From its source high in the Swiss Alps, the mighty Rhône flows south to the Mediterranean, passing through Lyon, France’s vibrant third city and a modern metropolis with a long history. The fertile Rhône Valley, a central artery between north and south, not only produces more of the world’s most wonderful wines but is also home to other fine produce such as poultry from Bresse, fish from the Dombes, Charolais beef, and fruit from the orchards.
The fruit industry started in earnest in the 1880s as a reaction to the phylloxera disease that struck the local vineyards. Today, the Beaujolais country thrives and wine-lovers heading south detour to familiar names such as Fleurie, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon and Brouilly. Further south, opposite Tournon, there is the lure of the celebrated Côtes du Rhône at Tain-l’Hermitage.
Like taciturn troops guarding the vineyards, the Monts du Beaujolais are covered with sombre chestnut and pine forests, and there is a local wood industry. The bell-shaped vines reach high up the slopes, as do the typical farmhouses, with living quarters over the cellar.
Technically part of the Burgundy wine region, Beaujolais produces mainly red but also a little white and rosé wine. Red Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape. The better wines come from single cru vineyards from 10 villages in the north, towards MaÇon. The famous Beaujolais Nouveau is produced by macération carbonique, which results in fresh fruity reds that are to be enjoyed relatively young.
In Julyiénas the wine cellar is in a long-disused church. At the Château de Corcelles the former guard room is now a tasting room. Belleville is the commercial centre of an area where the most serious wine-makers work at improving the quality of the traditional Beaujolais.
The Beaujolais Nouveau “season” opens with a media bang in mid-November – on the third Thursday of the month – just a few weeks after the grapes have been harvested. At midnight preceding the date set for the first sale, luxury sports cars and private planes rev their engines for the race to be the first to bring the year’s vintage to London, Dublin or New York.
The scenery changes abruptly to the west of the Rhône, in the Ardèche region which marks the southern edge of central France. The Ardèche river, a tributary of the Rhône, has carved its way through the limestone to create a towering, rugged landscape riddled with caves and tunnels containing the oldest cave paintings in the world
Canoeing, kayaking and white-water rafting are popular in the Gorges de l’Ardèche, especially near Vallon Pont d’Arc where the gorges are particularly spectacular. At Pont d’Arc the river has pierced a passage through the rock, which has grown into a beautifully symmetrical arch.
73–5 rue du Président Edouard Herriot
tel: 04 78 38 09 50
Big-scale hotel in the centre of Lyon, with some Art Deco fittings in the public areas and all the reliable modern services associated with Mercure hotels.
11 rue Neuve
tel: 04 78 28 62 91
One of the most classic bouchons lyonnais or traditional inns, where one goes prepared to eat one’s fill of the city’s famously generous cuisine – meaty salads, several aperitifs, fabulous cheeses, rich wines – in a very convivial atmosphere. Closed Sun, Mon.
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