Fresh Pink Innocence

End-of-term gifts from one’s pupils are a recurrent pleasure of professorial life. Like the boarding-school boy who thanked the aunt for the bottle of cherries pickled in brandy, one enjoys them not only for themselves but also for the spirit in which they are given. Only once have I been given an apple (and then in a spirit of irony). Port, of course, is always welcome.

Some of the offerings that have thus come to ornament my office enjoy an oblique, even recondite significance. There is the plastic McNugget that for nearly twenty years has been ever ready to perform the function kindly envisaged by its thoughtful donor, namely to differentiate between two senses of the present participle neuter of the Greek verb “to be.” Unadorned, the McNugget is mere Being, pure Essence. But accoutered with his little ten-gallon hat and his red-and-yellow McGunbelt, he becomes a Specific Being, That Which Is.

The token of appreciation that most often catches the visitor’s eye is my Plastic Action Figure of Pope Innocent III. His Holiness stands about six inches high in a maroon vestment, pallium, and triple tiara. He holds up a number of fingers in a gesture, perhaps of blessing, and has at hand a scroll reading, “Filii Hohenstaufenin, osculamini asinum meum.” I guess this is meant to allude to Innocent’s political manipulation of the Holy Roman Empire; rendered roughly into the vulgar tongue, the words might mean, “Sons of the Hohenstaufen, you are kissing my donkey.”

Innocent must be one of the least aptly named of all Roman pontiffs. He gave ecclesiastical backing to the unspeakable Fourth Crusade of 1204, which one historian has called the last of the barbarian invasions. Its knights never went near the Holy Land; instead they appropriated Constantinople, the venerable capital of the Christian Emperors of Byzantium, who had formed an intelligent symbiosis with their Muslim neighbors.

Look westward and Innocent’s effect is no brighter. The Cathars are not heroes of mine, a set of dismal dualists who denigrated the flesh and whose promotion as early avatars of modern hedonist (sorry—liberal) theology is (shall we say charitably) difficult to understand. But whatever the Cathars’ faults, there was no need for Pope Innocent to fire up knights from northern France to invade the Cathar region—what is now southwestern France but was then a distinct land with its own language, the langue d’oc (so called because its word for “yes” was oc rather than the French oui). One of the northern aggressors was so ferocious that he exhorted his subordinates, who could not tell Cathar enemy from innocent bystander: “Kill them all; God will recognize which ones are His.”

The city walls of Carcassonne, one of the great Cathar strongholds, no longer echo with the clash of swords. They were extensively rebuilt in the nineteenth century by the Gothic fantasist Viollet-le-Duc, and breathe a heavily romanticized version of the last enchantments of the Middle Ages.

A reassuring reality is to be found a few miles northwest of Carcassonne. The Château de Pennautier is the leading winemaker in the small, relatively new appellation of Cabardès and its 2004 rosé, available for about $12, is a proper summer tonic. It is made from Syrah and Grenache grapes, varieties one most associates with the Rhône valley, but it is much less heavy than most Rhônes.

When I first poured this, I found it confusing. The color is a clear carroty pink, the nose subtly sweet. The initial flavor recalled soft fruit, then tannins kicked in, redolent of mild black pepper, and finally came a series of aftertastes, including the slightly numbing sensation that wine folk associate with pear-drops. But for all its lightness, this wine stood up well to a small steak. What I really liked, however, was the way the wine settled into the glass. A day later it was no longer confusing. The wine had achieved the boldness one associates with innocence. It had come together in a combination of sweetness, acidity, and salutary bitterness—as refreshing as a fine, fleshy, pink grapefruit. Now that’s something no student has ever given me.

Oliver Nicholson is a classicist at the University of Minnesota and former secretary of the Wine Committee at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Read more of Oliver Nicholson’s wine selects at www.rakemag.com/restaurants