The prestigious Rhône Valley vineyard is celebrating its 80th anniversary and is making a remarkable entry into wine tourism for the occasion, supported by a new generation of winegrowers.
On the national 7, that of Charles Trenet, Vienne was a must in the 1950s. Little Rome, as it was called, nestled in a loop of the Rhône, was an essential stopover on the vacation route. Its hillsides lined with vines, its temple of Augustus and Livia, its Roman theater, and the marvelous Pyramid, one of the most famous starred restaurants in the world, where Fernand and Mado Point operated, told us about France. That of the good life and the beauty of a picturesque site that history, just as much as the hand of man, has shaped.
Today, while the A7 motorway and the TGV take us down the Rhône valley at the speed of oblivion, this destination, reorganized into a “Vienne-Condrieu” territory, straddling both banks of the river, comes to remind our taste buds and our curiosity. For two thousand years, the Rhône has bathed the sunny hills on which precariously balanced vines grow. We look at them with astonishment, the relief is so hilly. At the edge of a precipice huddle together only ten feet, while a little further in a vertiginous sheer, a few rows of lonely vines are aligned, held back by these dry stone walls, otherwise called chaillets, which the Romans already barred the landscape.
Cultural wine tourism
You have to go to Ampuis and climb the stony steep slopes that dominate the large town to appreciate the complexity of the Côte-Rôtie region. The view of the surroundings, up to the Alps, rewards the ascent. The prestigious appellation celebrates, with a few months of delay, pandemic obliges, its eightieth anniversary. Shared over three municipalities, Tupin-et-Semons, Saint-Cyr-sur-Rhône and Ampuis, the Côte-Rôtie vineyards cover three hundred and thirty hectares in an extraordinary relief. For one hectare of vines, ten thousand linear meters of stone walls are necessary for its exploitation on the terrace.
«Our vineyard is not easy but it is also its strength ”, remarks Michael Gerin. The young thirty-something chairs the AOC and explains: “The wind and the Mediterranean entrances which come up from the Rhône valley naturally help ripening, and contribute to the good health of the vineyard. We treat three times less than elsewhere and it’s been forty years since there was a dose of insecticide.This rare wine which has its twin sister, the Condrieu appellation impossible to confuse – the Côte-Rôtie is a red, the Condrieu a white – is at the origin of an unprecedented development in wine tourism. But not just any: cultural wine tourism!
«In the 1980s, by building a new high school in Saint-Romain-en-Gal, opposite Vienne, the excavators unearthed a major archaeological site of Romanism in France, at the same time when the vineyards of the Côte-Rôtie knew a renewal and a move upmarket. This concomitance has forever linked wine to its ancient origins.», Explains Olivier Sanejouand, director of the Vienne-Condrieu tourist office, who has been surfing this story ever since.
The House of the Ocean Gods
The Saint-Romain-en-Gal Museum, facing Vienna, forges the link between Romanism and wine. On this five hectare archaeological site, a small vineyard has been reconstructed with the help of INRA. Two hundred vines cultivated according to the know-how of the Romans by a winegrower, Pierre Gaillard. “However, he warns, the wine we produce is a little different from that of the Romans which would be undrinkable today. They added spices, resin and even sea water, because they ignored the virtues of sulfur to preserve it.»
This museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area. It is divided into two large parts: a contemporary building and an excavation site on which you can walk. In the vast rooms of the glass building built on stilts, so as not to alter the unearthed domus (urban dwellings), one can see superb mosaics, like that of the punishment of Lycurgus (the king of Thrace) and a fountain of Aphrodite, both from the 2nd century, in a stunning state of preservation.
Outside, we walk on a Roman road that runs alongside the public latrines and the thermal baths, to lead us to the House of the Ocean Gods. Let’s talk rather about the superb remains of a nicely highlighted patrician dwelling, columns overhanging the pools embedded in Mediterranean vegetation. Shaded picnic and rest areas add to the charm of this museum space. The latter also has a remarkable mosaic restoration workshop, almost unique in France and accessible during Heritage Days. The Louvre, in particular, uses its services. In a rich cultural program, the museum is currently presenting an exhibition entitled “Art and matter, ancient and contemporary ceramics” (until August 16). In an intergenerational dialogue, we find Roman ceramics mixed with those of Pablo Picasso or, more recently, of the actress Louise Bourgoin whose hidden talent we discover …
Theater in the vineyards
From the museum, a cycle path, the ViaRhôna, follows the banks of the Rhône for about thirty kilometers, interspersed with stages with open-air cafes or picnic areas. It’s a nice way to discover, at your own pace and in peace, the landscapes of the Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu.
In Ampuis, the first stopover is the new Château Caveau, owned by Maison Guigal, (côte-rôtie, Vidal-Fleury, Château Bonserine, etc.). Installed in a restored mansion, there is a tasting area and a “treasure room”, where vintages from plot selections are aligned. The basement is dedicated to an interesting museum. Old tools, ceramics, amphorae and numismatic collection are presented in a very successful modern scenography. One of the centerpieces is a sestertius of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. There are only three in the world, including one in the British Museum in London.
Then, direction Condrieu, along the Rhône, a few kilometers away. From the center of the village, the old parts of which rest on thick ramparts, you reach the departmental road 28, otherwise called the Montée du Rozay, to the heights of the Condrieu appellation. This is where a young 23-year-old winegrower, Bryan Mouton, a past wine tourism expert, awaits us on the family farm: “It is important for our house to create and maintain a bond with the customer», Asserts the young man. When visiting the cellar, he adds various services linked to the regional cultural DNA, such as a jazz aperitif (August 27) in the tasting cellar. A little further on, Xavier Gérard, in his thirties trained in large estates in South Africa, has viticulture in his blood: “I used to cut through the vines when I was a kid to go to school», Likes to tell this enthusiast who understood the need to open his vineyard to visitors and multiplies the activities such as an open-air movie night (August 4).
Even more unique, the Deboissey estate, bought two years ago by a young 37-year-old winegrower, Romain Decelle, is organizing a live show in the vineyards (July 3). Small plays, the first edition of which, called Hors Champs, was sold out before the pandemic. In each of its places, brunches are regularly organized by the tourist office, which has implemented a real strategy to support wine tourism throughout the territory, mobilizing the services of dedicated staff. So many initiatives that are timely, as noted by Yves Cuilleron, one of the most important winegrowers in the area. “The vineyard is developing, the winegrowers are investing in new spaces which now allow the reception of the public. This first contributes to the notoriety of the vineyard, the goal we are trying to achieve», Concludes this professional who remains discreet about the amount of economic benefits. As you will have understood, the Côte-Rôtie has entered a new phase of maturation. Tourists are also consumers. And when the wine is drawn, it must be drunk …
By TGV, aim for Lyon then a train every hour will take you in 20 minutes to the heart of Vienne. SNCF station in the city center. ouisncf.com
In Vienna, the pyramid , former home of Fernand Point, taken over by the Henriroux family, has become a superb Relais & Châteaux with 19 rooms, brightly decorated, opening onto the street or the garden. In addition to the prestigious gourmet table, crowned with two Michelin stars, the Pyramide has a bistro, the PH3, overlooking the garden. We sleep there for around 240 €. Phone: 04 74 53 01 96.
In Chonas-l’Amballan, close to the vineyards, in the countryside, is located the Domaine de Clairefontaine , a superb 4-star hotel with 24 rooms, very successful refined chic decor, nestled in an English-style park. The establishment adjoins the restaurant (1 Michelin macaroon), led by chef Philippe Girardon. We sleep there for 120 to 250 €. Phone: 04 74 58 81 52.
In the same village, the Cottage de Clairefontaine , in 3 stars, belongs to the same family, again equipped with a bistronomic table with a pretty terrace. We sleep there for 80 to 220 €. Phone: 04 74 58 83 28.
In Condrieu, in the heart of the vineyard,Bar et Gourmet is a regulars restaurant where winegrowers meet. The products are local, the wine list well stocked in local vintages and the terrace, very convivial. The menus vary between € 20 and € 35. Phone: 04 74 53 03 26.
In Vienna, Alchemy is a new discreet address in a small sloping lane, a nice surprise with a neat cuisine, between bistro and gastro. Formula from € 28 and à la carte from € 43 (6 services). Phone: 04 74 85 19 77.
Vienna-Condrieu Tourist Office, tel: 04 74 53 70 10.