With charming villages and passionate winemakers, the Rhône Valley in France is perfect for wine lovers.
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.
At Crillon le Brave, a tiny hilltop town, we stayed at the Relais & Châteaux property of the same name, a dramatic hotel of gardens and terraces and glorious views. We spent several days pitching boules and gazing down at the vineyards and lavender-covered hills that stretched to the horizon. Because I love wine, I visited a few producers. But my wife and two preteen sons stayed behind at the hotel, and they seemed to be enjoying the trip as much as I was.
And that’s a hallmark of wine country, a sense and sensibility you’ll find from Sonoma to the Greek isles. It’s always a grape-growing area, of course—and the wine made from those grapes needs to be renowned enough to be part of the area’s identity. But it’s also a place where wine’s particular virtues have been incorporated into the prevailing mind-set. Wine is convivial; it draws people together, at restaurants and cafés and at home. Yet at the same time, wine is contemplative. You can’t spend much time around it, or the vines that produce it, without considering some grander philosophical concepts in the seasonal rhythms of growing and harvesting grapes and the artisanal labor of transforming them into something beyond mere juice.
I felt those rhythms even in loud, chaotic Carpentras, where we spent our first few nights. Perfectly positioned to explore the area, it’s the hub of a wheel that encompasses Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and Vaison-la-Romaine. You wouldn’t call Carpentras pretty, yet it has glorious aspects. It’s multicultural, with its Turkish restaurants and Tunisian bars and shops selling incense and fezzes and Indian spices, but one afternoon I took a walk and landed on a wooden bench outside a music school, where I heard a violin lesson through an open window. The scene was so quintessentially Gallic that I felt like I’d gone back half a century, to when the only language you’d ever hear on those streets was French.
I’d booked us a room at Maison Trévier, a town house dating from the mid 1700’s that sits in the midst of the shopping district. We ended up occupying the entire middle floor, which includes a kitchen and a vast sitting room decorated with impressive-looking oil portraits that could have hung in the provincial museum down the street. Gina Trévier, the granddaughter of a grape grower, had owned a wine bar in Paris for 15 years but came south in 2005, she said, for a healthier lifestyle. I understood what that meant after she prepared us dinner: a salad of spinach, fresh fava beans, and olives, then stewed duck with turnips and carrots.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of happy voices from below. My boys were already downstairs in the garden, shaded from the warm morning sun by a canopy, reveling in a singular breakfast of fresh bread smeared with organic apricot and quince jams that Trévier had preserved the previous fall, a semi-savory cherry cake, and homemade cherry juice. “When you find good wine,” she told us as the birds chirped, “you will always find good food and a nice place to stay.” I hadn’t imagined that my wine-country fantasy would include quince jam and cherry juice miles from any winery. Yet when I look back now, that morning captured the essence of the trip as much as any wine-soaked dinner or picturesque drive.
On one of our last mornings, I set out alone for Gigondas and Château de Saint Cosme. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the southern Rhône’s most famous wine, but I actually enjoy Gigondas better, and Saint Cosme’s most of all. Gigondas itself is higher and cooler than Châteauneuf, and unlike its neighbor, its soil isn’t studded with shiny stones that serve to radiate heat and reflect the sun up into the vines. As a result, the grapes in Gigondas don’t get nearly as ripe, and the wines are able to show a litheness, a nimbleness, that the thicker and more powerful Châteauneufs lack.
The wines Louis Barruol makes are serious, to be sure, yet deliciously refreshing, which is a trick that only a few producers anywhere in the world are able to manage consistently. I found him sitting at his desk surrounded by rugby paraphernalia. We talked about history, and geology, and family, all of which were in his mind inexorably intertwined, then set off to see the property. Soon we were climbing the hill toward a 12th-century chapel that sits beside the vineyards. I glanced up to see the Dentelles de Montmirail—the spiky limestone rocks that constitute the most recognizable geological feature of this area—looming against a sky of otherworldly Provençal blue, and Barruol’s words from earlier echoed in my brain. I understood what it meant to have 14 successive generations of your family produce something from the local soil. It made me appreciate the wines that much more.
Later, we tasted in the second-century cellar, reputedly the oldest in France. In the 2007 Le Poste, I noticed the flintiness of the region’s limestone. The Le Claux, sourced from vines planted in 1875, had a floral nose and high tone that reflected the slope of the vineyard and the crispness of September mornings. I could taste the idea of wine country in every sip, the gathered wisdom of all those generations of Barruols in every glass.
Soon we said our goodbyes, and as I emerged into the bright day, with the Dentelles over my shoulders, I realized that it was noon and I was hungry. There was no question what to do next: I turned my car toward L’Oustalet and lunch.
Bruce Schoenfeld is T+L’s wine and spirits editor.
When to Go
Starting in mid-June, blossoming lavender plants blanket the fields of the region, adding another splash of color to an already magical landscape. Summers here are crowded, but not nearly as crowded as in Aix-en-Provence or the Riviera to the south. Falls are glorious, and don’t dismiss late winter and early spring, when there’s an appealing quiet to the villages. Hotels cut prices by as much as a third, and because this is a working wine region, restaurants are open year-round.
From North America, fly nonstop to Geneva, rent a car on the French side of the airport, and make the pleasant 3 1/2-hour drive south. Or fly direct to Paris and take the 3- to 5-hour TGV to Avignon and rent a car there.
Hôtel Crillon le Brave Place de l’Église, Crillon le Brave; 33-4/90-65-61-61; crillonlebrave.com; doubles from $340.
La Verrière Chemin de La Verrière, Crestet; 33-4/90-10-06-30; laverriere.com; doubles from $340.
Great Value Maison Trévier 36 Place du Docteur Cavaillon, Carpentras; 33-4/90-51-99-98; maison-trevier.com; doubles from $145.
Le Grand Pré Rte. de Vaison-la-Romaine, Roaix; 33-4/90-46-18-12; dinner for two $165.
L’Oustalet Place du Village, Gigondas; 33-4/90-65-85-30; lunch for two $90.
Le Moulin à Huile Quai Maréchal Foch, Rte. de Malaucène, Vaison-la-Romaine; 33-4/90-36-20-67; dinner for two $220.
Taste Château de Saint Cosme La Fouille et les Florets, Gigondas; 33-4/90-65-80-80; saintcosme.com; open Monday–Friday 9–5.
Domaine de la Janasse 27 Chemin du Moulin, Courthézon; 33-4/90-70-86-29; lajanasse.com; open Monday–Friday 8–noon and 2–6; during harvest and weekends by appointment only.
Pierre Usseglio Traditional Châteauneuf producer with an old winery on a picturesque hill. Rte. d’Orange, Châteauneuf-du-Pape; 33-4/90-83-72-98; open Monday–Friday, 9:30–noon and 2–6.
Shop Carré Boutique A smartly designed shop selling tapenade, olive oil, flavored salts, and other regional specialties. Place de la Fontaine, Gigondas; 33-4/90-62-31-42.
Here, a handful of wines you can find back home that will give you a taste of the southern Rhône Valley.
Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2008 ($75) Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a blend of as many as 13 grape varieties—and Beaucastel employs them all. The result is earthy but elegant, with immense character and complexity.
Château de Saint Cosme Gigondas Le Claux 2007 ($50) Saint Cosme’s site and soil are unique in Gigondas, and its wines reflect the setting. Le Claux, from 135-year-old vines, smells like a bouquet of flowers and soars in the mouth with an unmatched purity of fruit.
Domaine Boisson Côtes du Rhône Cairanne Villages L’Exigence 2009 ($25) This blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre is dark as coal, but it’s packed with the juicy fruit that’s emblematic of this emerging appellation at its best.
Domaine Santa Duc Gigondas Les Garancières 2007 ($33) A fine example of a ripe, fleshy Gigondas that has enough spine to stand up to big flavors such as grilled beef. A perfect entry point to the wines of the region for the California palate.
Tardieu-Laurent Vacqueyras Vieilles Vignes 2007 ($46) Vacqueyras is Gigondas’ rustic twin, but this Syrah/Grenache blend has a mineral tautness that balances the jammy fig and blueberry notes.