Back Story: Red wine with papal ties

"Men are like wine — some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age."

— Pope John Paul XXIII

Nelson Carey, the genial publican at Belvedere Square's Grand Cru wine bar, is naturally filled with interesting and offbeat wine, beer and booze trivia, which on occasion he dispenses to interested listeners.

The other day, while talking to several regulars about Pope Francis, he uncorked the fact that Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the great, robust red from France's Rhone Valley region, has direct papal ties.

The one regular smarty who knew this was "Father" Joe Chamberlin, a retired Catholic Relief Services worker and writer who earlier in life briefly studied for the priesthood. But for the rest at the bar, it was something that was new, and both historically and religiously fascinating.

"You can even see the papal seal on the bottle," said Carey, as he showed a bottle of the wine to onlookers.

It all started, Carey explained, with Pope Clement V, who reigned from 1305 to 1314. Because of ill health and unsettled political conditions in Rome and Italy, he moved the papacy in 1309 to Avignon, where he started the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and indulged his habit of drinking and enjoying wine.

Resettling in Avignon was not a capricious decision. Clement V — who was born Bertrand de Got — knew this part of the world and its traditions of winemaking, having been born in Bordeaux and later serving as Archbishop of Bordeaux.

For the next 70 years, from 1305 to 1377, the Holy See was ruled by French popes at Avignon who enjoyed wine and were in the right place for it.

This period has been described by Italian religious historians as the "Babylonian Captivity" or the "Avignon Papacy."

With Clement's arrival in Avignon, he planted vines in a rocky area that produced Chateauneuf-du-Pape and established a village of the same name. The grapes were also grown in two other nearby villages.

He also built a summer palace, which was called Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or the "new chateau of the pope."

After Clement's death in 1314 and a two-year interregnum, Jacques Dueze, who took the name Pope John XXII after being crowned in Lyon, became the second pope of the Avignon Papacy.

He continued to live the good life in Avignon while drinking its wine, which became known as "Vin du Pape."

While we may forget Pope John XXII, Pope Clement's name lives on in Chateau Pape Clement, a Graves claret, which it is said he once owned.

The curtain came down on the Avignon popes when Pope Gregory XI, "obviously no wine connoisseur," wrote The Baltimore Sun wine critic Michael Dresser in a 1992 article, returned to Rome.

"There are 13 permitted grape varietals — including white varietals — that can go into producing Chateauneuf-du-Pape," according to Carey.

"Although Chateauneuf-du-Pape, from France's Rhone Valley, may never possess the elegance and longevity of a great Bordeaux, the mystique and prestige of a wine from the famous vineyards of Burgundy or the perfumed rarity of a top-notch Barolo or Barbaresco, what it does offer is immediate gratification both intellectual and hedonistic in nature," wrote wine expert Robert M. Parker in a 2006 article in Food & Wine.

Parker advised that Chateauneuf-du-Pape should be enjoyed within four or five years of vintage "although a handful can age far longer."

He also described the wine as being "cunningly powerful and heady in alcohol, averaging 14 percent or more."

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