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Wine in Provence

Did the Popes Drink Wine?

Do we owe it to the popes in Avignon for having such great wine in the Provence today? Some may debate and they certainly weren’t the first to establish the Provencal vineyards, but there is no denying that the popes concentrated much of their time and energy into elaborating the quality and quantity of wine in Provence.

grape harvestIf you remember your European history lesson on the era of unsettlement in Rome during the Middle Ages (and before), you remember the popes left the Holy Seat in Rome to safer ground. After a few years of roaming they eventually settled in the papal territory of the Comtat Venaissan (more or less the area known today as Provence or more precisely Vaucluse) and then declared Avignon as the Holy Seat. The 14th century marked Avignon as the capital of Christendom.

Remains of the castle the popes used for their summer residency in Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Remains of the castle the popes used for their summer residency in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

In my opinion, nothing was very « Christian » about this time in history but one cannot deny the grandeur and power the popes displayed through what they built…and drank.

A recently published book by a local historian, Jean-Pierre Saltarelli, compiles some fascinating facts about the wine of the popes during the Middle Ages. The Avignon popes were already accustomed to drinking wine and had nothing but the best crus in mind for their consumption. At first, the Popes were drinking wines from other regions, partly due to the Rhone River providing easy trade (wines from Bourbonnais and Bourgogne). Then, the popes invested in land, vineyards, vine varieties and wine making techniques locally to produce grand crus that they had become accustomed to.

So far it all sounds like a fairy tale story of important people making important wine but lets not forget that the Middle Ages were marked by some very unpleasant events: economic crisis, wars, the plague, an earthquake and a severe cold spell over 3 years that also provoked a famine. Funnily, while there were times of shortages of wheat, there was never a shortage of wine.

Although written documents prove that the popes drank lots of wine (up to 2.5 liters per day and per person) it probably wasn’t like you and I drinking two bottles of wine a day. When was the last time you cooked with wine? Washed your fruit and vegetables with wine or stored your meat for a month in wine? The Medieval times had many uses of wine, even medical – or at least they tried.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines

This is not to say that the popes didn’t go overboard on their wine consumption. Two popes, Clement VI (1342-1352) and Gregoire XI (1370-1378) died from too much wine. It wasn’t actually the alcohol that killed them but the lead in the wine that caused lead poisoning. Lead was added to the wine during the Medieval times to cut the bitterness.

The Holy Seat eventually moved back to Rome (the beginning starting with Gregoire XI who left Avignon and died in Rome in 1378). The wines of Provence in the papal territory held their prestige, often reserved for the best wine at the popes’ table.

Resource: Les Vins Des Papes D’Avignon by Jean-Pierre Saltarelli, Association européenne de formation à l’oenotourisme, 2015