lauze doesn’t produce enough wine to export to the U.S. But that’s part of the reason why you visit places like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, to discover special wines that you can’t get back home.
At the Fête de la Véraison there were not as many foreign tourists as I would have guessed, though I did hear English spoken when I least expected it — from one of the vineyard owners. Doug Graves, owner and winemaker at Mas de la Lionne, came to France in 2008 from Washington State. He kept the winery’s name, which goes back to the 1950s and a tale about an escaped circus lion that was said to live on the property.
Though literally across the street from Châteauneuf-du-Pape (a narrow road runs along the north side of the property), Mas de la Lionne is located in Sorgues, so the wines do not have a Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. As Doug explained, the terroir is similar and is expressed in the wines.
We tried the 2008 and 2009 Côtes du Rhône reds. After tasting the two my husband was extremely surprised to find out they were 100% Grenache, which he usually does not like. Both were upbeat and juicy with red cherry and strawberry flavors and a hint of spice on the finish. We couldn’t decide which was our favorite so we bought one bottle of each.
With our lips stained and our hands full, we decided it was time to take our bounty home to our cottage near Gordes. Only a couple of days in to our trip, we already had quite a wine collection.