Traveling in the Rhône: World-Class Wines, Romance, and Medieval Teasures
February 7, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi
It is no secret that Montesquieu has long been enamored with the Rhône Valley, a classic destination for wine lovers boasting an abundance of charm and diversity. A journey to the Rhône offers a rich tapestry of experiences, spanning from the village of Vienne just 20 miles south of Lyon, to Avignon in Provence. It is home to some of France’s oldest vines and most interesting history which has been greatly influenced by the extensive trade and transportation on the Rhône River, dating back to Greek and Roman times.
The Rhône River has shaped the entire region and beyond, with its wares and stories meandering up and down for century upon century. It seems that the rich gastronomic influence of Lyon just to the north trickles south through the Rhône, imparting luxury and finesse as it flows, and in turn the relaxed, sunny demeanor of Provence has made its way north adding a rustic and approachable ambiance to yield a very pleasant balance of refinement and warmth all throughout the valley.
The wines of the Rhône are as diverse as you can imagine—with the north and the south being worlds apart with respect to their climate, soil and topography, as well as the use of the varietals that make up their various wines. These contrasts are great fun, and are not limited to just those between north and south, but within the regions as well. Compare a 100% Syrah from Hermitage or Côte Rôtie with the blends from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Or a 100% Viognier from Condrieu or Château-Grillet next to the white blends of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or 100% Marsanne from Hermitage. The varations seem endless and the wines are truly fascinating!
Without a doubt the best way to get to know these wines is to travel and experience first-hand the local ambiance with the huge cast of characters this vibrant region offers. There is so much to enjoy in addition to the many glorious wines. You will find historical sites including medieval fortresses and churches, ancient Roman ruins, painted prehistoric caves, and the like. You will find fantastic local lavender, honey, almonds, cheeses, olives, silk, carpets, ceramics and more.
A wonderful and lesser-known way to enjoy both the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône, and have easy access to either area, is to stay a bit off the beaten track. Many travelers pass right through the middle Rhône port city of Montélimar, the capital of the Drôme-Provençale département, on their way either north or south through the valley. However just east of Montélimar, nestled in the Jabron Valley, is the stunning Le-Poet Laval, one of France’s best kept secrets.
Le-Poet Laval is a restored fortress, a medieval village built in the 13th century for the Knights of Malta and is one of France’s most beautiful villages, a distinction given by the “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”, an organization founded in 1982 to acknowledge villages that have sites where the country’s heritage has been preserved, providing havens of culture and architectural treasures. You won’t need any of this information to know you have encountered something truly special, it will simply take your breath away!
Perched high on a hill, the village has sweeping panoramic views of the lavender fields, almond orchards, and farms with horses and cows below. Constructed in the 13th Century, it feels like stepping back in time as you navigate a maze of alleys, stairs and terraces made of medieval stone. This walking village has been lovingly restored, and has a lovely hotel, B & B, cafe, museum and bookstore.
Les Hospitaliers is a fanatastic hotel with an excellent restaurant and charming décor—colorful Persian carpets warm up the stark, yet elegant stone walls, and there are warm wood furnishings, many of them antiques, everywhere. There is a lovely pool with a stunning view, and the staff is gracious and accommodating to top it off. This is a gem in the heart of the Rhône, and is a truly rewarding way to experience all the valley has to offer. The art of living is alive and well here!