French Favourites in Provence, Ardèche and Gard – Touring the Southern Rhône:
While my command of the French language borders on school-girl, it’s a musical language I love to hear spoken. Partly for a few French words, each with an inate poetry and an indefinable element. My favourite is ‘sympa’ or ‘sympathique’. Unlike the English ‘sympathetic’, there is no negativity in ‘sympa’, it’s never used to pity or commiserate, rather to express a positive, friendly and empathetic relationship. ‘Terroir’ falls in the same category for me, whether because of my love of food and wine, or because the subtleties are beyond the reach of normal English language. A word I love.
Being invited to visit three regions of France on a trip through the Rhône Valley focussed on ‘Terroir‘ was something very special. Finding that ‘sense of place’, understanding the underlying climate, geology and heritage farming techniques that make the wine, cheese, meat, fruit and vegetables taste as they do, is as exciting in it’s own way as standing in the middle of the Colosseum in Rome or watching elephants bathing in Sri Lanka. Terroir is an essential part of my passion for travel and fundamental to my passion for food and wine.
The journey started in Avignon – the City in France which, for less than a hundred years, in the fourteenth century, was home to seven Popes. From that period comes the name of the great appellation of the region, Châteauneuf du Pape. we journied north along the Rhône valley to Château Maucoil in the Châteauneuf du Pape appellation to find out more. The idea, to learn about the main grapes of the southern Rhône, and then to have a go at making our own blend of Cotes du Rhône, the other appellation of region. A great place to start our journey, the vineyards of Château Maucoil comprise all three types of soil characterizing the Châteauneuf du Pape Appellation – pebbles, gravelly land and sandy soils. Like everywhere in the Rhone Valley is swept by the Mistral, a strong wind that helps keep the climate dry and the region sunny, while moderating the temperature. And, the Château is one where vines have been grown since the 17th century
From Château Maucoil we made our way to Vaison la Romaine, a small town in the hills, looking out over the Ouveze river, one of the tributaries that feeds into the Rhône a little further south. More wine tasting preceded our dinner, at La Belle Etoile, just 150 metres from the Roman Bridge. Next morning was market day and a chance to see more of life in the Vaucluse. Terroir is a term which I believe originated from wine-making, but which now infiltrates every aspect of locally produced food. From the lavender rich honey to the fragrant ripe apricots and cherries. It is the terroir which makes produce unique. Needless to say, my suitcase gained a few pounds that morning.
Further up in the mountains, travelling towards the Alps-de-Haute-Provence we stopped in Brantes to join ‘les Aventurières du Goût’ foraging through the village for wild plants and flowers, then cooking a whole feast of dishes to enjoy in the sun.
More wine tasting at Cairanne, the largest co-operative of the region. Here we had a chance to understand some of the elements to look for when trying a Cotes du Rhône wine. Their Parcours Sensoriel attempts to illustrate the nuances of wine using sound, sight and touch.
Leaving Provence, we travelled South West to Domaine des Clos in the Gard, a stunning hotel that has been renovated completely by the charming owners David and Sandrine. When we arrived, Sandrine was in the kitchen preparing dinner for us, so her husband David met us, guiding us to beautiful, airy rooms and joining us later to eat and to showcase some of the local wines.
The next day, we were fortunate enough to visit the neighbouring estate which had provided much of the wine for the dinner. We were taken on a nature trail by Anne Collard, the wine of the winemaker, Francois, who we met later. Anne has carefully signposted the key aspects of the estate from the perspective of a wine producer so that all visitors can appreciate what makes up the terroir of Château Mourgues du Grès
Although I think we’d have been happy to stay a lot longer, we left, travelling some 40 minutes north along the Rhône Valley. We headed for Pont du Gard, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. An amazing feat of Roman architecture, the significance of the Pont du Gard and of the entire aquaduct is that it brought water to areas of the region which would otherwise have been arrid, including of course, the Roman city of Nimes. And, as such, the wealth of the region increased and with it the importance of investing in local agriculture.
Then, further North along the Rhône valley, to within spitting distance of Lyons, to stay at the Medieval town of Tournon-sur-Rhône. Our itinerary gave us the chance to travel on a steam train to see the listed buildings in Ardèche along the dramatic gorge of the river Doux, another tributary of the Rhône. And just to make sure we fully appreciated the landscape a segway from Tournon-sur-Rhône up to the vineyards of St Joseph, before returning to town for wine tasting.
That night we stayed at the stunning Hotel de la Villéon in the centre of Tournon-sur-Rhône, a newly renovated boutique hotel, where even the front door has been listed since 1927. We enjoyed a fine dining menu al-fresco at Comako restaurant. And, I think, we would have all been happy to stay for another week and explore a little more of the Rhône Valley.
I’ll be writing in more detail about aspects of this trip, but for now a thank-you to our charming guides and to the hospitality extended to us throughout our visit.
More information about the wines of the area and the three regions can be found through our guides
Valerie from Provence
Carole from The Gard
Lucile from The Ardèche
Jessica from Inter-Rhone – providing specialist wine information for the Rhône Valley.
We travelled with SNCF using TGV and Eurostar. Fares from London to Valence start at £111 return and from London to Avignon from £121 return.
I was joined on this trip by three other writers, each with their own niche. Andrew is a wine specialist and photographer who writes at Spittoon. Iain tends towards the intrepid (something of a hard act to follow on a Segway) – you’ll find him writing at Mallory on Travel . Karen is a good friend and a well established food writer at Lavender & Lovage. I visited her recently at her home in Charente Maritime to learn about her new cookery school.