Châteauneuf du Pape is a wine region in the Rhône Valley famous for its red wine. The name directly translates to ‘the new castle of the Pope’. To read more about the fascinating history of this wine region and how it intersects with the Pope, see our article, ‘Châteauneuf du Pape: The Legendary Wine‘. But the basics go like this; under pressure from the French king and with instability in Rome, the Papacy was moved in 1309 from Rome to Avignon, France. Avignon was and is a city located next to a wine region now called Châteauneuf du Pape.
The second Pope in Avignon, Pope John XXII ordered a castle to be built in 1317 for the Papacy, and construction was completed in 1333. The castle was built outside Avignon, in a small town called Châteauneuf Calcernier. It was located on a hill with a great view of the surrounding area, making it a perfect defensive position in times of trouble. Pope John XXII used this castle as his summer home and planted vineyards and olive trees on the grounds. However, his successors preferred to stay in the ‘Palais des Papes’ (The Pope’s Palace) located in the city of Avignon, and the Castle of Châteauneuf du Pape sat unused.
Eventually in 1377, the Papacy moved back to Rome. Shortly after their return, chaos erupted in the Catholic Church, and a schism was formed. Just six months after an unpopular Pope was elected, the cardinals met again to elect a different Pope. Suddenly there were two Catholic Popes. The second elected Pope, Pope Clement VII was referred to as the antipope. As fighting began between the two Popes, the antipope fled back to Avignon, and Pope John XXII’s castle. He chose this castle, as opposed to the Palais des Papes in Avignon because of the castle’s strategic military position.
During his reign, Pope Clement VII stayed at the castle and completed much needed renovations, including replanting the vineyards on the grounds. The Catholic Church schism finally came to an end in 1409, finishing the era of the Avignon Popes. At the Papacy’s departure the castle was left to the Archbishop of Avignon, but it soon proved to be too large and expensive to maintain. So it was mostly left abandoned.
During the Wars of Religion between the French Protestants and the Roman Catholics in the 16th century, the castle was occupied by different forces at different times. During this period much of the castle was pillaged and destroyed. By the time of the French Revolution, the bricks of the castle were being sold to build other nearby buildings. It was during this time that the name of the town holding the castle was changed to Châteauneuf du Pape.
In the 18th century, the Châteauneuf du Pape region had earned a reputation throughout Europe for producing high-quality wines, many of which was exported to places like the UK, Belgium, and Germany. The castle didn’t fare as well as the region, and by the 19th century it was in ruins. By this time only one fortified tower was left standing. In 1892 the site was declared a historic monument, at least keeping the ruins and the tower safe from further harm. This lasted until WWII when the German army began using the tower as an observation post. When the Germans found out the war was over, and Germany had lost, they attempted to destroy the tower with dynamite. However, they were only partially successful and today half the tower still stands.