POPE JOHN XXII was the second of the popes to be established in exile in Avignon, at the start of the 14th century, and it was his conflict with the Franciscans which led to the election of an antipope in Rome.
He is probably better remembered today, however, as the Pape in Châteauneuf du Pape. It was he who built the castle whose ruins now dominate the skyline of the village. Interestingly, the village had been known as Castro Novo, or Châteauneuf, long before the popes’ arrival, and it was not until 1893 that it officially became known as it is now.
It is the wines of the region that have spread its repute around the world, and they, too, have an interesting history. Such was the worldwide demand in the 1930s that much inferior wine was passed off under this name. This led to the creation of the first French appellation contrôlée laws in France. These outlined what grape varieties might be planted; which vineyards could be accepted; and the minimum degree of the resultant wine.
Another piece of legislation, enacted in 1954, forbids flying saucers from flying over and landing in the vines. This led a Californian producer of wines from Rhône grape varieties, Randall Grahm, to create a label, Le Cigare Volant, created from an old picture of a Bordeaux château, with a Jules Verne-style spaceship hovering over it.
With winter upon us, it is time to seek warming wines. Few are better able to fulfil this task than a Châteauneuf du Pape. There are plenty of them available, and at a broad range of prices, but it should be borne in mind that there is often a close correlation between price and quality.
ASDA has a range of Châteauneufs, with one currently on offer at £9; however, you are more likely to get a quality wine with its Extra Special 2013 vintage at £11.50, and more particularly so with its Famille Perrin les Sinards 2010 (£25.50), as the Perrins are outstanding producers of Rhône wines.
As part of its French Collection, Lidl is offering both a red and a white Châteauneuf, the former a Comte de Mirail 2013 at £13.49, and the latter, which has full flavours of nectarines, backed by herbs, for £12.99. These two represent excellent value for money.
Further up the price range, Waitrose has three distinctive wines: the fruit-driven Arc du Rhône 2013 (£13.99), the spicy Clos Saint Michel 2012 (£19.99), and Domaine Font de Michelle 2011 (£25.99). It also has a white version of the Clos Saint Michel at the same price.
Majestic offers a Clos Saint Jean 2011, produced from 70-year-old vines of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre (£25); but Tanners of Shrewsbury is the place to go if you have money to spend on Châteauneuf. It has such outstanding wines as Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe 2011 (£39.90), and the pinnacle of the Perrin production, Château de Beaucastel 2009 (£64.50).
There is more to these wines than may be apparent: they may have the highest minimum degree of any French wine, but as for the maximum . . . you have been warned!