Steeped in winemaking history, and just a short hop by plane or train from London, Châteauneuf-du-Pape hosts a colourful festival every August. RACHEL BRIDGE pays a visit
Knights in shining armour, fire-eaters and a fountain that flows with wine instead of water. If you’re planning to pay a visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape during the first weekend in August, you could be in for a surprise. You might also want to catch up on some sleep before you go. The usually tranquil village will be transformed into a bustling medieval fair complete with villagers dressed as peasants, street entertainers and strolling minstrels celebrating one of the most important dates in the winemaking festival calendar, the Fête de Véraison.
Held every year to mark the moment when the grapes begin to ripen on the vine, the origins of the three-day festival date back to the 14th century when Pope Clément VI from the nearby court of Avignon decided to throw a party in honour of Bacchus, the god of wine. It was an auspicious beginning. The story goes that Clément VI who, along with successive popes at Avignon, chose the castle at Châteauneuf-du-Pape as his summer residence, loved entertaining so much that during his reign he disposed of most of the papal fortune putting on grand balls and lavish banquets. His love of wine and enthusiasm for planting vines to supply the papal court did much to establish Châteauneuf-du-Pape as one of France’s most important winemaking regions.
Robert Tudella, president of the Festival Committee, which revived the Fête de Véraison 18 years ago, says: ‘We wanted to celebrate our wine with a festival that was unlike any other in the south of France and so we decided to draw on Châteauneuf’s rich past and recreate it as it would have been in the time of Clément VI. He may have been a pope but he very much liked to enjoy himself. He loved grand meals, he loved wine and he loved women.’
Cars are banned from the village during the festival to make way for the local winemakers who set up stalls in the streets to offer tastings, artists exhibiting their paintings and villagers selling traditional produce of the region – such as caillette made of meat mixed with herbes de Provence, locally made goats cheese, and tapenade made from green and black olives. Restaurants set tables out in the streets, shops decorate their windows and everyone dresses up in medieval costume, including a Belgian devotee who turns up every year without fail in authentic peasant garb.
For wine lovers the Fête de Véraison is an excellent opportunity to get to know the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and also to meet the winemakers in person in a convivial atmosphere. You can buy a special tasting glass for a few euros and use it to taste as many wines as you want during the weekend at no further charge, both at the street stalls and downstairs in the cellars dotted through the village such as those of Jean Royer and Baronnie D’Estouard on rue de la République. And you’re welcome to help yourself to the wine which flows continuously in the fountain in the main square in front of the Office of Tourism.
Michel Blanc, director of the producers’ association in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, says: ‘It’s a good time for wine lovers to visit Châteauneuf-du-Pape because plenty of estates will be open during the weekend and winemakers have time to speak to people who are interested in what they do and to take them through their wines.’
Highlights of the weekend include a huge candle-lit medieval banquet which takes place beneath a traditional canopy, an equestrian display in the sports stadium – and a historic pageant depicting Clément VI and his court, which wends its way through the streets a couple of times a day complete with elaborately dressed bishops, nobles, dancers and jousting displays on horseback.
Even without the presence of medieval partygoers, however, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a village steeped in history, from its honey-coloured stone façades decorated with sculptures and coats of arms to the walls and dungeon of its 14th-century château on the hill, these days a venue for arts-and-crafts exhibitions. Thanks to its compact size it is easy to appreciate it on foot, and when you tire of pretending to be a medieval peasant you can wander into the vineyards surrounding the village and see for yourself why the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is one of the most highly regarded of the southern Rhône . Everywhere you look the ground is covered with Châteauneuf’s famed pudding stones or galets, which store the heat of the sun during the day and release it during the night to warm the vines. Some 13 million bottles are produced every year here and, uniquely for France, the 320 or so local producers can use up to 13 varieties of grapes in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation.
One of the best places to head for is Château La Nerthe, one of several vineyards that will be open to visitors during the Fête de Véraison. Situated about a kilometre from the centre of the village, it boasts beautiful cellars dating back to the 16th century, an 18th-century château and a wonderful view of the Rhône valley. La Nerthe was the first vineyard in the Châteauneuf region to grow all 13 permitted grape varieties and still grows all of them to produce both red and white wine. The staff also speak English and as director Alain Degas says: ‘It is good to visit the Fête de Véraison in the village to try the different wines on offer and meet the wine producers. It is very convivial. But afterwards it is also good to taste the wines in a more relaxed environment, sitting calmly in an armchair.’
You should not leave Châteauneuf-du-Pape for good without paying a visit to the recently opened Vinedea Maison du Vin. A pleasant shop situated at the top of the steps on rue Maréchal Foch, with helpful staff and paintings by local artists displayed on the wall, Vinedea represents and sells the wine of around 70 local producers. It is open daily and offers customer tastings of three or four different wines each day.