Intro a Friend to French Wine 1: Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Comforting Cassoulet #Winophiles

While wine grapes may be grown throughout the world, it is France that many consider the most important country for wine. Ever since the Greeks cultivated grapes in Gaul (France) in the 6th century, for over 2,000 years,  growing grapes and making wine has been an important aspect of life in France. Wine grapes are grown throughout the country with 7-8 million bottles produced every year making France the number one producer of wine by volume in the world.

Did you know that most of the well-known grapes grown globally are actually French in origin? In France however, certain grapes are associated with particular areas generally because of climactic conditions– so much so that you may find it hard to determine what the grape or grapes might be in the bottle! For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is most famous from Bordeaux,  Syrah in Rhône, Chardonnay in Bourgogne (including Chablis) and Champagne, and Sauvignon blanc in Loire and Bordeaux. 

Since 2012, each bottle of French wine falls under one of these three classifications:

While some say that France has 17 wine regions and others say 14 like the map below, some are more well known and significant than others, for example  Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Loire, Provence, and the Rhone.

Vignobles France

In Châteauneuf-du-Pape more wine is made in this one area of the southern Rhône (large dark brown blob) than in all of the northern Rhône (small dark brown blob).

In this post, and the next, I’d like to introduce you, my friend, to two of these important and significant  regions: the Loire and the Rhone by focusing on a smaller area in each; read about pesticides in Champagne here from an interview with Caroline Henry and visit the biodynamic Champagne vineyard of Vincent Charlot here. In this post, let me tell you about the wines from the Rhone’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape where blends with grenache rule, and in the Loire’s St Nicolas de Bourgueil which is home to Cabernet Franc which is rarely blended with much of anything else.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape in English means “The Pope’s new castle” because in 1308, that’s where Pope Clement V located his papacy and where the next Pope built his castle.

In 1923, the first AOC now AOP was formed to protect their name, and in 1954 the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape banned flying saucers from flyings overhead, landing or taking off.

While there are 18 varieties of grape growing in CdP and wineries can make wine from any of them in any proportion, most of the reds lead with grenache, which is 71% of the plantings, followed by syrah at 10% and Mourvèdre at 7%.

“Yes, we blend!”

Because most French wines are meant to be enjoyed with food — meaning they aren’t typically cocktail or happy wines– they haven’t focused on making wines to drink on their own. This French style of wine making can be off-putting for some Americans who may also distrust the French funk that is common in many French wines which also dissipates when paired with food.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is in the red region of the map of France.

On a cold winter day during a tumultuous flurry of events including getting laid off and having my dog hit by a car AND being on the eve of Cassoulet Day, there is nothing better than cassoulet — except when it is paired with special wine like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, special friends like Sue and the winemakers of Clos des Amis Bruce and Gretel, and a special occasion — like my birthday!

Birthday Dinner Menu
  • Appetizers
    Recipes from Chef Robin Goldstein, author of A Taste of Santa Barbara, and A Taste of Ojai cookbooks which we will be featuring on Sat. March 14
    > Arugula wrapped with prosciutto drizzled with balsamic reduction
    > Gorgonzola stuffed figs I used a St. Auger blue, figs instead of dates, toasted the walnuts first and warmed them in a 350 degree oven, so they were extra tasty
    > Tapenade
    > Goat Cheese Truffles variation: Sue used sun dried tomatoes from her garden instead of apricots, and toasted pecans instead of pistachios
  • Main meal course
    Cassoulet (Sue went off of this recipe from Bon Appetite supplemented with boar sausage)
    Warm French baguette from Fillmore’s Roan Mills
    Spring greens
  • Dessert
    Thinly sliced chocolate croissants
    Organic dark chocolate bars

Cassoulet– a famous French peasant bean dish with duck, sausage, and sometimes rabbit, and is the ultimate comfort food.


Sue’s cassoulet with duck confit, boar and pork sausage, and pork shoulder ragu.

As we sat around sampling the wine, we shared our cassoulet stories. I tell my cassoulet story here in this post from a few years ago about when Sue agreed to make cassoulet for me for my birthday and how I came to have cassoulet the first time. It took her three days then and it took her three days this time too. Clearly, peasants had plenty of time to take foods that might not be so tender and tasty and make them so!

Gretel has a story about comforting cassoulet too. She and Bruce were heading to Casoumere in the South of France where Bruce had made connections with the artists and wine makers. Along the way, his relatives said the best oysters come from a town called Mez, so they stopped and Gretel wanted to put her feet in the Mediteranian Sea, so she walked out but slipped on algae and fell: “I can’t read the signs that tell me I should not go into the water. I go to the water and slip. Under the algae there are many razor sharp crustatians that have slit my foot. Bruce saw that I needed help so he finds the lifeguards  who help me up and look at my foot. There are pieces of the mussel in there and I cannot get them out. A crowd is gathering and a woman comes out to look and brings out cognac in her skirts to make me feel better; I drank it of course!  We go to the emergency room in the next town and wait and we wait, and no one is moving anywhere. I told Bruce I wanted to go and he obliged me. I wanted to go to castle.” Two hours later they arrived to beautiful charcuterie and a fantastic cassoulet that was so good, she no longer cared about the pain. “In the morning,” continues Gretel, “the woman who served us this wonderful meal called the local doctor to take out the pieces of mussel from my foot.”

In Bruce’s story, he related a trip to Europe when young. “Paris stank like shit,” said Bruce, “and I was appalled. Living on pate and baguettes, which was fine. We left Paris and went to the south of France. They have a beautiful castle which you could stay at as a youth hostel at the time. They served cassoulet and that meal changed everything. People were kind and nice other than the experience in Paris.” The castle and cassoulet changed everything on both trips and became the comfort both times… just like for me on this night in Bruce and Gretel’s castle in Santa Paula where we enjoyed Sue’s cassoulet and sampled wine together.

1999 – La Crau – Domaine du Dieux Telegraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape

My friend Tony Fletcher brought this to me the first time he visited while he was on a book tour about six or so years ago when we also celebrated my birthday. I kept thinking I’d open it when he was visiting, but then we never did. It was a gift so I decided my birthday cassoulet dinner was the time to open and enjoy it.

La Crau is one of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s most famous vineyards, and it is full of the stone called galets roulés, which maintain moisture in the soil and radiate heat at night to hasten ripening.

Color – Showing its age, an old dried out rose.

Nose – Definitely a bit of funk on the nose, roses, plums, cherries, baking spices, cloves, carnation, sandlewood, a bit of citrus as well, with food, the funk is a  part of the richness of the food and wine together. Really important that the wine opens up to make it shine

Palate – Nice acidity, balanced tannins, this is a contemplative wine, complex, balanced, plums and cherries up front, rhubarb, root beer, sassafras on the finish, for Bruce there was a bit of tankiness, he wanted to decant it or let it hang out for a bit. Nice slately minerals on the finish as well. Silty, Down in the depths of your belly

Drinking this wine mad eye really that I had a whole different life 20 years ago when these grapes were harvested.

Pairing – Phenomenal with the provencal tapenade, so phenomenal that Sue noted that I commented “What a trip!” The garlic, herbs and salinity go so nicely with the earthiness of the wine. The herbs de provence of the goat cheese balls work perfectly also. Sue had a mini-orgasim when she tasted the pate and followed it up with a sip of wine. We agreed. Also perfect with the mushroom brie: put the two together and it is so wonderful by bringing out the bright tart cranberry characteristics in the wine. The wine and cassoulet are balanced together, and it all works but is not the best pairing.  They don’t fight, but they just don’t add anything to enhance each other. It does however love the boar sausage in the dish.

“Yummy” was all Sue had to say…

Does the wine hold up to dessert? We paired it with a chocolate croissant, and found it works okay with dark chocolate and nuts, but Sue thinks a bit of dried fruit in the mix would make it better. Dark chocolate on its own works fine with the wine, bringing out a very tart fruit on the palate.

2013 – Clos De L’ Oratoire Des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape – 14.5% alcohol – 

Color – Plum, transparent, mauve rose rim

Nose – Roses and carnation, pretty florals, I felt that it was very Grenache like.

Palate – Bruce said “It’s got some tannins”, and we agreed plus tart plum, plum skin, bright acidity with minerals on the back with black pepper, red licorice, raspberry, resonates in your chest, textural finish.

Pairing – Sue started off with the Provencal tepenade and was not disappointed. Herbs, garlic, salinity, bring out such nice fruit characteristics in the wine. So nice with the arugula wraps, the pepper characteristics of the arugula tame the pepper in the wine and highlight the fruit. Langres is also great, the funk of the rind brings out the fruit in the wine and tames the pepper qualities. With the cassoulet it is all about sasparilla and cola with the wine. So complex and enjoyable. A taste of black pepper in the meal, sets off the beautiful black pepper notes in the wine and brings out great fruity characteristics in the both of them.

For dessert does it work??? The chocolate crossant works well not too sweet, not to savory, not too rich. It works. With plain dark chocolate it is a bit too sweet for the wine. Dark chocolate with toasted nuts is a bit better, but the chocolate croissant with the wine is best of all.

2017 – Comte De Lauze Châteauneuf-du-Pape – 14.?%

We obtained this wine when we were in France on our Wine tasting championship when we met some fabulous friends, the greatest people to hang out with and experience the city of Paris. We wound up at a wine festival and met them there. When we came upon their tent, he handed us a bottle to enjoy, and here it is.

Color – Ruby red, fuchsia rim

Nose – Cranberry, pomegranate, bright fresh fruit, rhubarb  the alcohol is present on the nose. Gretel felt that it was very much like a California wine.

Palate – Very tart fruit on the palate as well, raspberry, cherry, pomegranate, plum, plum skin, salinity on the back of the palate, very acidic.

Pairing – I’m not a fan of dates, so I had a bit of a hard time appreciating Sue’s dates stuffed with gorgonzola with toasted walnuts, but both Sue and Gretel were very happy with this pairing.  The salinity of the tapanade works well with the wine taming down the fruit forwardness of the wine. The cassoulet works perfectly with the meal, especially the boar sausage and its garlic richness. There are so many layers of flavor that pair so well with the wine. What a terrific combination. When we were first tasting this wine, we did not know how well it would go with the meal. Bruce felt it should lay down a while, but with the rich meal it is perfect. Layers of flavor in both the wine and the food pair so nicely with the layers of flavor in the wine. This wine, the young fruity wine was really fantastic together. Not as great with dark chocolate and roasted nuts. Just stick with the dark chocolate. The chocolate croissant was perfect with the wine. Brioche and dark chocolate are the thing.

Photos of two memorable nights– at Gretel and Bruce’s home with cassoulet and running around Paris with Aurelie Delaissez-Forstallas and Michel Blanc.

We had met first in the Loire at a dinner the evening before the World Wine tasting Championship at Chateau Chambord, and when we realized we’d all be in Paris on Sunday night, we met up at the Fete des Vendanges (Festival of Vines) at Montmartre. We arrived during the final hour or so — what a great festival! Oysters, Champagne, and wines form around the world as well as beer and the FOOD!

It was unlike any other festival event I’ve attended. Not just the stunning location and fun friends, but the energy of the crowd was jovial, and it was FREE. If you wanted to taste, you bought a glass. If you wanted a glass of something, you purchased it– and it was affordable. You could also buy bottles to take home– and we bought beer as well as wine and Michel gifted us with the bottle we tasted this evening.

After the Festival, we went to the base of the cathedral where we sat down and shared a bottle of wine with fabulous views of the evening’s festivities (read more about the festival, the cathedral and the vines that grow in Paris here). Next we jumped on the Metro and arrived someplace for dinner. We ran around the city more until exhausted, we headed to our respective abodes. At some point, Michel gave in and gave me his vest which I proudly wear back home in the US.

Photos with me in them were taken by Sue Hill.

Join the French Winophiles on Sat. Jan. 18 at 8am Pacific for a twitter chat by following the hashtag #winophiles; chat questions follow. You can check out our posts on the topic of introducing a friend to French wine anytime!


Twitter chat topics and times:

  • 11:00 am ET
    Q1 Welcome to the 2020 kickoff for the French #winophiles. Where are you tweeting from? Introduce yourself, share a link to your blog. Visitors too!
  • 11:05 am ET
    Q2 Today we’re challenging our group members to write a Newcomer’s Guide to French Wine. What would you do? A special wine? A list of wines? Highlight your approach! #winophiles
  • 11:10am ET
    Q3 What are the keys to understanding French Wine? Are there unique qualities? #winophiles
  • 11:15am ET
    Q4 Did you have an “aha” moment when it comes to French wine? Share your story! #winophiles
  • 11:20 am ET
    Q5 What specific wine or wines did you suggest an interested newcomer to French wine? Tell us why you chose what you did. #winophiles
  • 11:25 am ET
    Q6 Did price enter into your consideration for your recommendations? #winophiles
  • 11:30 am ET
    Q7 Did you recommend wines from multiple regions or just one? Any reasoning? #winophiles
  • 11:35am ET
    Q8 Did you suggest food pairings for your wine recommendations? #winophiles
  • 11:40am ET
    Q9 Do you have favorite food pairings for French wines that might not have been in your post? (even non-French foods) #winophiles
  • 11:45am
    Q10 If your friend wants to travel to France, would you send them to the region your suggested wines originate from? Why or why not? #winophiles
  • 11:50am
    Q11 What next steps would you recommend to your friend, after they have taken your advice? #winophiles
  • 11:55am
    Q12 Open comment time, any thoughts or discoveries you’d like to share? #winophiles
  • 12:00pm EDT
    Thanks for joining our “Newcomers Guide to French Wine” at #winophiles! Join us in February as we share “Indigenous French Grapes / Godforsaken Grapes” with @Culinary_Cam!

Curious about the French #Winophiles?

In the fall, we determine the following years monthly prompts. We sample, review, pair, and write about these prompts and publish our results by 8am on the third Saturday of the month. We link to everyone’s posts so readers can find a lot of information on each topic!

Below you’ll see what we wrote about in 2019 and what we plan to do in 2020.

This is what we did for French #Winophiles:

What the French Winophiles plan to do in 2020:

  • January 18: Newcomer’s Guide to French Wine
    Jeff Burrows of Food Wine Click
  • February 15: Indigenous French Grapes / Godforsaken Grapes
    Camilla M. Mann of Culinary Adventures with Camilla
  • March 14: Crémant de Bordeaux / Sparkling wine from Bordeaux
    Pinny Tam of Chinese Food and Wine Pairings
  • April 18: Northern Rhone
    Rupal Desai Shankar the Syrah Queen
  • May 16: Cru Beaujolais
    Cindy Lowe Rynning of Grape Experiences
  • June 20: “Unexpected Pleasures in Champagne– Still wines, biodynamic, or unusual grapes”
    with us!
  • July 18: White Wines of Roussillon
    Lynn Gowdy of Savor the Harvest
  • August 15: TBA
    Jill Barth
  • September 19: Cotes du Rhone
    with Michelle Williams of Rockin Red Blog
  • October 17: Jura
    David Crowley of Cooking Chat
  • November 21: TBA
    Linda Whipple 
  • December 19: Burgundian-tied Wines of Oregon (or Champagne)
    with LM Archer of LM Archer.


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