Rhone's Magical Mistral Tour (Slideshow)

Rhone’s Magical Mistral Tour

Recently, I was guest of Inter Rhône at its Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône tastings in Vienne, Tain l'Hermitage, Mauves and — finally — the historic city of Avignon. Along the way, I was able to taste great wines and to hike through some of the world's most-famous — and most vertical — vineyards as they lay fallow awaiting bud break.

Sheep in Seysseul

It's a drizzly Friday afternoon when Côte-Rôtie winemaker Stéphane Ogier takes me to the hillside vineyards in Seyssuel, an exciting old/new area that has applied for status as Rhône's most-northern appellation. The sheep must know lamb goes beautifully with syrah.

Trek Up Côte-Rôtie

It's a beautiful Saturday in Ampuis as I begin my ascent into the vines of southeast facing Côte-Rôtie, which makes some of the most heavenly syrah wines in the world. All along the terraced vineyards of northern Rhône, famous producers proudly billboard their presence.

It Takes a Thief

An independent producer, Pascal Clusel has a few plots of vines and a small cellar. I ride with him on a harrowing hillside vineyard tour, then he takes a wine thief to sample his 2014 vintage. Clusel also is an Ampuis innkeeper, running the Domaine de les Vignes, a small hotel.

Winemaker Meets Fans

Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage winemaker Alain Graillot is one of several prominent Rhône producers who show up Monday morning for the first of four days of wine tastings in four cities. Graillot and others pour their wines while discussing business with media and trade.

After Further Review

Tasters compare notes on a white from Condrieu producers Rémi and Robert Niero.  Located next door to Côte-Rôtie in the Rhône's western hills, Condrieu makes excellent wines from the viognier grape, which can be consumed earlier or cellared a few years.

The 75 Terraces

Château Grillet is the most famous winery — and solo wine appellation — no one has ever heard of. Winemaker Alessandro Noli takes me on a vertical tour of the small property's 75 separate terraces, scrunched into an amphitheater within the Condrieu appellation.  

Heaven of a Hill

If it's Tuesday, we must be in Tain l'Hermitage, a wine town nestled between the Rhône and the vast hillside vineyards of Hermitage, named for a thirteenth century Crusader-turned-hermit. Today, we also taste wines from Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray.

Hermitage Chapel

Picnic time on Hermitage hill! A bus ferries us partway, and we walk the remaining half-mile, enjoying great views of Hermitage's iconic chapel. Paul Jaboulet owns the edifice and produces Hermitage La Chapelle, but most surrounding vines are Chapoutier's.

Kings of the Hill

So far, no Mistral, but the pesky wind does have one benefit: It keeps the vines — like these old, gnarly syrah vines — healthy and mildew-free after summer and fall rains. Many Rhône producers, even major ones, make organic or biodynamic wines.

They Use Horses, Don’t They?

Mechanical tending of vineyards is almost impossible on the terraces of the Rhône, so farm horses are used for plowing. Our picnic over, a fellow writer and I walk downhill, following the horse and plowman along switchback trails to the edge of town.

A Mistral Blows through It

The fierce Mistral catches up with us at Avignon, where we spend the last two days of tastings within the walled city. On my way to a morning session at the Palais de Papes, I struggle against the wind as I pass whipping flags outside Hotel de Ville, the city hall.

Palace Door

History shares the stage with wine at the imposing Palais and its surrounding buildings.  During the fourteenth century, Avignon was the seat of Christianity, with six Popes being elected here. That small door? I'm guessing it was one of history's first pet ports.

Sacré Bleu

There is no way I can taste the hundreds of wines presented from the southern Rhône. So I concentrate on wines of the up-and-coming Ventoux appellation, especially those of Chêne Bleu, a new mountainside winery that has received much critical praise.

Quittin’ Time.

As Découvertes winds down, Michel Chapoutier, the intelligent and energetic producer who also heads Inter Rhône, leads a final press conference. He suggests more entry-level wines, increased Rhône exports, and press conferences in English. I'll drink to that!