A ruined chateau built in the 14th century under the reign of Pope John XXII dominates the hilltop. To the west, the Rhone River meanders across the landscape.
Though only the south wall of the chateau remains, the view is breathtaking enough to warrant a visit to the ruins. Not to mention, there are ancient caves, wine and food. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Most tourists travel to Chateauneuf du Pape to visit the many tasting rooms and vineyards. For a hard core wine-lover, this area is not to be missed. It is one of the most well-known appellations in the southern Rhone Valley and one of the world’s most popular wines.
However, it would be a mistake to visit Chateauneuf for the wine alone. Of all the wine regions I’ve visited to date, there amongst the remains of the castle, you recognize what “a sense of place,” truly means.
The Wine of the Popes of Avignon
The papacy moved to Avignon from Rome in 1309, and in 1316, Pope John XXII initiated construction of the castle. It was easy to see why Pope John chose this location with its 360- degree view of the village and vineyards below, only 30 kilometers from Avignon.
The popes of Avignon really dug the wine being produced in the area planted new vineyards in the more fertile land to the north. Pope John is credited with doing much to improve viticulture in the area as well. The wine was given the name “vin du papes” (wine of the popes) and was promoted far and wide. If not for the popes, would the wine of Chateauneuf du Pape be so well known? I think eventually, yes! Today the ruins are symbolic of the famous wines.
Sadly, Pope John died only one year after the chateau was completed so he never spent much time there. None of the subsequent popes ever lived there either. Pope Clement VII used it as an occasional hideout. The castle was passed to the Bishop of Avignon but it was too expensive to maintain. In time the stone was mined for building materials much like the Colosseum in Rome.
Drinking a wine from Chateauneuf du Pape is like drinking a bit of history.
Chateauneuf du Pape became one the first AOCs or appellation d’origine controlée in France in 1936. What this means is that every step of the production of wine must adhere to strict standards. This is the same for every appellation in France. What makes Chateauneuf wines unique is the thirteen grape varieties that can be blended into the wine, unlike most regions where only one grape is allowed. Grenache is the most widely grown varietal and the backbone of Chateauneuf wines. It lends the wine notes of dark cherry, blackberries and spiciness. It is said that Chateauneuf wines can be drunk young however they are much more approachable with a bit of age. The wines produced have the distinction of having the highest minimum allowed alcohol content at 12.5% although, in practice, they are usually 14% and higher.
Other important grapes in Chateauneuf du Pape are: Syrah, Mourvedré, Cinsault, Clairette, Vaccarése, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul, Picardin, Terret noir. Grenache Blanc is not considered separately from Grenache Noir.
The climate is typically Mediterranean, very sunny and dry, thanks to the mistral wind. Biodynamic farming is much more easily accomplished here as pests simply do not thrive in this environment. There are many different soil types from clay to sand and the galets roulés – large round pebbles that are said to help hold the heat in the soil and assist in drainage. Another feature of this AOC: All harvesting is accomplished by hand.
Now, let’s get back to that wine cave and food I mentioned early on.
After a brief walk around the ruins to take some photographs, Michael Ippolito, my guide, led the way to the Cave du Verger, a tasting room representing over 200 wines from the area. The limestone cave was dug during Roman times and maintains many interesting architectural features.
Michael had brought along a 2014 Domaine du Pegau a Tempo for us to drink, so we did not linger but went straight away to a private tasting room. The musty room was lit by candlelight and contained many bottles of very old vintages of Chateauneuf. The only other objects in the room were table and chairs we sat in and yet I felt as though I were in a Michelin-starred establishment. A sommelier opened the Pegau for us and we toasted my first visit to France and the amazing white Chateauneuf wine we drank.
White flowers and citrus jumped out of the glass and onto my taste buds. There was also a touch of stone fruit. Fresh and crisp but with a long finish, this wine perfectly suited my palate. Give me an aromatic white wine and I’m happy.
Just when I thought things couldn’t be any better Michael said we had a reservation for lunch in the restaurant above the cave, Le Verger des Papes. We started with mussels prepared in garlic and butter followed by duck breast with a red wine reduction. Michael had fish and shrimp in a light lemon sauce — all of it paired perfectly with the floral and citrus notes of the Domaine du Pegau.
Intimate, even though buzzing with French families enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon meal, Le Verger du Papes is a family-owned restaurant that appeared to be somewhat of a local secret. Afterwards we moved to the terrace for coffee, which shares the same stunning views of the Rhone Valley and the landscape below.
We did not visit any other tasting rooms that day. As it was Sunday, most were closed and I had a boat to catch back in Avignon. I don’t think anything I could have had to drink after lunch would have tasted any better than the wine I drank in a 2000-year-old cave under the ancient chateau – the legacy of the popes of Avignon.
Thanks to Micheal Ippolito of Wine in Provence, a luxury private tour company for the fantastic Domain du Pegau and tour. Michael is a longtime resident of France who together with his French wife, Cyrielle, shares a wine insider’s view via Wine in Provence Tours with visitors from all over the world.
If you’d like to read about past vintages of Chateauneuf du Pape and some great tasting notes from real pros this article from the New York Times is very good.