Secrets Waiting to be Uncovered
Rich history, idyllic scenery and wine, the Rhone Valley offers education and indulgence to lovers of the grape
Article by Andrew Steel
To say that France isn’t exactly lacking when it comes to wine would be somewhat of a frank understatement. From Alsace to Armagnac, Burgundy to Bordeaux, L’Hexagone has no shortage on its shores of the stuff, one of the globe’s key producers and exporters in the business. There’s a reason why those who practice oenophilia are drawn to the country on their sojourns, for it offers a near-unparalleled variety of flavour and character. But nestled away from the glitz and glamour of the Republic’s internationally-recognised brand regions such as Champagne, to the south, lies a part of the world just as rich in terroir and prestige worth a visit; the stunningly scenic landscapes of the Rhone Valley vineyards that span Drome and the Vaucluse from Lyon to Marseille, a near picture-perfect getaway for the aspiring sommelier.
There are few places better to start such an exploration than in the sleepy commune of Suze-la-Rousse. Once the Renaissance retreat of the princes of the neighbouring Orange, and offering panoramic views of Mont Ventoux, it is dominated by its namesake chateau, perched on the crest of a promontory above the town centre. Housed within its ramparts is the Université du Vin, an educational institute dedicated to the art of viticulture; formed in 1978, it not only takes on full-time students in professional development courses, but also offers individual sessions for amateurs, guiding them through the first steps of understanding the art.
It is through this school that beginners learn to sample the quality of a wine through three broad categories; appearance, nose and palate. Each of these come with various subsections that give additional depth and detail to the elements that make the finished bottle virtuosic or less so, such as its visual clarity, the intensity and complexity of its scent, and the tactile sensations in the taste. As experiences go, a visit to the Université and the time spent under the watchful guidance of its resident experts makes for an engaging appetizer to any tour of the Rhone Valley; a palate cleanser in a sense for the chocolate-box locale of the Vaucluse and the Drome.
To its north lies the latter’s department capital, in the heart of the Rhone corridor; Valence. A hub of heritage for the region, this former Roman colony is dubbed in the local tongue as à Valence le Midi commence (at Valence, the Midi begins) and is also referred to as “the gateway to the south of France”. History here cleaves to both romanticism and religious tragedy; the Kiosque Paeynet bandstand on the Champ de Mars was made famous as a temple of love by the illustrator Raymond Peynet’s depiction in 1942, whilst the city’s Cathedral of St Apolinaris contains a bust of the late Pope Pius VI, whose entrails are housed within following his death in the city under pursuit and capture of the French Directory. As a cultural touchstone, few communes in the valley offer such storied legacy; as a base to discover the Côtes du Rhône from, it offers suitable accommodation options for all travellers and explorers on a workable budget.
Valence is relatively industrialised in comparison to large swathes of the Rhone Valley; for those willing to part with a little more for their stay, one can step up to a genuine castle away from the machine-made hullabaloo, in the shape of the Chateau De Rochegude. Tucked inside the southern-east border of the Drome with the Vaucluse, this former 12th-century fortress-turned-ancestral seat and summer retreat of the Marquis de Rochegude makes for a little slice of personal royalty. Complete with outdoor swimming pool and tennis courts, and with gourmet gastronomic selections overseen in its sumptuous stone dining quarters by resident chef Thierry Frebout, the Chateau De Rochegude isn’t exactly for those exploring the bounties of Provence on a shoestring; but for those with the expendable funds, it does offer something outside of the nominal B&B – and who doesn’t want to start off the occasional morning by patrolling their own ramparts as the distant sun breaks over Ventoux and spills onto the surrounding hills?
For the true student of oenology though, there’s no reason to not go one step further, and journey out to the Domaine De Cabasse for a few nights’ rest and relaxation. If perhaps not as vivaciously striking as Rochegude, this hotel and winery, sat at the bottom of the village of Seguret, own a combined 15 hectares of vineyard which produce what they term as eight different “noble appellations”. In addition, if one ventures out into the lush greens of the valley, the headquarters of the Cave de Rasteau are only a short bike ride away on the other side of the river. Located in its namesake village, on smooth southern soil, the Cave is one of the Rhone’s oldest cooperatives, with 80 individual members growing grapes for the organisation since 1925. The winery itself sits across the road from the Cave’s modernist, sleek store outlet where tastings and treats related to the vine can be found across a variety of specialities. As a traditionalist purveyor of winemaking lore, Rasteau’s sleepy slopes produce a great speciality line in reds, culled from the varieties of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, to create something truly satisfying across the range.
The Drome and the Vaucluse offer something visually arresting, without being inhospitable to either day trippers or weekend travellers; from the early spring through the late autumn, it seems almost permanently caressed in the glimmer of sunlight. The Rhone Valley is not just beautiful though; it remains a great bastion of history, in both winemaking and as a portrayal of the evolution of France over the past millennium. For those looking to get away from it all, there can be few more convincing arguments than to do so here; lush and languorous, yet somewhere fettled in secrets waiting to be uncovered.