Up the Rhône river the Romans came, bringing wine and vines to France, which is one reason to love this region, although there are others. Here, the past seems to pile up in sedimentary layers wherever we look, heaped reminders that our roots run deep and the present is merely topsoil.
In the summer of 2019, Maison Ogier in Châteauneuf-du-Pape invited me to taste their wines and even, heaven help us, attempt to make my own, and to attend Les Chorégies d’Orange, France’s oldest opera festival, which they sponsor. My relationship with opera is complicated – it was one of my father’s two great loves. His alienating attempts to force-feed me such a sophisticated form of culture at too early an age made me retrospectively grateful that basic parental responsibility prevented him doing the same with his other passion, or maybe I’d now be as wary of wine as I was of sitting through Rossini’s William Tell.
The real draw wasn’t the music: it was the stage. Les Chorégies takes place in the miraculously well-preserved first-century AD Roman theatre in Orange. “None of the Roman remains in the south of France is more impressive than this stupendous fragment,” wrote Henry James, and it is marvellous to strip my experience of electric lighting and mobile phones and imagine James enjoying, in 1882, the same view that I did in 2019. It’s certainly easier than conjuring up a be-sandalled Roman rapt before Euripides’ The Bacchae 2,000 years ago. Since then, locals have stolen the facing marble and there have been fires, but really, it has changed impressively little.
In the morning, we cycled out of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the village named for the ‘Pope’s new castle’ – now a hilltop ruin with lovely Rhône views – but memorable for its rich red wines, usually Grenache-based blends. Past the pale soils and giant creamy vineyard pebbles known as galets roulés we pedalled, towards a vineyard lunch, the summer sun warming my glass of white wine to lemon brightness; just one tint in a day that has taken on, in my post-pandemic memory, an undimmable golden glow.
Our blending experiment involved four Ogier reds, each majority Grenache from a different soil type, with the terroir indicated on the label: Eclats Calcaires (limestone), Galets Roulés (rolled pebbles), Safres (sand) and Grès Rouges (red sandstone). Next to the Éclats Calcaires – shards of limestone, around 115 million years old, the vestiges of ancient sea-creatures – stood a bottle of Safres: fine beige sand, deposited rather later by the same long-vanished body of water. The table geography replicated what I’d seen on my bike ride, the two soil types side by side, yet tasting so different: the first was flinty, scattered over with sun-warmed berries; the safres delivered fine tannins, black fruit and a perfume of leather.
Good wine is always an inducement to pay attention to history. It’s also a humbling reminder that winemaking, which is a form of creating the future, requires a profound understanding of the past: an internal library of vintages or “taste memory”, as Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel once described it to me. I was working almost entirely in the present. I rather liked the whipsmart tannins when tasting the Grès Rouges, which I tried to soften with a dose of that elegant Safres. My Ogier blend wasn’t terrible – the component wines saw to that – but it didn’t turn out as I thought it would.
My taste memory places one Châteauneuf above all others: one of Perrin’s, in fact, made just 6km north of where I sat blending, on safres and those famous galets roulés. My father loved southern Rhône wines and when he died, a case of the 1996 Beaucastel passed to me. The first bottle, opened to toast the newly departed, was too young, but the later ones unfurled into spice and berries and slender tannins that danced across my palate and settled indelibly in my mind.
I hoarded those bottles as though my memories of my father would drain along with them, and by the time I came to the last one, the petals had bloomed then fallen, the tannins grown wizened. We drank it anyway, in miserable penance. Wine is a sensual blend of soils, grapes and time, and sometimes we all get the proportions wrong.
Buildings endure in a way wine cannot, although the fate of the Pope’s fourteenth-century castle is more common than the wondrous preservation of the Orange theatre, as the Rhône region’s ruin-strewn soil attests. Still: there are many kinds of survival. The Pope planted vines along with his castle, which lives on in the worldwide renown of the wines. The soil made both: the château was constructed from the same grés rouges I’d been trying to bring out in my wine. Before that, this place was named Calcernier, for its limestone quarry. From which, in all probability, the Romans dug the éclats calcaires for their theatre at Orange: an ancient material from which to build something that is itself now ancient.
Wait long enough, and everything changes, from sea creatures to circumstance. Despite my prejudices, I really enjoyed William Tell. Opera in that magnificent setting, with stars above and ghosts abounding, was an extraordinary experience, so I’m glad to learn that organisers of Les Chorégies d’Orange are still hopeful it will happen again this summer, its outdoor setting now useful in the context of a modern contagion. As for my wine, I brought it home with me. It was far from the best drink of the weekend, but it contains good memories. And I’m waiting a little to drink it, because after all, you never know.