WWC 50 – James Thomas


In our final week of publishing articles in our wine writing competition, we have reached number 50 thanks to this entry from James Thomas. 

My name is James Thomas, a freelance translator and researcher of Occitan and Catalan literature and culture. I am approximately 45 years old. I have two postgraduate qualifications (an MPhil on an Occitan-related subject and an MA in Translation). I have an Advanced WSET qualification and have been working with the VINGLISH wine translation agency for around six months, translating texts from Catalan, French and Spanish. I am the editor of Grains of Gold (2015), an anthology of Occitan literature and also the author of a recent article on wine and Occitan, 'Rasims to be Cheerful', for The World of Fine Wine (June 2016). I am based in London and a full list of my publications and achievements can be found on my website. I also write on the subjects of Romanticism and Modernism at the Wordpress blog The Regency Mod.


Anyone with even a cursory interest in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is likely to have encountered the name Frédéric Mistral. Nobel Prize-winner, Provençal poet par excellence and leader of the Félibrige, the organisation he co-founded in 1854 at Font-Ségugne, Châteauneuf-du-Gadagne, near Avignon, to protect and promote the langue d’oc (initially the variety of it spoken in Provence), Mistral is often mentioned in dispatches in brochures and websites devoted to the southern Rhône. Indeed, his name and that of the Félibrige play an important role in the patrimoine of wines produced throughout the historical regions of Provence and Languedoc. The Château de l’Escarelle estate in the Var were making a Chardonnay named Cuvée Frédéric Mistral in the early years of this century, while, around the same time, Domaine de Bachellery in Béziers were winning prizes with their red Ballade pour Mistral cuvée, a spicy blend of eight grapes paying homage to a poet sufficiently inspired by the estate to have apparently written a poem dedicated to it.

Though the Félibrige was founded some eighty years or so before the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation came into existence, wine had, of course, been produced in this and the neighbouring communes of Bédarrides, Sorgues, and Courthézon for centuries. The first significant reference in a Félibrean text to a named estate is to Château la Nerthe in ‘Lou cant di Felibre’ [Song of the Felibres], the movement’s foundational anthem composed by Mistral in 1854 and published a year later in the Armana prouvençau (Provençal Almanac). The relevant stanza is as follows:

Alor, quand lou moust de la Nerto
Sautourlejo e ris dins lou got,
De la cansoun qu’a descuberto
Tre qu’un felibre a larga’n mot,
Tóuti li bouco soun duberto
E la cantan toutis au cop.

[And so, when the must of La Nerthe
Laughs and dances within the cup,
To the new song it starts to flirt
When a Félibre its words takes up,
Every mouth is opened wide
And we all sing it side by side.]

The traditional links between wine, singing and the Eucharist coalesce in this hymn to the newly discovered identity of the Provençal people. It might seem surprising that the local Châteauneuf-du-Gadagne wine was not chosen for this purpose, as it was closer to Mistral’s home town of Maillane and Avignon itself, from which Papal city hailed Joseph Roumanille, Mistral’s mentor and spiritual head of the movement until his death in 1891. However, despite enjoying a fine reputation until the eighteenth century, it seems that, in terms of quality, Gadagne had been superseded by La Nerthe by the start of the nineteenth. In his Histoire de Provence (1782), Michel Darluc wrote that 'one could even give it preference over the wine of Châteauneuf-du-Gadagne', while André Jullien, placing it among ‘vins de première classe’, considered La Nerthe the best of all the southern Rhône wines. It features again in Mistral’s late masterpiece Lou pouèmo dóu Rose (The Poem of the Rhône, 1897), praised as an ideal accompaniment to the rabbit of Castèu-noù de Papo.

In addition to its prestige, Châteauneuf-du-Pape also provided one of its native sons, Anselme Mathieu, to the initial septet of poets that formed the Félibrige in 1854. A winegrower and fellow-pupil of Mistral’s in Avignon, Mathieu became known as the ‘Felibre dou Pouton’ (‘Felibre of the Kisses’) for his reputation as a lover and bon viveur. Like Mistral, Mathieu’s name will be familiar to devotees of the southern Rhône, as a key figure in the history of Domaine Mathieu in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which today produces both a white (Clairette) and red (Mourvèdre-dominant) Vin di Felibre d’Anseùme Mathieu.

In 1862, Mathieu published La Farandoulo, prefaced by Mistral and including two short poems about wine. This collection is the source of various quotes that have since become associated with the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Mistral, once more citing La Nerthe as its exemplary estate, praised the commune’s wine as a product d’aquéli forti vigno qu’an pas besoun de paligot, d’aquéli nòbli vigno enfestoulido d’óulivié, que prouduson sèns mèrci un vin reiau, emperiau, pountificau! ['from those strong vines that need no wooden support, those noble vines garlanded with olives, which produce, without mercy, a royal, imperial, pontifical wine!']. Aligning this noble Provençal wine with a range of political systems (he was writing at the time of the Second Empire), Mistral’s serious tone is offset by Mathieu’s light-hearted, five-line souleiado (sun-poem) 'Lou vin de Castèu-nou', which reads:

Li forço, au vènt-terrau, vènon ravoio;
L’aiòli douno au cor la bono imour;
Li bello de vint an dounon l’amour;
Lou vin de Castèu-Nòu douno la voio,
Emai lou cant, emai l’amour, emai la joio!

[The force of the Mistral wind revives us;
Aiòli brings good humour to the heart;
The beauties of twenty offer their love;
The wine of Châteauneuf-du-Pape gives strength,
Along with song, with love, and with joy!]

The potentially disruptive dichotomy between Mathieu’s secular, amorous reading of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and its spiritual and religious symbolism for the Félibrige was resolved in 1867 with ‘La Coupo Santo’ [‘The Holy Cup’], a new hymn of communion between Provence and Catalonia penned by Mistral in response to the gift of a silver chalice from the leaders of the Barcelona-based literary Renaixença movement. The exiled Catalan poet Victor Balaguer had spent considerable time in Provence, sheltered and befriended by the Félibrige; to this day, the chalice and its accompanying hymn are powerful symbols of the fraternal ties between Provence, Languedoc and Catalonia. Although the poem simply refers to Lou vin pur de nostre plant ['The pure wine of our cru'], tradition decrees that on each Day of Saint Estelle (May 21), the official Félibrige festival sees the passing between members of this cup filled with wine from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The lyrics to the hymn, set to a melody by 17th-century carol writer Nicolas Saboly, evoke notions of nationhood, race (conceived in terms of language), glory, destiny and terroir. In a triple pouring and tasting, the wine inside the chalice becomes the hopes and dreams of youth, the knowledge of Truth and Beauty and, finally, Poetry, that ambrosia that turns Man into God.