Cotes du Rhone winesIn this instalment of our guide to French wine, we travel to one of the largest wine-growing regions in the country: the Côtes du Rhône, or the Rhone Valley in English. The vineyards along the valley of one of the greatest rivers in France produce some of the world’s top wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage, for example, feature as two of the most highly prized labels in any discerning cellar. In this guide, we take a look at the history behind this ancient wine, the areas that produce it and the grapes they grow. We also offer tips on how to combine food with a Côtes du Rhône wine for a foodie match made in heaven.

Côtes du Rhône wines – a bit of history

The Greeks began growing grapes in Marseille a few centuries before the Romans arrived, but it was the Italians who planted the first vineyards along the Rhone. In the first century the Romans discovered the excellent soil along the deep valley, formed in the rift between the Massif Central and the Alps. Easy-river transportation carried the wine to Rome where it had a reputation as one of the most highly-prized.

In medieval times, monks in the area revived grape production and the quality of their wines soon caught the attention of the highest in the Roman Catholic church. The move of the Papal Seat by Pope Clement V to Avignon in 1308 did the rest and Côtes du Rhône wines became the preferred tipple of popes. The most famous Côtes du Rhône label, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, dates back to this time.

Although regulations on the quality and production of Rhone Valley wines were introduced in the 17th century it wasn’t until 300 years later that the area received its first official recognition. Baron le Roy from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards, and something of a pioneer in the valley, obtained Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) status for his wine in 1933. There are now over 30.

Did you know? Côtes du Rhône is the producer of French red wine par excellence – almost 90% are reds with just 3% white and 7% rosé.

The North and South divide

Nestling in the south-west of France, the Rhone Valley forms a corridor from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe. Vines grow along some 250km of the river between Avignon in the south and Vienne in the north. Around 70,000 hectares are under vineyards along the Rhone Valley, the second largest area in France after Burgundy, with a production of 372 million bottles in 2016.  

Geological characteristics divide the wine growing areas into two very distinct areas: north and south.

The northern section of the Côtes du Rhône contains almost 20 AOCs and here the wine-growing areas are long and narrow. Confined within the sheer river valleys, vineyards are often impossibly steep. This together with the markedly cooler climate leads to less grape production.

The Syrah grape predominates here to the extent that the area is known as the “kingdom of Syrah”. Among the most famous crus are Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, Château Grillet, Hermitage and Saint Joseph. Red wine produced in the north Côtes du Rhône is strong, almost creamy and has a slightly spicy aftertaste. Whites tend to have a floral bouquet.

The southern part of the valley flattens out allowing vineyards to extend further. Warmer weather allows for greater grape production in the area that contains 12 AOCs. The world famous Châteneauf-du-Pape hails from here as do other prestigious crus such as Beaumes de Venise and Vacqueryras.

Red wine from this part of the Rhone Valley is full bodied with a strong essence of red fruit. Whites are full and punchy, and rosés have a full, fresh taste.

Did you know? Helicopters are used to distribute materials on some of the steepest vineyards in the north where all cultivation and harvest is done by hand.

Main types of grapes in the Rhone Valley

The king of the red grapes is the Grenache, the most widely grown in the area and responsible for the red fruit (blackcurrant mostly) aftertaste in the red wines. Syrah grows exceptionally well in the north and its deep colour – almost black at its best – and peppery taste are key characteristics in Côtes du Rhône wines.

Viognier, a white grape, is unusual in that it’s native to the Rhone Valley. Its perfume has a hint of musk and spices, and gives white wines from the area their unique mellow taste. Marsanne, a fruity grape with a touch of hazelnut, is another white grape that predominates.

However, few Côtes du Rhône wines come with a single grape. The vast majority are a blend of several from different parts of the valley and from different producers.

Did you know? The unique geological characteristics of the Rhone Valley, formed between giant mountain ranges and once flooded by the Mediterranean, give the area its four types of soil: limestone, granite, sandy silica and clay, all present in Côtes du Rhône wines.

Best Côtes du Rhône vintages

Compared to other French wine growing areas, the Rhone Valley has had fewer true vintage years this century. However, some years have been exceptional. In the north, 2015 was one of the best on record with 2010 and 2009 coming a close second. In the south, 2016 was classed by the experts as “a rare vintage”. 2015, 2010 and 2005 were also among the best.

Did you know? Rhone Valley wines are best drunk within three to five years of production. There are exceptions to this rule, but Côtes du Rhône wines are generally not ones to cellar for the grandchildren.  

Perfect pairing

Given their full-body and strong tastes, Rhone Valley reds need food that can match their strength and vitality. They pair well with any meat cooked in any way, but come into their own with heartier dishes. Châteneauf-du-Pape matches exceptionally well with game birds while any Rhone Valley red will love a stew – the local cassoulet is an example. You can even enjoy them at their best with spicy dishes.

Rhone Valley whites offer great pairing with fish and seafood, and go down a treat with goats cheeses. Choose fruit such as locally grown melon or figs for sweet whites from Beaumes de Venise.

Did you know? Rhone Valley whites should be served at between 8 and 10 degrees, and reds at just below room temperature.

Taste Côtes du Rhône wines for yourself

How better to discover the world of Rhone Valley wines than from the river itself and from on board a luxury hotel barge? Our Rhone cruises take you down the majestic river calling at legendary Côtes du Rhône destinations on the way – Valence, Viviers, Châteneauf-du-Pape, Avignon… Visit the vineyards and taste the wines when you dine on board. Book your Rhone Valley voyage of discovery now!

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Cotes du Rhone wines a brief guide


Go barging in France 5 celebs Lot Cahors Pont Valentre

Last year we were in touch the production company behind a UK TV series called Celebrity 5 Go… The idea, as you might imagine, was to haul together some well known faces and ship them off on a road trip. It turned out that the show was enough of a hit for them to commission a second series. Naturally we were encouraging that they bring the next round to France and to take to the waterways. And so airing now, on UK television’s Channel 5, is series two of Celebrity 5 Go Barging.

Celebs go barging

Obviously there’s the question around the notion of celebrity and how well known the characters are that are involved in this adventure. There are no Instagrammers or social media influencers in this line up, you may be relieved to hear. This series brings together actor Tom Conti, perhaps best known for his film role Shirley Valentine, charming Irish gardener Diarmuid Gavin of many a TV show resurrecting other people’s gardens, former athlete and Great Britain Olympian Tessa Sanderson, broadcaster and author Penny Smith, and 1970s pop idol Tony Christie.

What a combination of Great British cultural heritage from the last 40 years!

Two boats go barging

In collaboration with one of our hire boating partners, Le Boat, Channel 5 divide the motley crew into two groups and introduce them to their self-drive boats. Who will take the helm? How quickly will they grasp the not-particularly-tricky art of piloting a cruiser on calm waters?

With the joy of prerecorded television and editing teams, we find out pretty quickly that Penny may need a bit of practice before she should be allowed near the wheel again after getting a little too close to the bank and a tree.

Along the River Lot

Their boating adventure takes them along the River Lot from Parnac to Cahors aboard cruisers from Le Boat. Amidst the novelty factor of this intrepid adventure and the prankster efforts of Conti and Christie, the Lot’s tricky locks and this lot don’t appear to be a perfect combination. As we might expect, they meet boating savvy couples along the way. Hear their envy at the tranquility of the boating life! Forgive the stereotypes of excursions to the market in search of snails.

Challenged by the Canal du Midi

In episode three, the group are taken to Sete and introduced to this Mediterranean stretch of the Canal du Midi. It’s all change as far as boats go as they’re introduced to a narrow boat for this stretch of their journey. It’s edited into quite the debacle as they attempt and eventually manage to set off across the Etang du Thau, France’s largest lagoon.

As we head into episode four, will the famous five disembark friends or foes…?

Easier than it looks

Editing aside, they largely appear to crack the knack of steering these boats, some obviously more successful than others. You can catch up with Celebrity 5 Go Barging here.

If watching the series inspires you to have a go yourself, we promise it’s easier than they make it look and just as much fun! Find out more about hire boating.

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Celebs go barging Obviously there’s the question around the notion of celebrity and how well known the characters are that are involved in this adventure. There are no Instagrammers or social media influencers in this line up, you may be relieved to hear. This series brings together actor Tom Conti, perhaps best known for his film role Shirley Valentine, charming Irish gardener Diarmuid Gavin of many a TV show resurrecting other people’s gardens, former athlete and Great Britain Olympian Tessa Sanderson, broadcaster and author Penny Smith, and 1970s pop idol Tony Christie.

National parks FranceAs western Europe’s largest country, with lots of high mountain ranges, extensive plains and long river valleys, France has plenty of scope for nature. Outside the busy cities and built-up southern coastlines, it’s easy to get away from the hustle and bustle to enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside. And there’s nowhere better to do this than in one of the national parks in France.

In the six official national parks on mainland France (plus one in the offing for 2019), you’ll find French scenery showcased at its best. Snowy mountain ranges with crystal glaciers and Sound-of-Music valleys feature in many, while in others it’s the less lofty heights of limestone gorges and endless forests that come centre stage. One of the national parks in France even takes mostly to the water. But all the parks share one common denominator: they’re all stunningly beautiful. Make sure to include at least one on your must-see list when you’re next on holiday in France.

Calanques National Park

Location: Provence Alpes-Côtes d’Azur

Size: 520km²

Highlights: marine life and dizzy cliff-top walks

Calanques borders on the bustling city of  Marseille and enjoys two unique traits. Established in 2012, it’s currently the youngest national park in France and also its most watery. No less than five-sixths of the park lie in the Mediterranean.

Created as a marine reserve, Calanques is a haven for dolphins, turtles and fin whales, all regular visitors to this part of France. On land, wildlife includes geckos and lizards as well as a long list of birds.

Named after the limestone coves that smatter the coastline (many can only be reached by boat), Calanques is something of a marine paradise with plenty of opportunities for snorkeling and diving. Drier activities include dramatic cliff walks but abstain if you’re not too keen on heights.

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Cévennes National Park

Location: Languedoc-Roussillon

Size: 913km²

Highlights: Aven Armand cave and the spring bulbs

Robert Louis Stevenson famously trekked across this giant park in the late 19th century on the back of his donkey Modestine. The scenery went on to feature in his book, ‘Travels with a donkey’. Although Cévennes is one of the most inhabited national parks in France, little has changed since Stevenson and his trusty steed ambled their way through.

This is a land of chestnut forests, meadows grazed by sheep and cattle, and rugged cliff country in the north. It’s dotted with around 400 farms and has several quintessentially French villages. Other attractions include notable caves including Aven Armand (one of the largest in France), Dargilau and Bramabieu, and a carpet of bulbs in spring and early summer. Donkey rides are available but most visitors nowadays prefer to make their way more quickly on foot or by mountain bike.

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Écrins National Park

Location: Rhône-Alps

Size: 918km²

Highlights: snow hares and views that literally go on forever

Another of the biggies, this national park has perhaps the most dramatic scenery of all. Its vast area comes packed with mountains – over 100 peaks rise over the park with the highest at 4,102m. There are no less than 60 lakes plus a good handful of glaciers and lush valleys. All this lofty nature makes for exceptional views and Écrins National Park is one of those places where the vistas literally stretch as far as the eye can see.

Keen hikers will find something of a paradise on earth here. The 700km of marked trails will satisfy even the most demanding walkers and there’s a good network of alpine huts along the way allowing you to break the journey. As well as eagles and vultures up high, look out for snow hares and ermine on the ground.

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Fôrets de Champagne et Bourgogne National Park

Location: Haute-Marne/ Côte d’Or

Size: 2,400km²

Highlights: ancient forests and the Venus slipper orchid

Not quite a national park yet, but this giant area sandwiched between Champagne and Bourgogne will gain its official park status in 2019. It will become the largest in France – it almost doubles the giant Vanoise. And indeed, almost everything about the national park is big.

Take the forests of beech and oak, for example. They stretch for miles and date back over 200 years. They include some of the oldest woodlands in France and were witnesses to the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, this park is something of a treat for walkers who will be more than spoilt for choice with more than 1,000km of possible hikes. The rare Venus slipper orchid thrives here as does the black stork, far less common than the white one and on the elusive side. Keep your eyes trained on those binoculars.

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Mercantour National Park

Location: Provence Alpes-Côtes d’Azur

Size: 685km²

Highlights: cave paintings and nutcracker birds

This is one of the most highly protected national parks in France – no transport is permitted in the centre, making it something of a pedestrian paradise. There’s lots worth protecting too. The southernmost alpine frontier in France, the landscape provides plenty of dramatic sights of glaciers, mountain plateaux, pine forests and mountain lakes. Wild boar and the nutcracker bird are among the more unusual wildlife.

Mercantour also has more than its fair share of man made marvels. The rock carvings and cave paintings in the aptly-named Vallée des Merveilles are truly breathtaking. And while they’re considerably younger, the 15th century frescoes in the valley’s chapels are just as awe inspiring. See it all on foot, by mountain bike or, for the more intrepid, from underneath the wings of a hang glider.

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Pyrénées National Park

Location: Midi-Pyrénées

Size: 457km²

Highlights: classic mountain passes and golden eagles

The Pyrénées National Park is the smallest on mainland France but what it lacks in size it more than makes up in scenery. Landscapes here are nothing short of dramatic and include sheer peaks, lush mountain valleys and infamous passes. Those at Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet have made or broken legions of cyclists over the years.

This national park gives you the chance to see traditional mountain life, hike some of Europe’s most demanding trails and scale some seriously challenging peaks. Wildlife comes into its own here too. You probably won’t see any but this is the territory of brown bears, reintroduced into the area not so long ago. Mink also keep to themselves but you’re bound to spot a golden eagle or two in magnificent flight above you.  

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Vanoise National Park

Location: Rhône-Alps

Size: 1,250km²

Highlights: possible glimpses of chamois and lynx, and certain sightings of edelweiss

Dating back to 1963, Vanoise is a veritable grandmother among French national parks. It’s also (currently) the largest and more than twice as big as many of the others. Vanoise spans two countries too – once its mountains reach Italy they become part of the Gran Paradiso national park and the two make up Europe’s largest park.

Mountains dominate the landscape here – peaks over 3,000m are common place – and with them, glaciers and mountain lakes. Something of a hiker’s paradise, Vanoise also makes good wildlife watching. You probably won’t be ticking the shy chamois and the even more elusive lynx off your list, but the majestic ibex do let themselves be seen. And marmots pop up regularly in the edelweiss-carpeted meadows.

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See the national parks in France from the river

How better to see the splendours of the parks than from on board a luxury floating hotel? Several of our hotel barge itineraries make their way near and through some of the most stunning. Check out our itineraries and book your river visit to a national park. 

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From 2019 there will be seven national parks in France with the newest one also being the largest, pushing the Vanoise national park into second place, size wise. Find out more about these stunning and strikingly different national parks in France - western Europe's largest country