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What could a hermit, a pope and a flying saucer have in common? More than you might think and it's all in France's Rhône Valley.
The Rhône Valley is a key wine-producing region in the southeast of France. It follows the north–south flow of the Rhône river for almost 150 miles from Lyon to the Rhône Delta near the Mediterranean coast.
A wide variety of soil types and mesoclimates span the length of the valley along with a naturally created division between its northern and southern parts.
The north boasts old and highly respected names, such as Hermitage and Cote Rotie, but it accounts for only 5 percent of the valley's total wine production. The remaining 95 percent is made in the south under less-prestigious, less-specific names. The south is not entirely lacking in prestige, however, as it is here that the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is located. But more on that later...
Hermitage (the Hermit) is a small appellation in the Northern Rhône with 345 acres of vineyards, responsible for some of France's most prestigious wines. These are on a par with those from the Côte Rôtie (30 miles to the north), and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (70 miles to the south). Both red and white Hermitage wines are long-lived and full-bodied.
The prestige of Hermitage (sometimes spelled Ermitage) wine can be clearly traced back to the 17th Century, when it was an official wine in the French courts of King Louis XIII and his successor Louis XIV, the "Sun King". Not just the monarchs' preferred wine, it was also used as a gift for visiting dignitaries and foreign royalty.
According to legend, the Knight Gaspard de Stérimberg returned home wounded in 1224 from the Albigensian Crusade and was given permission by the Queen of France to build a small refuge to recover in, where he remained living as a hermit (ermite in French). The chapel on top was built in honor of Saint Christopher and today is owned by the negociant Paul Jaboulet Âiné. Louis XIII made the wine a wine of the court after being offered a glass during a visit to the region in 1642. Louis XIV presented King Charles II of England with 200 casks of fine wine including examples from Hermitage, Champagne and Burgundy.
In the southern Rhône Valley, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a historic village between the towns of Orange and Avignon. It is famous for powerful, full-bodied red wines made predominantly from the classic southern Rhône grape trio: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
The name Châteauneuf-du-Pape means "new castle of the Pope", and traces back to the early 14th Century, when Avignon was chosen as the new home for the Pope's court. The incumbent Pope at that time was Clement V, whose name also features in the ancient and prestigious Château Pape Clément in Graves.
In the 1920s, Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié (owner of Château Fortia) drafted a set of quality-focused production conditions for the town's wines – a document which became the precursor of France's famous appellation system. The official Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation title declared in June 1929 was the country's very first, and remains one of the most prestigious even today.
Curiously, the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself is also famous for a municipal decree added in the 1950s that bans flying saucers from taking off, landing, or flying over the vineyards.
Bet you didn't expect that?!
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Source: wine-searcher.com, Wikipedia, Jaboulet website
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