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The Pope's White Wine 

Getting to know Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc

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I'm frequently asked about my favorite wine. And, I don't usually have a ready answer because the wine I'm drinking depends greatly on the food I'm eating (or not eating), the company I'm with, price, location, time, temperature and other factors. I don't really have a "favorite wine." Rather, I have lots of favorites.

Having begged the question, I will say that if I were exiled to a remote island and could only bring one type of wine with me, it would probably be Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I adore its racy, dense, earthy red wines, but my one true love is that lesser-known little tart of the southern Rhône: Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc.

White Châteauneuf-du-Pape is always made from some (but rarely all) of the following six grape varieties: Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Picpoul and Picardan. But let's back up just a bit. This strange-sounding French wine translates as "new castle of the Pope" and is named for the time in the 14th century when the walled-in city of Avignon, in the south of France, was the Pope's residence, instead of Rome. The town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is only about 15 minutes or so from Avignon, and the region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape—the southernmost of the important Rhône wine appellations—boasts the world's best producers of this extraordinary wine: Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateau Rayas, Chateau La Nerthe, Domaine de la Charbonnière and the like.

Unfortunately, white Châteauneuf-du-Pape tends to be as pricey, if not more so, than the red. Less than 5 percent of all Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine produced in France is Blanc, and very little of that finds its way to America. But it can be found—at a price. Here, grand vin Château de Beaucastel Blanc will run you about $93 a bottle, and the crème de la crème Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes can set you back as much as $160, depending on its vintage.

Beaucastel Blanc is made from 80 percent Roussanne, 15 percent Grenache Blanc and 5 percent Bourboulenc, while the Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes is a very rare 100 percent Roussanne. Roussanne—which is the primary varietal of much high-end Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc—is an aromatic, stylish and elegant grape. It's frequently blended with Marsanne to take the edge off of that varietal.

A good Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (and there are plenty of insipid ones in the south of France) is a very dry wine that's loaded with mineral flavors, along with ripe peach, pear and melon. Chateau de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is typically a "fat" wine that will age well in the cellar. I can't imagine a better match for a simple roast chicken with lemon and thyme or rosemary.

Sadly, I can't often afford real Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whether red or white. But I've become very fond of a poor-man's substitute: La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Luberon Blanc. You can't beat the price at $7.99 for a 750ml bottle or $16.99 for 1500ml. It is a blend of equal parts (30 percent each) Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Ugni Blanc, and 10 percent Roussanne.

An even better Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc substitute is Tablas Creek Vineyard Cotes de Tablas Blanc ($24.99). The grapes come from Tablas Creek's certified organic estate vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif. It's a blend of four estate-grown southern Rhône varietals: Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne. As in the great white wines of the southern Rhône, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne provide fruitiness and a bit of fatness to this wine, while Viognier lends floral aromatics and stone-fruit flavors. It would be lovely for Valentine's Day sipping.

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