We bypassed the medieval village and drove directly through a landscape covered in vineyards to the ruins of the château. I noticed reddish clay soil and round rocks known as galets roulés, said to protect the vines from heat and cold and provide excellent drainage. It seems almost a miracle that the world renowned wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are produced in such a harsh landscape.
Visiting the Château
It was easy to see why Pope John XXII had built a summer residence here. The Rhône River, the vineyards, and the village spread down the hillside in a 360-degree panorama. Not only does the location provide unparalleled views, but anyone arriving (friend or foe) can be seen for miles.
Today, the Château ruins stand as a symbol of the famous wines produced in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Located in the southern Rhône Valley, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the name of a wine and is a commune in the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, in southeastern France.
To wine aficionados, this is the holy grail of red wine regions. The fame of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was spread far and wide in the 14th century, when the papal seat was moved from Rome to the city of Avignon, about 19 kilometers to the south. The popes were big fans of the wines produced in the commune and neighboring villages, and granted them the title “vins du papes,” or wines of the popes.
The Grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is recognized as one of the first AOCs (appellation d’origine controlée) in France, officially established in 1936. What this means is that every step of the production of the wine must adhere to strict standards. What makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape unique is that there are thirteen grape varieties allowed to be blended into the wine, unlike most regions, where only one grape is allowed.
Grenache is the main grape in the southern Rhone, and the backbone of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It lends the wine notes of dark cherry, blackberries, and spiciness with a full mouth-feel. The wines produced here are usually very high in alcohol, at around 14% or higher. Grenache can age very well and is found in some of the most expensive wines in the world.
Other important grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are Syrah, Mourvedré, Cinsault, Clairette, Vaccarése, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul, Picardin, and Terret noir. Grenache blanc is not considered separately from Grenache noir.
Experiencing the Wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
I barely had time to take in the beauty of the location and snap some photographs when Michael Ippolito, my guide and owner of Wines of Provence, revealed that he had brought a 2014 Domaine Pegau a Tempo us to drink.
Michael led the way as we walked down the hill and entered a cave dating back 2000 years. There’s a large tasting room here, open to the public, but as we had our own wine, we proceeded to a private tasting room. It was wonderfully musty and dim, lit by candle light – the perfect place to open the Domaine Pegau.
This was a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape that was lush, smooth, and easy to drink. A very aromatic wine on the nose, I smelled white flowers and citrus. A very long finish still with the same floral and citrus notes, this wine perfectly suited my palate. Domaine Pegau is known for their high quality wines, and have an almost cult-like following. Count me as a new convert.
Above the cave is Le Cave Verges du Pape, a charming restaurant with a long family history. Owners Philipe and Jean-Pierre Estevenin are natives of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Built into the hillside below the château, the restaurant shares the same gorgeous views.
I had the duck breast with eggplant and a red wine reduction sauce, while Michael had fish and shrimp, perfectly paired with a simple lemon sauce. The restaurant buzzed with French families enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon lunch. Afterward, we had coffee on the terrace overlooking the orchards and views of Avignon and the Rhône River.
I have long known that wine always tastes better depending on your mood, who you are drinking with, and the location. Don’t get me wrong, the Domaine Pegau would have been excellent no matter the time or place, yet I will remember it as the wine I drank in an ancient Roman cave beneath the ruins of the Château du Papes du Avignon.
Thanks to Michael Ippolito of Wines in Provence, an exclusive tour company, for providing me with an experience of a lifetime.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with tour, accommodations and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.