The lunch menu at L’Oustalet is simple, a few lines scrawled on a chalkboard. There’s roast chicken or turbot with vegetables, a green salad or rabbit pâté as a starter, an apple tart for dessert. Here in the wine lands of the southern Rhône Valley—those manicured slopes, limestone outcroppings, and picture-book towns that knit the river to the west to the Alpine foothills toward the east—such limited selections are de rigueur these days. Restaurants take a curious pride in how little they have to offer, since creating a midday prix fixe only out of what has caught the chef’s attention at the marché that morning will keep food fresh and costs down. Locals can return day after day without growing weary of the options.
L’Oustalet sits on the main square in tiny Gigondas, half an hour north of Avignon. It has firm chairs of dark leather, crème-brûlée walls, and a 21st-century sensibility, from the informality of the sommelier to the clean, colorful plates of food set beside the bottles of wine (for everyone is drinking at lunch) on the plain wooden tables. And isn’t that Louis Barruol from Château de Saint Cosme, my favorite area producer, sitting in the corner? Gigondas is pretty as a picture, a riot of bright shutters and doors, shady plane trees, stone walls and barrel-tile roofs, well-stocked gourmet shops and wine bars, and flowers everywhere, but it’s also a working wine town. It hasn’t stopped in time like the Provençal villages on the other side of Avignon that can seem as static as Monets.
This is the heart of French wine country, which is both a physical reality and a state of mind. My view, past the tables and out the door to the bright sunshine, is pretty much what most people are imagining when they book a trip to France to eat and drink well, spend their days surrounded by beauty, and perhaps visit a winery or two. And that’s exactly what I was looking to do when I planned this weeklong vacation with my family: Find somewhere that made the fantasy of an idealized French wine trip come to life.
I’ve been to most of France’s wine regions and enjoyed them all. But Champagne is formal, Burgundy can be inhospitable and imposing to an outsider, and Bordeaux is a collection of historic buildings on a flat, uninspiring landscape. The Rhône is different. The wine itself is hearty, unfussy, the kind you want to drink first and think about later. The landscape is glorious, a lavender-tinged segue of the Alps into Provence. And the towns on the hillsides and in the valleys have an authenticity that can only come from functionality. “They have a heartbeat,” said Nicole Sierra-Rolet, who owns a working winery and a country retreat called La Verrière in the hills above Crestet, just northeast of Gigondas. “They’re real. They have festivals, and bakeries, and gossip.”
A New Yorker raised in Italy, Sierra-Rolet left a high-powered banking life for a second act in wine country. (Her husband, Xavier Rolet, CEO of the London Stock Exchange, flies in on weekends.) Her husband had picked the area around Gigondas, she told me, because it “ticked all the boxes.” I thought of that as we explored the region day after day, through villages such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Cairanne, that I knew from the wines that bear their names. Each seemed a perfectly composed backdrop, with its tidy square and post office and boulangerie and precisely painted storefronts, yet I never felt that any of it was being staged for our benefit.
Instead, we delighted in eavesdropping on real life, eating at bistros among the shopkeepers and doctors and businessmen, watching them pick out produce at the market, kicking a soccer ball with their kids. We were experiencing that bustle and hum of daily existence that we all know well enough, but as played out in a different and most appealing setting. There wasn’t a postcard in sight.
All right, it wasn’t all quite as prosaic as that. One night, sitting outdoors by a gurgling stream at Le Moulin à Huile, in Vaison-la-Romaine, we ate truffle omelettes with foie gras cooked by Robert Bardot, who once served as the private chef for Frank Sinatra. Another night, we drove to Le Grand Pré, a restaurant where squab, a staple of area menus, is composed into something resembling art. Roasted to a perfect crimson, glazed with caramelized soy sauce, and placed atop a bed of red rice with two slices of blood sausage, it was a dish infinitely subtler and lighter than it sounds, and almost too pretty to eat.