The Rhone River splashes through a Garden of Eden. Along its banks, orchards explode with ripe fruit. Cattle graze in open pastures. Forests teem with game. And vineyards from Lyon to Avignon give birth to incredibly diverse wines. Such resources, and history predating the Greeks, make the Rhone Valley a food lover’s paradise.
THE CULINARY CAPITAL OF FRANCE
The Rhone River rushes into Lyon from 8,000 feet high in the Swiss Alps. It meets the northern Saone River and cuts hard, due South toward the Mediterranean Sea. Lyon’s rich history of home cooking and famous chefs makes it France’s culinary capital. Masters such as Paul Bocuse nurture the city’s 16 Michelin-starred restaurants, and local Bouchons Lyonnais dish up the town’s best down-to-earth, traditional cuisine.
Bouchons are small, convivial restaurants specializing in Lyon’s hearty, handmade cuisine. This isn’t high dining; it’s typical, home-cooked, family-style, stick-to-your-ribs fare. About 20 bouchons earn the annual ‘authentic’ certification from the Association de Defense des Bouchons Lyonnais, but many restaurants use the term. Regular patrons return for rustic, robust, absolutely scrumptious meals of petit sale (ham and lentils), quenelles (fish dumplings), or more daring dishes such as andouillette (offal sausage).
Exquisite cheeses come from the pastures south of Lyon as well. St. Felicien and St. Marcellin are rich, creamy, cow’s milk delights that ooze when you cut into them. Bouchons serve Cervelle de Canuts: chives, shallots, and spices creamed into fresh, yogurt-like fromage blanc.
French journalist Leon Daudet said, “There are three rivers in Lyon: the Rhone, the Saone, and the Beaujolais”. But many choose to wash down this fare with fruity Cotes du Rhone.
The broad Cotes du Rhone appellation covers the entire Rhone Valley. These wines are simple, fruity, and deliver excellent value. A step up in quality, Cotes du Rhone-Villages’ tighter quality controls deliver more concentrated, elegant wines. But look to smaller appellations, usually named after a town, for top quality.
RHONE SEPTENTRIONAL (Northern Rhone)
These smaller appellations start about 20 miles south of Lyon, near the ancient Roman town of Vienne. Most renowned are Cote Rotie and Hermitage; fine wines that compete with Burgundy and Bordeaux for prestige. From mostly Syrah (Cote Rotie allows some Viognier), they reach incredible length and finesse, flourishing black fruit and floral aromas. St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are better priced Syrahs, but seldom reach the same heights.
These zones produce some white too, but the star, white-only denominations are Condrieu and Chateau Grillet. Made of 100% Viognier, these rare wines rank among France’s best whites. The north may enjoy more fame, but some 95% of the Rhone’s wine comes from the south.
RHONE MERIDIONAL (Southern Rhone)
The vineyards hug the Rhone closely until Valence, where they almost vanish. When they pick up again south of Montelimar, they stretch farther from the river and gain a more Provenal flair. The grape varieties expand as well: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the South’s top appellation, allows up to 13 red grapes in the blend.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape, (New Castle of the Pope) got its name from the Avignon Popes. In 1309, French Pope Clement V moved his court to Avignon. Seven Popes reigned from here until 1377, when Gregory XI moved his retinue back to Rome. The French Popes encouraged the vineyards and built a summer palace northeast of Avignon, in the town of Chateauneuf-Calcernier. Renamed Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the 19th century, the town is surrounded by rocky vineyards that produce full, spicy, deep red wines. Of the 13 red grapes permitted, most producers use four: Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Cinsault.
Gigondas and Vacqueyras are neighboring wines that use similar blends. Gigondas is often more rustic than Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but the better producers make excellent wines. Vacqueyras resembles the best Cotes du Rhone-Villages.
Although 95% of the Rhone’s wines are red, France’s most prized roses come from the south. Just north of Avignon, across the Rhone to the west, Tavel and Lirac produce crisp, dry roses from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.
Provence and southern Rhone cuisine reflect the Mediterranean sun. Garden vegetables, olives, herbs, and garlic are the base for many a mouth-watering dish in the south of France. Daube Provencale is a hearty stew, often with beef from the free-range, black bulls of the Camargue; the marshy plain south of Arles. While Marseille is famous for Bouillabaisse, throughout the south you find Soupe de Poisson, a velvety fish soup served with garlic.. best willamette valley wine tours