Côtes du Rhône Wine Route a Village Driving Itinerary
Popes and Red Wine Villages in Provence’s Rhone Valley
In my view, there is no better place to begin this wine village itinerary than historic Avignon. The city was once the seat of the Catholic Church and home of several Popes during the Middle Ages.
I have chosen seven of my favourite wine villages which can be easily be visited in a day. All are on the left bank of the Southern Rhône and have A.O.P (i.e. Appellation d’Origine Protégée, previously A.O.C.) status guaranteeing that the wine comes from a particular village or region. There are actually 21 such villages – feel free to add your own to the itinerary if you have time!
Leave Avignon by the D225. After 7.5km, at le Pontet, take the D942 in the direction of Carpentras for 18.5km. Carpentras, an important centre for wine, used to be the capital of the Comtat Venaissin, the Avignon Popes’ own territory within France. In fact, many of the world-famous wine villages on this itinerary are in the Comtat. Perhaps this says something about the Avignon Pope’s interest in, and enjoyment of, the excellent robust red wines of the region and who could blame them?
Carpentras the Old Capital of the Comtat Venaissin
There was a settlement here even before Roman times, but Carpentras did not come into its own until the Pope moved to Avignon in 1309.
As the capital of the Papal Estates, in what was then part of the Holy Roman Empire, the town gradually expanded. It was fortified with towers and gates of which only the Porte d’Orange remains. Just outside the old ramparts, at the south end of town, is the imposing Hôtel-Dieu. Founded in 1745 as a hospital by Bishop d’Inguimbert, it was in use till 2002. The Bishop, who also studied science, created the famous Bibliothèque Inguimbertine.
Don’t miss the 1st Century Arc de Triomphe with its carvings – all that is left of that period. Also, check out the southern Gothic Cathedral of St. Siffrein, started by the Avignon Antipope Benedict XIII.
Today Carpentras is a pleasant small town with a good Friday market and makes an excellent base for touring both the Comtat and the Côtes-du-Rhône vineyards.
Beaumes-de-Venise – Red Wine and the Comtat
Drive north from Carpentras on the D7 for 6km until you reach the D90. Turn right, and in 3km, you will reach the ancient wine village of Beaumes-de-Venise nestling below the limestone slabs of the Dentelles de Montmirail.
Named after its caves (*balmas* in Provençal), the village is protected from the Mistral wind, which helps to create an ideal microclimate for grape growing.
A favourite of Kings and Popes
The produce here was enjoyed by the Romans who knew a thing or two about wine, and its delicious Muscat wine was supplied to St Louis in 1248 to fortify him during the long journey to the Crusades. Popes during the Middle Ages also rather liked this beverage. Nowadays, the village is famed for its robust Côtes-du-Rhône red wines, which were upgraded to AOC status in 2005.
Like most Provençal villages, it is also a fascinating place to visit. Stroll through the narrow streets, and eventually, you will reach the ruined medieval Château at the top of the hill.
Rejoin the D7 to the circular village of Vacqueras complete with walls and a 12th-century belltower.
Vacqueras – Renowned wine and a Famous Troubadour
The walled village of Vacqueras is a wine-producing commune in the Côtes-du-Rhône region where they have made wine since the 15th century. The town is circular with an old gateway, a 12th-century bell tower and a ruined Medieval Château.
Don’t miss the old fountains and the plane tree-lined Cours Stassart constructed to cover unsightly ditches behind the ramparts.
A little brother of Châteauneuf
While very pleasant, the village’s main claim to fame is its superb robust red wine, which has Côtes du Rhône status and was granted its own AOC in 1990. Like Gigondas, it is made mostly from Grenache grapes and is sometimes referred to as a little brother of
Fancy a wine tasting? La Vigneronne wine Co-operative on the Gigondas road will happily oblige and will be even happier if you buy some!
Vacqueras is not all about wine, however. It was the home village of Rimbaut de Vacqueras, a famous troubadour who entertained the Prince of Orange no less!
Gigondas – Châteauneuf du Pape’s other little brother
About 4km further on the D7 turn right into the D80 for about 1 km. Gigondas is a typical, very pretty small Provençal village, but it is really all about wine. The red AOP Gigondas is a particularly good robust wine that can keep for 10 years if stored correctly. Like Vacqueras, it is also often referred to as a little brother of Châteauneuf du Pape!
Gigondas was initially known for its white wine, but over the years, the village has become increasingly famous for its red. They produce some rosé, but the village’s prestige arises from the high-quality rouge.
From Roman Veterans to the House of Orange
Founded for the soldiers of the Roman Second Legion as a site for R & R and known then as Jocunditas, it was later to be part of the Comtat Venaissin before being owned by the House of Orange.
Don’t miss the feudal castle while you are here, which was owned at one point by the Prince of Orange. The ‘Gigondas Yesterday and Today Association’ have painstakingly restored the old ruins.
Leave Gigondas on the D79 and after 1.9km turn right onto the D7 passing Sablet, another wine village. Finally, you will reach the Plus Beau Village of Séguret nestling at the foot of a steep hill.
Séguret – a Plus Beaux Village in the Comtat
Like its neighbour Beaumes-de-Venise, beautiful Sèguret is located at the foot of a steep hill. Also, like its neighbour, it is a wine village and part of the Comtat Venaisson.
However, it has the additional cachet of being one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, and it certainly deserves to be so-called. Laid out below the ruins of a feudal château, you enter the village by the Porte Reynier. The charming old streets, like the rue des Poternes, are lined with ancient stone houses sporting splendid facades. In the main square, you will find the 17th-century Fontaine des Mascarons and a charming belltower.
Séguret is typically Provençal with the 10th-century church (St-Denis) and all the usual features of a medieval village. However, its fame comes from the wine-making tradition which today manifests itself in the splendid AOP Séguret red wine produced in the locality.
Leave Séguret and turn right onto the D88. After 4.5km at the roundabout, take the 2nd exit onto the D7 passing through Rouix. At the next roundabout, take the 4th exit (D975), and after 3km, you will arrive at Rasteau where the red wine only gained ‘Appellation’ status in 2010.
Rasteau – Wine to Rank with the Best
Rasteau used to be merely one town among many Côtes-du-Rhone villages. It has, for many years, boasted two appellations – a sweet AOP wine and dry AOP red Cotes-du-Rhone Villages variety. However, status derives from producing a classic red to rank with Cairanne and Séguret, and this has now happened – the first Rasteau AOC dry red went on sale in 2010.
Rasteau is a pleasant village 200m/656ft above sea level with its old houses clustered together at the foot of a ruined 12th-century chateau and a 12th-century church. After exploring these upper parts of the village head for the typically Provençal square – Place de l’Apparent. Ideal for some shade and refreshments on a hot day!
Don’t forget to stop at the wine co-operative at the edge of the village. Here you can purchase some of the excellent local beverage to take home!
Now it’s time to meet the cheeky ones! Leave Rasteau on the D69 and continue 5km to, an unpretentious village whose inhabitants, known as ‘the cheeky ones,’ nevertheless produce wine of the very highest status.
Cairanne – Village of the Cheeky Ones
This unpretentious wine village in the Comtat Venaissin has a long history dating back to 739 AD when it was called Queroana and later Cairana in Provençal. The local inhabitants were known as leis afrontaires de Cairana, ‘the cheeky ones from Cairanne.’ We can only guess why today – the reason is lost in the mists of time!
Its medieval heritage is evident in the Chemin de St Roch, which offers a pleasant walk around the old ramparts, including the Autanne Gate. Like many fortified villages in the area, it was helped by the French Government to restore its historic buildings during the 1960s, and the ruined church of St Martin was rebuilt at this time.
No driving tour of the Côte du Rhône villages would be complete without a visit to the town where perhaps the best known of all these splendid, fruity and robust wines are produced. From Cairanne, take the D8 south for 7.5 km. At the roundabout, take the first exit for 8.5 km, and at the next roundabout, take the D950 for about 3km. At the final roundabout, take the 3rd exit, the D92, pass through Couthézon, and after 4km, you will arrive in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape – A Fine Village and Fine Wine
This village in the Comtat Venaissin was a favourite with the Avignon Popes, who had a Château built here, hence the name which is synonymous with the superb red wine produced locally exclusively for the Pope. However, nowadays, anyone prepared to pay a premium over and above what they would pay for other Côtes du Rhône wines can have some!
Great views from the Château
There is a good view from the ruined Château, which takes in the Rhône Valley, Avignon, the Dentelles de Montmorail and even Mont Ventoux.
Don’t leave the village without visiting the Musée des Outils de Vignerons on avenue Pierre de Luxembourg. Here you can see all the tools used in the trade and learn about the world of winemaking.
It is fitting that this is the last stop because the Popes built their retreat here in the 14th century. What better place to enjoy a goblet or two of the red stuff?
Follow the signs to Avignon, and you should be back in 25-30 minutes. Take the D907 turning onto D225, which follows the south bank of the Rhône to the free Parking des Italiens on the left from which you can access the City.
Select any convenient car park and explore the city a little before choosing one of the many restaurants available. If you’ve time before eating, try to see the Pont St-Bénézet and the Palais des Papes in the evening light. The best panorama is from the Île de Piot in the centre of the Rhône.
Additional read: Sur, or is it Sous, le Pont d’Avignon Which is it?
Where to stay? Try Camping in St Remy at Mas de Nicolas.
A Wise Word of Caution
Wines of the Côtes-du-Rhône are robust, (Typically 14%). If you wish to take part in la degustation (tasting) before buying, it is recommended that at least one member of your group does not drink any alcohol. The police enforce the law vigorously, and it is worth bearing in mind that the blood alcohol concentration limit is 0.05 in France as against 0.08 in the UK and the USA.
This Côtes du Rhône Wine Route Driving Itinerary, is based on one of several tours included in Paul’s app, Provence’s Best, a travel guide available for smartphones and tablets. Check out this link to learn more.
All photos ©Paul Shawcross 2020