The Northern Rhône: July 2018

Monday morning, after a stunning breakfast – the fig and orange jams replacing the jam trap as the wasps’ preferred destination – we had time to explore the steep slopes of the Côte Rôtie on the back roads between Condrieu and Ampuis

followed by a stroll down to the river and the local landing stage next to Ampuis’ château.

After eating an artisan ( in the traditional sense – this is not London!) lunch in Viens Manger by the river at Verin we headed up to the plateau above to Maleval to taste at Pierre Gaillard.

Our next appointment was at Stéphane Ogier where we hosted by a young and very accomplished Hungarian along with a french sommelier from Bordeaux and his two travelling companions. Her French and English were equally assured, as she made connections for us between the wines we were tasting and the various geological distinctions of the slopes of Côte Rôtie. She – and we – were helped by the detailed maps and photos which were built into the tasting counter. And of course, the wines and the views were impeccable.

From the Côte Rôtie  we turned south and followed the old road along the right (ie west) bank past Ampuis, Condrieu and on through one after another of sleepy traditional towns left in peace now the motorway siphons off most of the south-bound traffic. We reached Tournon by six, in time quickly to collect the key from the hotel Les Armandiers and to reach Coursodon, who has a modest plot in the vineyards on the hill of St Joseph. Our delightful and informative host, Jérôme Coursodon refers to this hill (below) as the ‘cradle’ of the very long and drawn out St Joseph appellation, which stretches for 65km along the western slopes of the Rhône valley from just south of Condrieu to Châteauberg just to the north of Cornas.

Both Jérôme and David were keen to watch the world cup semi-final between France and Belgium so we raced back to Les Armandiers in Tournon stopping only at the supermarket to buy a salad, cheese, and grapes. I repeat – football changes values! Another picnic supper…

France won – as the blaring car horns told me shortly before ten. Our hotel dutch beer undoubtedly contributed to the celebrations. 

We spent the following morning from ten just to the south in St Peray with Sandrine Berthouze of Domaine du Tunnel, first tasting with two young and silent sommeliers in their shop in the very centre of town before she drove us in her car (whose work-grubbiness caused her some anxiety) up to their property with spectacular views of St Peray and this much flatter part of the Rhône valley, and as far as the Alps.

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Here Stéphane Robert was busy blending. We entered the new caveau constructed against the opening of the eponymous tunnel which was built as part of a chemin de fer by local industry at the end of the nineteenth century – only to be rendered immediately redundant by the arrival of motorised vehicles. It now serves as their very fine cellar… 

With our car conveniently parked on a central side road, we headed to St Peray’s impressive market before a delightful sophisticated lunch at La Ruche in the centre of town. A good if random choice, affirmed by Marie Cloche head sommelier of the local branch of Chapoutier, whose historic cellar door was a few kilometres north, through Tournon and across the Rhône in Tain.

We arrived an hour early, and entertained ourselves by car park speculations and vineyard-spotting from platform B of the local station behind which the hill of L’Ermitage rises steeply.  Later Marie took us into the vineyards, and helped us make more sense of this stunning terroir.

This view of both the vineyards and the ancient chapel they surround does not appear in the growers’ publicity. One company owns the chapel, and another owns the vineyards. Neither permits the other to use ‘their’ view. And the historic advertising painted on the walls of the vineyard terraces take some maintenance – especially when others join in….

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The tasting was equally interesting. Terrific! Thank you Marie. 

And then we leapt into the car and sped off for Châteauneuf du Pape – hoping to arrive in time for the England semi-final eight o’clock kick off against Croatia.  I was certainly hoping for something better for supper than yesterday’s hotel picnic… 

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