The Rhone Valley is famous for its wine production and has some of the most prestigious labels. You can if you wish buy your wines from the supermarkets but it is often more fun to buy direct from the “Caves” which you will see scattered around the outskirts of the villages and towns. Often they are the biggest building in the place.
The price of bottled wine is no cheaper than in the supermarkets but if you bring your own container bargains may be available as you can buy wine as if from a petrol pump.
At first it may seem intimidating but few locals would buy their wine without tasting it first and there is no compunction to buy. You simply view the list of wines on offer and ask at the counter if you can taste some. If the Cave is part of a Cooperative there will be a larger selection than if it belongs to a single domaine. The proper form is to sample the smell of the wine, take just a sip, roll it carefully round your mouth to savour the full taste or sometimes sequence of tastes, and then spit it out into a spittoon. It is after all only choosing a drink so it needn’t be elevated to a mystical and serious ritual. Going to a cave and rapidly “tasting” a variety of wines in order to get as much as free drink as possible is considered bad manners. It is also counterproductive as most of us can no longer distinguish taste differences between wines after at the most tasting four or five.
At Gigondas, for example, the Caveau de Gigondas on the main square is very helpful and will guide your tasting, although the wines here tend towards the higher price end of the market.
Most of the red wines in the area are reliable but finding a good dry white is harder and they tend to be snapped up quickly by the locals. (Beaume de Venise has a delicious sweet white wine.) Rose wine is becoming more popular and estates are increasingly producing their own.
Do not be put off if the cave has only a tiny dark Dickensian office lit only by a bare light bulb with postcards and wine fair certificates curling and discolouring on the walls after fifty years or more.
Chateauneuf du Pape is prestigious, the Caves rather snooty and expensive (some would say, perhaps overpriced). There is often surprisingly little difference between the expensive highly reputed wines and the local less famous wines at half the price.
Lower down the ladder of prestige and generally also of quality and cost come Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise, Vinsobres, Valreas in approximately that order.
If the town you are visiting has a “Foire des Vins” this is often the best way to get an idea of the different local producers who all offer samples of their wine from street stalls around the town. In Valreas this is usually on the last Sat in Aug.
Wines from vineyards only a few hundred metres from each other can taste surprisingly different. It is well worth sampling the three estates on the left of the road as you go from Grillon into Valreas: La Deydriere, La Prevosse, and the Domain de Lumian. Buying wine at La Prevosse can have changed little over the last hundred years. On the way back if you brave the dogs you can also buy lavender oil much more cheaply than in the pricier boutiques in Grignan and Nyons. We have found that the Cellier du Templier at Richeranches gives consistently good value with its red wines. The Caves in Vinsobres, Visan, and Valreas all provide reliable inexpensive red wines.
So go to it, but beware, with some very hot summers recently grape sugar content and thus wine alcohol levels have been gradually been rising and some wines are now as strong as 15%.
If you find any caves where your welcome is especially cordial (or otherwise) or the wines especially good, please let us know!