Domaine Paul Autard

There are many wines that show the skill of the winemaker.  There are only a few that demonstrate the artistry of a winemaker.  Today, especially in America, rich people or corporations own wineries; they hire winemakers.  It is difficult to be both an artist and an employee.

When a person owns the vineyard, makes the growing and harvesting decisions and then produces the wine, he or she has the means to express creativity, individuality and style in a bottle.  To experience such artistry, we recommend a visit to Domaine Paul Autard (, in French only).

Jean-Paul Autard.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

The winemaker is Jean-Paul Autard; Paul was his father.  Jean-Paul took over in 2005 and the vineyard was soon mentioned among the best of Châteauneuf du Pape.  Today, Autard makes four Châteauneufs: a white and three reds, foremost among which are La Ronde and Juline.  There is also a Côtes de Rhône and, true to tradition, some local wines unavailable in North America.

Interior of the winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

The Domaine is not actually in the town of Châteauneuf du Pape but just outside it in a hamlet called Courthézon.  It’s not hard to reach, just a short drive away from the main town.  In our experience, the winery is nothing like what we Americans are used to.  It’s a large farmhouse, where Jean-Paul and his family make, store and sell wine.  It is not set up for visitors in the way we find in California, although you can expect a pleasant welcome.  When we visited, it was Madame Autard who welcomed us and chatted amiably with us (in French, of course).  After a tasting, we asked some rather specific questions about the winemaking technique and distribution back home, so she called out “Jean-Paul, please come.  We have visitors.”

We then had an interesting conversation and offered him to visit us when he was next in New York (an offer never taken up, alas).  It was not so much that we had a unique experience (although we did) but rather that the man is as approachable as is his wine.  We make no guarantee that you will have a similar experience if you should stop by, but we do think you will enjoy the wine.

Domaine Paul Autard has been making wine since 1924, a talent passed down through the generations.  This continues today.  Jean-Paul is communicating to his children, Jules and Pauline, “une somme précieuse de connaissances, d’observations et le travail de la vigne” (“a precious sum of knowledge, observations and work in the vineyard”).  The winery’s flagship wine is Juline, derived from his kids’ first names.

When we visited, the Autards gave us a corkscrew with the Domaine’s name and logo on it.  To this day, we use it to open his (and other people’s) wines.  Each glass of Paul Autard comes with an extra dollop of memories.



Fields of Lavender

The Southern Rhône is in Provence, which is famous for many things, notably wine, of course.  Then there are food, sunshine, an easygoing joie de vivre, and the people with their beautiful Provençal accent that is unique in France.   It is also a center of perfume production and much of that perfume is made from a flower characteristic of the region: lavender.

If you are coming to taste wine in Provence at the right time of the year, the late spring and through mid-summer, you will have the added attraction of seeing lavender growing in the fields. You may catch a few buds in April and there are stragglers in the fields after the main harvest in the middle of July, but the radiance of the fields in full bloom is a reason to visit in the prime months.

Lavender fields in front of the village of Grignan, in the Drôme Provençale.  Photo courtesy of Complete France.

Much as with grape vines, lavender is planted in orderly rows, so that it appears that fields and hillsides are striped in purple.  Of course we call that shade of purple by the name of the flower, but lavender takes on different hues, depending on the time of day.  In the hazy sun of morning, the plants are almost pink in hue.  In full sunlight, it takes on the light violet color we associate with lavender.  If you see the fields in the waning light of early evening, the plants appear to be a deep blue purple.

The scent of lavender hanging over the villages cannot be adequately described in words.  This indescribable fragrance envelopes you, leads you on, holds you back, entices, seduces and ultimately leaves you with a wistful smile that lingers in your memory.  If it is hard to summon the notion of a village embraced in this aroma, it is impossible to communicate the idea of an entire region smelling of lavender.

Processing lavender at the Distillerie Bleu-Provence.  Photo courtesy of Drôme Sud Provence.

You ought to visit the Drôme Provençale, where you’ll find the charming villages of Nyons and Grignan with its château. You can take a tour of the Distillerie Bleu-Provence and see how they process the flowers into lavender oil.  You will also enjoy a tasting of lavender tea and of course visit their attractive shop.

Our Provençal friends in Nyons have told us that they rub their arms and legs with lavender oil in the hot summer to avoid mosquito bites.  It certainly smells better than what we find here in the US.

Even if you miss the high season, there are lavender products available in all the Provencal towns throughout the year.  In almost every gift shop, you can find dried flowers, cosmetics, bottles of oils and tablecloths with lavender design.  Lavender is sometimes mixed in herbes de provence and there are those who sprinkle the flowers on salads.

We like to think that some of the aroma of lavender finds its way into the more delicate wines of the southern Rhône.  Search for it the next time you open a Côtes du Rhône.

Roussillon, the Red Village

Let’s say you’re on a wine tasting visit to the Southern Rhône.  Everywhere you go, there seems to be a mountain hovering over you.  One of them is Mont Ventoux, the Windy Mountain, and it is emblematic of the region.  You might wonder, what’s on the other side of that mountain.  The answer is that there are other wine producing areas, the Vaucluse and the Luberon.  They make pleasant wines, not as well known as the ones from the Côtes du Rhône.

The voyage over the mountains is worthwhile in itself.  For one thing, the panorama is breathtaking.    Wherever you’re driving from, you will cross many beautiful little villages as you drive over Ol’ Windy.  In many years, a stage of the Tour de France goes up the Mont Ventoux; they will return to the mountain this year.  No matter how hot it is when you leave the valley floor, you’ll find it to be quite chilly at the top of Mont Ventoux.  At the crest of the mountain there used to be a meteorological station; the building is still there even if it’s not used anymore.

The village of Roussillon.  Photo courtesy of Civitatis.

Once you get over the mountains, we recommend that you make your way to the village of Roussillon (pronounced roo-see-yon).  Although they’re spelled the same way, this village has nothing to do with Languedoc-Roussillon further to the west.  This quiet spot is ensconced in a Natural Regional Park, so that even if some tourists do find their way there, it is relatively unspoiled (or at least it was when we were last there).

Along the walls of Roussillon.  Photo courtesy of The Savvy Bostonian.

The town is built from stone quarried there in years past.  The rocks are full of ochre, a red-orange clay that has long been used to make artists’ paint.  Thousands of years ago, the prehistoric people living in what is now the south of France used it for body decoration and for coloring their famous cave art.  In Roussillon, the ochre creates a village where all the buildings are red, yellow, orange or shades in between.  French villages in general are charming; this one has charm pouring from every colored wall.

The best way to soak in all that charm is just to walk around.  There are steep stone streets (but no cars) where you pass quaint homes.  There’s an ancient Romanesque church, with “new” facades from the 17th century.   There’s a market on Thursday mornings and there’s a town square in front of the Mairie (town hall) where you ought to stop for a coffee, a meal or a glass of wine

Most of all, you should walk the walls overlooking the old quarries.  Roussillon sits atop a mass of red rock, and you can see it from the walkway.  You can take a stroll on the Ochre Trail (sentier des ocres) and walk into the quarries.  In particular, try to see Roussillon at the end of the day, when the color of the setting sun makes the walls of Roussillon and its surrounding seem to come ablaze.  It’s an awesome sight that you’ll never forget.

If in your wine-tasting travels in the Southern Rhône you want to spend a little time in the perfect Provençal village, you’ll find it in Roussillon.

Driving Tips in the Southern Rhône

In some sectors of Wine Country, there is one main road that sort of ties the entire region together.  There’s Route 29 in Napa Valley, the D2 in the Médoc or Main Road in Long Island’s North Fork.  But if you want to spend time driving around  the Southern Rhône to taste the wines, it’s not so easy.  For one thing, the sector is really large, around 140,000 acres in the Côtes-du-Rhône.  For another, many of the villages are very far from even the relatively large routes.

Châteauneuf du Pape.  Photo courtesy of La Mirande.

So if you do plan to drive around the Southern Rhône, here are a few tips to make your travels easier and your tasting more fun.

  • Choose a few nearby villages for a day’s tasting. Châteauneuf du Pape and the area around it is the most famous in the region and it justifies a day (or two, or a lifetime) by itself.  Beaumes de Venise, Gigondas and Vacqeyras are quite close to one another as are Rasteau and Cairannne.  Further north, Vinsobres and Visan are near to one another.  Try to minimize the driving so you can have more time for tasting and visiting the villages.
  • There are some spots where you don’t have to drive very far between wineries. For example, at the intersection of the D69 and the D975 in Rasteau, you can visit Domaine du Trapedis, Domaine la Soumade, the really excellent Cave de Rasteau cooperative, Domaine des Nymphes (for dessert wines) and Domaine Côteaux des Travers all within a few kilometers of one another.  That’s really a day’s tasting in one small place.
  • Get a good roadmap. You may have a car equipped with GPS or you may want to use your cell phone.  But we have found that these systems calculate the shortest route, not the fastest or most sensible one.  So you wind up driving through somebody’s vineyard with no village in sight for miles.  Michelin sells very good maps and there are others, all available at the local tabac or gas station.  Buy one that’s specific to the area you plan to visit.  Maps that cover a broader area may save you a little money but they lack the specificity to keep you from getting lost.

Gigondas. Photo courtesy of Our House in Provence.

  • Trust the signs. The roads are very well marked.  Since many of the villages aren’t on major roads or even large minor ones, your map might not be enough for the last mile.  But if you see a sign indicating that Gigondas is this way, keep going until you see the next sign for the village.  You’ll get there (and you’ll be glad you did).
  • Make time for lunch. You may as well, because all the wineries close up from around noon to 2:00.  So aim to be in a village just before lunchtime.  That way you can scout around and find a restaurant or café to your liking.  The better ones fill up, so you might need a reservation.  Even the more casual ones become full with locals, so make sure to get there around noon to make sure to get a table.