When you travel north by boat up the wide, calm Rhône River, you are following the route of the ancient Romans and so tracing the lifeline of French wine. Julius Caesar’s army brought wine with them, lots of it, because who wants to subdue barbarians without a little liquid courage? Then the conquerors settled and began making their own. Their vines arrived via the Rhône, too, albeit at a time when the river had no dams—those vines would have had a much wetter and bumpier ride than my own glide from Avignon to Lyon aboard the Viking Buri on the eight-day Lyon & Provence itinerary. Unlike the Romans, I had the good fortune of sleeping in a cleverly constructed stateroom, complete with a balcony from which to admire the changing landscape and time-bleached cities along the banks.
There is so much variety in the appellations along the Rhône. As we moved north, the broad, stony landscape sprouted galets roulés, the oversize, root-warming stones that cover the soil in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and across the river in Lirac. Then the shoreline hardened and heaved higher, until we reached the vertiginous granite terraces of Hermitage and, eventually, the steep schists of Côte Rôtie. The wines altered with the view, the reds shifting from rounded, generous, Grenache-based blends to inky Syrahs, powerful and linear as an iron pole.
On board, the rooftop sundeck, with its loungers and mini golf, had to close in transit: the Rhône bridges arc low as if they, too, want to avoid the famously chill northwesterly mistral wind that swoops down on the southern vineyards. (The exception is Avignon’s famous old bridge, the Pont Saint-Bénézet, which stops abruptly, its span cut short halfway across the river. That, we just drifted round.)
We moored beside Avignon’s pale, gracefully crenellated 14th-century walls, built by the medieval popes who set up home here after fleeing Rome. Why here? My suspicion is that, because the tradition of exporting Rhône wine had outlasted the Romans, Their Holinesses were already very fond indeed of what would come to be called Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
That evening, we ignored the excellent onboard wine list and handed round bottles from our day of independent tasting in Tavel. This exclusively rosé appellation was the great gastronomic writer A.J. Liebling’s favorite wine when young, broke, and living in France. The wine’s reputation has sunk, though, which is unfair. This is no pallid Provençal flower but a serious, chewy, raspberry-colored food wine that works beautifully with tomatoes and charcuterie. Soon, the Illinois couple at our table were googling Tavel purveyors in the Midwest.
We skipped the group activities to take a few other independent tasting jaunts as well. Ambre Delorme, 27, talkative and smart, has run Domaine de la Mordorée with her mother, making exceptional wines (particularly their two acclaimed Châteauneuf-du-Papes) since her father’s unexpected death in 2015 at age 52. Algerian-born Marine Roussel became a graphic designer but discovered that she “needed her roots” and now makes biodynamic wines on a shoestring at Domaine du Joncier, where she indulges her obsession with Mourvèdre.
In contrast, Le Grand Prébois, which we visited with a group from the cruise, is just one of the Perrin family’s many estates. The Perrins make Château de Beaucastel, a top Châteauneuf, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s rosé, Miraval, among many others. Sylvain, Prébois’ charming winemaker, led us around the winery, the gorgeous vaulted barrel room, and the shop. After a tasting, we paused at the original Châteauneuf-du-Pape: a papal palace, now a scenic hilltop ruin.
Back on board, we slipped by Saint-Péray, where vine roots sink happily into a cool plateau of centuries-old sediment. Like Tavel rosés, Saint-Péray sparkling wines have lost their cachet, but the best (try Les Bulles d’Alain by Alain Voge) are dry, fresh, and full of peach blossom. Beyond Cornas, we halted at Tournon-sur-Rhône and hiked up the famous hill of Hermitage, with its little chapel among the rows of gnarled Syrah vines that guide the eye down toward the valley. Refreshment came in tasting glasses at the Cave de Tain, one of France’s best wine cooperatives, and in rich little lozenges of the famous chocolate at Valrhona.
One final indulgence: lunch at Le Garet, a traditional bouchon Lyonnais. Our meal included calf’s head and the biggest, tenderest white asparagus of my life, washed down with simple Côtes du Rhône. Lyon, an important city in Roman Gaul, is still France’s wine hub, with highways west to Bordeaux and north to Beaujolais and Burgundy. But why go farther? To the south, the country’s first true road rippled gently, enticingly, back toward all the other Rhône wines we’d missed on the way up.
Get On Board
Viking’s Lyon & Provence eight-day itinerary from Avignon to Lyon (or vice versa) starts from $2,199 per person, based on double occupancy. All meals and some shore excursions are included; flights from the U.S. to France are not included. The Silver Spirits package is highly recommended and includes nearly all drinks beyond the complimentary wine and beer. (vikingcruises.com)
Where To Drink & Shop
If you take the Arles shore excursion, jump in a cab to Vins Fins de la Crau (12 place Dr. J. Bagnaninchi, Saint-Martin-de- Crau), a wine shop run by Mike and Liz Berry (Liz is a Master of Wine). The couple opened La Vigneronne, one of the first independents to source really interesting, unusual wines in London, back in the 1990s, and they’re still doing exactly that, just a little closer to the source.
The Viking Buri moors by Lyon’s Pont de l’Université. From there, it’s a 25-minute stroll through Old Lyon to Le Garet (see “Where to Eat,” at right), or a 20-minute walk across the Saône to Antic Wine (18 rue du Boeuf, Lyon), where Georges Dos Santos presides over an absolutely incredible stash of bottles—some cheap, some top-notch, and some very, very large (he is fond of jeroboams).
At the lovely Domaine de la Mordorée (50 Chemin des Oliviers, Tavel), run by Ambre Delorme and her mother Madeleine, the wines—from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac, and Tavel—are all given different nicknames for the woodcock. There’s a sunny tasting room, and you can cycle through the vineyards on elec- tric bikes (book in advance).
Domaine du Joncier (5 rue de la Combe, Tavel) is run by Marine Roussel, a curly- haired Mourvèdre fancier who was born in Algeria. She and her husband economically produce biodynamic wines; an appointment for tasting is essential. But the wines are lovely, particularly the Mourvèdre-heavy Les Muses.
Cave de Tain (22 route de Larnage, Tain-l’Hermitage) is one of France’s best wine cooperatives, with wines that range from bargain bottles up to first-class Hermitage, and there’s always a wide range open to taste.
Le Grand Prébois (3333 route de Jonquières, Orange) wel- comes visitors by appointment only, but the tour, short film, and tasting are worth the visit. Owned by the Perrin family, the tasting room here offers older vintages of many of their wines, unlike the Perrin shop in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Where To Eat
It would be a crime to visit Lyon without eating in a bouchon Lyonnais, the meat-loving local bistros where, according to the sign outside Le Garet (7 rue du Garet, Lyon), the owner, not the customer, is the one who’s always right. This fabulous wood-lined nook, over a century old, serves calf’s head and pigs’ feet (as well as less challenging dishes) and good, cheap local wine. You may have to share a table; you certainly need to book.
The walk up the famous hill of Hermitage isn’t hugely taxing, but that’s no reason not to have a nice lunch afterwards. There are two excellent options: First, Le Mangevins (7 rue des Herbes, Tain-l’Hermitage), a favorite of local winemakers. The wine list is amazing, and the Mediterranean food excellent. Or cross the bridge to Tournon and try Assemblage (56 avenue Maréchal Foch, Tournon-sur-Rhône), which serves fresh produce with a few exotic touches in a relaxed vibe that reflects the chef’s many years spent in Argentina.
La Mirande (4 place de l’Amirande, Avignon), an 18th-century townhouse right next door to the Popes’ Palace, is now a beautiful little hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant that makes great use of the bountiful southern produce; it also has a beautiful garden and an excellent wine list.