Discovering the Art of Wine in the Rhône Valley

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cycling in the vineyards

apart from sampling, you can cycle through the vineyards

As a wine and food lover, a wine tour of the Southern region of the Rhône Valley was just up my street. I thought I knew how to choose wines, but this holiday opened my eyes to its delights. A bonus in Provence is the weather where, unless you are unfortunate to arrive during a Mistral, when the wind is bitingly cold it is usually quite pleasant, if not warm and sunny.

Anne Field and her husband Chris have done what many of us dream of doing; buying a property in the South of France. Anne has a diploma in wine appreciation from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in Britain, and gives courses in a light airy house located amongst vineyards. In conjunction with the courses they also have couple of rooms that they let out on a bed and breakfast basis together with two cottages they own in the grounds. In a brief lesson, we learnt some of the subtleties of enjoying wine, about the main grapes of the region, and how to read a label. In the Rhône Valley, Syrah also known as Shiraz is grown in the North, and predominately Grenache in the South. She explained that the Grenache grape has to be blended with other grapes to be palatable. The Rhone Valley, the second largest wine producing area in France produces Côtes du Rhône. However, if the label has the name of the village, it is of a higher grade. A select few, the very best, include the word ‘cru’.

In the countryside, field upon field are covered with vineyards. Many estates will entice you in with the offer of a tasting, in the hope that you will buy their wine. Some sell not only their own but also those of other estates out of the area. TerraVentoux  is a co-operative encompassing five villages where the smaller local wine growers bring their grapes to be made into wine. Here we were able to hire electric bikes to cycle around their vineyards following a well signposted route. There are also a variety of walks of varying lengths, and guided tours.

If you are concerned about the use of chemicals, you will definitely want to visit Montirius where cultivation is carried out on the principles of bio-dynamics. Also the alcoholic fermentation period of each of their vats is allowed to evolve at its own rhythm. Bottling is carried out in relation to the lunar calendar.

wine cask at Chateauneuf-de-pape

at the wine museum Mason Brotte Chateauneuf-de-Pape

At Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Maison Brotte has created a museum where visitors are encouraged, without having to pay, and with the help of an audio-guide and displays, to learn all about wine. We were introduced to the Rhône Valley, its historical past, and explained in detail how wine is made. Grapes are hand picked  in Châteauneuf-du-Pape while in other areas of the Rhone, they are machine picked. Displays of winemaking tools date back to the 14th century including and taking pride of place in their tasting room a 4,000 litre chestnut cask. Soil quality is very important in the making of wine and at Ogier, a garden has been created showing the four different soils of the area – limestone, red sandstone, sand and large pebbles. In the village of Châteauneuf du Pape, we met sommelier Danièle Raulet-Reynaud who runs wine and cheese courses in her home. She too, offers bed and breakfast. She gave us an introduction to food pairing, showing us how much better food tastes if matched with the right wine.  A practise which seems to be offered in a lot of the local restaurants, and of course, by having different wines with each course, the wine growers also sell more wines!

The name Châteauneuf du Pape derives from the fourteenth century when Pope Clement V chose Avignon to become the Capital of Christendom, and planted vines in the area. The name of the city was of course made famous for me from my childhood having to learn the poem “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”. Bizarrely, there is only half a bridge straddling the Rhone River at Avignon. Since being destroyed, the bridge has been rebuilt several times, but each time because of its treacherous current it keeps being destroyed so finally the authorities decided not to repair it. The Popes’ Palace in the centre of the walled city along with the bridge can be visited.

Pope's palace at Avignon

Avignon where you will find the Pope’s palace

Cars are not encouraged within the city walls but there is a park and ride.  Many of the streets are still cobbled with narrow winding streets. Running through the town, the River Sorgue, a tributary of the Rhône, has an ancient waterwheel that keeps the water flowing so that the riverbed never dries out when the weather gets hot. The buildings are quite deceptive. Walking down a street we stopped at a door displaying the name-plate Maison de Fogasses. Here in a 16th century mansion, which has extra-ordinary decor the owner, Corinne Guyon holds Provencal family cooking classes every Tuesday and Thursday. Participants go to the local undercover market worth visiting anyway for the array of food. The seafood stall has a few tables and chairs providing an opportunity to sample their food. We, however, returned with our goodies for a lesson in how to cook squash soup, and rabbit stew paired with appropriate wines, which we then ate. On Monday evenings, the room next to the kitchen is open as a restaurant. Within the building, there are also a couple of self- contained flats that can be rented for a minimum of two days.

If you are driving, you aren’t able to imbibe but this is made easy as, at any wine tasting there is always a spittoon. However, I really appreciated having a guide and chauffeur, benefitting from their knowledge, as there are subtle differences between the estates. Also depending on what you want to do other than having a tasting, activities have to be booked in advance particularly if you want a guided tour of the estate or to take part in an organised activity. Depending on the season, there are a range of activities at the different estates such as picnics, wine pairings, and grape picking if you happen to be in one of the five villages of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in late September/early October. From mid November to mid March, this is also the area for finding, and eating truffle mushrooms.

Natasha’s rail travel was organised through Starting next May, Eurostar will have a straight through service to Avignon from London St Pancras International. In the winter, a change is required in Paris. Direct flights go to Marseilles, an hour’s drive away, are available from Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted.







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