Split personalities: A wine tour of the Rhone
Since Roman times, this French valley has produced some of the world's best, and most diverse, wines
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 Rhone 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 Rhone 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 Rhone is not one wine region but two. The vineyards of the southern Rhone spread across large swaths southeastern France, while the narrow band that makes up the northern Rhone vineyards is concentrated near the banks of the Rhone 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 Rhone again, we are hardly the first.
As vintner Yves Cuilleron puts it, "The vineyards of the northern Rhone Valley were very famous a century ago. It was more expensive than Bordeaux and Champagne.
Thus a trip through the Rhone 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 Rhone River's spine, driving north from Aix-en-Provence through some of the best-known Rhone villages before finishing in the northern town of Ampuis.
Rhone 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-rhone.com/) with nine "wine roads": well-planned routes through the Rhone'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 Rhone 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.
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 Rhone 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.
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