“Allez vite. Tu cherches,” my guide calls out to his Australian Shepherd, Sydney, whistling to urge her on as she bounds along the neat rows of oak trees making up Domaine de Montine’s truffle orchards. Keeping her nose close to the ground, Sydney digs frantically with her paws when she detects the distinct aroma of this land’s black gold. Remi Monteillet and I follow closely behind, carefully digging out the truffles Sydney finds to inspect their quality. Church bells ring in the distance, birds sing and a breeze blows through the autumnal trees.
It’s the start of the truffle season in Grignan, south-eastern France. Orange and yellow leaves cling to the treetops and row upon row of vines. The region’s annual truffle market, which takes place each Saturday morning between November and March, has only just resumed in the nearby village of Richerenches. Said to be the country’s biggest truffle market, it draws in both the food-loving consumer and professional buyer from far and wide. The Monteillet family takes guests to see this market firsthand before showing them around their own truffle orchards.
“This is a black one,” Remi says proudly, showing me the truffle that he’s just dug out from the earth at the base of one of the orchard’s oak trees. “I can already see it’s a black truffle but we need to cut into it to see if it is ripe enough.” The family use unripe speciems for cooking, with the best are enjoyed just as they are, shaved on top of an indulgent dish laced with butter, cream and cheese to bring out the flavour.
Domaine de Montine (domaine-de-montine.com) is a family-owned estate dating back to 1933, where brothers Claudy and Jean-Luc Monteillet and their families, including Jean-Luc’s son Remi, manage the vineyards, cellar, truffle orchards and tourism offering. A cellar door shop and boutique hotel take up the Provençal stone buildings clustered together at the heart of the land.
The estate’s vines clamber across a range of terroirs from limestone to clay soils in Grignan-les-Adhémar, Cru Vinsobres, Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages, with cuvées then aged slowly in French oak barrels. Wines in the signature Montine collection, including Crozes Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Cornas and Hermitage, are all made with 100 per cent syrah. As well as tastings, tourism activities here range from truffle hunts to tours of the estate on electric bikes.
This is just one stop on France’s Vallée de la Gastronomie trail. Previous president and current board member of Vignobles & Découvertes (the country’s national wine label), Jean-Luc Monteillet was involved in the birth of the trail.
“The idea is to help people discover all the typical and regional artisan products from farms between Marseilles and Dijon,” he tells me as we share an outdoor aperitif. “We want to give people a full experience with the producers of each region involved and introduce them to each area’s art de vivre and terroir. By doing this we bring more attention to the small and family-run businesses and get people to discover what we do best while also introducing them to more rural areas.”
Giving travellers a new way to discover this gastronomically rich country, the gourmet journey highlights the food and wine of a thousand-year-old trade route crossing the three major administrative regions — Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte D’Azur — between Dijon and the port city of Marseille. Connections with artisans and producers are offered each step of the way.
Travellers are able to tailor their road trip along this navigable trail of gourmet stops — discovering what there is to see and do each in each region at valleedelagastronomie.com — whether they’re starting in Dijon, Lyon, Marseille or focusing on one particular section of the route.
More tightly curated, self-designed itineraries allow you to focus more specifically on oenotourism, hands-on culinary experiences or more unusual activities like tasting wines 100 metres underground on a SpeleOenology tour at Grotte Saint-Marcel.
One of the most valuable aspects of this tourism initiative is its capacity for putting artisans you otherwise may not encounter in the spotlight, overall benefitting both the visitor and local business, in some cases driving new areas of wine and gastronomic tourism.
This is something Laurent Gomez, who has worked at Domaine Michelas Saint Jemms (michelas-st-jemms.fr) winery for the past 10 years, can attest to. This family estate in Mercurol produces AOC Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Cornas wines and is also open to visitors year-round, despite not being in an area that typically draws in wine tourism.
“We are involved in Vallée de la Gastronomie to introduce more people to our wines but for us it’s also about how it benefits the region as a whole,” says Laurent as he pours one of the estate’s wines into glasses resting on top of a barrel in the winery’s tasting room.
“We want people to understand how we make our wine while tasting from the barrels and really feeling the terroir,” he says. “It can be difficult to attract tourism and a lot of the wineries in this region are closed to visitors – to establish oenotourism in a particular area, you need to create a synergy between the wineries. And it’s when other wineries see how oenotourism works that they decide to try it as well.”
Domaine Michelas Saint Jemms offers tours of the winery and tastings, along with visits to see its vineyards for insight into its biodiversity endeavour and terroir. During harvest, people can come to see how the grapes are harvested and how the wine is made, ending the day with a dinner.
What makes this winery stand out? The estate was established in 1961 by Robert and Yvette Michelas, and is now run by their three daughters and a son: Sylvie, Florence, Corine and the vigneron Sebastian. As well as long being recognised for growing vines across four of the northern Rhône Valley’s most prestigious appellations, and the resulting four Terres d’Arce vintages that are born from it, the estate holds High Environmental Value status for its biodiversity efforts and has won a stream of wine awards.
More delights dot the trail leading from Dijon to Marseille: a visit to Auberge de Clochemerle (aubergedeclochemerle.fr/en/) to become winemaker; tasting wines on a Rhône riverboat tour courtesy Terres de Syrah (terresdesyrah.com); a cheese and wine workshop in the vaulted 17th-century cellar of Domaine Gérard Brisson (gerard-brisson.com). Or join a tour of Vienne, departing from Lyon with Rhône Trip (rhonetrip.com), and gain insight into both wine and olive oil making at Château Virant (chateauvirant.com).
A monument you’ll want to visit and one with history going back to the 13th century, Château de Juliénas (chateaudejulienas.com) lies amid the undulating vineyards of Beaujolais and is home to vaulted stone cellars dating back to 1744, as well as an on-site winery for working with the fruits of this estate’s 40ha of vineyards.
Since 1907, the château has been owned by the Condemine family, who have managed to maintain its independence despite its size. Thierry Condemine, the great grandson of Claude, who bought the château in 1907, is winemaker today. The family was one of first estate owners in the region to promote wine tourism.
“We do everything with perfectionism and passion, working with small groups to keep the visits intimate,” says Anita Berger who manages the estate’s wine tourism.
“It’s important for us to help people discover something new when teaching them about the tradition of winemaking here, whether they come for a guided tour, the Wine Tasting Truck experience or picnic in the vineyards.”
The vintage Volkswagen Wine Tasting Truck experience, a highlight of the Vallée de la Gastronomie, sees visitors spend two hours in the vineyards and on the roads of Beaujolais hearing about the grape-growing and winemaking process from the winemaker themself. Tastings introduce you to the Juliénas, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent and Beaujolais Villages Rosé wines this château produces with plans to also launch a new chardonnay in 2023.
For an even greater connection to the site, you can adopt some of the château’s vine stock for a year and follow the production of that wine in the vineyard and cellar, visiting again early summer and during harvest to participate in the process. Once that vintage is ready, you receive several bottles with personalised labels.
While the château already has established tourism experiences, Vallée de la Gastronomie helps place that offering on a local and global stage. “For our château, the Vallée de la Gastronomie offers high recognition,” says Berger. “The fact we are highlighted among the trail’s remarkable experiences is an acknowledgement of our efforts and something that gives us better visibility.”
The nearby Château du Moulin-à-Vent (chateaudumoulinavent.com) is another highlight. Formerly known as Château des Thorins, referencing what was the appellation’s most famous terroir, this 1732 established domain changed its name when the first AOCs, including Moulin-à-Vent (meaning ‘windmill’), were created in 1936. To this day, the estate lies amid flourishing vineyards with a chapel, the Chapelle des Thorins, at its heart.
Chapelle des Thorins is the setting for tasting sessions that provide insight into wines celebrating the individuality of the terroirs this estate cultivates: Le Moulin-à-Vent, Les Thorins, Aux Caves, Les Vérillats, Champ de Cour and La Rochelle.
“Each of them is expressed in our single vineyard cuvées,” says Morgane Chambriard, who is responsible for communication and marketing at Château du Moulin-à-Vent. “Available for tasting at the chapel, they allow the visitor to grasp the essence of the Moulin-à-Vent terroirs through their nuances and depths.
“Convinced that time is good for our wines, we keep a part of each vintage in the cellars of the château. A few bottles of these old vintages are available at the chapel so the wines of the estate can be appreciated in their maturity as well as in their youth. The chapel is unique because it allows a complete discovery of the appellation, its history and evolution, its terroirs and our know-how,” she says.
“Vallée de la Gastronomie allows us to be part of the qualitative art de vivre actors of the region, rich with so many French terroirs and traditions. [It] allows visitors in search of authenticity, quality and discovery to dive into the French art of living.”
As well as introducing you to each region’s producers, Vallée de la Gastronomie highlights the – some prominent and others less widely known – restaurants showcasing the efforts of outstanding chefs and sommeliers, with opportunities to also get hands on in the kitchen. In Valence, Maison Pic (anne-sophie-pic.com) elevates visitors’ gastronomic experience with a cooking or pastry workshop at the cooking school attached to this three-Michelin-starred restaurant by Anne-Sophie Pic and a stay at the accompanying five-star Relais & Château hotel (relaischateaux.com). In Lyon, chef Joseph Viola then leads workshops in how to make the dish he’s become known for, Pâté en Croûte.
Dine at the foot of the vine-covered hillside by the Rhône River at Le Beau Rivage (hotel-beaurivage.com) in Condrieu and try the inventive cuisine of Terre de Mistral farmhouse inn in Rousset (terre-de-mistral.com). Venture to the slopes of Colline Puget to dine at sustainability focused Sépia & Julius restaurant (restaurant-sepia.fr) in Marseille, and experience reinterpreted French culinary classics at the Hotel Château de Montcaud restaurant (chateaudemontcaud.com), Le Cèdre de Montcaud, in Sabran.
Ultimately, this route from Dijon to Marseille via Lyon, and following the Saône and Rhône rivers, is everything you’d imagined of the diversity of landscape, culinary identity and wine production found across this gastronomically rich nation.