A Wine Tour of the Rhône

Since Roman times, this French valley has produced some of the world's best, and most diverse, wines

By Jon Bonne, Friday, Dec 10, 2004, 5:00 PM

Walking into Domaine le Clos des Cazaux, in the village of Vacqueyras, we found an elderly French farmer standing at the counter, waiting to fill his jugs of bulk table wine. We were gleeful.

I've long enjoyed Cazaux's wines. Well regarded and an excellent buy, they can be luscious and sunny or deep and spicy. We had come to sample their better vintages. So why the excitement about a place that doles out table wine to old-timers? As visitors soon discover, France's Rhône Valley thrives on such contradictions.

It wins acclaim from critics and drinkers, but it isn't on a pedestal like Bordeaux. Its best bottles can be tucked away for decades, yet Rhône wines immediately warm to New World palates--and remain astoundingly affordable. (Just don't compare local prices to those back home; you may start crying.)

In fact, the Rhône is not one wine region but two. The vineyards of the southern Rhône spread across large swaths southeastern France, while the narrow band that makes up the northern Rhône vineyards is concentrated near the banks of the Rhône River, some 50 miles long but never more than a few miles across. The two areas are separated by about 45 miles of farmland where few grapes are grown. Wine has been made here since at least Roman times, and if modern drinkers are coming to appreciate the Rhône again, we are hardly the first.

As vintner Yves Cuilleron puts it, "The vineyards of the northern Rhône Valley were very famous a century ago. It was more expensive than Bordeaux and Champagne.

Thus a trip through the Rhône is a chance to see a land that lives and breathes wine both exalted and humble. That said, it is an embarrassment of riches. Plan in advance, or be swamped by decisions.

A week is barely enough time to scratch the surface, but that's all we had to travel up the Rhône River's spine, driving north from Aix-en-Provence through some of the best-known Rhône villages before finishing in the northern town of Ampuis.

We soon hit Tain l'Hermitage, which produces some of the region's most valued wines. It also houses one of the area's few walk-in tasting rooms. Across the river in the town of Mauves, Pierre Coursodon's winery lets you sample the ascendant St. Joseph appellation.

To the north, in Condrieu, the Francois Gerard winery offers hilltop views and a taste of the area's famous viognier-based whites. In nearby Chavanay, Yves Cuilleron's tasting room displays his highly respected bottlings. The farther north you go, the steeper the hills and more crowded the vineyards, until it seems as though the steep slopes couldn't possibly hold another vine. Lodging in wineries can be found near Tain at the Domaine du Colombier and up north in Ampuis at Domaine Barge, located in the town's center. Also near Tain is La Farella, a restored farm and traditional gite. (The owner may excuse himself to go milk the cows.)

Just to the north lies Lyon, France's second-largest city and a perfect place to finish a trip in style. Rail and air routes are plentiful.

Rhône winemakers, increasingly accustomed to tourists driving up their dusty driveways, have devised some aids for the wary traveler. The best is their comprehensive Web site (http://www.vins-Rhône.com/) with nine "wine roads: well-planned routes through the Rhône's sub-regions, complete with winery listings, contact details and driving directions. Local tourist offices also stock a paper version.

The best bet is to head for smaller villages. A place like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, an epicenter of Rhône tradition, is hardly a sleepy town anymore--and most wineries there insist on advance notice. Some do have downtown tasting rooms, such as Domaine du Pegau, which may prove the best option for quick tasting.

Reasonable lodging is plentiful. Many farmhouses have been converted into self-catering "gites or "chambers d'hotes--essentially, bed and breakfasts--and offer a pleasant and generally authentic country stay, and which are usually booked by the week. Some wineries also offer B&Bs, allowing you to spend time in a winemaker's home. And they frequently offer evening meals, usually for less than 30 euros, should you want to match food to their wine.

The Dentelles

No visit is complete without a stop along these jagged limestone ridges rising east of the city of Orange. Towns such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise have lent their names to popular Rhône appellations. The first two are known for their reds, the last for its sweet, slightly floral white dessert wines.

With just 650 residents, the tiny mountainside village of Gigondas is all but a required stop.

Some of the best tasting experiences can be found at caveaus (tasting rooms) operated by multiple winemakers, which provide an easy way to taste more wines with less driving. It nearly took a crowbar (actually, a lunch reservation) to pry us out of the expertly-run Caveau du Gigondas with 50 vintners. With over 50 vintners participating, we were overwhelmed by dizzyingly good vintages--the Chateau Raspail 2000, for instance or the Chateau St. Cosme 2002. Though tastings there are free, they're for serious buyers.

Visitors should also be sure to stop at individual wineries; the villages generally provide good direction signs to find their local stars. Domaine de Durban produces a delightful Beaumes de Venise, plus a charming house white for about 4 euros per bottle. Up the road, Vacqueyras wineries like Clos des Cazaux show you that, above all, most French winemakers are still humble farmers. Down the street from the Gigondas caveau, we enjoyed a memorable lunch at L'Oustalet.

Several bed and breakfasts are nearby. And just south, in the Orange suburbs, is Le Moulin des Souchieres, a quiet, friendly B&B fashioned out of an 1812 mill.

En route and in the North

Few places can offer a more authentic taste of Rhône life than Domaine Saint Luc, outside La Baume de Transit on the northern edge of the southern Rhône. Owners Ludovic and Eliance Cornillon offer rooms in their 18th century stone farmhouse, plus simple but exquisitely flavorful Provencal meals, served with their own sumptuous syrah-based wines. Their vineyards are literally three long strides beind their 18th century stone farmhouse. You can sit out back, open a bottle of red and watch the sun dip behind the rows of vines.

Crossing north of Valence, vineyards begin climbing the hillsides on either bank of the Rhône. A wine lover's path follows the water north up the N7 road on the right bank or the N86 on the left.

The Cotes du Rhône appellation familiar to many drinkers includes vineyards in both the northern and southern Rhône. Smaller appellations can be found all along. While some of the best-known, such as Cote-Rotie (north) and Chateauneuf-du-Pape (south) now command premium prices, values can be found almost everywhere. Here are the main wines you'll find along the way:

  • Red syrah: Found in both areas, but is the premier grape of the north
  • Grenache: Dominant red in the south
  • Viognier: Northern white grape
  • Marsanne and roussanne: Southern favorites
  • But with several dozen grapes native to the Rhône region, blends are a way of life:

    Cote-Rotie: Famous appellation even blends 90 percent or more syrah with just a touch of white viognier. (Field workers mix grapes together right in the picking bins.)

    Note: At least in the southern Rhône, unscheduled appearances may be OK, but an advance e-mail or phone call is a wise bet. As you move into the northern Rhône, appointments often become essential.

    Lodging

    Some properties have their own Web sites; others can be found and reserved through comprehensive listings on the Gites de France site. Those in the Vaucluse(southern) and Drome(northern) regions will probably be of most interest, though you can search a B&B by location. The gites are often rates by numbers of epis, or heads of corn, not unlike star ratings. Before you book anything, check a map.