A Trip through the Drôme Provençale


Lavender field in Nyons, France . (Proto courtesy of Provenceweb.fr)

 Wine regions around the world all have one thing in common: vineyards, of course.  As you travel in the Wine Country in France, some have more to offer, such as historical villages, unique churches, Roman bridges, mountain views, gourmet food, farmers’ markets, pottery, art, fields of flowers, orchardsand agriculture.   A sector of the southeastern part of France, called the Drôme Provençale, has all of these  things and more; this is where we will take you in this article.

Market day in Nyons, France.  Photo courtesy of francerevisited.com

This part of France is best known for its Rhône wines, lavender fields, but also for its apricot orchards and the famous olives grown in the small village of Nyons, where you can stop at the Cooperative for a taste of their olives and the local wines.  You can drive through beautiful little villages like Sainte Cécile-les-Vignes (where we had a memorable lunch at the small hotel La Farigoule), Cairanne, Rasteau, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaume-de-Venise, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (all Côte-du-Rhône villages).   Then there are Orange and its Roman arena and Suze-la-Rousse with its castle, home of the Université du Vin (Wine University).  Here there are laboratories and tasting rooms that are unique in Europe, offering courses in oenology and management for the wine industry.  All those villages are surrounded by vineyards overlooked by mountains: the Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail.

The Université du Vin.  Photo courtesy of Les Châteaux de la Drôme.

The village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the best known Rhône village, thanks to its famous and unique wines.  The village itself is certainly worth visiting.   You can park in the village, have a delicious lunch at an outdoor café and walk to some of the wineries in the village. Other vineyards are just a short drive from the town, where you will find Domaine Beaurenard,  Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Château Beaucastel to name just a few of the most famous.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com

This is a favorite part of France for Lucie, since she has old friends in Nyons. She knows most of the villages and can drive you around (if you ask her).  Being a member of the Commanderie des Côtes du Rhône (Rhône wine society) as Chevalière (knight), she is quite knowledgeable about Rhône wines and she happens to have some connections in this part of the world, which will bring a few future articles on the subject.

Isn’t the Drôme Provençale inviting?

Clef du Vin

The wine taster’s best friend!  A miracle of modern science!  A tool for bringing out the cork dork in all of us!  It’s the Clef du Vin (pronounced CLAY do van.  For that last word, if you’re American, start saying “van” and just when you get to the “n”, swallow it.)  So what is this wonder?

The original Clef du Vin

It’s a metal gizmo about three inches long when fully opened, shaped a little like a flattened mouse.  The tail of this mouse is a chain about as long as the device itself.  The blade isn’t sharpened; it’s just a thin piece of steel with a small copper disk at the end.  Actually, what we have just described and shown here is the original Clef du Vin; there are versions today that are short steel rods with a bit of copper at the end.  It’s the steel and copper combination that’s key element of the Clef du Vin.

The Peugeot “Travel” Clef du Vin

Calling it the key element is a play on words, since “wine key” is the English translation of Clef du Vin.  But enough of what it is.  What does it do?  Well, it simulates the aging of wine when you plunk the bi-metal tip into wine.  It accomplishes this feat through the laws of physics.  Two metals plus an acid form a battery.  So steel and copper in wine (the acid) creates a very weak battery with a very weak charge.  Each second in the Clef du Vin is in the wine equates to a year of bottle aging, or so it seems.

Of course, the question is: Does it really work?  Well, who knows for sure.  This we can say: wines with again potential do taste better – sometimes a lot better – when treated with a Clef du Vin.  The tannins are definitely softened, the flavors more vibrant, the mouth-feel more mellow.  But if a wine has reached its potential, there is no discernible difference.

One story is enough of an illustration.  In 2013, we were at one of Napa Valley’s most renowned wineries, maker of one of the most highly rated wines in the valley.  The server was extolling the virtues of the recently released 2011 wines.  You may remember that 2011 was an unusually poor vintage in Northern California.  Many wineries did not release their premier wines that year, but this winery did.  At first sip, the wine didn’t seem to live up to its billing, but with five seconds’ use of the Clef du Vin the wine came alive in the glass.  We offered to let the server try it and she called all her colleagues over, saying “You’ve gotta try this!”.

Is that wine going to taste exactly the same today, with five years of aging?  Maybe Robert Parker can remember exactly what a wine tasted like back then, but we can’t nor do we know anyone else with that level of taste memory.  But the Clef du Vin did demonstrate that this was a wine with potential and worth buying.

When first available in the US, the Clef du Vin sold for $100.  Now you can find one on the Web for $50.00 or less.  If you do buy one for use on wine tasting excursions, be sure to bring along a paper towel to wipe it off and a plastic baggie to carry it in.  And try not to make too big a show when you use it; you’ll attract enough attention as it is just dipping something into your wine.  The Clef du Vin certainly adds a layer of interest to your wine tasting experience.

Visiting Domaine la Soumade

Close to 20 years ago, Lucie was on vacation visiting her friends in Provence and what better to do while her friend was going to work than a little wine tasting?  Let’s point out here that the Southern Côtes du Rhône is not California with its large wineries and palaces but a lot more modest in style and size.

Photo courtesy Domain la Soumade

On a cold January weekday, she was driving  in the small village of Rasteau, looking for the home of one of our favorite wines, Domaine la Soumade.  Driving back and forth along a small road, she finally spotted the name on a little signpost, but the only building there was a private house with a little shed in one corner of the garden.  As she approached the shed, a big dog barked at her loudly enough to alert the owner of the house.  A woman bundling a wool sweater around her shoulders against the chill opened her door to look at the intruder, asking what she wanted.  When Lucie told her that she came as far as Québec to taste her wine, the woman said she’d be downstairs in a moment.  As it worked out, this was Madame Romero, the wife of the owner and winemaker of Domaine la Soumade .  She invited Lucie into the shed which was the tasting room.

While tasting Domaine la Soumade wines, Madame Romero was intrigued why Lucie had come so far to Rasteau and where she was staying.  When Lucie explained that she was staying with her friends in Nyons, Madame Romero gave her a bottle of wine with a smile, saying, enjoy it with your friends tonight at dinner.

Photo courtesy of Domaine la Soumade

A few years later, Steve and Lucie were wine tasting together in Rasteau, during the harvest. Lucie wanted to take Steve to Domaine la Soumade but could not find the place.  The house was still there, but not the shed.  And where were all the people who should be wine tasting at that time of year?  Driving on the road to Orange we saw a beautiful building with Domaine la Soumade written on it.   Since Lucie had been there, they had built a winery and tasting room that could now compete with some of California’s (humbler) tasting rooms.  Madame Romero was there, serving behind the bar and when Lucie introduced herself to Madame, she immediately said, “Vous êtes la Québécoise! I remember you, you visited us before we moved here.”  The conversation went around that first visit, and then we were introduced to her husband, the winemaker, André Romero.  We had the immense pleasure of tasting some of their best wines, some traditional and others reflecting the enterprising spirit of Domaine la Soumade.  The highlights included the flagship red wine,  Fleur de Confiance and a delicious Rasteau “Vin Doux Naturel“  a sweet wine that is great at aperitif, but can be found only in France.

This experience will forever be one of Lucie’s most cherished wine tasting memories.



Château Guiraud

Visiting Sauternes is a revelation and also a bit of a surprise.  The greatest of the latter is to see the grapes if you visit near the harvest.  In all your other wine tasting voyages, harvest time means plump, glistening grapes hanging pendulously from the vines, just waiting to be picked and vinified.  What you get in Sauternes is shriveled brown grapes, formerly green, that you would throw away if you found them in your refrigerator.

Sauternes grapes.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

The reason is botrytis, la pourriture noble, the Noble Rot.  It’s a fungus that infests vineyards in damp weather, especially when the grapes are ripe and give the botrytis something to eat.  Much of the liquid is evaporated out of the grapes and what there is is wonderfully sweet and concentrated.  It doesn’t occur everywhere nor every year, but in a the area in and around the villages of Sauternes and Barsac, it is an almost annual event.  As you can see in the photo, not even all the grapes in a cluster are affected, so the ones they want for the world’s most famous dessert wine have to be picked carefully, by hand.  It takes a lot of these rotten grapes to make a bottle of wine.

There are many Sauternes producers, the most famous of which is Château d’Yquem.  Other notable ones are La Tour Blanche, Suiduirat, Doisy-Daëne and Doisy-Védrines.  We have chosen to highlight Château Guiraud because it’s one of the best (Premier Grand Cru Classé in 1855) and the only major Sauternes house actually in the village of Sauternes.  For the visitor, Château Guiraud is a great deal easier to visit than others of the great Châteaux, with no reservation required and tasting hosted in English as well as French.  (Oh, and also because we love their wine and keep it in our cellar.)

Château Guiraud.  Photo courtesy of Vinexpo.

A tasting a Château Guiraud is part of the revelation we referred to at the beginning of this article.  You’ll find that there are dry white wines made in the region and their second label, Petit Guiraud, is a pleasant before-dinner wine.  Then you get to taste the big guns, the real Sauternes wines.  Their basic tasting offers a vertical of three vintages, which again is revelatory.  You learn the intricacy and delicacy of this fabulous dessert wine from the people who made it.

The château itself makes for a pleasant visit.  You enter via a long roadway lined with plane trees.  At the end you find a gracious 18th century mansion, with a stone bordelais tower next to it.  The tasting room has a grand fireplace and the room, while a bit sparse, is a welcome to a bygone era of French hospitality.  If you’re there at the right time of year, don’t forget to see the rotten grapes.

One oddity of a visit to Sauternes, especially early in the day, is to find yourself sipping dessert before the sun is down or even before lunch.  Best advice: get over it.  Second best advice: give some thought while you’re sipping to how you might enjoy these wines other than as dessert.  They certainly accompany cheeses and although they are a bit heavy are well suited to aperitifs.  Perhaps the best and most widely know way to drink Sauternes is as an accompaniment to foie gras.