There are Rhone wines to fit every season, and there’s no season that isn’t a good time to visit this very special winegrowing area of France.
In the southeast sector of the country, between Lyon and Avignon, the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone unfurl within the Rhone Valley. To the north, the vines cover the steep slopes that closely follow the river. To the south, they spread out and stretch as far as the eye can see to the foothills of the Alps and the Massif Central.
Those vines share the landscape with olive trees and lavender, all in the heart of the authentic Provence.
This well-preserved area offers, among other things, an exceptional historical heritage. In addition to visiting the countless local cellars, one can view the antique theater in Orange or the Papal Palace in Avignon.
That palace and its inhabitants played key roles in the development of the Rhone as a wine region. During the 14th century, Avignon was the refuge of the Popes as they fled the dangers of Rome. They built the largest gothic palace in Europe while their cardinals lived in sumptuous dwellings.
But they also contributed to the prosperity of the local artisans as they served as the driving force behind the development of the vineyards.
Avignon, referred to as “the pearl of the south,” retains much of its medieval splendor to this day. It’s still surrounded by walls, and it’s home to so many spires that it’s also known as “the city of bells.”
The 17th and 18th centuries saw rapid progress in Rhone Valley wine production. In the 17rh century, “Cote du Rhone” was the name of the administrative district in the Vicariate of Uzes (Gard), where the wines were particularly renowned. Regulations were introduced in 1650 to guarantee both their origin and quality.
By an edict of the king in 1737, all the wine casks that were to be used for carriage and sale had to be branded with the letters “C.D.R.” It was only in the middle of the 19th century that Cote du Rhone became Cotes du Rhone, as the vineyards on the left bank of the Rhone River were included.
The ultimate recognition came in 1937 when the Cotes du Rhone was granted official Appellation d’Origine Controlee status, thanks to the work of Baron LeRoy. The AOC classification was emblematic of the area’s clearly defined land (terroir) and the superb expertise in wine production.
Today, the wines of the Cotes du Rhone are known for their versatility and their ability to fit almost any occasion imaginable.
Visit during the spring or summer months, and you’ll likely encounter the fruit forwardness of young Cotes du Rhone wines. Most of the region’s wines are red, and they typically showcase delicate aromas of strawberries, raspberries or very ripe blackberries. They’re excellent wines to enjoy with the simple, but delicious, local cuisine.
As the weather warms up, the white and rosé wines of the Cotes du Rhone make excellent aperitifs. The locals love to chill them down and sip them while they watch the world (and the tourists) go by.
When autumn arrives and the temperatures fall, it’s time to switch to Cotes du Rhone Villages wines. These are more intense and complex than the regional Cotes du Rhone bottlings, and their spicy quality is enhanced by the flavors of roast beef or lamb.
And when the holiday season beckons, it’s time to pour the most prestigious wines of the region — the Cotes du Rhone crus. Examples include Vacqueyras, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Cote-Rotie. Their complexity will make any day of celebration a day to remember.
The best cellars of the Rhone adhere to a strict set of guidelines dealing with both the exterior and interior of the facility, as well as customer service.
Which wineries should one visit? Frankly, a unique adventure awaits at each establishment, and the best advice is to simply follow your nose — and the abundant signposts.
And here’s the best tip of all: Once you’ve found a winery you love, ask the proprietor where you should go next. He’ll almost always point you in the right direction — and that applies to restaurants as well as other wineries.
Home to 1,574 private cellars, 96 cooperative cellars, 52 trading companies and six “unions of producers,” the Rhone Valley is a slice of wine heaven on Earth. It belongs on the “bucket list” — or, perhaps that should be “barrel list” — of any lover of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, or blended red wines in general.
Trip planning guidance:
A useful resource for determining where to stay in the Rhone Valley, organized by geographic area (Lyon, Tournon-sur-Rhone, Villeurbanne, etc.).
Includes wine route maps, winery descriptions and hours of operation, a calendar of events and more.
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Have you ever been to the Rhone? Please share your memories and/or tips in the comments box below.