WINE & TRAVEL: Southern Rhône
A trip to Southern Rhône is an experience that warms the soul. You will encounter grand historic towns and rustic villages, quaint brasseries and stylish fine-dining, adventurous activities and long, lazy afternoons discovering local wines. I did rather more of the wine-focused activities (!), but the region attracts thousands of cyclists and hikers every year (specifically around Mont Ventoux) for those seeking more active pursuits than strolling in the vineyard sun. I simply adored my 3-night stay in this region! So here I'm sharing everything you need to know about where to stay, where to eat, which wineries and villages to visit and an introduction to the delicious styles of wines from this region.
Where to stay
Look no further than the beautiful, boutique hotel of La Maison de Crillon situated in the historic hilltop town of Crillon-le-Brave where Provence meets the Rhône. The hotel style is understated luxury: where contemporary furniture and bright open rooms meet a touch of classic French design. La Maison de Crillon is structured over several levels carved out from the steep hillside, with various outdoor terraces, a large swimming pool and plush lounges with panoramic views of vineyards, forests and the magnificent Mont Ventoux. It was pure paradise - especially with brilliant 22°C sunshine even at the end of October.
There are a range of bedrooms and suites at the hotel. I loved my simple but stylish double bedroom which had a large private terrace with a view of Mont Ventoux.
Mornings begun with a delightful continental buffet breakfast with eggs made to order. And what could make you feel more at home than a well-stocked honesty bar of spirits, champagne and local wines!? The hotel also offers light meals during the day like tomato and buffalo mozzarella salads, cheese and charcuterie boards. For more information: http://lamaisondecrillon.com/en/
How to get there
I flew from London to Marseille and rented a car from the airport which was 75 minutes from Crillon-le-Brave. Other options are Nîmes airport (75 minutes) and Avignon airport (40 minutes) and combined Eurostar/TGV services sometimes run right down to Avignon station (40 minutes).
Where to eat around Crillon-le-Brave
Caromb - Vin Ensen: a must-visit for wine lovers staying in the region and worth a specific detour no matter what your route! Vin Ensen is run by two sommeliers with an incredible wine list of well-priced hard-to-find Rhône gems. Excellent food which takes a contemporary approach to classic French dishes.10 minutes from Crillon-le-Brave.
For reservations: +33 9 88 04 38 48
Crillon-le-Brave - Restaurant du Vieux Four: a quintessential family-run French brasserie in the town of Crillon-le-Brave. Expect French classics like pâté de foie gras, bouillabaisse and blanquette de veau, and a friendly family dog supervising the service and checking guests are happy with their delicious food. The wine list focuses on easy-drinking local wines from Ventoux. There's also a summer terrace with fantastic views of Mont Ventoux.
For reservations: +33 4 90 12 81 39
Crillon le Brave - Restaurant La Madeleine: a Michelin-starred restaurant in the heart of Crillon-le-Brave. It's closed in the winter months so unfortunately we couldn't visit on this trip, but it has a very good reputation. Open from 15 April 2020. For reservations +33 (0)4 90 65 6161
Where to Visit: Wineries and Village
There's a wealth of wineries and picturesque villages to visit in the region. Here's a list of places I enjoyed visiting which are all 15-40 minutes from of Crillon-le-Brave.
Château Pesquie: a third generation family winery run today by brothers Alexandre and Frédéric. The old grand château sits opposite a very modern, interactive tasting centre. Château Pesquie is recognised as one of the pioneers of the Ventoux wine appellation. They are now certified as organic and practise biodynamic farming in a number of their vineyards. The Ventoux region is cooler than the rest of the Southern Rhône, so Château Pesquie has lots of plantings of Syrah (which prefers cooler temperatures). One of their top cuvées, "Artemia", is made from 75% Syrah. Overall: absolutely delicious, characterful and fresh wines. Various visiting options are available, I highly recommend enjoying their picnic baskets in the château's grounds: www.chateaupesquie.com/en/visit.php
This famous and historic village is also one of most well-known wine appellations in the world. The name originates from the 14th century when the nearby town of Avignon became the Pope's summer residence.
Domaine la Barroche: one of Châteauneuf-du-Pape's new superstar wineries. They produce a range of wines based on Grenache. Their top cuvée, "Pure", is phenomenal - intense, generous and elegant. Very interesting and informative tour of the new modernised winery followed by a tasting. Visits by prior appointment: www.domainelabarroche.com
Château de Vaudieu: stunning traditional château built in 1767 in the heart of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region. The setting is particularly picturesque. I didn't have an appointment, but they were very welcoming and squeezed us in to taste six of their wines in a casual tasting room. Generally, visits by prior appointment: www.famillebrechet.com/chateau-de-vaudieu-plan
La Cave Famille Perrin: if you don't have time for a winery appointment, then you can stop by at the Famille Perrin tasting bar and shop in the centre of Châteauneuf-du-Pape village to informally try some wines at the bar. The family owns the famous winery Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and also produce a number of other wines in the Rhône and further afield.
1 Place du Portail, 84230 Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Beaumes de Venise
Domaine des Bernadines: a top producer of the sweet fortified wine Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. We didn't have an appointment, but on arrival we were warmly invited in for a tasting of this delicious sweet fortified wine. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise typically tastes of lychee, rosewater oranges and honey. They can be drunk young or aged for many years. Enjoy with fruit desserts and cheese. Delicious! Generally, visits by prior appointment:
Domaine Richaud: an excellent producer of this new Cru appellation (see more details about Cru appellations below). Cairanne was elevated to Cru status in February 2016 and is producing fresh wines at a great price point. Domaine Richaud is a family-run winery that mainly produces red wines. The tasting room is bright and full of art and a delightful space to learn about the winery and enjoy a tasting.
Visits by prior appointment: https://www.facebook.com/domaine.richaud/
Chêne Bleu: breathtaking scenery and top wines at this award-wining, luxury winery. The estate is in a UNESCO protected site in the reserve of Mont Ventoux. Chêne Bleu are fully organic and follow biodynamic practices and have seen their vines flourish over the years. They produce red wines based on Syrah and Grenache and also produce some delicious rosé wines and white wines. Not to be missed! Various visiting options available: http://visit.chenebleu.com/
Introduction to the Wines of Southern Rhône
Grapes and Styles
Red: red grapes make up the majority of plantings in the region and Grenache is the most planted grape. It's typically blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre and other permitted grapes in the region including Carignan and Cinsualt. Grenache commonly has flavours of juicy red fruit, sweet spice and dried herbs. It can be made in a young, fresh style, or in a more complex and age worthy style from old low-yielding vines that produce concentrated fruit, or when it's blended with more structured grapes like Syrah and Mourvèdre.
White: white wine production is much smaller than red production in this region. White wines are often made from a blend of aromatic grapes and the key grapes include: Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Clairette. These wines are typically fruity, floral and mineral driven and don't usually have overt oak aromas.
Rosé: there are some lovely fresh and characterful rosé wines being produced all over the Rhône. I particularly enjoyed those from Chêne Bleu. The cru appellation of Tavel AOC solely produces rosé and has some of the best examples in the region.
Sweet: you simply can't visit the Rhône without trying some of the heady sweet wines! The most famous is Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. See above for information about this wine and visiting Beaumes-de-Venise.
Introduction to Southern Rhône wine classifications
What are you drinking!?
The best wines in France are classified under a system called the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée or AOC. To get you started on understanding the Southern Rhône appellation system, below is a summary of the hierarchy. These classifications are included on the bottle labels.
Cotes du Rhône AOC: this is the largest appellation covering a lot of the region. Generally, these are entry-level wines that are easy-drinking and are for consuming young.
Cotes du Rhône Villages AOC: this appellation is next in the hierarchy, these wines have more regulations on production than Cotes du Rhone AOC and are a bit more complex.
Cote du Rhône Villages AOC + the named village: next we have a group of villages that can declare their village name on the label after Cote du Rhône Villages. These wines have stricter regulations to follow than general Cotes du Rhône Villages wines and are considered very good quality. There are currently 21 villages in this category.
Cru AOC villages: these wines are at the top of the hierarchy and only the name of the village is required on the label. Wine from these villages are considered to show a distinct character from the uniqueness of the terroir (the environment) in which they're grown. There are currently 9 cru villages in Southern Rhône which includes: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cairanne and Beaumes-de-Venise. Many top, long-lasting wines are produced from these cru villages.
I also visited the separate appellation of Ventoux AOC close to the slopes of Mont Ventoux.
N.B. Outside of the above appellations, wines in the Rhône can produced as Vin de Pays (IGP). Read more click here.
*Thank you to Inter Rhône for kindly arranging my visits to Château Pesquie, Domaine Richaud and Chêne Bleu.