A Wine Tour of the Rhône
Since Roman times, this French valley has produced some of the world's best, and most diverse, wines
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:
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.
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.
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