THE BEST KEPT FRENCH WINE SECRET
– THE RHONE VALLEY
The Rhone Valley is a great sprawl of a wine region, stretching from Vienne in the north to Avignon in the south. In between, lies a tremendous diversity of vineyards, some of which date to Greek and Roman times. More than a dozen grape varieties are planted on 85,000 hectares. 45 million cases of wine were produced in 2000.
Rhone Valley is the second largest French quality wine producing region and famous for a range of dry red and white (dry or sweet) wines. A small quantity of sparkling wine is also produced.
Richly historic, and steeped in several gastronomic traditions, this fascinating valley should be on the itinerary of every wine enthusiast visiting France.
Starting in the north with the famous Chateau Grillet (two hectare property and the smallest appellation of France), drive along the meandering river.
Chateau Grillet is famous for its Viognier-based unctuous white wine. 50 kilometers south you can visit three appellations – Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and St Joseph, famous for their Syrah-based red wines.
Tain, a small city of 9000 souls, houses the world’s best chocolate factory – Valrhona.
Vineyards around Cote Rotie, (roasted slope) are so steep that it takes 10 times the amount of labour as compared to that of Chateauneuf –du- Pape further south.
Until the 1960’s vineyard owners hereabouts were hard pressed to sell their wines in bulk to restaurants and pubs as vin de comptoir. E Guigal, the largest negociant in northern Rhone, insisted that quality had to be improved; he led by example. Today, thanks to the Guigal family, the whole region is enjoying success amongst connoisseurs who voraciously read trade publications and wine letters penned by many wine aficionados.
In Tain l’Hermitage, drop by M Chapoutier, one of the best and quality shippers of the valley, and taste their fine wines. While there, take the opportunity to taste Paul Jaboulet Aine’s products as well. Jean-Louis Chave, A. Clape and Noel Verget produce excellent wines, but are too small to host visitors. If you wish to visit them, call ahead.
Paul Jaboulet’s single-vineyard La Chapelle should be on the “to-be-tasted” list of each visitor.
Hermitage wines were served in practically all-royal courts of the 17th century and even used to improve the quality of Burgundy wines. This fact was even mentioned on the label by the word “Hermitagé“.
Hermitage is mostly red, but a small quantity of white Hermitage consisting of Rousanne and Marsanne are also produced.
Cornas is famous for its heavy, heady, smooth, and excellent red wines that can age for at least a decade.
St Joseph specializes in still and sparkling wines.
While traveling in the valley you need not go hungry. In Vienne, La Pyramide is highly recommended, in Hermitage cross the river to Tournon and ask for Le Chandron. If you happen to be in Valence, both restaurants Pic and Restaurant Michel Chabran have been praised by several food critiques.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape has one fine restaurant- La Mere Germaine but 50 kilometers south-west in Cotes du Luberon Bonnieux, Loumarin and Menerbes have several noteworthy restaurants, not only with imaginative menus, but which also offer extensive wine lists.
In northern Rhone, Syrah is the preferred grape for red wines and yields outstanding wines in the hands of meticulous winemakers. Most vintages are very fine and some are exceptional.
Driving south from Tain’ Hermitage past Coteaux du Tricastin on the east, the town of Orange beckons. After driving for approximately 30 kilometers you will arrive at Gigondas best known for its full-bodied and deeply flavoured red wines by the same name. Your detour will be richly rewarded.
Proceed to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, best known for its red wines which may be blends of up to 13 grape varieties (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Cinsaut, Muscardine, Vaccarese, Picpoule, Terret Noir, Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Rousanne, and Picardine ).
Many of the wineries make use of some, and few use all of them.
Grenache Blanc and few others are white and sometimes used to lighten the inky-red colour. Approximately four percent of all Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are vinified white.
Traditionally Chateauneuf-du-Pape is high in alcohol, full-bodied, tannic, peppery, spicy, deeply flavoured, fruity and complex. In most vintages the quality is high enough to warrant cellaring. Many wineries in town have tasting rooms.
West of the town, across the river are two famous towns: Lirac and Tavel better known for their rose wines. Anyone visiting the Rhone Valley should not miss the opportunity to visit Cotes du Luberon and Cotes du Ventoux. Both produce fine red wines at absolutely bargain prices due to their lack of fame. Here you can find bargains for your restaurant or cellar.
Any Rhone visit should be concluded with a visit to the village of Baume-de-Venise. Taste its sweet Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains wine to always remind you of this lovely corner of the world and hopefully this will prompt you to return.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu