Food & Spirts: Shhhh! It's a bit of a secret — Côtes du Rhône wine. Until I traveled to the Rhône Valley in Provence and made the discovery myself, I had little knowledge of this remarkable landscape's produce — the cuvée and cuisine — reflective, genuine, perfect. It's not "complicated" (as the French often say), but rather a delicious tribute to the land.
What I learned: For centuries winemakers have combined their deep knowledge of the region's terroir (soil), climate and grape varietals to create its collection of wines. The result of this persistence is impressive — wine production is the #1 business activity (its wine list: 83% reds; 17% whites and rosés). Most yields are small. And they're typically organic; it's expected.
The inside scoop is that Northern Rhône is known for its Syrah and the further north you explore, the pricier (and in some cases, the more flavorful) the wines. But don't neglect the South; the area is overloaded with great finds.
And follow your senses in route. Devour the translucent colors that inspired the Impressionists, villages punctuated by a lone church spire and scents from the sweetness of lavender to the pungent smell of truffles (the region produces 50% of France's "Black Gold") — all leave no doubt that you are in deepest, traditional Provence.
"IS IT WINE O'CLOCK?"
Tempted now? Let's get going. Our wine journey begins south (near Avignon) and ends north (approaching Lyon).
Château La Canorgue, Bonnieux — This two-century old family winery was the setting of the film A Good Year. The family domaine's Château starred in the movie (in addition to Russell Crowe, of course). Winemaker Nathalie Margan admits many initially visit more for the cinema setting than the vineyard's vino, but after tasting that changes. Harvested by hand, the father-and-daughter winemaking team follows no recipes — each vintage is different. Wine rec: Le Coin Perdu (featured in the movie, purchase for 12 euros).
Château de Montfaucon, Montfaucon — An 11th century Château castle is the focal feature of this winery. Once home to Baron Louis, he left the castle and estate to his young niece Madeleine. Today her grandson Rondolphe de Pins is the winemaker; his first Montfaucon vintage was 1995. His explanation of the quality of Rhône wines: the diversity of grapes. Tidbit: During my visit, we had the rare opportunity to climb to the top of the castle; but the winemaker had no keys. The situation necessitated the castle resident (his mother) dropping them from a third story window. Wine rec: Baron Louis 2007.
Domaine de Cabasse, Séguret — The winery sits on an estate with a restaurant and three-star hotel (14 rooms). Its winemaker, thirty-something Nicolas Haeni, warmly and casually greeted us wearing a Newport Beach tee-shirt. A genuine professional, the attire was deceptive. "We don't call ourselves winemakers, we call ourselves vignerons (wine growers)," said Haeni. Wine rec: Le Rosé du Marie-Antoinette 2008.
M. Chapoutier, Tain l'Hermitage — Found in the middle of the quaint town, the tasting room is impressive and educational - a wooden bar flanked by a floor displaying different Rhône soils beneath plexi-glass. The labels are unique: names are also in Braille. Wine rec: Hermitage Blanc Chante-Alouette 2006
E. Guigal, Ampuis — The town backs up to the terraced hillsides of vines (many at a 50? incline), making a drive uphill through the vineyards the best way to appreciate both the scope of Guigal and the vigneron's challenge to extract great wines from granite. Thirty-four-year-old winemaker Philippe Guigal is polished, knowledgeable, welcoming. As son of the owner and grandson of Etienne who made 67 vintages, he knows wine. Make an appointment to ensure a tasting in the massive wine cellar surrounded by oversized wooden vats. Wine rec: Château D'Ampuis Côtes Rotie 2005.
Philippe Guigal summated it best. "Wine is not just wine. Behind it, you have the history, the culture, the food." Thus, it makes sense that an additional perk is a gastronomic setting not driven by Michelin stars, celebrity chefs or guidebook ratings. So, say au revoir to average and follow me to a taste of tradition.
Maison de la Truffe, Ménerbes — Perched atop and on the edge of town, you'll find this 17th century house — known for rotating art exhibitions, touch-screen winemaking tutorials and good food. Food pick: Olive Bread with Anchovy-and-Almond Spread. Tip: Buy Olive Truffle Oil (22 euros).
Le Mesclun, Séguret — In one of France's most beautiful villages (it's rated so), the restaurant appears a secret, a special and small one. But what it lacks in size, it makes up in flavor. Food pick: Nougat Glacé de Saint-Rémy de Provence. Wine rec: Domainee du Coriancon, Vinsobres 2006. Tip: Dine on the tree-covered terrace.
Le Quai, Tain l'Hermitage — Shaped like a cruise liner on the banks of the Rhône River, the Michel Chabran restaurant is my most modern selection. Food pick: Coquilles Saint-Jacques. Wine rec: Les Vignerons d'Estézargues Côtes du Rhône Villages Signargues La Granacha 2006. Tip: Venture across the tiny street for a stay at Hotel des 2 Coteaux (balcony room suggested).
Thirteen wine routes tour the Rhône Valley and events are year-round . . . from tastings to vineyard music festivals to harvest opportunities. For information, go to www.vins-rhone-tourisme.com.
Dessert from Le Mesclun in village of Séguret
Grapes on the vine
Signage found along the wine route as a guide
Winemaker Rondolphe de Pins in cellar of family winery Château de Montfaucon