Southern Rhône, France

Our first wine tour in the Rhône Valley brought us to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC in Southern Rhône (located north of Avignon).

Southern Rhône, specifically Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CdP), is known for GSM wines – blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Yummy!

Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to the Pope’s new castle for those of you who are a bit edgier, the Pope’s new crib.

We pre-booked a tour directly with Provence & Wine. The booking process felt more informal than what I’m used to but Provence & Wine is a one-man show, owned and operated by a nice guy named Romain. 

I filled out a web form and the owner and guide, Romain, emailed me with a personal message. He was not available on the date we’d requested so we switched our date. Easy enough.

Romain provided two options for payment: a credit card now or cash after the tour. In the day and age of covid and travel restrictions, we opted for cash after the tour.

We met Romain near the Palais des Papes at 9:30am. Our tour group was supposed to be a group of six but the others canceled last minute and it ended up being a private tour.

Most people would hip, hip, hooray for a private tour, especially at a non-private tour price, but private tours with two guests and one guide can be uncomfortable at times. Peter and I are not particularly chatty so if the guide is not chatty, there can sometimes be uncomfortable silences. 

Luckily this was not the case with Romain. 

After a quick hello, Romain led us to his van that was parked in the parking garage under the square in front of the Palais des Papes.

Romain is a sommelier with a level 3 WSET certification. He is currently working on level 4 (the highest WSET certification) and he told us that if he understood what was involved to obtain level 4, he would have stopped at level 3 but he’s in it to win it now!

He was born in Avignon and spent most of his life in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area so he knows a thing or two about wine in the region.

Château de Vaudieu

We arrived at our first destination ~30 minutes after pulling out of the parking garage in Avignon. Romain turned down a rocky road and drove a bit further and parked the van. 

We hopped out and we were presented with a vineyard not quite like anything I’d seen before.

The soil was giant rocks, some as big as a child’s head.

The vines were short, stubby, and free-standing (no trellising).

One of the most interesting things I learned from Romain was that the vine structure tells the story of the climate of the region.

As an example, this region is flat with dry, sunny summers. Winds in this region can top 56 mph/ 90 kph and they’re so legendary, that they even have their own name, Mistral. The Mistral is a crucial element that makes wine growing in this region possible.

Due to the region’s Mistral and inherent dryness, mold and other issues that are problematic in wet/humid climates are not usually a problem here, therefore, the vines are allowed to grow close to the ground.

In fact, growers want the vines to be short to protect them from the wind. As for trellising, the vines in this region get plenty of sunshine, so there is no need for trellising, a growing method that allows vines to grow horizontally to soak up as much sunshine as possible.

Romain explained that every AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) has its own set of rules and Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the first AOC established in 1923. Today, there are more than 330 appellations in France.

Here are a few of the rules for CdP:

  • No manual watering except with special permission. Permission is difficult to obtain and if granted, watering can only occur twice and must be done before August 15th.
  • No machine harvesting, everything is done by hand.
  • Restrictions on grape varieties. Officially speaking, there are 18, however, five of the varieties are rare so 13 is more a common figure.
  • Requirements on vine density per hectare (minimum and maximum).
  • Requirements on the maximum number of liters that can be produced per hectare.
  • Requirements on the minimum alcohol content (12.5%).
  • Requirements on the minimum age of vines. Vines must be at least four years old to be included in the finished product.

We spent 15 minutes or so in the vineyard and then hopped in the van and drove further down the road to the chateau of the vineyard, Château de Vaudieu.

Romain told us that the Obamas visited this chateau a couple years ago and his statement was true, however, it was only Michelle and Malia, a few of their luckiest friends, and a 20-strong security team who visited. Barack was not present, at least not reported.

We toured the cave (aka storage room) and discussed the bottling and labeling steps of winemaking. 

Romain explained that wineries outsource bottling because the machinery required to bottle wine is too expensive to buy for a process that occurs once a year. 

When it’s bottling time, a mobile bottling company arrives at the winery with their equipment and gets to work. The process usually takes a day. When finished, the bottling company packs up its things and drives to the next winery.

Next was labeling. We noticed large metal cages with hundreds of unlabeled wine bottles in each cage and asked why they were not labeled.

Romain explained that the bottles are not labeled until the winery has received an order for the wine. Oh? Do tell.

He explained that labeling is not done as a batch process in France as it is done elsewhere (like in the US).

First, labels can get damaged whilst they live out their lazy lives in the cave. 

Second, during the labeling process, a seal (embedded in the foil protecting the cork) is stuck to the top of the bottle. The wine is not taxable until it is sealed.

If the winery were to label and seal the bottles immediately after bottling, they’d be hit with a big tax bill.

Another unique thing we noticed about CdP bottles was the crest embossed in the glass. The embossment is not a requirement for CdP bottles but many wineries have embossed bottles.

Next was the wine tasting. We walked across the “driveway” to the tasting room and tasted seven or eight wines. 

I was surprised when it was Romain who led the tasting instead of a winery person. The only other wine tastings we’d had that were possibly led by the tour guide were on our wine tour of Tuscany but it’s been so long now that I can’t remember for sure.

The tasting commenced with a white wine that, honestly, did not taste great.

Romain asked what we thought of it and we were like meh and he said we’d circle back and re-taste it at the end of the tasting. He promised the wine would taste different, better, maybe even great. 

We asked why it would taste different. He explained that the first wine of the day will always taste “off” because the pH levels in our mouths have not yet balanced to wine.

pH levels? Balanced to wine? I felt like my whole wine life had been a lie. 

He was right. The wine tasted like a different wine when we re-tasted it at the end of our tasting. Mind blown.

Now we have two wine tasting rules.

  • Take a minimum of 3 sips of wine before deciding how we feel about it
  • Be careful not to jump to judgment with the first wine of the day, even after 3 sips

Since we were flying back to the UK, we were limited with the number of bottles we could bring back (wine weighs 3-5 pounds per bottle). We bought three bottles and that’s when Romain morphed from wine tour guide into wine angel.

Start of tangent. I don’t know if I would call this a side business or side hustle but Romain offers a service where he packages and ships wine internationally. In short, we could request x bottles from winery A and x bottles from winery B and he’d purchase, pack, and ship them to us.

Alternatively, we could say “surprise us” and he’d pick out bottles he thought best matched our preferences.

The problem for us living in the UK and having the wine shipped from the EU is the tax bill. This is one of the negative impacts of Brexit.

We have been told by multiple wine people in France that shipping a case of wine to the US is roughly the same price as shipping a case to the UK which is insane. The UK is literally tethered to France via the Channel Tunnel whereas the US is veyr far away.

The reason is tax. There is no customs payable or tax on wine on either side (France/USA) when buying wine in France and shipping it to the US. So although shipping prices are higher to ship to the US, the tax savings almost fully covers the shipping cost.

It’s a different story in the UK where there is a 20 percent tax plus customs duties when the total is £135 or more (can surpass this easily with 2 bottles of CdP), not to mention lengthy border check delays and complicated customs paperwork. End of tangent.

Wine tasting and purchase complete, we got in the van for our second and final stop of the day, Domaine Pierre Usseglio.

Domaine Pierre Usseglio

Somewhat disappointedly, this visit was at a building in the village, not in a vineyard.

Peter’s first question was, “What’s the difference between Château and Domaine?”

Excellent question. The first winery we visited had Château in its name and this one had Domaine in its name. French wine is confusing.

Romain explained that a Château is a winery where its vineyards are one continuous plot of land. A Domaine is a winery where its vineyards are individual plots of land, scattered across a region. Mind blown, again.

We did an abbreviated tour of the facilities at Domaine Pierre Usseglio and then began our tasting. We tasted five or six wines, purchased two bottles, and crawled back in the van bound for Avignon. 

Romain dropped us off outside of the city walls near the Palais des Papes around 1pm. We were absolutely starving! If I had one suggestion for the tour, it would be to offer some nibbles like bread and charcuterie at the second tasting.

We paid Romain and thanked him for the tour and told him we’d be in touch about shipping wine to the US and possibly to Greece (for our trip to Crete in July).

The tour gets a 9/10 rating; a 10/10 if there had been nibbles to eat during the tour.

One tour done, two to go. 

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