From a naturalist’s point of view, it would seem that the French Rhône Valley was preordained for winemaking. The region’s varied terroir, from the sunny Mediterranean climate of the southern Rhône to the harsh Mistral wind near the Mont Ventoux, make it ideal for growing grapes. But beyond the fortuitous natural conditions of the Rhône Valley, few other factors influenced the development of the region’s wine industry more than the church. Though the history of grape cultivation in the region stretches back to the fourth century B.C, the wine industry more or less halted with the end of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t until the papacy set up base in Avignon in 1309 that winemaking flourished again in the Rhône Valley, and the popes’ impact on the region’s wines can still be felt today.
If winemaking seems like a bizarre legacy for church leaders to leave behind, it shouldn’t; wine has been considered a sacred beverage since biblical times. More than any religious connotations, the growth of the wine trade in the Rhône Valley was directly tied to the economic prosperity of the church. In the 14th century, a political argument between the French king and the papacy resulted in Pope Clement V moving his court to Avignon in 1309. For the next century, seven popes and two antipopes resided in Avignon. Where the church went, wealth followed, and like all good Frenchmen the Avignon popes had a taste for wine. The popes cultivated extensive vineyards around the city, and the proximity of the Rhône River, an important trading route, gave impetus to the wine industry.
The most notable among the popes’ wines was Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the former summer residence of the Avignon papacy. Châteauneuf wine is characterized by the wide variety of grapes used (up to 13) and is still considered one of the crown jewels of the Rhône Valley. The popes also favored Tavel wines, the only appellation within the Rhône Valley that exclusively makes rosé wine. Traditionally, Tavel rosé is a "long-vatted" wine, meaning the grapes have prolonged skin contact during the fermentation process, resulting in a dry, full-bodied rosé with an almost orange hue. Domaine de Monissy, a winery founded by monks, still makes some rosé in the traditional style of the church fathers. Plan de Dieu, Roaix, Sablet, Valréas, and Visan are all examples of Rhône appellations that can trace their history back to the Avignon papacy and the religious communities that once flourished in the region.
At the foot of the famous Palais des Papes in Avignon, visitors can view a small vineyard that was planted as an homage to the winemaking legacy of the papal reign. The city was never destined to reach the religious stature of the Eternal City, but as far as oenophiles are concerned, the Rhône Valley is certainly blessed by what the popes left behind.