On the Trail

The Lore of Pape Clément

David Driscoll

Any wine property that can celebrate more than 700 years of viticulture should be considered historic. But what about an estate with vineyards that were once owned by the Pope himself? Does that fun fact perhaps bump the wines of Pape Clément into a category beyond simply historic and into the realm of holy? It was in the year 1300 that the property now known as Pape Clément was given to the newly appointed archbishop of Bordeaux, Bertrand de Goth. He would only hold the estate for six years, however, as in 1306 he was elected Pope, took the name Clement V, and gave the property to the next archbishop. The château eventually became known as Pape Clément after the papal name of Bertrand and it remained in the care of the church until the revolution when it was nationalized. By the 1800s, the wine was considered qualitatively on the level of a second-growth like Pichon-Baron, second only to first-growth Haut-Brion in the Graves region.

This past April we visited the château as part of en primeur week in Bordeaux: the region's sneak preview of the 2015 vintage before release. "There's a legend that the Pope is actually buried somewhere on the property," Alex whispered to me as we approached the main building. "He was the Pope who moved the papacy to Avignon, so some people think they brought him here after he passed." While Pape Clément was classified as Grand Cru Classé in the 1959 classification of the Graves, the property has a history of both under and over-performing. In the 1960s and 70s the quality dropped due to neglect and the reputation of Pape Clément suffered until the 1980s when French wine magnate Bernard Magrez took over the estate and helped return it to its former glory. Three decades later the quality of both the red and white wines is impeccable, utilizing the true potential of the region's oldest vineyards.

We were brought into the main parlor to taste, a room full of religious artwork and symbolism as well as various papal artifacts. The wines were simply off the charts, the white an ultra-fine laser of pure acidity and subtle hints of citrus, while the red stood out from the initial sip. With 56% cabernet in the blend, the ripeness of the varietal comes through right away and carries the cuvée through until the finish, which slowly dissipates as the tannins melt away. The wine was utterly ethereal, almost lithe in its complexity. Both wines were on my short list for personal purchases, so long as they came out at reasonable prices. "If the red releases for under a hundred bucks, that's a slam dunk," Alex said to me as we swirled the wine in our glasses. Sure enough, this week the 2015 Pape Clément came out at $84.99, well under our $100 estimate. Is it a miracle? Probably not. But it's definitely a wine you should buy if you're looking for the best values in Bordeaux from 2015. Most of us had it as one of the top ten wines of the vintage, and it's probably the only one from that list that will clock in under three figures.

-David Driscoll