To the visitor, intoxicated by good food and fine wine, pale stone churches and steeply sloping vineyards, the south of France seems a blessed place, perfumed in rosemary and lavender and bathed in sunshine. It’s not the same for residents, of course – this is the Midi, not the Elysian Fields – but there’s a permanence here that even the famous Mistral wind cannot dislodge.
The first vines ever planted in France were here, in the ancient Greek colony around Marseille, and when the Greeks rashly called in the Romans to help them fight aggressive local barbarians, they set in motion events that would make all of Gaul a Roman conquest – and a breeding ground for vines to keep the thirsty conquerors happy.
Instead of selflessly quelling the southern Gaulish tribes and going home, the Romans stayed and pushed north. They built cities and temples and triumphal arches, some of which lasted and others crumbled, and so began a long process of a blending and mingling of cultures that is, today, obvious in the towns, the language and the inhabitants’ DNA. And who knows? Perhaps also in the wines, which here are almost always blends.
Marseille is not technically on the Rhône, but as France’s great Mediterranean port and the birthplace of its wine culture it makes a good starting point for an exploration of the region. Take the time for a wander around the Old Port, a visit to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations or a hike up the hill to the imposing church of Notre-Dame de la Garde, depending on your whim, the heat, and the amount of sightseeing you’re prepared to countenance before the gastrotourism begins.
Marseille claims bouillabaisse as its own – the garlicky, saffron-perfumed fish soup said to have been invented by the goddess Venus to put her spouse Vulcan to sleep while she snuck off to dally with Mars. The salad Niçoise was created down the road in Nice. Eating either is an homage to the Greeks who brought the olive with them to Provence along with the grape – and it’s surely no coincidence that the region’s rosés, made principally from grenache and cinsaut, go so well with both.
Pheasant’s eye is what the French call that distinctive, sunrise-pale colour of the local rosé; onionskin, maintain the Brits, although that makes you wonder about their onions. Either way, this is wine so drinkable that a second bottle is required to finish admiring the deep blue of the Mediterranean and the city behind it.
We could head east from here, into rosé country, but instead let’s turn west towards the river, up past Salon-de-Provence and through St-Martin-de-Crau, with a stop at Vins Fins de la Crau for advice and a few good bottles. In the 1990s, Mike and Liz Berry MW owned a legendary shop in London called La Vigneronne; all the city’s serious wine lovers congregated there. Now they have come to the source, and while their list covers the whole of France, the selection from the Languedoc, Provence and the Rhône is eye-popping.
In Arles, there’s no way to avoid the Romans: they’re almost as present as the living. The incredible proliferating arches of Les Arènes, now the bullring, but built in the first century for the Roman games; the graceful curved seating and lonely pillars of the Roman Theatre; the creepy tree-lined tombs of the Alyscamps, an ancient burial place once so desirable that corpses were shipped from all over Europe to lie here.
Those bodies became part of the soil, mingling with prehistoric limestone that juts into white crags within the Alpilles Natural Regional Park, providing foundations for the pale houses of Les Baux de Provence that rise up the hill and for the dramatic ancient fortress that tops it. This area has its own appellation, with very strict rules for the wines; so strict that one of my favourite wineries here forfeits the right to use it. Domaine Trévallon is, nonetheless, the area’s best-known winery and deservedly so – but be warned, they don’t always have wine to sell.
Beyond the ancient cities of Tarascon and Beaucaire, facing each other across the river like guardians, the alluvial plain of the ancient riverbed spreads and the clay and limestone soil begins to sport strange, smooth stones: the galets roulés, rubbed into symmetry by the river. These stones, that draw and keep the sun’s warmth, are famous for their role in nourishing vines’ roots in Châteauneuf-du-Pape but they exist elsewhere, including in Lirac, just across the river.
The wines here are also rich, well-structured reds, not as long lasting perhaps as their better-known neighbours, but not nearly as expensive, either – and they rarely run out of stock. Several of the best Lirac producers are based in Tavel, a pretty little place of creamy stone houses just down the road, and also make rosé wines there. Tavel is a wine oddity: an exclusively rosé appellation surrounded by reds and a terroir that produces raspberry-coloured, herb-scented, food-orientated pink wines not far from Provence, home of the ballet slipper-pale apéro. Nonetheless it was once hugely popular, drunk by France’s King Louis XIV in the 18th century and the writers Balzac and Mistral in the 19th, until a surge of mid-twentieth century greed led to the planting of substandard terroir and an overload of mediocre wines.
There are still very good Tavels from domaines including the ubiquitous Perrin family, owners of Château de Beaucastel, the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape and makers of Brangelina’s well-regarded (and very pale) rosé Miraval, as well as this very different pink wine. Less high profile but equally good are Domaine de la Mordorée and Château d’Aqueria. Tavel deserves to be rediscovered: far from a dangerously gluggable aperitif, it’s a food wine that goes with everything from salad to charcuterie.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself is a mere hop (25 minutes’ drive) across the river, but let’s go an extra 25 kilometres north-east and visit Gigondas first: the Romans’ Jucunditas, named possibly for an early inhabitant, Jucundus, or possibly from the Latin word for joy.
The Caveau de Gigondas in the village is an excellent place to taste while the village itself, just beneath the imposing Dentelles de Montmirail mountain chain, is delightful, lazily spotted with cafes for the daytime and a Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Oustalet, for a more formal evening. Between the two, a hike up into the Dentelles, across the limestone and bush that bring so much to the appellation’s red wines, is an excellent way to work up a thirst.
The owners of Domaine Saint-Gayan are the 11th generation of family winemakers and their house sits on the site of a Roman villa; their reds in particular are excellent. Five minutes’ drive away at Domaine du Pesquier, you can hear stories of a Roman oven found in the vineyards with tiles, cold for two millennia, left baking within.
Nobody here lives divorced from the past: you’d have to stay in bed. Drive 15 minutes north-east of Saint-Gayan and you will be in Vaison-la-Romaine, known as the ‘French Pompeii’: an extraordinary set of well-preserved ruins plus a museum of artefacts including the scariest sculpture of Bacchus, god of wine, I’ve seen yet.
Twenty minutes’ drive back towards the Rhône are Domaine de l’Oratoire St Martin and Domaine Alary: two properties owned by cousins whose families have been making wine here for a dozen generations. The current owners’ fathers split the property in two in 1984, but it’s all very friendly. The former has 25 hectares of certified biodynamic vines, on steep slopes overlooked by the pretty little eponymous chapel built by the current incumbent’s grandfather, while the latter’s 30 hectares are organic. Both make excellent wines; reds, from varieties including syrah and grenache, and a small amount of delicious whites, from clairette, roussanne, viognier and others.
If there is time, en route back towards Avignon – because the northern Rhône is a story for another time – go via the town of Carpentras, where the ancient Greeks once bought their wheat, honey and sheep, and where the grandiose church still shelters, in its shadow, a Roman arch – a reminder that Christianity did not always take precedence. And then we come at last to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the village called the Pope’s New Castle, which owes its fame to the wines named for the summer castle the Avignon popes built – on a patch of land they may have chosen for its proximity to fine vines.
The Perrin family have a shop here and they’re not the only ones. In fact, almost the only place that doesn’t hold wine tastings is the Castle itself, a partial but magnificent ruin with gorgeous views just up the hill that was destroyed by the Huguenots during the 16th-century Wars of Religion – and then bombed by departing Germans during World War II. Given all that, there’s a surprising amount left.
Still, there’s something sad about this crumbling castle that was once a symbol of the power and wealth of the Avignon popes. The Carpentras church may dwarf the adjacent Roman arch but in general, the Romans have persisted in this region more than anyone who came after.
Pope Clement V fled Rome in 1309 and his successor, John XXII built The Pope’s New Palace. A few years after that – between 1335 and 1352 – the Palace of the Popes in Avignon was constructed, and that at least still stands strong.
If we follow the Rhône back down to this beautiful walled city, stopping to admire the four remaining arches of the old Avignon Bridge abruptly halted in the middle of the river, pass beneath the crenellated 14th-century city walls, walk through Place de l’Horloge (‘Clock Square’) and crane up to admire the gothic belfry, all that remains of the old Town Hall, we come finally to the towering pale walls of the Palace of the Popes.
You can take a tour, and I would. And when you’re done, retreat to a nearby wine bar such as Just Vin M2 and raise a glass to the popes who gave these wines a reputation first and a name second, and to the Romans, without whom there would have been no wine at all.
Château Romanin (chateauromanin.com) in Les Baux-de-Provence was one of the first domaines to adopt biodynamic viticulture in France, helped by the cooling breath of the Mistral. It was bought by the former owners of Château Montrose, second classified growth of Saint-Estèphe, Anne-Marie and Jean-Louis Charmolüe, in 2006 after they fell in love with the stony landscape of the Alpilles. The winery, dug out of the hillside, is well worth seeing.
Chêne Bleu (visit.chenebleu.com) 20 minutes’ drive south of Vaison-la-Romaine, is the label of former investment banker Nicole Rolet and her husband Xavier, ex-head of the London Stock Exchange. Here, at Domaine de la Verrière, they make multi-award-winning wines and also run a luxury eco-retreat on an amazing property that has had vines since at least the ninth century.
Domaine de la Mordorée (domaine-mordoree.com) is based in Tavel but also makes excellent Lirac, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes-du-Rhône and even some wine in Condrieu that they are not allowed to label Condrieu. Since Christophe Delorme’s shocking death in 2015, aged 52, his widow Madeleine and daughter Ambre have taken over; they have a tasting room, vineyard tours by request, and a lovingly refurbished villa for rent that sleeps up to 16 and has a pool and beautiful views.
Domaine Maby (domainemaby.fr) is another top producer of Lirac, Côtes-du-Rhône and Tavel based in the latter village; they have 60 hectares, sustainably farmed, and they are particularly proud of the galets roulés in their vineyards. There’s also a pleasant reception area to taste in and winery tours. Make an appointment if you’re coming at the weekend.
Domaine du Tix (domaine-du-tix.com/fr) is a beautiful domaine in the sunny Vaucluse, where the Roman era is so close that they still occasionally find ancient coins among the syrah and grenache vines. If you’re lucky enough to stay at Crillon-le-Brave, a luxury hotel 12 kilometres away that incorporates most of the village, you can cycle here, but be warned: the end of your 45-minute journey involves a climb to 350 metres.
Domaine de Vieux Télégraphe (vieux-telegraphe.fr) is one of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s best-known domaines and obsessed with grenache, although they also make Gigondas and Mont Ventoux wines. They’re based in the village of Bédarrides, which is en route from Carpentras back to the Rhône river, and they have a tasting room but it’s open weekdays only; if you arrive on the weekend, don’t worry, they’re one of many labels available to taste in the Caveau de Gigondas.
Domaine de St Gayan (saintgayan.fr) just outside Gigondas, has a gracious mansion built on the site of a Roman villa; the family doesn’t go back quite that far, but almost, claiming vignerons here since at least the 14th century. They make a Châteauneuf-du-Pape as well as Gigondas and a couple of Côtes-du-Rhône Villages; they also produce a luminous pink Vin de Pays rosé from grenache and carignan.
Domaine de Trévallon(domainedetrevallon.com) does welcome visitors – it just doesn’t always have any wine to sell them, so in-demand are they. The Dürrbachs have the best known domaine in Les Baux de Provence appellation but choose not to make wine they can label Les Baux de Provence: instead, they blend cabernet sauvignon with syrah and declassify their red to IGP (Indication Geographique Protegée), although neither flavour nor price reflect this humble status. The late René Dürrbach was a painter and sculptor and friend to the likes of Léger and Picasso, so the domaine is worth visiting –even if you can’t buy wine – to see the art.
Domaine de l’Oratoire St Martin (oratoiresaintmartin.fr) has been in the Alary family for 300 years, and brothers Frédéric and François continue the tradition on their 25 hectares on the slopes of St Martin; just down the road, the other branch of the family works the 30 hectares of Domaine Alary (domaine-alary.fr). The current incumbents’ parents enacted the split but it’s all very amicable – and both sets of Alarys make good wine.
Le Prieuré Baumanière (leprieure.com) is a five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, just over the river from the old city, with all the luxurious amenities you’d expect at this level: gorgeous rooms, swimming pool, Michelin-starred restaurant, exceptional wine list. Just be careful about distances if you’re without a car: the large Île de la Barthelasse in the middle of the Rhône means that ‘just over the river’ entails a 40-minute walk to the Palace of the Popes.
L’Oustalet (loustalet-gigondas.com) is Michelin-starred, so watch your wallet, but it is part-owned by the Perrin family (I told you they were ubiquitous) and so the wine list justifies the outlay. There are also three bedrooms so you can prowl the wine list without worrying about driving anywhere and a shop where you can buy anything you’ve drunk to take home.
Chez Serge (chez-serge.fr) is a lovely reasonably priced restaurant in the centre of Carpentras, run by Serge Ghoukassian out of a converted townhouse. Serge was Gault&Millau’s Best Sommelier of the Year in 2008 and the list shows he’s lost none of his skills in the interim.
Just Vin M2 (justvinm2.com), a cheerful little bar in Avignon town centre, has walls made of the city’s signature pale old brick and interiors lined in wood, with a good, frequently changing wine list and snacks.
Vins Fins de la Crau (vinsfinsdelacrau.com) is a convivial wine shop run by a couple, Liz and Mike Berry, whose London outlet was one of the first to source really interesting, unusual wines back in the 1990s. Liz is an MW and both are immensely knowledgeable but a more easygoing, less formal pair would be hard to find in the wine world.
Domaine de la Camarette (domaine-camarette.com) in Pernes-les-Fontaines is a family business. Nancy Gontier is the third generation to work at the domaine, and not only does her sister Alexandra help on the wine side but her husband, Hugues Marrec, is chef in their auberge, with its charming courtyard and view over the vines. There are also a few bedrooms, and, for wine nerds, Gontier has an impressive pepinière – a nursery of grape varieties.