Jeremy Shaw returns to the Rhone Valley in anticipation the upcoming tour to discover some great wines.
The Rhone is a beautiful river flowing through a magical series of interlinked wine regions, ticking off some serious names on any wine lover’s bucket list of places to visit. We like to frame our itineraries with some contrasting people and places to complement the experiences of the big name regions with more unusual destinations. Jeremy recently explored a few of the big names and the lesser visited gems that feature on our new Lyon to Marseille trip.
The main course
When I worked at the Academie du Vin in Paris in the 1980s, the Rhone was perhaps the most surprising of the serious wine regions that featured on the cellar shelves. The perfumed and delicate magic of the the Cote Rotie and Condrieu, clinging to steep hillsides overlooking the narrow twists of the Rhone just south of Lyon, always suggested a very different landscape to the heartier Provencal river and landscapes further south.
Guigal is a legendary winery, home of the revered Lala wine trilogy and a must stop when you visit Cote Rotie (literally ‘The Roasted Hill’). This is the home of the most delicate and northerly syrah, particularly on the Cote Blonde, that is traditionally blended with local viognier to create wines of finesse and elegance that age beautifully. The silky and seductive single vineyard wines of La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne are closer to Burgundy than Chateauneuf du Pape in style and distance
An hour further south, Hermitage marks the end of the northern Rhone, the stunning saddle shaped hill overlooking the river perhaps marking the spiritual home of syrah, here complemented by marsanne and rousanne. It’s a small appellation (barely 400 acres), so the neighbouring Crozes Hermitage wines are worthy of your time as well. We see the hill of Hermitage at Chapoutier, a great producer to savour wines from Hermitage and the other northern Rhone appellations such as Cornas and St Joseph. If times permits a palate cleansing trip to there Valrhona chocolate museum, Crozes Hermitage is then a short drive away along the river and a source of excellent value alternatives to Hermitage, the main difference (as between Priorat and Montsant) being the larger areas of clay soil in Crozes compared to smaller amounts of granite soil in Hermitage. Both are worth our attention
Another hour south and we’re in Provence, home to wider expanses of larger vineyards and a greater variety of grape varieties. Not far from the Pont d’Avignon, we find the delightful town of Chateaneuf du Pape and some gorgeous vineyards of big pebbled stones with a distant view of Mount Ventoux. The estates are larger here and the succulent reds and ethereal whites of the appellation remind you that you’ve travelled further south. The fabulous Mere Germaine restaurant offers a prime terrace view of the vineyards and we enjoy the stunning wines of La Nerthe and Beaucastel either side of a dreamy lunch. Few wines conjure so much anticipation from their name and landscape.
Lyon is a two river city of gastronomic grandeur, curiously unaffiliated in its wine preferences sitting a short drive from the northern Rhone and southern Burgundy. If a Lyonnais had to choose their favourite local wine, it would probably be from Beaujolais, the closest wine region to the city and a great companion to the myriad magnificent pork recipes you find across local eateries. The rolling hills of the Beaujolais villages are a dreamy sight and each of the cru wines takes its names from one of the local village, with one or two exceptions including the one named after a windmill at Moulin a Vent, a source of slightly fuller wines on the fringes of Burgundy and in sight of the hill of Fleurie.
If Lyon feels more northern and a touch aristocratic, Marseille is the cultural melting pot at the other end of our journey, across the bay from where the Rhone flows into the Mediterranean. A visceral city of gorgeous light, breezy coves and dramatic contrasts, Marseille invigorates the senses through its people, cuisine and an unshakeable sense of being Marseillais(e) first and French second. A walk to the Vieux Port for a bowl of bouillabaisse shakes the Rhone vineyard soil from your shoes but offers a high definition jolt to your memories of the grandeur you’ve seen on that lovely road south from Lyon.