When visiting the northern Rhône, deciding on where to base yourself is relatively easy – it’s such a compact region there aren’t that many options to consider.
The sprawling southern Rhône, however, is very different. Do you choose the maritime vistas of the Camargue? Or the craggy peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail?
Would a peaceful village like Gigondas be your idea of heaven? Or a lively melting pot like Avignon?
Visitors from more northerly climes have long been drawn to this part of the world. It’s a place of great abundance, where the plants, produce and wildlife are sustained by the beating sun. The vines bask in it too. You can taste it in the wines.
The southern Rhône’s unofficial capital is Avignon, and it has a lot going for it. For many, it will be the obvious place to stay. It’s easy to get there by plane or by train, and there is plenty to keep a wine lover entertained.
If you prefer to be surrounded by nature rather than people, there are countless picturesque villages to choose from. Or you could let your favourite wine be your North Star – there’s no better way of getting to know an appellation than making it your home for a few days.
Timeless, colourful and faintly louche, Avignon is a magnet for culture, and its annual Avignon Festival every July pulls in vast numbers of performers and visitors.
(It’s worth noting that accommodation prices skyrocket around this time, so time your visit carefully).
Though space is at a premium within the ancient city walls, there are some very fine places to stay – notably Hôtel La Mirande and the Hôtel d’Europe. Other options are the Hôtel de l’Horloge, which is conveniently central; or Au Cœur d’Avignon, a bright, contemporary retreat hidden down a scruffy back alley.
Hôtel La Mirande and Hôtel d’Europe also offer some excellent fine dining. Beyond that, I always enjoy the informal yet chic La Fourchette, and other reliable options include Avenio, Maison Ripert and Le Goût du Jour. Le Potard does a great burger, and Le 46 has a particularly good wine list – which is rarer than you might expect.
You won’t need to drive once you’re within the city walls, in fact most of the labyrinthine shopping streets to the east of the Place de l’Horloge are pedestrianised. You could spend all day browsing these small independent boutiques, and don’t miss the food hall Les Halles, an Aladdin’s cave of local delicacies.
There is a good small wine shop within Les Halles, and two more not far away: Liquid, and Le Vin Devant Soi, both of which have great Rhône selections.
Le Palais des Papes, the seat of the papacy during its tenure in Avignon, is incredibly well preserved, and augmented reality tours help bring it to life.
Until recently, only the most committed wine lover would find much to enjoy here. It’s had a big reputation for centuries, but Châteauneuf-du-Pape remains a surprisingly small village.
The past few years, however, have witnessed some significant investment, and now it’s well worth spending the day here. You might even want to use it as a base to explore the region.
The hotel and restaurant La Mère Germaine has had its ups and downs over the years, but since being purchased and refurbished in 2020 it’s now the obvious place to stay and eat.
My favourite place to eat in the summer months is the pop-up restaurant La Table des Vignerons at Domaine Durieu. For breathtaking views across Châteauneuf and beyond, eat at Le Verger des Papes – a stone’s throw from the ruined Château itself. For a more informal lunch or dinner, La Maisouneta is much more reliable than the joints near the old fountain.
On the main roads you’ll see a few bottle shops and delis. Some are trustworthy, others hawk ropey old vintages to unsuspecting tourists. The safest bet is Vinadéa, which has a great selection of wines at fair prices. Or call your favourite winery directly and ask if you can arrange a visit.
Châteauneuf is home to over 100 private domaines, but not all welcome visitors. Some are more approachable, however, and the following make excellent wines and can be reached on foot from the village: Domaine du Banneret, Domaine de Beaurenard, Domaine du Pegau, Domaine Roger Sabon and Domaine la Barroche.
Wine travel hints & tips
Visiting wineries in the southern Rhône is easy – there is plenty of choice, and the people here are often warm and welcoming. But it’s always polite to call ahead, and you’re likely to enjoy a more relaxed visit that way.
Don’t forget that lunchtime is sacred – assume all shops, wineries and attractions will be closed between 12pm and 2.30pm. If you’re not used to this, it can be hard to adjust to!
Gigondas is further from the main transport hubs than Avignon and Châteauneuf, tucked under the peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail. But it’s a particularly beautiful setting from which to navigate the appellations it surveys – Cairanne, Rasteau, Plan de Dieu and more, all visible from the village square.
The Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel have opened a boutique hotel there, not to mention a bar, bistro and restaurant. All are excellent at their respective levels. Another place to stay just outside the village is Hôtel Les Florets, which has a good restaurant with an extensive wine list.
Some top domaines have small concessions in the village square – try Moulin de la Gardette and Domaine du Terme. Other good nearby options are Château de Saint Cosme, Clos du Joncuas, Domaine des Bosquets and Domaine du Grapillon d’Or.
Avignon, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas are some obvious places to base yourself if wine is your priority. But there are countless other beautiful towns and villages that would make for a great stay.
Also situated in the Vaucluse are Cairanne, Rasteau, Sablet, Séguret, Sainte-Cécile, and Visan – these are some of the prettier villages that also make delicious wines.
Mazan is also worth a visit, and if you’re looking for a more structured wine programme check out the Auberge du Vin – an 18th century farmhouse, owned by English couple Linda Field and Christopher Hunt, offering wine courses as well as accommodation.
On the left bank of the Rhône, Uzès is just big enough to offer plenty of choice, but small enough to have hung on to its bohemian charm.
And don’t forget the Luberon, a regional nature park that’s home to some of the most beautiful villages in France. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue would make a good base, equidistant from the centre of the Luberon and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
When to visit
The best time to visit is between April and July, when you’re likely to get good weather. In August many producers will be on holiday, and in September they’ll be concentrating on the new vintage. October is risky – it can be grey and wet.
Marseille Provence Airport and Montpellier Méditerranée Airport are both just over an hour’s drive from Avignon. Avignon TGV is served by the Eurostar from London.
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