I love Rhône Valley wines—the reds and the whites. (Personally, I’m not as excited about the rosés, although I know there are some great ones. And the local bubbles haven’t proven themselves yet to me.) When I lived in Northern Virginia, Rhône wine was a part of my Signature Theatre pre-show routine: a glass of Côtes du Rhône with Tex Mex egg rolls at the Carlyle. Weird combination? Not to me.
In Dijon, I was thrilled to learn that a trip to the Rhône Valley would be part of my studies. It was a quick but substantive visit: two full days and one night. It started with a 6:30 am departure to arrive in Tain-l’Hermitage at 10:00 am. First, a tour, tasting, and lunch at Cave de Tain. Then a tour and tasting at Maison M. Chapoutier. The day finished with a drive to Avignon, where we checked into our hotel and had some free time before and after a group dinner to see the famous Palais des Papes and other sights in the city.
The next day started with a drive to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a tour and tasting at Château de Beaucastel. After a picnic lunch at the remains of the Château des Papes (or the Châteauneuf-du-Pape castle) and free time in the village proper, we completed our visit with a tour and tasting at nearby Domaine de Palestor. Then it was a long ride back to Dijon.
It was only two days, but we saw a lot. In terms of wine, the four visits represented big and small, famous and unknown, and private and cooperative producers. We also saw hill royalty— Hermitage, probably the most famous hill in the wine world—and some charming cities and villages.
As part of the visit, we had an assignment: assess wine tourism in the Rhône Valley. One part of many was a SWOT analysis, a popular assignment in my program. That’s when I found the disconnect.
There is no doubt that the Rhône Valley has many strengths. Many. First and foremost, it offers high quality, world-class wines—ranging from value to icon prices. Even a casual wine drinker is likely to have heard of Côtes du Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Beyond wine tasting, festivals, and museums, the area offers food, culture, heritage, and nature. There’s Valrhona chocolate, Montélimar’s nougat, and French food in general. There are jazz, opera, and other performing arts festivals; Roman ruins; and Medieval towns. Among the many attractive destinations, Avignon offers festivals, culture, and heritage, including its role as a former papal seat. The region is easily accessible from Paris, Lyon, and Marseille by high-speed train, and there’s ample accommodation throughout.
If that’s not enough, the region is close to Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and gastronomy, heritage, and culture center. The Rhône Valley is also a gateway to the Provence region. These last items are a bonus and sources of the disconnect.
In the tourism world, the Rhône Valley suffers from confusing regional positioning. Simplified, this means a mismatch of wine region and overall travel tourism geography. In the wine world, the Rhône Valley runs from Vienne to Avignon. Yet tourism approaches the area very differently.
Rough Guides and Travel+Leisure online articles both stated, “Visit the Rhône Valley—which spans from Lyon to just north of Orange in Provence.” In the 2011 France Lonely Planet printed guide, the Rhône Valley is in the section with Lyon, which also includes Beaujolais. (In the wine world, Beaujolais is in the Burgundy region.) Avignon casts itself as a gateway to Provence, not a base for the Rhône Valley. I won’t even go into detail about the north and south Rhône split within the wine world. There’s no one anchor city or town, integrated promotional strategy for the region as a whole, nor a one-stop “shop” website for all the activities and links to all tourism city/village websites.
In the end, does it matter? It’s hard to tell. My research indicated that people visit the Rhône Valley mainly to buy and taste wine and then because of the reputation of the region, the climate, and the cuisine. If, as reported, wine tourism is a strong contributor to the Rhône Valley’s overall tourism success and reputation, then it does matter and the region would benefit from initiatives to either fix or mitigate the issue.
The Rhône Valley absolutely has a lot to offer, but you might need to do some work to figure it out. In the meantime, enjoy the literal and figurative fruits of the Rhône Valley’s labor, since it’s easy to enjoy Rhône wines when you find them.