The small, pretty town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape sits at the heart of one of France’s most storied wine regions. The row after row of vines you pass along the route from Avignon produce some of the most prestigious, expensive and finest wines available to humanity. The Romans were the pioneers of viticulture in this region, but it was during the period of the Avignon Popes in the 14th century that the region’s wine began to flourish.
As the name suggests, Châteauneuf-du-Pape has intimate ties to the Avignon Papacy. The once mighty castle that sits on a hill overlooking the town, and which bears the same name, was built by Pope John XXII in 1317. Only one dramatic wall of this massive castle still remains standing – many of the original stones are now found in houses in the village. To compensate, the view from here over the Rhône valley below is magnificent.
It was Pope John that cemented the relationship between the Papacy and the wines of this region. He ordered more vines planted to make sure the very worldly Papal court just down the road in Avignon had a ready supply of table wine. When the Popes returned to Rome, the wine of this region followed them. Even today, bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape have the Papal keys on their labels.
The end of the Avignon Papacy saw the village sink into irrelevance, the only thing that retained its importance were the wines. Considered to be of high quality, they continued to be shipped all across Europe and kept the Châteauneuf-du-Pape name in the public consciousness. Today, with the Popes long gone, the size of the village seems completely out of place with the fame of the wine.
It was still early when we arrived at what remains of the castle. A little disappointed that so little of this world famous building was still standing, we wandered around the side to where a path leads to the village below. From this spot you get stunning views over the Rhône valley. You can truly appreciate why a Pope might chose this as the location for his summer residence.
We didn’t have time to visit any of the many wine estates scattered across this region, and it was still a bit too early for wine tasting, so we wandered into the village to find coffee and croissants. There seemed to be some sort of corporate treasure hunt taking place. As we sat sipping our coffee on a terrace, gangs of people kept appearing and disappearing in the search for their next clue.
We went for a stroll around the village and were a little bewildered by the many strings of bras that were strung across the streets. In an effort to raise awareness of breast cancer, the women of Châteauneuf-du-Pape had donated a lot of bras to the cause. The village is small but atmospheric, with plenty of narrow lanes that weave between stone houses.
Beyond wine tastings, there isn’t a great deal to occupy you in the village. The pretty 12th century Church of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption is one of the oldest buildings here, but its austere interior was a bit of a disappointment. In the mid 19th century when the wine business was good and the village was remarkably prosperous, the church was extended to accommodate a growing population.
This didn’t last long. Châteauneuf-du-Pape was one of the first places in France where phylloxera, insects that caused the widespread destruction of Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century, was detected. The phylloxera devastated the village and the region. The once flourishing community was slowly abandoned and the vineyards left to go to ruin.
It took decades for the wine industry to grow back – quite literally. Luckily for wine lovers everywhere, by the 1920s this region was once again recognised as one of the finest wine producing areas in France. The crowning glory came in 1936 when Châteauneuf-du-Pape was granted its very own appellation. The region has never looked back.