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Matt Walls: My two years in Provence writing Wines of the Rhône

Following the launch of his new book, Wines of the Rhône, Decanter's Rhône correspondent Matt Walls looks back on his two year research project, the decision to move his family to a small village abroad, and the trials and tribulations of a British family adapting to life in southern France.

When conducting research for writing a book, you are faced with a dilemma. Do you read other works that have already been published on the subject, and risk being overly influenced by other authors’ opinions?

Or do you concentrate on gathering your own first-hand experiences and evidence, but risk overlooking information that has already been uncovered and recorded?

Perhaps luckily for me, there has been relatively little published recently about the Rhône Valley. Which is why, no doubt, I was commissioned to write a guide to its wines.

When the offer arrived, I jumped at the chance. My wife and two young boys were excited too, because it gave us the opportunity to move to France.

Taking the plunge

In August 2018 we uprooted our family from rainy London and repotted ourselves in the sunny village of Châteauneuf de Gadagne, 10km east of Avignon. We thought the change of – well, everything – would do us good.

In order to really get under the skin of a wine region, to understand not just the wines but the people, the language and the culture, there is no better way than to make your home there, if only for a year or two.

If you visit a region for just a week, it will put on its smartest clothes and comb its hair to greet you. When you live there for two years, you will experience it at its best, but also at its worst.

The writing begins

It wasn’t until January 2019, five months into our new French life, that I started writing the book in earnest. My knowledge of the Rhône prior to this was already fairly extensive, but like all things in wine, once you start digging, you realise how much deeper you can go.

It became increasingly clear why there are so few comprehensive works on the Rhône – there is a lot of ground to cover.

The terroir is as varied as it is vast, and the Rhône in its entirety is home to nearly 2,000 private estates, 100 cooperative wineries and dozens of grape varieties.

North vs South

Across the Northern and Southern Rhône there are a total of 52 appellations to visit. To begin with, I wondered if I should skip some of the smallest ones. However, I’m glad I didn’t as they proved to be some of the most fascinating of all.

It might come as a surprise that only 5% of Rhône Valley AOC wine comes from the Northern Rhône. So what surprised me about the Southern Rhône, despite its large size, was its lack of self-confidence.

Viticulture is as well established in the south as it is in the north, but a sense of fine wine culture in the Southern Rhône is more recent, especially outside of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

There are pockets of great potential here, which makes it dynamic and exciting – not to mention a source of extraordinarily good value wines. Knowing the most quality-minded producers here is crucial.

The Northern Rhône has little in common with the Southern Rhône. It is closer in spirit to Burgundy than Châteauneuf.

Much of this is down to its strong indigenous grapes: Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Grape varieties tend to perform better on their home turf, and sing more soulfully.

The standard of quality has never been higher and interest in these wines is growing, but thankfully – for now at least – the wines remain affordable.

Matt Walls in front of the Rhône river

Matt Walls in front of the Rhône river


Lessons learned

Naively, we thought that life in Provence would be broadly similar to life in London, but there were certainly a few ways in which it surprised us, and many things we learned along the way.

Accommodation

If you don’t already live in France, renting a property is confounding. You will need a full dossier of paperwork to meet with an estate agent, including certain documents that are unique to French citizens – which of course, as a foreigner, you will not possess.

Many Provençal houses do not have effective heating systems, and despite the icy winters they are not always well insulated. Some of this book was written wearing a scarf and woolly hat indoors, my breath clouding in front of the laptop.

Travel

Car drivers consider stopping at pedestrian crossings to be entirely optional. Those on foot are considered equal to stray dogs and pigeons.

Fast trains, otherwise known as TGVs, are brilliant, but local trains and buses tend to be woefully inadequate. As a result, everybody drives a car. If you live in a village, life without one is unimaginable.

Taxis are outrageously expensive.

Language

When conversing with a stranger, particularly in a formal situation, you cannot be too polite. If the need arises to strike up a conversation with someone you have never met, you cannot simply start with ‘excuse me mate…’ and expect a civil response.

In English, words have a specific, correct spelling. Not in French however; river names can have multiple spellings, and people are unbearably easy-going about capitalisation, hyphenation and accents. Grammar geeks, run for the hills.

In English, you can often use a variety of words and sentence structures to express yourself in different ways. In French, it is somewhat less liberal – often there is a correct verb for a given circumstance, and if you do not use this verb, you will see the pained dissatisfaction on people’s faces.

Local business

Social capital is important. People are keen to share their recommendations, and insist that you pass on the fact that it was they who did the referring.

In the UK, the customer is king. Not in Provence. Rather than actively marketing themselves, successful businesses sometimes have an unofficial client list, and might not want your custom, thanks very much. Unless you are referred by a current client (who they like).

Many businesses or public facilities keep their own idiosyncratic opening hours. No standard 9-to-5 here. And they might simply not be open when they’re meant to be.

Almost all businesses close for a period between 12pm and 3.30pm each day. As an Englishman, it is impossible to get used to this.

GP surgeries are more like offices compared to the medical facilities they are in the UK. If you have a health concern, consulting a pharmacist is the first port of call.

Even the smallest village will have a proliferation of hair salons, but barber shops essentially don’t exist.

Food and drink

Restaurants only serve lunch and dinner for a tight, designated slot of time. Come either side of this, and you’ll be laughed out of the building.

The seasonality of fruit and vegetables is common knowledge. At the start of any given season – say apricots – they will be expensive. At the end, people will be selling off trays of them at knock-down prices. Buying certain fruits or vegetables out of season is often simply impossible.

Everyone knows which village makes the best example of any particular foodstuff.

People of all backgrounds don’t think twice about spending big on decent cheese.

French kettles are terrible and not built for English requirements. At one stage we got through three kettles in three months.

Everyday life

At any given moment on French commercial radio, it is possible to find English ‘80s pop music playing on one station and Manu Chao playing on another.

The coffee is pitifully inadequate and take-away barely exists.

Everything you’ve heard about the endless, labyrinthine bureaucracy is true.

It is still commonplace to encounter a toilet that is not fitted with a toilet seat. And in many a motorway service station, you can still find the dreaded hole-in-the-ground.


Matt Walls’ new book Wines of the Rhône, available now

The Rhône is one of the most beautiful and soulful wine regions I’ve ever had the privilege to get to know. I may no longer live there, but I’ll continue to visit the Rhône several times a year – despite its endearing quirks.

I hope the book serves its purpose to be a comprehensive, useful guide to the wines of the Rhône Valley.

For a limited time, European Decanter Premium subscribers can receive a 40% discount from the cover price by using discount code RHONEDECA40 here.

US subscribers can use the same code here.

Due to the first European print run selling out quickly, books to European addresses will be mailed from 5th February.


More from Matt Walls…

Tasting La Chapelle 1991 to 2019

Matt’s top 10 Rhone wines of 2020

Follow Matt’s twice-monthly column

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