Explores the beauty of the Côtes du Rhône on a road trip through the Rhone Valley. Follow the wine route with us to discover enchanting villages, glorious countryside and the steepest vineyards in France…
A road trip along the Rhône River is a great way to discover this lesser-known region of France. Bound by picturesque villages, sweeping roads and spectacular scenery, vineyards cling to the hillsides and delicious wines and warm hospitality await.
I decided to drive along the idyllic Côtes du Rhône to get a flavour of its wine route and remarkable beauty which follows the course of the Rhône River. 125 miles takes you southwards along three regions including the Rhône, the Drome and Ardeche in the southeast of France. Starting just south of Lyon I drove its length from Saint-Cyr-sur-le-Rhône almost to the Mediterranean Sea as far as Avignon.
The Rhône is one of the classic French wine regions. It’s been a hub of wine culture since ancient times and is amongst the oldest vineyard regions on the planet. Greeks, Romans and Medieval Popes fell under the spell of the native-grape rocky-soil flavours. Today it is just as popular with more than 5,000 producers. There are more than 100 villages making wines over a whopping 86,000 acres. It’s the second-largest wine region in France.
The Côtes du Rhône is a region wide appellation, the official title given to wines made on the hillsides and communes along the Rhône River. Here, the winemakers of the Côtes du Rhône experiment with blends and vineyard techniques nurturing the ancient grape varieties into quality wines. Dedicated artisans and producers offer an exceptional range of red wines (and some whites) that are easy to drink. The classic Côtes du Rhône wine is a delicious fruity middleweight red blend based on Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes.
Tournon and Tain L’Hermitage
This superb region provides some of the best vineyards, wine routes and magnificent landscapes in France. In the northern Côtes du Rhône, explore the captivating medieval towns of Tournon and Tain L’Hermitage for a great introduction to the region. Situated either side of the Rhône they form the gateway to the Route des Vins. This excellent driving route takes through the heart of the hillside vineyards, going from cellar to cellar to help you discover and taste the appellations of the region: the Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage and St. Joseph. Uncovering this wine route is nothing short of spectacular with its epic views, winery visits and quality plonk.
Beyond the vineyards, both these towns are great places to visit. You can relax and take a boat trip along the river from Tain L’Hermitage. Or wander the embankments for great riverside views. I hiked up to the watchtowers above Tournon for spectacular panoramas of the surrounding vineyards and Rhône River meandering below before admiring the Marc Seguin footbridge. Don’t miss a visit to the historic centre and Chapel Hermitage for some unique cultural heritage.
A week is ample time to unearth the best parts of this rural journey. After three nights in the north, I headed to the southern part of the Côtes du Rhône, following the Rhône River to the incredible hilltop villages of Seguret and Sablet. Elevated above the vineyards, Seguret is classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Inside the old town you will find characterful cobbled streets, historical stone houses and a traditional stone archway and a charming bell tower.
Nearby Sablet is the jewel in the crown. Breath-taking picture postcard views await, framed by vineyards and the magnificent Dentelles de Montmirail mountains beyond. This rocky outcrop is a geological masterpiece, eroded by time to form the chiselled mountains that span 8 kilometres. These mountains are a paradise for nature lovers. The scenic beauty is best explored on foot, by mountain bike or rock climbing. You will be rewarded with spectacular views over of a seemingly infinite sea of vineyards and forests.
For more places like this, visit nearby Vaison-la-Romaine with its Roman ruins and old town or the highly esteemed architectural delights and Roman monuments at Orange.
The last historic place I recommend visiting in the southern Rhône Valley is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It’s nestled between the historic towns of Avignon and Orange. Famous for its powerful, full-bodied red wine the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape offers great cellars or wine shops seemingly every few metres. It’s the perfect place for a wine tasting. It is simply the best place to source true and original tasting, top quality wines along the southern Rhône River. Visiting the winding lanes, medieval tower and Place de la Fontaine with its outdoor cafés and restaurants is equally sublime.
Gorges de l’Ardeche
Don’t miss the scenic Gorges of the Ardeche. It’s a visual feast of winding gorges and the snaking Ardeche river, a tributary of the Rhône. It zigzags for 29 kilometres and is peppered with scenic twists and turns as you drive along the canyon’s rim. You’ll definitely feel compelled to stop for the jaw-droppingly spectacular views of the limestone Gorges at every corner. If you’re feeling energetic, take to the waters and canoe beneath the impressive natural stone bridge Pont d’Arc for close-up views.
Wherever you decide to drive along this enchanting route, take your time, savour the views, sip the wine and simply enjoy the spectacular journey…
Jeremy Flint is an award-winning professional photographer and writer specialising in travel, landscape and location photography. His work is published extensively in National Geographic Traveller Lonely Planet and Country Life amongst others. He is a five-time finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year, Association of Photographers Discovery Award Winner and National Geographic Traveller Grand Prize Winner.
This article was first published in The Good Life France Magazine
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