Even though wines of the Rhône Valley are quite popular, the region is frequently overlooked as a travel destination by wine enthusiasts because it lacks an abundance of the posh hotels, spas, Michelin star restaurants, and elegant wine bars that one associates with other wine regions of France. The Rhône region is best described as bucolic — in the north the vines grow precipitously on steep hillsides flanking the Rhône River, while the south is flat and broad, with panoramic views of countryside and idyllic villages.
Wines of the Northern Rhône (Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne) have increased in popularity in recent years with sommeliers and wine enthusiasts. Syrah, which has romantic aromas and flavors such as blackcurrant, raspberry, dark cherry, peppercorn, chocolate, smoke, coffee, braised meat, and campfire, has become especially popular. This combination of dark fruits and primal aromas has also attracted the attention of California winemakers called the “Rhône Rangers” who seek to replicate this attraction in the New World. Vines in the Rhône Valley were growing well before they were domesticated for wine production. As early as 600 BC, Greeks used the Rhône River to move goods and established viticulture in the Southern Rhône. Today, the Rhône Valley is the second largest AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée)* area of wine production in France. There are approximately 195,400 acres in production and 6,000 grape growers.
Late October and early November are great times to visit wine regions in the Northern Hemisphere — it’s what travel agents call shoulder season, meaning great rates on accommodations and quieter restaurants. Locals also recommended visiting in April and early May (before the French May holidays). Our founder Jolene and her husband Darren visited in November. For their one week stay, they selected a Bed & Breakfast in sleepy Saint-Laurent-des-Abres, which is about sixteen kilometers west of Chȃteauneuf-du-Pape and close to the Lirac and Tavel AOCs. The town has about 3,000 residents and easy access to the A7 for day-tripping.
Here are the highlights of their trip, straight from Jolene’s travel journal:
Tasting at VINEUM Paul Jaboulet Aîné in the village of Tain-l’Hermitage (owned by Jean-Jacques Frey). Here, we tasted six wines, including the iconic Hermitage “La Chapelle.” The cozy tasting room is also home to a wine shop featuring most of Frey’s wines, as well as a small bistro featuring cold meats and cheeses and three-course meals featuring local meats and produce. Caroline Frey, the daughter of Jean-Jacques, is the winemaker and viticulturist for Paul Jaboulet Aîné. We loved the charm and congeniality of this tasting room (and we always add bonus points for a female viticulturist!).
Walking tour through the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards. Here, there are thirteen grape varieties included in the red wine blends, and the soils are quite diverse. The terrain can change dramatically within just a few feet. The walk included navigating slippery galets ( round river stones) and rough limestone as well as traversing clay and sand. This region is known for the Mistral (a strong, cold, northwesterly wind sometimes reaching 115 miles per hour), and we’re not too terribly disappointed that we missed out on it during this visit!
Tour with Céline Viany of Le Vin à la Bouche Wine Tours. Céline is a sommelier and one of the first to organize wine tours in the Rhone Valley.
Here are the highlights from our tour with Céline:
The villages of Gordes and Roussillon. Roussillon is famous for its red and yellow ochre cliffs. The ochre quarried from this area was one of the earliest forms of non-toxic pigment used by mankind and is still used today by artists using oil paints. Visitors can walk through these ochre quarries and admire the red and gold cliffs. There are also workshops, kilns, and a former ochre factory available to visit. Gordes, frequently called one of the most beautiful villages in France, is famous for its stacked stone architecture. These small houses were constructed by stacking limestone without the use of mortar. In the middle of the city is a castle — built in the 10th century and rebuilt again in the 15th century — that now serves as a town hall and museum.
The Abbaye of Sénanque, inhabited by Cistercian monks who have chosen it as their place of retreat, is famous for its lavender production. Founded in the 12th century, the abbey is a well-preserved example of early Cistercian architecture.
The Luberon AOC is a fairly new wine region (2008) and resides within a park called the Luberon Regional Nature Park. This region produces 53% rosé, 26% red, and 21% white wines, and many of these wines are blends, not single varietal wines. Though it gets quite cool at night due to the proximity of the Luberon Massif, this is still one of the sunniest regions in France.
Le Domaine de Marie. This fifty-seven acre property near Ménerbes is owned by the second generation of the Sibuet family which got its start in the luxury hotel industry. They grow eleven different grape varieties in four different soil types at the base of the Luberon mountains, blending innovative technology and ancient techniques. Our favorite wine was the LE ‘ LE’ — a ripe black-fruit forward red wine made from 90% Grenache vinified and aged in oak barrels for eighteen months.
Domaine Les Goubert in Gigondas. Like the Luberon, the Gigondas AOC is also a hot sunny climate with cool temperatures at night. The cool nighttime air comes off the Dentelles de Montmirail, mountains that look like jagged teeth. Most of the wine produced in this area is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. Les Goubert Gigondas wine was a great value (under $20), with flavors of dark cherry, plum, blackberry, raspberry, tobacco, and oak.
Le Nez! What a delightful place for lunch! As Le Nez means “nose,” this cozy wine bar in Gigondas is decorated with polaroid snapshots of noses (visit for a chance to immortalize your own!).
Domaine La Fourmone in Gigondas. The Vacqueyras AOC neighbors Gigondas AOC at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains. In fact, La Fourmone makes wines from both AOCs. While the wines of both AOCs are similar (mostly Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre), we found the Vacqueyras red wines to be a little “meatier” than the wines from Gigondas with more leather, game, and truffle notes. Our two favorite wines from La Fourmone were Le Poèt Vacqueyras and Les Ceps d’Or Vacqueyras (both under $25!).
Domaine de Beaurenard was the last stop on our guided tour. The Coulon family has been growing grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape for seven generations and have been bottling their own wines for one hundred years. They grow all thirteen varieties permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and since 2007 do their own massal selection in a single hectare plot to increase genetic diversity. The first wine we tasted was the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Boisrenard Blanc 2017 — flavors of brioche, pear, apricot, peach, cinnamon, and nutmeg that would pair well with lobster. The second wine was the Beaurenard 201, which was decanted for about an hour. This had flavors of jammy fruit, tobacco, sandalwood, leather, licorice, and pink pepper. The last wine was their Boisrenard Rouge 2016, with flavors of dark fruit, dark prunes, chocolate, licorice, and ash.
Throughout the visit, Céline freely shared her sommelier recommendations for each wine tasted, as well as the ideal drinking window for each wine. She also provided us several driving, tasting, and dining recommendations to keep us busy during the rest of our week!
Jolene ends her travel notes by suggesting that anyone visiting a wine region for the first time hire a local guide for one or two days. A guide will help you hone in on your goals before the trip and will provide recommendations for the best producers, restaurants, and bottle shops. A guide is also a designated driver who will know how to navigate from place to place, maximizing your time at wineries. Finally, if you plan to purchase wine during your travels, check out our guide on flying with wine!
*AOC: Appellation D'origine Contrôlée, or “Protected Designation of Origin” is the French certification granted to certain French geographical indications for wines, cheeses, butters, and other agricultural products.