Châteauneuf du Pape occupies a remarkable position in the Rhône Valley of Southern France in the heart of a village that shares the same name as the wine. The village and the wine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, both translate to “New Castle of the Pope”.
Historically, the name stems from a rich history representing a tumultuous yet intriguing era for the French Catholic Church, referred to as the Avignon Papacy. It is a tale featuring grand castles, political manipulations, and the wine-loving palates of several popes.
The Unusual Story of the Avignon Papacy
The link between Châteauneuf du Pape and the Papacy began in 1308 when Pope Clement V was elected as the next Pope. Under pressure from the French king, he refused to move to Rome and instead set up his residence in Avignon, moving the entire Papal headquarters to France. Avignon is a historic city located in Southern Rhône, next to what is now called the Châteauneuf du Pape wine region. The next seven Popes would hold their power in Avignon rather than Rome, until finally Pope Gregory XI moved his reign back to Rome in 1376. The next Pope, Urban VI was elected shortly after the move back to Rome. However, he was not well-liked and made some questionable decisions. After six months of his reign, the cardinals met again and decided to elect Clement VII as the new Pope. Suddenly, there were two Catholic Popes. As the fighting began, Clement VII (called the antipope) fled to the former Pope’s palace in Avignon . This great schism continued for 31 years, and finally came to an end in 1409.
Wine During this Time
Before the first Avignon Pope arrived, this area was full of vineyards, however none of the wines here were very high quality, and were mostly drunk by the locals. The first Avignon Pope, Clement V was actually a great lover of wine. Although he was mostly drank wine from Burgundy, preferring it to the local wine. But his successors, especially Pope John XXII, did a lot to improve the quality of the local wine. During his reign the wine from here started to be called ‘Vin du Pape’ or wine from the Pope. Eventually, in the 1800’s the name was changed to Châteauneuf du Pape. During the 68 years of the Avignon Papacy, the wine around Avignon was greatly improved with help and support from the Popes.
Châteauneuf du Pape had started to earn a reputation as a quality wine in France, and was praised across Europe. However, in the 1860s, a new grapevine disease was starting to be noticed in Southern France. This new disease, called phylloxera, quickly made its way to the Rhône Valley.
Phylloxera was new a disease for most of the world, and experts were at first unsure how to fight it. The disease was spreading fast through France, leaving behind many dead and dying vines. During the 1870s, the vine production in the region fell drastically from 89.5 million hectoliters in 1870 to 23.4 million hectoliters in 1879. Fortunately, experts soon discovered that if the vines were grafted onto American grapevine rootstock they were immune to phylloxera. So many vineyards began the long and expensive process of replanting.
AOC Regulation: The First Appellation of France
As Châteauneuf du Pape continued gaining fame worldwide, demand rose rapidly during the 20th century. This Rhône wine was praised in Europe and America for its smooth taste and unique smell. Ultimately unable to keep up with the rising demand, the supply ran short, and producers fell to fraudulent methods involving fabricating the wine using cheap products and artificial sweeteners to boost the amount of wine.
Once this corruption was revealed, French wine exports took a significant hit, and the government decided to implement regulations. In 1936, Châteauneuf du Pape became the first AOC region in France, creating many regulations and laws controlling the wine. Today, in the 21st century, Châteauneuf du Pape is recognized internationally as a high-quality wine, enjoyed by people worldwide who value its exquisite taste.
This Day in Wine History
1395: The Romans introduced Chateauneuf du Pape to Italy and France in the 1st century AD. In 1395, the Italian poet Petrarch noted that he had tasted wine that tasted like “Chateau-papal”. He compared this wine with the famous white wines from Piedmont and Languedoc.