I woke up this morning wondering what I might do to enliven this umpteenth day of social isolation when days and dates seem irrelevant. Then it hit me: six months ago I was pivoting from a two-week tour of German wine regions to a 10-day exploration of southern France from Lyon to Avignon! With a smile on my face, my heart skipped a beat of joyful anticipation to write about that adventure.
You might wonder, as did I in my half-awake state, why did it take me six months to get to this story? Well, life got in the way. But today there was nothing to stop the flow of words except a cup of coffee, a short walk to my computer, and an even shorter reach to my pack of notes.
For the moment, international travel is barely possible, and surely not wise unless essential. But we can dream. So when it’s time to hit the airways again, I highly recommend your own version of my fantastic trip to explore highlights of France’s Rhône Valley (with a side of Beaujolais).
First Stop: Lyon, the Food Capital of France
Location, location, location. Lyon is surrounded by exceptional food offerings available in bouchon restaurants serving traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, the gorgeous food stands and delicious restaurants in Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse, regular farmers markets such as Saint Antoine and Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse, and many outstanding restaurants.
Lyonnaise specialties include quenelles (an egg-shaped mixture of fish, usually pike, served in a cream sauce), chickens and blue cheese from nearby Bresse, salad Lyonnaise (it’s all about the bacon and egg), many varieties of sausages, native cheeses, and pralines. And that’s just the beginning!
Lyon lies at the mid-point between the Beaujolais wine region (to the north) and the city of Vienne (to the south) where the Northern Rhône Valley begins to unfold. It is an easy drive to reach both regions, about 30 minutes in either direction, for travelers using Lyon as home base. To explore these wine regions you will need to rent a car at the Lyon Part Dieux train station, hire a driver, or join a group tour.
Shopping musts in central Lyon are the Vieux Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the streets that surround Place Bellecour. Both are fantastic walking experiences as well, especially the secret passageways of Vieux Lyon. Keep an eye out for silk, one of Lyon’s traditional crafts.
Keeping in mind that there are so many restaurant options in Lyon, I will mention our trip favorites (in addition to Les Halles de Lyon):
- Chef Paul Bocuse is a culinary legend in France. (M. Bocuse died two years ago at the age of 91.) His eponymous flagship restaurant in Auberge du Pont de Collonges has enjoyed three Michelin stars since 1965. This year, on 20 January, the restaurant lost one star. Even so, it’s worth the bankroll required for the experience.
- Daniel et Denise is a classic bouchon restaurant with three locations throughout Lyon. We loved the vibe created by checkered tablecloths set on wooden tables (and the food prepared by Chef Joseph Viola, a 2004 chef of the year) at the Croix-Rousse location.
- Part of the Bocuse Group of restaurants, Brasserie Le Sud looks out on Place Bellecour. Mediterranean influences shine, and olive oil takes over for butter. Even with plenty of outdoor and indoor seating, it is tough to get a table, so reservations are required.
Where to stay: centrally located at Place Bellecour, the boutique Hôtel Le Royal Lyon is charming.
A Day Trip to Beaujolais
Relatively small and easily navigable by car, Beaujolais is possible to experience in a day with some advance route planning (and ideally a few winery reservations). There are 10 prestigious cru prestigious appellations clustered in the northern two-thirds of the region, so of course you cannot visit all of them in a day. But driving routes are well mapped and marked along the Beaujolais Wine Route.
Our premier destination on this trip was Château Thivin located in the Côte du Brouilly cru. Owned by six generations of the Geoffray family since 1877, it is the oldest wine-growing estate in Mont-Brouilly. Today gens five and six (Claude Vincent and Claude Edouard, respectively) and their spouses manage the vineyards and winery.
Please don’t laugh. We were treated to Beaujolais Nouveau that had just been bottled the previous day (24 October). Seriously, it was delicious, fresh, and alive on a sunny fall day. And if you’ve never tasted Beaujolais Blanc, or perhaps didn’t know that a white wine is produced in Beaujolais, run-don’t-walk to your nearest specialty wine shop and give this a try. In the United States, Ch. Thivin is represented by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant.
Northern Rhône, Spiritual Home of Syrah
The town of Tain l’Hermitage is definitely the best home base for a visit to the Northern Rhône, especially if you love chocolate! The Cité du Chocolat Valhrona is a museum devoted to every type and style of chocolate imaginable, complete with tasting and buying opportunities. It is a short walk from the town’s preferred hotel (and spa), Fac & Spera. Also within walking distance of the hotel are several wine tasting opportunities including tasting rooms for M. Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet, and the must-see co-operative Cave de Tain (which is one of the best in France).
We were disappointed that it was not possible for tourists to make an appointment to visit the prestigious J. L. Chave winery in nearby Mauves, but we bravely (brazenly?) showed up at the winery door. We were greeted kindly by 16th generation Jean-Louis Chave’s American wife, Erin. She chatted amiably with us on a very busy harvest day, but despite our persistence could not invite us into the winery. At her suggestion, we added Delas Frères to our plan to visit E. Guigal later that day.
The story of Delas Frères is a bit unusual for the Northern Rhône. The Delas winery was founded in 1835 — a familiar story — but in 1977 was purchased by Deutz Champagne. In 1993 the company was purchased by the majority owner of the Roederer Group. In 2015, Delas bought land in Tain l’Hermitage to build a commercial tasting room. Consumers can purchase (or order for shipping) Deutz Champagne and more than 20 selections from Delas’ vineyard holdings across multiple appellations in Northern and Southern Rhône. It was an unexpected, and very interesting, experience.
E. Guigal, located in the town of Ampuis within the Côte-Rôtie (“roasted slope”) appellation, is a big brand name. Relatively young (est. 1946), Guigal has expanded throughout the Northern Rhône by purchasing exceptional vineyards. A tasting of eight Guigal wines, four white and four red, included:
- two Viogniers from Condrieu,
- a pair of Marsanne/Roussane blends from Hermitage,
- Vignes de l’Hospice 100% Syrah from Saint-Joseph, and
- three styles from Côte-Rôtie (Brune et Blonde, Château d’Ampuis, and La Turque) each made with the classic recipe of <10% Viognier added to soften the Syrah.
Although off-season dining options in Tain are limited in late October, during our stay we enjoyed two lovely restaurants, both highly recommended: La Quai Restaurant, overlooking the Rhône River, and Le Mangevins, a cozy little chef-owned restaurant offering a seasonal specialty three-course meal (no website, location Rue des Herbes, 26660).
Southern Rhône: Sunshine and Grenache/ Syrah/ Mourvedre (GSM) Blends
Driving through the southern Côtes du Rhône on our way to Avignon, we stopped in to visit Domaine de Mourchon near the village of Séguret. Charming owner Walter McKinlay, who hails from Scotland, purchased the 20-hectare property with his wife in 1998 as a retirement project. And quite a project it was: there were only vines, no winemaking facilities or buildings. Some two decades and 12 additional hectares later, Mourchon is gaining recognition, including for its Côtes du Rhône Village which was #52 on Wine Spectator’s 2017 list of Top 100 Wines.
A trip to the Southern Rhône would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Our all-star lineup included:
- Domaine de Vieux Télégraphe run by the Brunier family since 1891;
- Chateau La Nerthe, producing fine wine for five centuries (with multiple family owners);
- Domaine du Pegau, owned by the Feraud family since the 1700s and currently managed by Mme. Laurence Feraud;
- the tasting room of Famille Perrin located on the Place du Portail in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (reservations were not available at the family’s flagship Château de Beaucastel property); and
- Château de Nalys, recently purchased by E. Guigal in 2017 to expand its holdings into the Southern Rhône.
The walled city of Avignon is the capital of the Côtes du Rhône and an important cultural tourism destination. So even if you aren’t a fan of the wine, don’t miss opportunities to explore, learn, shop, and eat in Avignon. Self-guided or hosted tours of the Palais des Papes (Pope’s Palace), the Saint Bénézet Bridge which once crossed the full width of the Rhône River, and the ramparts that ring the city are a must.
There are many hotels in Avignon catering to large groups of tourists. For a very special hotel and dining experience, I recommend the five-star boutique Hôtel La Mirande and its “gastronomic” restaurant. For a unique international dining experience hosted by the restaurant’s sous chefs in the hotel’s wine cellar, try the Guest Table. You won’t be disappointed.