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Travel to the Southern Rhone Valley for the Finest Wining and Dining

David Zivan | November 5, 2019 | Lifestyle National

The medieval village of Avignon offers a gorgeous home base for exploring the glories of the southern Rhone Valley.

So-called pebbles cover the ground in the La Crau vineyard of Château de Nalys in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region.

Wine has been part of the church from the very start. Nowhere is the bond more evident than in Avignon, a walled city where wine and religion and worldly pleasures commingle to beautiful effect. In 1316, Pope Jean XXII was elected at the ripe age of 72 after the cardinals could not agree on a candidate. “They thought, ‘OK, let’s elect an old guy—he won’t last very long,’” says Laurence Amalou, a private tour guide who hails from Paris, but now resides in southeast France. “It turned out he reigned for 18 years. And the cardinals came, and many settled in Avignon.” Indeed, the place grew rapidly. Pope Jean had a castle built—Châteauneuf-du-Pape, now a crumbling edifice, for which the region’s exquisite wines are named—and, equally significant, ordered churches in the region to plant vineyards.

The imposing Palais des Papes reigns over the center of Avignon, a storybook town on the Rhône river.

Avignon remains a picture-postcard town—a bucket-list destination with angled cobblestone streets, swank shopping and excellent dining surrounding an imposing papal palais. Portraits of the nine popes who ran the church through the 14th century are everywhere (though two of them have long been considered illegitimate). The Pont d’Avignon itself (nearly anyone who took a semester of French will be unable to erase the children’s song from their memory) stretches halfway across the Rhône river as it heads toward the Mediterranean Sea and, impressive though the ruin is, it’s hard to imagine anyone dancing on it. Overall, this extraordinary little city provides a perfect base from which oenotourists can dive deeper into the lush wines and scenery of the region.

The exquisite cuisine at La Mirande, just steps from the palais, is local, seasonal and beautifully presented.

It will likely come as no surprise that things do not move quickly in an appellation that has been producing some of the finest wines in the world for 700 years. Properties stay in the same hands for generations—changing only, perhaps, their proprietary blend of the 13 grape varietals allowed in the wines. But one recent transaction did make news—the 2017 acquisition of Château de Nalys, a sizable winery in the heart of Châteauneuf-du-Pape by the E. Guigal company, titans of Rhône Valley winemaking. “Like every person professionally involved in the Rhône, we knew Nalys—and the property was not interesting for us at all,” says Philippe Guigal, current head of the company and grandson of Etienne, who founded the winery after World War II. “We knew the wines. And I don’t want to sound rude, but I have never been in love with them. The reputation was that the whites were good—sometimes very good—and the reds were average.”

Nalys had been in the same family from the 1500s until the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century; it then sold to another local family; seven generations went by. For much of the 20th century, the winery hobbled along, producing what wine critic Robert Parker once called “picnic wine.” So when Philippe and his father, Marcel, were invited to take a look, they weren’t expecting much.

“We went to the cellars and found the historical part very interesting—an 18th century beautiful building. The vinification facilities, the technical part, left something to be desired,” Philipe says. “But what I saw in the vineyards—I didn’t sleep for a week. They have one of the very best terroirs in Châteauneuf-du-Pape! Their part of La Crau, with the pebbles, is the best part.”

“Pebbles” is the charming French term for the smooth stones, some as big as your head, which overlay many of the finest vineyards of the region. Remnants of a prehistoric riverbend, the sight is jaw-dropping. Their effect is land retention and forced struggle for the vines; many oenophiles, experts and amateurs alike, also believe that the daytime heating of the stones creates a microclimate that warms the fruit during cool nights, protecting it from drastic temperature change.

All of that, plus the resources and expertise of the Guigal operation, have already paid off in the wines: The flagship red for 2016, Grand Vin de Châteauneuf-du-Pape, scored a 95 in Wine Advocate, a leading publication. “It’s full-bodied and velvety,” wrote the critic, “offering hints of vanilla and sandalwood, but there also are layers of dark cherry fruit. Subtle notes of cinnamon, clove and allspice add interest to the long, silky finish. It’s an auspicious debut for the Guigal team.”

The Nalys visiting center and tasting room, a contemporary building with Provençal influence, sits on a long low slope, amid vineyards showing off all the possible varietals in the blend. Self- and guided tours are available and offer a glimpse of the small Nalys museum with antique winemaking equipment—a pleasant look at the past in a place with a bright future.

A chambre in Avignon’s Hotel d’Europe, steps away from the Rhône

The Hotel d’Europe ($280 to $1,250) in Avignon sits on a small square just inside the ancient wall, essentially across the street from the Rhône. The main building was constructed as a home for the Marquis de Graveson in 1580; the hotel opened in 1799 and, they say, was named by Napoleon. Inside the gate, a charming garden leads to the reception area and to an old-school elegance all too rare today. The property appeared in the first Michelin Guide in 1900 and has never fallen off the list. No wonder Picasso, Dalí and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis have all stayed here, along with numerous heads of state.

A courtyard at the La Mirande hotel

Many of the rooms and suites offer glancing views of the top levels of the papal palace, and a stroll in any direction features picturesque boutiques and cafes. For dinner, walk toward the ancient edifice until you come to La Mirande, a restaurant offering a suitably grand dining experience. Chef Florent Pietravalle oversees the seven-course tasting menu ($120), which will typically begin with caviar and make its way through turbot, pigeon and aged beef—each dish a more dazzling, high-nouvelle construction than the one before. In addition—quelle surprise!—the place has an encyclopedic wine list, filled with numerous treasures, such as a ’61 Haut Brion from Bordeaux—the other side of the country.

But why not stay close? The best values on the list come from up and down the Rhône Valley. And pairing the local cuisine with the local wine, it turns out, is just heavenly.

Photography by: from top: jenny gorman; Empreinte D’Ailleurs; la mirande; hotel d’europe; folliver