Visiting the Southern Rhône Valley
By Quentin Sadler
The south of France remains one of my favourite places. I love to experience the warmth, the sights and smells of the evocative Provençal landscape.
The southern Rhône Valley is part of the Mediterranean, Provençal world. It’s the more laid-back sibling of the courtly northern Rhône. The north has its continental climate and dramatically steep granite slopes, while the southern Rhône enjoys a wider valley floor of limestone covered in the low growing garrigue – mainly lavender, juniper, sage and thyme, think herbes de Provence – and a more languid Mediterranean climate.
It is a parched dry land, which together with the abundant sunshine and the low yields that the rocky terrain forces on the vines, accounts for the concentrated and fruity style of the wines, as well as the high alcohol levels.
Regarding that alcohol, I often think the reds are best enjoyed elsewhere, the bistros of Paris or at home in the UK. If you drink them in situ, in all that heat and sunshine, a short time in an ice bucket dramatically improves their drinkability. Of course the rosés can be very attractive and refreshing, while the few white wines produced, usually from Roussanne and/or Marsanne, can be very good indeed.
It is a rugged and dramatic place with a wild, natural beauty. The smell and sight of the lavender, the armies of sunflowers marching across the land, the chirruping of the cicadas and the dramatic backdrops of Mont Ventoux and Dentelles de Montmirail all help make the visitor feel removed from the real world and wonderfully relaxed.
The beautiful medieval villages and towns provide the charm with their mellow, honey coloured stone buildings, Roman tiled roofs, shady trees, café lined squares and higgledy-piggledy streets.
Avignon is somewhere that you must see. The site of this beautiful ancient city has been occupied since Neolithic times and it remains alive with history. Head straight for the old town, pedestrianised and still surrounded by the city’s intact ramparts, it has almost a village-like feel and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The most famous site is the Palais des Papes – Avignon was the residence for seven Popes in the fourteenth century. From August to October there is a captivating son et lumière in the central courtyard of the Palais des Papes that details the Palace’s fascinating past.
Who could resist a little jig sur Le Pont d’Avignon? Properly known as the Saint-Bénézet bridge, only four spans remain of the original twenty-two, which is the chief reason why it doesn’t actually go across the river.
Sadly it isn’t free to go on to the bridge, but views of it are free. The very best view must be that from the beautiful Jardin du Rocher des Doms. This peaceful spot provides a welcome refuge from a hard days sight seeing and the heat of the sun. Mind you, you have to climb a bit of a hill to get there, but it’s worth it. The Rocher des Doms also has a small vineyard and a café where you can drink the wine it produces.
If all this has made you hungry and thirsty then have no fear, Avignon is full of eateries. Three of my favourites are in the old town, Au Jardin Des Carmes is a lovely restaurant where you can sit out in the Place des Carmes, Le Goût du Jour, which is very near the Palais des Papes, as is the relaxed La Vache à Carreaux restaurant and wine bar. In truth you fall over bars and restaurants everywhere you go and as long as you avoid the obvious tourist traps I do not think you will go far wrong.
Orange should not be missed either. It was the Roman centre in this part of the world and has one of the best preserved Roman theatres as well as a Roman temple and a magnificent Triumphal Arch. If all that ancient history has made you hungry, then a meal in the nearby Au Petit Patio is a delightful experience, while Les Saveurs du Marché is a less pricey and more casual option.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a charming medieval village on a hillside that is topped by the ruins of the Avignon Pope’s summer palace, or their new castle. Sadly the palace was used as a source of building stone for centuries and was ultimately blown up by the retreating German forces in 1944 and so the ruined towers are now all that is left.
Like St-Émilion, Châteauneuf is a hedonist’s town, with wine shops and winery visits the main reason to be here. It seems as though every building is a cave offering tastings and wine sales. There is even a Musée du Vin that can give you good background information, be warned though, this too is owned by a wine producer and they do offer their wines for sale. The village is delightful in itself and a joy to simply wander around. The narrow streets curve around the hillside and wind up to the castle from where you enjoy stunning views across the famous vineyards.
For the more adventurous there are several walking and cycling trails which take you through the vines. The longest is a 16 kilometre loop that starts off at the castle, but there are shorter routes that start from La Maison des Vignerons. The tourist office in Place du Portail will have all the details.
As you might expect there are some lovely restaurants and cafés with terraces from where you can watch the world go by. Le Pistou and La Mère Germaine are two that I remember with particular pleasure. If, after all that tasting, walking, eating and drinking you need something sweet, there is a wonderful chocolate shop just outside the village on the road to Sorgues.
Of course many of the other towns and villages are full of interest too. Carpentras is an attractive, little town complete with a Roman Arch, a cathedral, France’s oldest synagogue and a truffle market on Friday mornings. If you are in need of refreshment, Le Grenache is a friendly and affordable wine bar and bistro with a superb wine list, while Chez Serge is a more upmarket restaurant for that memorable lunch.
Nearby you have the villages of Vacqueyras and Gigondas, both important Crus and well worth visiting. Approaching them from the south you get magnificent views of the Dentelles de Montmirail.
Vacqueyras is a small village where the buildings are laid out in a circle to form a defensive wall. The narrow streets lead you to the walls of the castle and the church that are at its heart. It is a delightful place to spend a little time, the outer streets are lined with trees and sitting outside the Café du Cours with a drink or a meal is a very pleasant way to unwind.
Gigondas is a charming little place clustered around a church on a hill at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail. The view from the church square, the high point of the village, is wonderful with a panorama of the vineyards spread out beneath you. The streets of the lower village, outside the little centre, are lined with caves and cafés, so refreshment is readily available.
Valréas is a little gem of a town that might well be easy to miss. It is the capital of the Canton of Valréas, or L’Enclave des Papes, which is a part of the Vaucluse Département surrounded by Drôme. It is thus an exclave of Vauculse and an enclave of Drôme. Legend has it that Pope John XX11 was very sickly and was thought not to have long to live when the Cardinals selected him. He had lived in Avignon and so, as Pope, settled there and this was the start of Avignon’s Papal control that did not end until Revolutionary France annexed the territory. The Pope loved the wines of Valréas so much that he purchased the land there and lived for another 18 years before dying at the remarkable age of 89. His longevity was said to be because of the wines. His successors added further villages to the estate and eventually this became L’Enclave des Papes as the inhabitants chose to remain part of Vaucluse rather than join the Drôme Département.
The town is dominated by a tower, all that is left of the 12th-century Château Ripert. The site of the old town walls is now a tree lined road, but the Tivoli Tower, one of the defensive gates, remains. The whole place is a warren of lovely narrow medieval lanes full of fine stone buildings, vaulted passageways and stepped-streets.
As you might imagine, it is teeming with restaurants and cafés, so you will not go hungry. Au Délice de Provence is a smart and stylish restaurant in an ancient stone building, while Le Coquelicot is a little more relaxed.
You will have plenty of things to see and experience on your trip to the southern Rhône.
Quentin Sadler is a wine writer, wine consultant, wine educator and friend of 3D.
3D events in the southern Rhône
Truffle Hunting in February: Each year the Bouchard family invite a small group of 3D Partners on a very special weekend at Domaine des Grands Devers. We embark on a hunt for the elusive black truffle. As well as learning how to find them, the weekend includes a visit to the largest truffle market in Provence and a tasting of the Bouchard’s wines over a fabulous truffle-themed dinner. We also visit Christine and Eric Saurel at Montirius; our fascinating biodynamic vineyard that produces our exclusive Gigondas and Vacqueyras wines and dine with them at the sumptuous Château de Rochegude.