As we traveled into the Rhone Valley, the sharp outcroppings of limestone replaced the rolling hills of eastern France. Returning to this region had our wine taste buds watering. In the farming communities of Arbois, the wine is fresh, light in body, unaltered and organic. 200 miles to the south in the Southern Rhone Valley, the wines are certainly quite different. The nearby Mont Ventoux provides difficult terrain for the tour de France (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont_Ventoux). Rhone’s limestone terroir, strong winds (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistral_(wind)) and low humidity cause the vines to struggle for sustenance. This results in grapes with immense power. Because of topographical and soil diversity of the region, different varietals have been found to flourish in different regions within the Rhone Valley. Varietals are often blended to form the best wines in the area. For instance, in Southern Rhone, there are 19 varietals that can be blended to create the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In Northern Rhone, there is less land and less diversity (most wines are Syrah based), but no less power in the grapes. Subsequently the great wines from the north (think AOCs like Crozes-Hermitage) can be very expensive, hence we spent most of our time tasting wines in Southern Rhone. There are 16 “Cru” designated appellations in Rhone, 6 in the North and 10 in the South. The numerous wine varietals from various terroirs and a history of wine blending significantly differentiates Rhone from the other famous French wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux. In Burgundy and Bordeaux, it often feels like the locals are born drinking the wine and judging each bottle based on their vision of the “perfect” Burgundy or Bordeaux. Because of the variety of grapes produced in Rhone, this singular vision doesn’t exist. This diversity, plus less reliance on new oak, makes many of the wines more approachable to an outsider than one might find in Burgundy and Bordeaux. On our way south we picked up Kate’s parents and arrived late in the day at our fabulous lodging at La Madelene (http://www.rhonewineholidays.com/) with amazing hosts Philip and Jude. This B&B is a converted 12th Century Abbey in the middle of farmlands, under the shadow of Mount Ventoux. We arrived very late, well past the time local restaurants served dinner so Jude, a trained chef, whipped up an amazing meal for us in their terraced garden. Day 1 – We took a day off from wine tasting the first day to drive up to the top of Mont Ventoux, passing dozens of cyclists struggling their way up the steep road. Down the other side, we headed to the town of Sault to explore the nearby lavender fields. We arrived at the tail end of the season, so much of the lavender had already been picked. Even so, the smell of fresh lavender hung thickly in the air and driving through the patches of purple farmland left quite an impression on us. We dined on savory crepes in the small town of Sault. Afterwards, we enjoyed a stroll through the local market where vendors hawked various lavender-themed wares. Here’s Susan’s take on Day 1: We had the [first] full day to ourselves and took a drive to the top of Mt. Ventoux, 6,200 feet high, which is one of the high spots on the Tour de France. There were at least 50 bicyclists at the top celebrating the fact that they made it up the hill. Down the oth er side we passed beautiful fields of lavender and later in the day we drove past a famous gorge – not quite the Grand Canyon, but beautiful nonetheless. Day 2 – After a full day off from wine tasting we were chomping at the bit to get started. As you can tell from the number of wines we bought from the region, we’re big fans of Southern Rhone, specifically because the value compared to Bordeaux and Burgundy is incredible. Here’s where we went:
- Domaine des Bosquets is an old estate with brave young winemaker Julien Brechet in Gigogondas AOC.
- Domaine Escaravailles had a number of approachable and affordable offerings in Rasteau AOC, which just became an official AOC in 2010. This winery has been making great wines for centuries and is known for its black beetle on the bottle. This is in reference to the monks, dressed in black, that have lived nearby for centuries. While we were there the famously big winemaker, Philippe Cambie, was touring the facility and helping them with the latest vintage. His fame has helped catapult this winery’s popularity, but the great value doesn’t hurt. We chose a white Rhone blend for the club, Cotes du Rhone Blanc La Galopine, because of the value and the exotic fruit flavors (pineapple and guava?) we tasted.
- Domaine des Amouriers is in Vacqueyras, a lesser known AOC with hugely impressive wines. Amouriers is a small family winery that stays true to its Southern Rhone roots and tries to make wines that express the terroir of the region. The name of the winery refers to the mulberry trees that grow on the property.
- Clos de Trias is a rising stars of the Ventoux appellation. With a commitment to organic farming and natural winemaking (wild yeast, minimal sulfur, judicious use of oak), Clos du Trias also believe in holding wines back for release until they were actually ready to drink. Thus we got to enjoy their 2008s and 2009s, and take a peek into their 2010s. We chose a wine for the club that was fresh and very ready to drink (which you should do, soon).
- That night we had dinner at Pont de L’Orme, just minutes from La Madelene. The town itself is small but there was nothing small about the delicious meal we had. It was a little like going to suburb of Fresno and having one of the best 4 course meal of your life.
Day 3 – We visited the pride of southern Rhone: Chateaueuf du Pape. These regions in Rhone are famous for their galets roules, smooth rocks that cover the vineyard soil. These rocks help the wine in two important ways – first, they reflect sunlight back up to the grapes, thereby encouraging ripening and maturation. Second, they keep the soil moist and help prevent evaporation, a helpful quality in these regions where irrigation is largely prohibited. Here’s where we went:
- Chateau Saint Esteve makes fine reds in the aoc of “Massif d”Uchaux.
- Cuvee Vatican makes modern red and white cuvees.
- We had lunch at Verger des Papes just below the ruin of the old Papal summer palace with the expected unbelievable views.
- Domaine Grand Veneur is another outstanding value from a high end Southern Rhone winemaker from the Jaume Family. They have a sleek modern approach to wine making and get their grapes from several different regions. We purchased the Cotes du Rhone Les Champauvins because the grapes come from just across the highway from the official AOC so they can’t mark it Châteauneuf du Pape but we all know these are the same damn grapes. This wine has dark red fruit flavors (cherries, plums and currants) with some spice and soil and lavender on the nose.
- Domaine Cristiain Châteauneuf du Pape had a number of delicious southern rhone offerings, some of which they export into the states. The winemakers are a brother sister team (Dominique and Baptiste Grangeon) and have attained critical acclaim from wine reviewers. We chose one for the wine club, the Côtes du Rhône Vieilles Vignes Rouge, because the grapes come from right next to Chateauneuf du Pape. This 100% grenache has herbs and ripe fruit on the nose with mature and silky, well-formed tannins on the palate.
We had a wonderful dinner the last night at La Madeleine prepared by Jude with matching wines picked by Philip. On the last night Jon opened a fantastic bottle of Chateau d’Yquem from 2005 and we all enjoyed a taste. We ended our visit to Rhone fully satiated. Susan had a bit of a different take on our two days of wine tasting: The next two days were a blur – breakfast at 8:30am, tastings at two vineyards before lunch, tastings at two or three more after lunch, then back to La Madelene for a quick rest before an elaborate 3 – 4 hour dinner with lots and lots of wine. I am very much a newbie in this process – I don’t have the palate KE&J have and frankly I don’t have the passion either. They will have to tell you about the vineyards we visited and which were good and which were not so good. We were taken to quite a range of producers – everything from small mom & pop companies to elaborate establishments. To each her own…on to Bordeaux!