Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a historic village in the Provence region of southern France that’s famous around the world for its wines. The village, a half-hour drive north of Avignon, is absolutely worthwhile to explore. Surrounded by vineyards for as far as the eye can see, the hillside village is a mesh of picturesque lanes, crowned by the ruins of a medieval castle. Over a thousand years ago, monks who settled in this area started to cultivate vines, a tradition which was continued by the Popes of Avignon in the 14th century. Most visitors these days come on day trips to visit one of the many wineries for a wine-tasting. However, there are numerous things to do in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Start your tour with a pleasant walk around the village.
The origins of the name
“Where are the nine chateaux of the Popes?”. Our guide turned to the lady who asked the question with a puzzled look. “Ha! that’s a good question”, I thought. The guide didn’t seem to understand the question so the lady elaborated, “Châteauneuf? Nine châteaux?”. Our guide understood it this time and smiled. As we continued our tour of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, our guide explained the origins of the name. The village can trace its roots back to the 11th century when it was called by its Latin name, Castro Novo or Castrum Novum. At the time, the term castro or castrum meant a fortified village as opposed to castle, the later definition.
In French, the village came to be known as Châteauneuf Calcernier; Châteauneuf was a reference to the early-Latin name and Calcenier, to the limestone in the village. In the 14th century, the Popes of Avignon built a castle atop the hill and spent their summers there. The village soon became known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in reference to the Popes. In short, there’s no such thing as the ‘nine châteaux of the Popes’!
A walk around Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Châteauneuf-du-Pape (map) lies about 18 kilometers north of Avignon, making it an easy day trip if you’re in the area. My visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape was an afternoon excursion from the Avalon Rhône River cruise when we docked in Avignon. As we approached the village, I immediately noticed the many wineries and vineyards, and the castle ruins on the hill.
One of the best things to do in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is obviously a wine-tasting, and there are countless places to do this. Before you do, I suggest exploring the village and visiting one of the various wine stores.
Start your walk at Rue de la Republique and continue uphill towards the castle. It’s a lovely walk past quaint houses with their blue doors and window shutters. One point of interest is the Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption Church.
You’ll pass numerous wine stores or ‘caves‘ where you can engage in a wine-tasting with locals. The wine-tasting is free (Degustation Gratuite) in most caves while some ask for a small fee, which includes an introduction and small bites. I recommend Les Caves Saint Charles (advance booking required) located further up the road from the Notre-Dame church.
The castle was built in the 14th century for Pope John XXII, who used it as a summer residence. When the Popes left Avignon, the castle was abandoned, and later partially destroyed during WWII. The castle ruins are still a formidable sight and the views of the Rhône valley are simply breathtaking.
Visit a winery
From the castle, return to the village on a different route through the maze of alleys. After your walk, you can choose to visit the Musée du Vin (Wine Museum) and/or visit one of the many wineries for a wine-tasting. I visited the grand Bouachon winery, which provided a fun and insightful wine-tasting.
Other wineries in the village to visit include Domaine Bois de Boursan, Château Fortia and Domaine de Beaurenard. Ask for recommendations at the local tourist office (map). In addition, just outside the village, Chocolaterie Castelain offers delicious chocolate and wine-tastings.
The wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
The wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are famous the world over, and rightfully so. The wine classified as Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) is produced from grapes grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and parts of four neighbouring communes. The production of the wines is strictly controlled and may consist of a blend of thirteen grape varieties, though the dominant variety of the blend must be grenache.
The AOC regulations state, amongst others, that the wines have to be produced organically. The pebbly terroir (or galets roulés) keeps the vines warm during cold nights and helps to ripen the grapes faster.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are fruity, aromatic and full-bodied. Though most of the wines produced are red, there are also white varieties, and recently, some rosé. I left Châteauneuf-du-Pape with a box full of red wines. The wines aren’t cheap but they sure make for a fabulous souvenir!