Chateauneuf du Pape is a wine that has a place in every oenophile’s affections. History and natural history combine to make it one of France’s most fascinating and beautiful wine villages. Indeed Chateauneuf du Pape is the renowned centerpiece of the southern Rhone wine region. Situated just north of Avignon, the village is instantly recognizable for its ruined papal summer palace, which dominates the landscape for miles around.
Chateauneuf du Pape’s history is closely linked to that of the Roman Catholic Church, who established a Holy See in France and maintained a presence there for many years. So it is perhaps fitting that Chateauneuf du Pape’s history began with the Romans, who planted the first vines in southern France. There is no official record of the village until the 11th century, and its history before that period is shrouded in mystery.
The first recorded mention of a settlement was in a Latin document in 1094, which described a ‘Castrum Novum,’ literally translated ‘fortified town,’ belonging to the bishop of Avignon. History records that the original fortified village was founded on the site of the existing castle ruins in Chateauneuf du Pape between 1040 and 1073. However, we cannot be sure exactly when it was constructed.
In 1309, the settlement was referred to as Chateauneuf du Pape for the first time, after Pope Clement V moved to Avignon and established a Holy See in Provence. Literally translated, Chateauneuf du Pape means ‘The Pope’s New Castle,’ and it is this historical event that gave birth to the title bestowed upon both the village and, indeed, the wine from the wider region.
Successive Popes did much to further the wine culture in Chateauneuf du Pape, the local wine being an essential element of the Church’s religious activities. Clement V’s successor, John XXII, showed an active interest in promoting the region and did much to improve viticultural practices. He also initiated a series of essential building works, including, of course, the famous castle which stands in ruins today in Chateauneuf du Pape. Construction began in 1317 and was finished in 1333, a monument to his power, although sadly, Pope John XXII died one year after its completion.
By the mid-14th century, vast amounts of land were given over to vines on the broader region, in contrast to the rest of France, where planting cereal crops were the main priority of the day. This can be attributed to John XXII’s influence, undoubtedly history’s greatest advocate of the powerful, heady wines of Chateauneuf du Pape. However, the region’s importance declined significantly in the 15th century, when the Holy See moved back to Rome, and Chateauneuf du Pape lost its status as a vital religious center in Western Europe.
After the Popes
Following the departure of the Popes, Chateauneuf du Pape’s castle came under the control of the bishops, during which time many of the buildings were sadly allowed to deteriorate. Then, in the 16th century, the Wars of Religion erupted between French Protestants, known as Huguenots, and Roman Catholics. During the conflict, Chateauneuf du Pape was occupied for several months, and in 1563, the protestant forces pillaged the castle and damaged many of its important artifacts.
Over the centuries, Chateauneuf du Pape’s importance continued to decline, albeit its vineyards remained a vital part of overall wine production in Provence. During the 17th century, the remaining damaged buildings of the castle were exploited to build houses in the surrounding village, and by the era of the French Revolution, the castle was left derelict. Yet, by the 18th century, Chateauneuf du Pape had earned a formidable reputation throughout Europe for the high quality of its wines, which were exported to many markets, including the UK, Belgium, and Germany.
However, by the mid-19th century, Chateauneuf du Pape’s formerly magnificent castle was in ruins. Its salvation came in 1982 when what remained was classified as a Historical Monument, forbidding further destruction or exploitation of its remaining structures and artifacts. It is during this period that the Phylloxera epidemic struck Chateauneuf du Pape with a vengeance, destroying many of the vineyards until barely more than 200 hectares were left. Growers abandoned their livelihood in droves, and it was not until after the First World War that the area’s fortunes rebounded.
The 20th century saw many important landmark events take place in Chateauneuf du Pape, not least the birth of the official Chateauneuf du Pape appellation in 1936. Created by the INAO, or Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, the appellation was the first legal recognition given to the wines of Chateauneuf, creating laws and regulating winemaking practices that ensured the production of high-quality wines across the region.
During the Second World War, the remains of Chateauneuf du Pape’s castle were occupied by Nazi forces, which used it as an observation post. As the war drew to a close and the allies advanced on their position, they attempted to blow up the remaining buildings, but only succeeded in destroying the northern half of the tower.
Over the past few decades, Chateauneuf du Pape has cemented its position as both one of the Rhone’s most exciting wine regions and a must-visit destination in its own right. It is simply everything you would want from a Provencal wine village: cobbled stone streets, charming outdoor cafes, restaurants, bakeries, and ancient ruins of the Pope’s summer home all combine to make Chateauneuf du Pape a veritable wine tourist paradise!
Gastronomy & Wine
Although other French regions would disagree, Provence continues to be one of the most exciting places in France to eat out. Its biggest asset is simply the wealth of excellent natural produce: pink garlic, colorful fresh peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, courgettes and asparagus, all things to tantalize the taste buds. The lamb is also some of the finest around, allowed to freely graze on the salt-marsh grass of the Camargue; the flavor intensity is incomparable. Freshly caught fish is another major highlight, in addition to the delicious and inimitable wines produced across the region.
While only a relatively small village, Chateauneuf du Pape boasts a lively food scene and several excellent restaurants to entice even the fussiest gourmet’s taste buds. An unmissable highlight is the open-air farmers market that takes place on Friday morning in La Place de la Renaissance, also, many of the best estates have shops in the village, where you can taste recent vintages and buy a few bottles – better than souvenirs any day! One of our favorite restaurants is Bistro de la Nerthe, owned by the winery of the same name; delicious local cuisine is served in a delightfully cozy space with a fantastic wine list to boot. Le Pistou on Rue Joseph Ducos is another top choice, for an inventive take on local classics, with a strong emphasis on using local, seasonable produce.
Of course, when it comes to the wine offering in this part of France, Chateauneuf du Pape needs little introduction. It is a sizeable region with over 3,000 hectares under vine. Quality has soared in recent times, and yet the wines still represent good value when compared to top Bordeaux. The main grape variety used in red Chateauneuf du Pape is Grenache, but there are 13 permitted varieties in the red blend, a number of them white. Syrah and Mourvedre are also significant in adding structure and grip to the wine. Styles naturally vary greatly, depending on the terroir and producer in question, but generally, Chateauneuf is a powerful, exotic wine capable of extended cellaring in the best vintages. It pairs wonderfully well with the varied cuisine of the region, especially beef and Carmargue lamb. However, white Chateauneuf du Pape is no poor relation; the best examples are floral and nutty and respond well to barrel aging.
Chateauneuf du Pape castle remains
Although only two walls remain of the chateau, it is still worth exploring to get a feel of what it was like here many centuries ago. The south-facing aspect offers magnificent views of the village and vineyards below.
Palais des Papes
Less than 30 minutes from Chateauneuf du Pape, Avignon is a must-visit village. Its crowning glory is the Palais des Papes, the magnificent former palace of Pope Clement V. He moved the papal court to Avignon in 1309, and it remained until 1377. During which time, his successors transformed the modest episcopal building into the present palace, which has been preserved largely untouched over the centuries.
Visitors to this fascinating region cannot leave without stepping foot inside one of the area’s many venerable wine estates. A tour and tasting will give you unique insights into the wines, history, and culture of Chateauneuf du Pape; in addition, many wineries boast gift shops and restaurants. Top destinations include Chateau la Nerthe, Domaine Ogier and Chateau Beaucastel.