Culture: A Journey Through the Hilltop Villages of the Southern Rhône Valley | Wine Enthusiast
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A Journey Through the Hilltop Villages of the Southern Rhône Valley

The Southern Rhône Valley holds a profound wine legacy, from its Greek origins to Roman expansion and the Church’s appreciation. This is home to captivating villages, with wine namesakes perched on picturesque peaks adorned with vineyards on their valleys and slopes. Though Châteauneufdu-Pape is highly recognized, there are several other prestigious Crus in the Southern Rhône, plus, of course, the renowned Côtes du Rhône appellation and its village-level production.

A remarkable feature of the land is the Dentelles de Montmirail. The rugged mountains resemble lace, which gives the range its name, translating to “admirable mountains of lace.” These stone landmarks serve as a backdrop for terraced vineyards and provide opportunities for hiking and biking amid preserved natural habitats.

While many people do bike their way through the villages, traveling by car affords a charming (and less exerting) road trip that delivers excellent restaurants, wine-tasting experiences and scenery that will keep cameras busy for days. “We have so many things to do, so many restaurants to go to,” says Madeline Ferran, winemaker at family-run Domaine des Escaravailles. Here are some of the highlights of eating and drinking in the Southern Rhône.

AOC Rasteau, AOC Rasteau
AOC Rasteau, AOC Rasteau / Image Courtesy of Christophe Grilhé


This is one of Southern France’s most meaningful places to taste local flavors and feel texture come alive. Rasteau is home to a 12th-century church and château ruins plus a small iconic square lined with shops and a tourist center that sells AOP Rasteau wines. Here, one can find still wines as well as Vin Doux Naturel, the succulent fortified wine of the region. “Make sure to do the Sentier Viticole and wander around the village of Rasteau,” says Ferran. This is otherwise known as the appellation’s wine trail, a walking path through the scenic vineyards and landscapes where Rasteau wine originates. If you’re in town at the right time, Ferran says to make plans to visit Quand Vin Le Soir, a pop-up wine experience that takes place over several summer evenings. This is a prime opportunity to taste releases from multiple producers alongside some of the best food trucks in the area.

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The old town of Cairanne is wrapped in ramparts, and a steep stairway ascension leads to the 18th-century St. Roch chapel. Winemaker Laurent Brusset of Domaine Brusset says that visitors find the Autanne Gate particularly fascinating. Part of the village’s medieval fortification, one can still see the notches made to help horse-drawn carts climb the ramp. In July of each year, the village comes to life with the vibrant festivities of the Fête du Vin festival, which draws local crowds and plenty of out-of-town visitors. The top restaurants here are Côteaux et Fourchettes, a short drive south of Cairanne, and Le Tourne au Verre, which is a hub for winemakers. Just down the street from the café is the outstanding caveau where guests can taste and buy wines made by the domaines of the Cairanne Cru. Thibault Brotte, a producer from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, now makes wine from Cairanne. He says that “Cairanne is the future Châteauneuf-du-Pape—a great terroir and great people.” While Cairanne is largely turning out red wines, this spot is increasingly regarded for white wine production, and demand currently exceeds supply.

AOC Gigondas / AOC Gigondas
AOC Gigondas / AOC Gigondas / Christophe Grilhé


The journey continues to Gigondas, a name that resonates deeply with wine enthusiasts worldwide thanks to its Cru status, religious history and Romanesque sites. This was the first of the Côtes du Rhône villages to earn Cru status in 1971. The storied streets of Gigondas lead to cozy restaurants that serve as gateways to local flavors and global acclaim, including L’Oustalet, which has earned a Michelin Green Star for its attention to environmental responsibility. A wander through town delivers preserved architecture and ancient plane trees that shade the squares and tidy streetscapes. Many domaines in the area offer tours and tastings, allowing you to experience the winemaking traditions and sample unique wines. The village is home to the Caveau du Gigondas, where over 100 Gigondas AOP wines are available to sample and purchase the classic and robust reds for which the Cru is famous.

View of the weekly Provencal market in the ancient city of Vaison-la-Romaine from Avenue du General De Gaulle. A fruit and vegetable stand is visible.
View of the weekly Provencal market in the ancient city of Vaison-la-Romaine / Getty Images


Vaison-la-Romaine is renowned for its rich ancient heritage, picturesque setting and vibrant cultural scene including a medieval old town and a Roman theater and ruins. The wine here is produced as Côtes du Rhône Villages Vaison-la-Romaine, one of the northernmost village-level wines, considered capable of growing southern-style Grenache and the traditional northern-style Syrah. This is one of the best places to arrive hungry and leave satisfied. “If you are here on a Tuesday, you should go to Vaison-la-Romaine’s famous farmers market,” says Ferran. This is considered one of the must-see fairs of the area, with a history dating back to the 1400s. In the summer vendors can top out at 450 or more. After a day of browsing, Ferran suggests a meal at what she considers to be the best restaurant in the region: Les Maisons du’O Le Bistro Panoramique. This is truly a treat, with a superb menu centered on local ingredients, paired with a breathtaking view of the Ouvèze River from the modern dining area.

View of the village of Seguret, Provence
View of the village of Seguret, Provence / Getty Images


Bearing the title of “the most beautiful village in France,” Séguret is a medieval hilltop-hugging village with charm and history to spare. Its idyllic location is captivating—perched on a hillside, surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and landscapes covered in garrigue. Around Christmastime, a white-lit star is artfully hung over the village and appears to be magical from a distance. In fact, the village itself is nothing short of a spectacle with its narrow cobblestone streets and ancient stone architecture. To reach the nooks of Séguret, you’ll need to walk, but as you wander through the village, you’ll encounter charming squares, traditional fountains and petite gardens. Restaurant Le Mesclun is the ideal place to dine, perched on the town’s elevation. A table here provides panoramic views of Mont Ventoux in the distance and vineyards below, where the elegant and fresh Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret wines are produced.

Land of the AOC Beaumes de Venise in summer
Land of the AOC Beaumes de Venise in summer / Image Courtesy of Thomas O’Brien

More Town To-Dos

Add to the enchantment of the trip by including one of the other hilltop towns of Vacqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise or Sablet. Discover the circular layout of Vacqueyras, where a church with a bell tower stands at the center, and a botanical trail invites you to experience the fragrance of native flora. In Beaumes-de-Venise, ancient caves, feudal castle ruins and an olive mill paint a vivid picture of history and nature intertwined. And the pretty and perfect Sablet is a slice of medieval times with its 9th-century fortifications and fantastic views.

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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