RHONE – Cruising along one of France’s Great Wine Rivers

Wink Lorch's picture

The majestic Rhône river that sweeps through Lyon en route to Avignon and down to the Mediterranean starts as a trickle up in the Swiss Alps. The river flows through spectacular scenery in the Swiss canton of Valais and disgorges itself into Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) before continuing on its way through France. I sometimes feel sorry for the Swiss as their most important wine area, the Valais, produces the Rhône’s ‘first’ seriously good wines, but they are never thought of as Rhône Valley wines. Once the river leaves Lake Geneva it heads through Savoie where a few vineyards like those of Seyssel and Jongieux also benefit from the river’s warming effects. Onwards through Lyon, the region wine lovers designate as the Rhône Valley starts just south of the Roman town of Vienne (that incidentally has a superb summer jazz festival in the amphitheatre).


wine travel guides - rhone region


The Rhône Valley wine region could be said to have a split personality. The northern part between Vienne and Valence has a continental climate with cold winters and hot summers and its vineyards are generally on impossibly steep slopes planted with Syrah for spicy, structured reds and Viognier, Roussanne or Marsanne for a few gorgeously rich whites. As you move south, there is a gap where there are no vineyards around Montélimar, home to delicious nougat, and then the vineyards return. The landscape changes with whitewashed houses sporting classic red-tiled roofs, and the vineyards seem to luxuriate on the gentler hillsides. The climate here is much more influenced by the Mediterranean for this is the beginning of the region the French call Provence (though in wine terms Provence is much further south – sorry to confuse!). Here a plethora of grape varieties are grown with Grenache dominating for the softer and richer reds and fruity rosés.

The Rhône Valley is one of the more organised wine regions in France and provides good informative booklets and an excellent website. You can find all your favourite producers on it and if you have plenty of time can use it to plan a wine tour, but like many generic sources of information, including those available for California’s wine regions I believe, there is too much to choose from. Working on a ‘less is more’ principal, the writers for Wine Travel Guides are restricted to recommending between 8 and 12 wine producers for each micro-region guide. Most wine producers in the Rhône are small family-owned establishments and few have dedicated tasting room staff. However, our selected producers will give you a warm welcome when you visit and you will taste excellent wines, just do be warned that most  require an advanced appointment.

I chose a real enthusiast, John Wheeldon, to write the two northern Rhône guides. He writes about the area around Tain l’Hermitage as follows:
“This is the heartland of the Northern Rhône section and is home to some of the greatest and longest lived wines in the world. It is also an area of recent and continuing improvement with new and younger winemakers coming to the fore especially in the more reasonably priced areas of Crozes-Hermitage and Saint Joseph. Tain l’Hermitage is the main, but small town together with its twin of Tournon facing it across the river. The footbridge between the two towns provides a fine view of the hill of Hermitage and shows just why this outcrop of granite on the east bank of the Rhône is such a wonderful vineyard. It is a picturesque area and there are excellent drives and walks around the vineyards."

For our three southern guides, our writer is Liz Berry, a Master of Wine who lives in the far south of the region and has known the wines and producers for many years. Here Liz writes about the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area:
“Châteauneuf du Pape is one of the most famous vineyard areas in France. The winemakers of the region have a long history of top quality wine production, and the wines were well known even in the 1800s. It was one of the very first appellations created in 1935. The locals even drafted a decree, forbidding space ships to land on the territory, to prevent any disruption to the famous vineyards. Lirac red is to some extent a ‘baby brother’ to Châteauneuf; peppery, spicy and broad in style, based on the Grenache varietal, but with less weight and power than Châteauneuf, and generally for drinking within four to eight years from the vintage. The best can be excellent. Tavel is one of the best appellation rosés in France; a full flavoured, dry but fruity wine. The proximity of these vineyard areas to the ancient cities of Avignon and Nîmes make this area ideal to combine a love of history and wine."

Good friends of mine recently returned from a golf trip not far from the vineyards of Saint Joseph in the northern part of the Rhône Valley. They returned raving about a restaurant that I sent them to selected by John and I can’t wait to visit myself. Here’s John writing about the restaurant at Hotel Restaurant Schaeffer in Serrières: “Three generations of Schaeffers have been running this restaurant for years and it is always full of French families enjoying the excellent and reasonably priced food. The ambiance and service is classically French and very welcoming. Surprisingly it seems to be little known by English or Americans and I have yet to meet either here. Schaeffer specialises in game and truffles in season but also has imaginative and lighter dishes. The wine list is a model of its kind with all the top growers from Côte Rôtie and Condrieu and good coverage of the rest of the Northern Rhône. Thoroughly recommended.”

Personally, I adore visiting the southern Rhône where the Mediterranean breezes rustle through the vines which give way to olives and pine trees as the terrain gets steeper. From many vineyards there’s a view to the distinctive Mont Ventoux, the infamous climb on the Tour de France bike race. When I was editing Liz Berry’s guides, one of her recommended hotels and restaurant simply made me want to book a stay right away (until I saw the price and paused). Here’s what Liz says about the Hotel Crillon le Brave: “No less than seven separate village houses, with between them 32 rooms, have been restored to make up this extraordinary and unusual hotel in the hilltop village of Crillon le Brave 40km east of Avignon. With all the facilities you might want, posh and of outstanding quality, it is, needless to say, not cheap. The restaurant offers excellent food and wine and is set in stunningly beautiful gardens, overlooking the village. Prices are high, but then so is the quality.”

The region is easy to visit by renting a car from Lyon or Marseille and you can find some excellent, good value wines. If you plan a visit, do consider taking Wine Travel Guides with you – everywhere we recommend has full contact details including GPS codes and I’ve recently discovered how easy our PDF guides are to view on an iPhone too.

For a useful discount on subscriptions, use the promotional code offered to all visitors to Wandering Educators – you will find the details at our special Wine Travel Guides section.




Wink Lorch is the Wine Editor for Wandering Educators, and the Publisher of Wine Travel Guides.



Feature photo courtesy and copyright of Brett Jones

Comments (1)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    13 years 1 month ago

    thanks, wink! it seems so very beautiful there. all the vineyards you mention (and the restaurants) are the icing on the cake.


    Jessie Voigts, PhD

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

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