In the southern Rhône River valley, low, twisted grapevines cover the rocky countryside, producing some great wines. John and I have tasted quite a few Côtes du Rhône during our wanderings between the Alps and the Mediterranean, and we hope for many more.
The high-speed train whisks us from Paris to Avignon, where we pick up a rental car and drive to our home base, Hôtel Restaurant Les Florets, outside the village of Gigondas. This appealing hotel, owned by the Bernard family of Domaine la Garrigue, perches on a hill surrounded by vineyards. There are comfortable annex rooms, but I like the older ones in the main hotel, preferably overlooking the flower-filled terrace. In the shade of chestnut and plane trees, we sip coffee, have an aperitif, or just admire the view.
The hotel rooms are moderately priced, the restaurant more expensive, but it’s worth every euro. A recent dinner included a terrine of pig’s trotters (that would be John’s choice); fish soup with curry and apples, rouget, roasted pigeon, tapenades, and desserts of coffee créme, pear tart and luscious chocolates. Plus a cheese trolley with thirty kinds of cheeses.
One morning we hiked in the nearby granite ridges of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Dentelles means lace, and these high, steep towers are so jagged they do look lacy. We walked through a forest of sun-dappled oak and pine trees on a trail that was deeply eroded, straight up with no switchbacks. We reached the foot of the ridges and continued around them while climbers with pitons and ropes scrambled up the vertical rock. Crawling over boulders, we went as high as we could and paused, in a whistling wind, to admire the panorama of green vineyards and yellow broom, farms, a scattering of villages, and snow-topped Mount Ventoux. In the distance, plumes of steam rose from a nuclear power plant.
In this wine-centered Vaucluse region, small towns retain their old-world charm. A sampling:
– Peaceful, tiny (650 residents) Gigondas. It’s famed for its own appellation, AOC Gigondas, a rich red wine made from the local Grenache grapes. Le Caveau de Gigondas, on the main square, offers tastings of a variety of Rhône wines. The tourist information office here has maps and lists of open wineries and lodgings.
– Séguret, called “one of the most beautiful villages in France.” This sweet place, on a hill above the vineyards, has narrow stone streets closed to cars, numerous artists’ studios, and the picturesque ruins of a tower. Our lunch at La Table du Comtat, overlooking the wide valley, was a treat: asparagus puree, tarts of caramelized shallots, thin slices of raw scallops on rice. Not very hearty, but tasty, especially with a white Côtes du Rhône wine.
There are many “Gites” (B&Bs) in the area. One of the most attractive is Le Vieux Figuier, at the edge of Séguret. Its three antiques-furnished rooms are in an 18th-century stone house, set among gorgeous gardens. There’s a pool, as well.
– Vaison-la-Romaine, a town divided by the Ouvèze River. We toured the ruins of an ancient Roman city, with its streets, columns, walls, and a hillside theater still in use, and tasted local wines at Cave la Romaine. If it had been a Tuesday we’d have strolled through a huge outdoor market (held since 1453), where some 450 exhibitors sell their wares. There’s a cathedral and cloisters and, at the tourist information office, maps of bicycle routes along vineyard-lined roads. We hiked up roughly cobbled streets to the ruins of a 13th-century fort and admired spectacular valley views.
– Château-neuf-du-Pape. It’s all about wine in this quiet village. We tasted a couple and took the self-guided tour of the wine-making process in the museum.
– Beaumes de Venise, also centered around wine production. At a small winery set in a pretty garden we stopped for a sip of an excellent Côtes du Rhône, and continued on to —
– Suzette, a minuscule hilltop village looking toward the Dentelles de Montmirail. We enjoyed a simple lunch of quiche and grilled sausage on the sun-splashed terrace of Les Coquelicots (The Poppies), while bicyclists pedaled slowly up the hill toward us.
There are so many wineries, castles, villages, hiking trails, and museums in the Southern Rhône, it would take a lifetime of visits to see them all. I will be happy to do just that, meandering through a beautiful, history-steeped landscape and quaint towns, and enjoying good (not always the most expensive) food and wines. Such as our last feast at Les Florets: sea bass with artichoke hearts, delicate cod wrapped in crisp bacon, a rich fish soup, smooth créme brulée, and the usual array of chocolates and pastries.
As all the world knows, the French do produce great cuisine. Their wines aren’t bad, either.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com