A Wine Writers View on the World of Wine. Formerly Magics Wine Guide and Reviews for Newbies
The Ardèche boasts some of France’s most famous vineyards – and expensive wine. But further south, in l’Ardèche Méridionale, you’ll find more affordable lesser-known vintages, rural bistros and friendly winemaker B&Bs
Women winemakers seem to work wonders in the Ardèche, and in the village of Saint-Marcel, begin with a tasting at Domaine Saladin, where the bubbly Saladin sisters, Elisabeth and Marie-Laurence, have revitalised a vineyard that has been in the family since 1422. Then move on to the Mas de Libian (you’ll need to call first to arrange a visit). Hélene Thibon doesn’t look like a typical vigneronne, more like a model from Elle, but she makes tremendous biodynamic wines. Working principally with red grapes, her €6.50 Vin de Pétanque is a mix of grenache and syrah, perfect for drinking in summer, while a wine to take home to age in the cellar is Khayyam (named after the Persian poet), which also includes the local mourvèdre grape, still reasonably priced at €11.
• +33 6 61 41 45 32, masdelibian.com
The Ardèche is the home to some of the country’s big-name vineyards – Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Cornas and St-Joseph – but is the sulfite-free vins naturels that are all the fashion in France right now, and this part of the region is attracting many young winemakers to cultivate vineyards along these principles. The wines are always surprising – usually high in alcohol, often cloudy as they are never filtered, and sometimes need to be shaken in carafes to aerate them – while the winemakers are irrepressibly enthusiastic, occasionally bordering on the fundamentalist. Le Mazel is a perfect cellar to make an appointment to visit. While Gérald Oustric looks after the vines, the tastings are handled by his sister, Jocelyne, and it can come as shock to try the Cuvée Charbonnières, a 2006 chardonnay at €9, that spent three years ageing in large barrels but has absolutely no woody taste. Gérald used to sell his grapes direct to the coopérative before embarking on his naturel adventure, which has seen him concentrate on a smaller winery, renting out parcels of the family vineyards to other like-minded vignerons. In April 2012, they plan to organise a vins naturels wine fair.
• +33 4 75 52 51 02
Photograph: John BruntonIt is difficult to imagine a B&B that makes you feel more welcome. As well as overseeing five guest rooms in their rustic farmhouse, Raphael Pommier and his American wife, Rachel, also run a vast winery that stretches to 55 hectares. The property has been in the family since 1780, and Raphael, the seventh generation, always takes visitors for a short walk up to the ancient sixth-century chapel that gives the domaine its name. Prices begin at only €50 for a double, including breakfast, something of a feast of regional produce. Early evening is the time to taste his organic wines, accompanied by goat’s cheese and saucisson, with a simple vin de pays costing €5.90, rising to €9 for a more complex Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages.
Regis Quentin gave up his job as a computer expert in Normandy 10 years ago and moved to Ardèche to become a winemaker. His 17-hectare vineyard of merlot, syrah, cabernet, chardonnay and viognier grapes has been a big success (he also grows garlic and shallots), and he has converted two rooms of his traditional stone manor into a delightful B&B, complete with TV, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, swimming pool and panoramic terrace overlooking the vines – all for the very reasonable price of €65-75 for a double with breakfast. Downstairs is the wine cellar, where you can taste the latest vintages over an evening aperitif with Regis and his companion, Delphine, with prices beginning at €5.40 a bottle.
• +33 4 75 39 29 01, peyrebrune.com
Photograph: John BruntonIn the wine-making village of Valvignères, this is a popular haunt of vignerons, farmers, and curious tourists, who discover a surprising venue offering creative fare inspired by the flavours of Asia and the Mediterranean and even a vegetarian dish, while the outstanding, well-priced wine list, begins with the simple vintages of the local cave coopérative at €10 a bottle, and extends to a surprising selection of vins naturels produced in half-a-dozen neighbouring vineyards. There is a lovely terrace, ideal for an aperitif, where everyone is kept amused by the owners’ friendly dog. The €18 set menu, that changes daily, could feature an asparagus flan followed by slow-cooked veal with mashed potatoes and apricot and cherry clafoutis.
• +33 4 75 52 45 32, bistrodepays.com
The Farigoule is one of those authentic rural bistros that you dream about discovering. Facing out over the vineyards of the sleepy hamlet of Bidon, this is a one-stop address for delicious Ardéchois cooking, excellent wines from local winemakers, a delicatessen that showcases regional produce – from chesnut puree to goat cheese, apricot jam to homemade sausages – plus the chance to stay the night in their new three-room B&B, very reasonably-priced at €60. Brigitte and her husband Guy are genial hosts, a mine of information, and their copious dishes run from a hearty plat du jour at €11 to a delicious three-course set menu at €18.
• +33 4 75 04 02 60, aubergelafarigoule-bidon07.com
Photograph: John BruntonYou can go canoeing and kayaking in the spectacular 30km Ardèche Gorges, rock climbing and exploring caves, trekking, mountain biking, swimming and sunbathing, but the one sight not to be missed is the Pont-d’Arc, the symbol of this whole region. This is a natural limestone arch that stretches majestically over the river for 60 metres. You can park your car on the roadside high above, then walk down a path to the waterside where a sandy beach lies just below the Pont.
The Ardèche has a host of villages that boast the prestigious Le plus beaux villages de France award, but the downside of being recognised as one of France’s most beautiful villages is that you immediately get put on the coach tour itinerary and local bakers and butchers risk being transformed into twee souvenir boutiques. So rather than joining the crowds marvelling at the likes of Vogue and Balazuc, head off-the-beaten track to Lebeaume, a spectacular site where an ancient village is perched on precarious, towering cliffs, that dominate a calm river perfect for swimming. There are some simple cafes here, but this is the perfect spot for a waterside picnic of Ardéchois charcuterie, cheeses, fruits and a chilled bottled of viognier white wine. In summer and autumn, this natural amphitheatre is a romantic open-air venue for classical music festival.
Photograph: John BruntonThis region is famous for its charcuterie, honey, marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), and the caillette, a delicious pork faggot, but the one speciality not to be missed is local goat’s cheese. Jean Muller has been rearing goats and making tiny, creamy cheeses for over 40 years. You can stop-off by his rambling farm if you give a call first, but the best plan is to catch Monsieur Muller at one of the morning markets he regularly attends – Viviers on Tuesday, Bourg-Saint-Andéol on Wednesday, Alba-la-Romaine on Sunday. The cheeses have a standard price of €1.30, but are all aged differently, so be prepared for a huge variations, from the creamy, fresh chevre to the wrinkled, dry strong varieties that can knock your head off.
• +33 4 75 52 47 32
Ardèche borders on Provence, and around the town of St Remeze and the Ibie valley the landscapes are a patchwork of green vineyards and vivid lavender fields. Every local market stocks lavender souvenirs, but to really get a feel for the culture surrounding this fragrant flowering plant it is worth spending some time at this excellent museum, which is also a functioning distillery. You have to join an hour-long guided tour, but they speak English, and the visit includes a demonstration of the distillation of this magic elixir. And afterwards you can pick up lavender soap, essential oils, perfume and even lavender honey.
• +33 4 75 04 37 26, ardechelavandes.com, entry €6, open April-September
• Further information: Ardèche tourism office (ardeche-guide.com)