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The hunt begins
Having left the autoroute, follow the signs for Carpentras and Nyons through the outskirts of Bollène. (The final ’s’ is usually pronounced in Provençal place names - Nyons is ’knee-ongss’, with a soft ’s’ rather than a ’z’.) At the point where you have to give way at a T-junction, turn left. After ja little more than a mile fork right onto the D8 for Carpentras. You will need large-scale maps to make the best of this area - I recommend the excellent Série Verte 1:100,000 maps produced by the Institut Géographique National (IGN) for navigating the smaller roads. Sheets 59 (Privas - Alès) and 60 (Cavaillon - Digne-les-Bains) cover the villages we’ll be visiting.
Now you can relax a little after the rush down the motorway. Slow down and enjoy the scenery. The most prominent feature is vines - thousands of acres of them, forming an ocean of green at the height of the growing season. One simple rule governs life here: if a piece of ground will grow decent wine grapes, that’s what you plant.
The next most prominent feature is the forest of signs put up by wine-producers to entice you into their caves de dégustation . You need a bit of vocabulary at this point: dégustation is tasting, vente means sale, en détail means retail and en gros means wholesale.
Most importantly for us, en vrac means ’in bulk’.
It would be so easy to fill your car with wine within five kilometres of Bollène, but please resist the temptation! Drive on along the D8. This will take you to the little village of Rochegude, the first one you reach that has the coveted Côtes-du-Rhône Villages appellation - they are all shown in red on the map.
France has very stringent regulations about what a producer may call his or her wine. The appellation contrôlée system doesn’t guarantee wonderful wines, but it should guarantee sound ones, because for a given appellation it dictates more-or-less precisely (the more and the less depend on how grand the appellation is - to make a serious wine you have to follow some serious rules) which varieties of grapes must be grown, where they must be grown, how many litres of wine may be produced from a given acreage of land, how the wine must be made, and how much alcohol it must contain...
The Côtes-du-Rhône appellation covers a vast area, from north of Vienne to south of Arles, and sets the standard for the basic wines of the region. Within a quite small area straddling the Southern Rhône - an area you are now fortunate enough to have entered - are the 16 villages (shown in red on the map) which have earned the much more stringent Côtes-du-Rhône Villages appellation . You can buy ’generic’ CDR Villages, which contain grapes from two or more of the designated communes , but each appends its own name to the appellation only for wines produced entirely within its own boundaries. A producer in Rochegude may produce Côtes-du-Rhône, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Rochegude, as well as the less demanding Vins de Pays and the totally undemanding Vins de Table .
Having said all this, one producer’s Vin de Pays might be better - and could be more expensive - than another’s CDR Villages, so the ultimate guide is your palate. That makes dégustation very important indeed.
On the road again
I’ve never bought wine in Rochegude, so we’ll move on to the next, larger village: Sainte-Cécile-les-Vignes (St Cecily of the Vines). I haven’t stopped here either, but I have bought a white and a rosé bottled at the cave co-opérative from a supermarket. They were inexpensive, unusual and very good, and I intend to stop there for a tasting as soon as I can.
These are the easiest places for newcomers to start. You’ll find one in more-or-less every village where wine is made, and although the wines won’t be the best they should be reliable and typical of the village. This is where all the smaller growers, who don’t make their own wines, bring their grapes to be pooled and vinified in large batches, levelling out any variations in quality to a good average.
The caves are hard to miss because they are called things like Cave des Vignerons and are usually quite impressive, designed to reflect prestige on the villages.
In a co-op, you can taste the wines, buy them in bottle and also purchase new plastic 5- and 10-litre containers - then have them filled from what look suspiciously like petrol-pump nozzles (except that they have long pipes that reach to the bottom of your container to limit the amount of air mixed with the wine). Most of these co-ops accept a range of credit cards, as do most individual producers, even those with truly mediaeval premises.
From Ste-Cécile, follow the D8 to Cairanne, the second of our CDR Villages.
In the little square on the main road, you’ll find an joint venture by two of the village’s most eminent winemakers - La Petite Maison de la Vigneronne . Note la Vigneronne - not le Vigneron . The owners are Monsieur Marcel Richaud and Madame Corinne Couturier, and Madame is l a Vigneronne . She is generally rated as one of the very best winemakers in the area. You can taste and buy at La Petite Maison . Don’t miss Mme Couturier’s wines!
Finding the producers
Once you’ve bought at a co-op and La Petite Maison , you should be ready to visit the producers themselves.
To find the domaines , look for discreet brown-and-white signs - you’ll find them on every road junction around here. You can also visit the local Office du Tourisme (or Syndicat d’Initiative), where you should find a map that shows the locations of the wine estates.
Producers’ premises vary enormously. Some have neat car parks and nice little bars into which you walk just as you would into a café, while others present you with a yard lined with closed doors, leaving you wondering how to get hold of anyone at all - after all, the main business here is making and shipping wine, not selling it en détail . But you should find a door with asign on it or a bell. If you don’t, you can wander around a bit, scuff your feet in any available gravel, cough loudly, shout ’Bonjour!’, get back in your car and re-park it, revving the engine excessively…use your initiative. Someone will eventually appear - normalement .
Wherever you see this magic word, you are being invited to taste the wine. Don’t feel uncomfortable asking - if they didn’t want you to do this, they wouldn’t put the signs up.
Be polite. Smile and say ’ Bonjour, madame/monsieur ’ to staff and customers alike. Then ask to taste all the wines which are sold en vrac : ’ Je voudrai goûter le Cairanne/Rasteau/Côtes du Rhône en vrac, s’il vous plaît. ’ (or words to that effect, depending on the fluency of your French).
I can’t teach you how to taste wine. There are many experts far more competent than I am to guide you in this serious business: read Jancis Robinson’s books, or watch people like Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke on TV - they do know what they’re talking about, in spite of their antics.
At present your task is simple: to identify wines you will enjoy.
Remember that wines sold en vrac are the latest year’s output, so even on a summer holiday they’re usually only about nine months old. The big wines of Provence improve enormously with even a few months in bottle, and the better ones need a year or two before they even start tasting mature. So don’t expect the swigs you have in the cave de dégustation to taste like something you’ve bought in a bottle for serious money.
What you are looking for first and foremost is balance - between sweetness (even the driest wines contain non-fermentable fruit sugars), acid, fruit, body and tannin. The component that changes most with maturity is the astringency of the tannins, particularly in red wines, so expect new ones to taste rather harsh.
Of course you can be sneaky and ask to taste the same wine sold in bottle, a year or two older. You should find these a lot smoother, and begin to detect complex mixtures of subtle aromas.
Do a lot of tasting in the early stages - which will be a real hardship!. Go to a number of domaines and caves co-operatives to educate your palate. You’ll be tasting comparatively rather than absolutely : this wine is fruitier and less astringent than that wine.
But be warned! Vaucluse winemakers are dangerously generous with their ’tastes’. If you’re driving, be careful - and don’t be ashamed to tip some of the wine away with a regretful shrug, saying something like ’ C’est dommage, mais je dois conduire! ’.
Having tasted, please buy something - unless you genuinely don’t like any of the wines. In the unlikely event that you decide not to take ten or twenty litres in bulk, at least have a bottle or two. In the more likely event, ask for ’ un cubi d’onze(11)/vingt-deux(22) litres ’ or ’ Un vrac de cinq(5)/dix(10) litres ’.
The French value courtesy and have time for people. As well as being a real pleasure, chatting with the people you buy from can bring surprising benefits. When a friend and visited I a favourite domaine without our wives, we explained that we were retired but they were still working. As we were loading our considerable purchases into the car, Madame came running across the yard with a complimentary bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône red ’pour les dames’!
The CDR Villages tour
This region is a delightful one for aimless wandering, with many village bars, cafés, patisseries, charcuteries and - above all - markets to distract you. If you have time, use it to immerse yourself in the atmosphere. If not, here is a fast track round a good sample of the important wine villages, with some recommended stops for wine.
From Cairanne, bear right for Vacqueyras and look for le Domaine la Fourmone just before you get to the village, le Domaine du Couroulou right in the centre, and le Domaine la Garrigue.
Then drive on to Beaumes-de-Venise and visit the cave co-opérative for the famous Muscat - one of the world’s great dessert wines. Don’t ignore the view of l es Dentelles de Montmirail , the jagged range of limestone crags on your left.
Next, visit Caromb, home-from-home for me, stopping at le Domaine Chaumard on your way into the village.
Now head north through Malaucène towards Vaison-la-Romaine (an old Roman town with a superb market on Tuesday mornings). Bear left at Vaison to take in Roaix and St-Maurice-sur-Eygues (both with highly-rated wine co-ops) and follow the D94 towards Nyons. As you approach the improbably-named Vinsobres (sober wines!) watch out for the Domaine du Coriançon on your right - excellent low-priced Côtes-du-Rhône red and rosé en vrac.
Find your way back to Vaison and take the D977 and the D88 to Séguret and Sablet. From here, head for Gigondas - one of the original four CDR Villages but now, like Vacqueyras, with its own prestige appellation. Try the Domaine le Clos des Cazaux , the Domaine les Goubert and the Domaine des Pallières . If you can manage it, visit the superb Hôtel les Florets on the road from Gigondas into the Dentelles hills. This is owned by the Bernard family, who also have the Domaine la Garrigue in Vacqueyras. Fit in a meal on their terrace if you possibly can - there’s no better way to experience the wines of the region.
From Gigondas return to the D8 and Rasteau for the co-op and the Domaine de la Soumade for vin doux naturel, the other great local sweet wine. The D69 runs straight from Rasteau back to Cairanne to complete this rather rushed circular tour.
Now you’ve got an overview, you can read about our visits to some of the domaines, where you can meet the people who make the wines.
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.