If you read my travel blog regularly, you will have noticed that I have a passion for fabulous food and wine! The culture and art of wine production in Europe predate the Romans: in ancient Greece, wine was praised by poets, historians, and artists. Many Europeans consider wine part of the daily diet, to be enjoyed at every meal. Having an appreciation and understanding of wine production wherever you’re traveling will enable you to understand so much more about the history, geography, culture, and passions of your hosts.
This journey was a trip back to the Rhône Valley with my mom (the last time we visited this wonderful region was 10 years ago by river boat) so returning to the Rhône with more of a deep-dive land program focusing on the food and wine of the region was wonderful!
My mother and I started in the incredibly beautiful city of Lyon, once the trade capital of the world, now known as the gastronomic capital of France. In my opinion, Lyon is a MUST on any visit to France, as it boasts centuries of history, a unique geographic position built across two rivers, its stunning juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary architecture, and has more restaurants per capita than any other city in France including 15 Michelin star restaurants. As this is the city of the Godfather of nouvelle French cuisine, Paul Bocuse, our first stop off of the flight was undoubtedly at the Les Halles Markets, where the best chefs of the regions procure many of the delicacies for their kitchens.
Les Halles de Lyon – Market
Les Halles is an absolute food paradise, not just for the regional products but for the delectable pre-made goodies that one can take to their homes or enjoy at one of the many stands or small restaurants within the market.
My mom is an enthusiastic consumer of Les Halles (above). Each window is more extraordinary than the last and we quickly lament about not having an apartment to live in for at least a month in this city as we imagined daily visits to the market! We settle on gathering a brilliant array of cheeses, pates, foie gras, terrines, seafood, and bread for consumption on our beautiful hotel balcony for dinner.
In between shopping, we grabbed a seat at a lovely oyster bar for wine and oysters followed by a flavor and color-packed seafood and vegetable salad. We had a wonderful first day in France, enjoying all that Les Halles Market had on offer!
Next, we checked into the delightful Villa Maïa sitting in the Old City of Lyon at the top of the hill, near the Roman ruins and overlooking all of the beautiful city’s center below. The service is top notch and the modern comforts and easy access to all the city has to offer makes this a perfect solution for demanding travelers.
This description of Villa Maia is priceless: “Time stands still on the hill of Fourvière. The birthplace of Gallo-Roman civilization, Fourvière stands guard over the city of Lyon in a conventual silence. Known to locals as the “hill that prays”, it is a uniquely serene and spiritual place. Maïa Group chairman, Christophe Gruy, fell in love with it. And Villa Maïa is the result- a sumptuously intimate hotel dreamt up, designed, and decorated by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, Jacques Grange, and Louis Benech. An unprecedented trio was brought together for Villa Maïa. ‘I had a dream, I dreamt of a company rooted in Italian heritage. It would evolve into Villa Maïa, emerging here on the former Antiquaille site near the Roman theatres and the old town of Lyon. Villa Maïa is a hotel that I would have liked as my home, full of attention to detail, surrounded by gardens, bathed in spirituality and shared family values.’ Christophe Gruy
The spa is delightful and the massage was one of the best I have had! A wonderful way to overcome jet lag or relax after a day of indulgent dining and touring.
Coffee time in the lovely breakfast room.
Restaurant Gastronomique Christian Tetedoie
Across the Street from the Villa Maïa and of the same owner is the Restaurant Gastronomique Christian Tetedoie where we had a wonderful dinner in the bistro!
Cafe de Soleil
Lunch is a big affair in Lyon and there are 100s of cafes, restaurants, and bouchons where you can enjoy a special and inexpensive lunch. One dish you must try when in Lyon is the famous quenelle soufflé. A quenelle (French pronunciation: [kə. nɛl]) is a mixture of creamed fish or meat, sometimes combined with breadcrumbs, with a light egg binding, formed into an egg-like shape, and then cooked. I had a fish quenelle and mom one of chicken, both as light and flavorful as you can imagine and simply sublime.
And one must not leave Lyon without at least a taste of their famous Brioche Aux Pralines – Yes it’s full of sugar, but it tastes amazing, and I dare you to try and stop!
Lyon, the capital city in France’s Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, sits at the junction of the Rhône and Saône rivers. Its center reflects 2,000 years of history from the Roman Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules, medieval and Renaissance architecture in Vieux (Old) Lyon, to the modern Confluence district on Presqu’île peninsula – you can watch the centuries unfold from the ancient top of the hill to the most modern area on the far side of the Saone. An insider can take you through the dozens of “Traboules”, covered passageways between buildings, and connect Vieux Lyon and La Croix-Rousse hill.
…but fear not, Lyon is an incredibly hilly city and you will earn your calorie intake if you take on the hills on foot, as reflected in my health data from Day 1:
Northern Rhône: Cote-Rotie & Condrieu
The Northern Rhône is the Mecca for French Syrah and the syrahs here are unlike syrah grown anywhere else in the world in terms of style. While Syrah is what the Northern Rhône is famous for, I absolutely fell in love with the region’s aromatic white grapes – Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.
Côte Rôtie or “roasted slope” is one of the most important French appellations for Syrah (alongside Hermitage and Cornas). The best wines boast flavors of black raspberry, black currant, violet, and chocolate along with savory notes of olive, bacon fat, white pepper, and powerful charcoal smoke. They are bold and precise, yet refined.
If you love Viognier, you will want to visit Condrieu (and also the tiny appellation of Chateau Grillet if you have deep pockets). Condrieu is the largest white wine appellation in the Northern Rhône producing rich, opulent wines made with 100% Viognier. The wines of Condrieu exhibit rich oily flavors of tangerine, papaya, lime peel, and green almond with rich toasted oak notes of gingerbread, macadamia nut, and allspice.
DOMAINE STEPHANE OGIER
Stéphane Ogier is the driving force behind this dynamic, 7th generation family Domaine. We visited the new winery and tasted some of his top-flight Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie as well as the Syrah from the re-established Seyssuel vineyard on the other side of the Rhône.
The house of Guigal needs little introduction – the largest producer of Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, famous for the LA-LA-LA trio single vineyard wines (LA Mouline, La Turque, and La Landonne) and a major player in both the Northern and Southern Rhône (Domaine de Nalys in Châteauneuf-du-Pape a recent acquisition).
Our visit began with a light buffet lunch hosted by Guigal followed by a major tasting and visit.
La Pyramide – Vienne
This afternoon we checked into our Relais & Châteaux hotel in the town of Vienne, our home for the first 2 nights. La Pyramide is a temple of French gastronomy, the first establishment ever to obtain 3 Michelin stars under chef/owner Fernand Point in the 1930s. Alain Chapel, Paul Bocuse, and the Troisgros brothers all trained here. Our group celebrated the start of our deep dive into the wines of the Rhône region, with a gourmet dinner prepared by chef-owner Patrick Henriroux, holder of 2 Michelin stars since 1992. It was wonderful to come back with my mother to the same restaurant we enjoyed together a decade ago!
Hermitage & Cornas
They say that “Syrah likes a view”, and that is certainly evident here!
What a way to start the day! The Tain l’Hermitage-based producer is the largest landowner on the hill of Hermitage, with other vineyards in a number of Northern and Southern Rhône appellations. And they are all cultivated biodynamically. Chapoutier is a serious player where quality is of the essence. We visited the famous hill and learned about the different sites and biodynamics before tasting a range of spectacular wines, including both red and the rare white Hermitage. All followed by a lovely lunch at the estate.
The hill of Hermitage is famous for its emboldened Syrah wines that usually need around 5–10 years before you open them. When the time comes, you can expect heady aromas and layered flavors of blackberry, black currant, licorice, coffee, candied cherry, and smoke. Besides Syrah, the hill also produces some outstanding age-worthy white wines that are a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne – which may be my new favorite white wine!!! Wines from L’Ermitage do not come cheap for two reasons: one, the wines are consistently ranked as the best in the Northern Rhône, and two, Hermitage has a storied history, which can make tasting these wines feel a bit mystical.
Chocolates and wine are both enjoyed in this lovely small city cradling the Rhône.
Valrhona’s chocolate is celebrated by sweet-toothed enthusiasts, chefs, and candy makers around the world for its taste and quality. The illustrious chocolate manufacturer is based in Tain-l’Hermitage and chocolate confections, bars, sauces, and powders are sold in its boutique at 14, Avenue du Président-Roosevelt.
The two main Cotes-du-Rhône wines produced along the river are the Hermitages and the Crozes-Hermitages. Both can be tasted and bought in stores around the center of Tain l’Hermitage. The major vendors include Michel Chapoutier on 18, Avenue du Dr-Paul-Durand and Cave de Tain on 22, Route de Larnage.
The Salon des Vins held the last weekend of February is an ideal time to visit Tain-l’Hermitage. It offers the chance to sample and buy wine from more than 80 vendors with the purchase of a tasting glass.
With more than 170 years of grape-growing and winemaking, Paul Jaboulet Aîné (a.k.a. Jaboulet) is one of the Rhône Valley’s most iconic producers. Now in the second generation of ownership by the Frey family, owner and winemaker Caroline Frey adhere to a policy that great wines must come from great grapes. The estate vineyards have been certified organic since 2013 and the company invests in regional biodiversity. The wines are masterful blends, whether it be the entry-level Parellèle 45 (arguably the world’s top-selling Côtes du Rhône) up through to the red Hermitage La Chapelle – arguably one of France’s greatest Syrahs. In between are excellent wines, both red and white, from different Northern and Southern Rhône crus.
Universite du Vin and Southern Rhône
UNIVERSITÉ DU VIN
From the granite scarps of the Northern Rhône today we got our first taste of the Mediterranean-influenced Southern Rhône at the Université du Vin in Suze-la-Rousse. The Université is housed in a medieval château and a knowledgeable professor guided us through a fascinating tasting of a range of wines from the Southern Rhône – Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Tavel, etc.
What a beautiful classroom with individual tasting stations – modern technology built within the medieval castle of the university of wine.
Universite du Vin – What a beautiful morning learning about wines of the regions in this epic setting!
Continuing through the Southern Rhône
COTEAUX ET FOURCHETTES
Set among the vineyards of the Southern Rhône, Chef Cyril Glémot has made our lunch stop one of the best watering holes for food and wine lovers in the Rhône. It is located in the Southern Rhône’s new AOC, Cairanne, which was promoted from village status in 2015. Working with the best of local and seasonal ingredients, our delectable 3-course lunch was paired with some of the best local wines from their extensive cellar.
DOMAINE DE GALUVAL
Dating back to 1923, Domaine de Galuval is one of the oldest estates in the region. Situated between Cairanne and neighbouring AOC Rasteau, Galuval explores the unique terroir expressions of individual plots from “La Vallée” (the Gayère Valley), “La Montagne” (the Vontabren Mountain), and “Les Collines” (the Hills of Rasteau). Their wines regularly score in the mid-to-high-90s, offering vineyard-specific wines with a modern sensibility.
It’s hard work tasting wine all day long but my friend had no problem taking a rest when needed!
Strolling through the medieval streets of the old walled city, it is easy to reach the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Palace of the Popes, the largest Gothic palace in the world, home of the Popes from 1309 to 1423 and the Saint-Bénezet bridge, better known by the name of “Pont d´Avignon”.
Hotel D’Europe, Avignon
We checked into what is historically one of the oldest hotels in France (1799), Hotel d’Europe in Avignon. The 5-star hotel is ideally located in the center of the city within the walled city, just two steps from the Palais des Papes and offering classic decor and spacious rooms.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most important French wine appellation in the Southern Rhône known for its bold Grenache-based red blends. Officially, the region makes both red and white wines with up to 13 different grapes. (Unofficially, there are 20 varieties used in the region!).
A great bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge bursts with rich raspberry and plummy fruit flavors. As it evolves, you’ll taste notes of dusted leather, game, and herbs. The Francophiles – and the actual French – call this herbal play “garrigue,” after the region’s scrubland of sage, rosemary, and lavender.
As if that wasn’t enough, CdP Rouge often finishes on a sweet-strawberry tingle that glows in the back of your throat from elevated alcohol. The finish ranges from sweet to savory, depending on the vintage.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is harder to find because only about 7% of the region’s vineyards are white grapes. Still, you’ll find many producers make small amounts that are usually a blend of the region’s white grapes, most notably, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne.
Château la Nerthe is the oldest and one of the largest domaines in Châteauneuf. Its history can be traced back to the 12th century with a reputation that has been recognized since the 16th. After phylloxera, the then owner, Commandant Joseph Ducos, introduced the idea of planting multiple grape varieties which were later taken up by the authorities when the AOC was created. In 1985 it was bought by the Richard family who have invested and upgraded the estate. It produces both red and white Châteauneuf.
Château la Nerthe was incredibly impressive and the team had no problem selling me plenty of the liquid gold!
This may have been my favorite day of tastings!
Owned by Philippe and Jean-Pierre Estevenin, our 3-course lunch today was served with one of the most beautiful panoramic views of Châteauneuf- du-Pape. The bistro excels in local cuisine and the wines are selected from their large cave cellars that date to Roman times. Overall a great way to relax and savor the best of the region.
And we even got to experience the famous MISTRAL – the strong dry winds that come from the north down the Rhône Valley towards Provence.
Château de Nalys is a crown jewel in the Southern Rhône portfolio of leading producer E. Guigal. Dating back to 1633, Nalys is one of the oldest estates in Châteauneuf- du-Pape and Marcel & Philippe Guigal have helped bring the wines to the top of the class. All 13 permitted varieties are planted in Nalys vineyards, making the estate a leading example of the potential of Châteauneuf-du-Pape terroir.
After a brief rest back at the hotel, we walked a few blocks to our final gourmet dinner. Restaurant Hiély Lucullus has been an Avignon institution since 1938 and over the past 80 years has been a beacon of regional gastronomy. Our 4-course dinner will highlight the best of seasonal fare but don’t worry, the wines will do justice to the food.
Gigondas and Tavel
Founded by Pierre Amadieu in 1929, today the company is run by his grandson, also Pierre Amadieu. With 137 hectares they are the largest landholders in Gigondas and make excellent wines from throughout the Southern Rhône. The estate is very much a family affair, and our visit was hosted by the daughter of the Amadieu family. She said that every single family in Gigondas is in the wine business so it must be interesting to hear what they talk about at parties here! 🙂 The robust wines of this hilly small region were exceptional and I was glad to have packed some into my wine suitcase! few.
Our lunch stop took us on a scenic, cross-country route over the Rhône River and past Châteauneuf-du-Pape to the village of Gigondas. Perched in the foothills of the Dentelle de Montmirail, Les Florets offered Provençal charm and fare. Our group really enjoy the bucolic setting and local dishes accompanied by a selection of outstanding wines from Gigondas.
Tavel is considered a serious rosé, one that can hold its own with the local cuisine, and the Domaine de la Mordorée is one of the leading producers. Better still, owner Fabrice Delorme also makes top-flight Châteauneuf-du-Pape and some delicious red and white Lirac. Here we sat back and enjoyed a multi-coloured tasting where the skill of the vigneron really showed through. And yes a few more bottles for the suitcase. It is time to go home, however! 🙂
James was our stellar wine guide and Master Sommelier who expertly guided us through all of the Rhône Valley. Not only was he incredibly savvy, but he was also a delightful host to our group and a friend! Merci, merci, merci and a bientot!!
In sum, the Rhône region has diverse and very high-quality red and white wines that will impress any serious oenophile and satisfy any palate. The wines can perfectly complement most world cuisines. They can be much better values than what you will find in Bordeaux and Burgundy, yet it astounds me that many wine drinkers don’t appreciate this section of the wine list as often as they should. The gastronomy, charming villages, cities, and lovely weather make the Rhône an absolute home run. I’ll be back!!