Slow wine tourism in the Ardèche
It might not be as prestigious as its Rhone Valley cousins to the east, but the Ardèche wine scene has been rocking a few barrels in recent years. With enthusiastic young wine makers embracing organic and biodynamic wine making, the quality is on the way up, helping it to break away from its ‘table wine’ image.
The region is mostly known for deep gorges to canoe down, paleolithic caves to slide through and medieval villages perched on hills, making the main tourist spots heaving in the summer. Yet less so, the vineyards.
This mix of natural wonders, rich history and enthusiastic vintners makes for a worthwhile stop on a wine tourist’s travels.
Officially part of the Rhone Valley but a little west of the rest, the Ardèche region boasts just 8500 hectares of vines, owned mostly by its 14 cooperatives, along with 58 independents. The appellations consist of IGP Ardèche, (which includes Coteaux d’Ardèche), Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages and Côtes du Vivrais. The grape varieties are mostly what you find in the Rhone Valley region, such as Grenache, Syrah, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot etc, but their local varieties, Chatus and Plan Brunel are also worth checking out.
My original reason for going to the Ardèche, I admit, had nothing to do with wine, but a visit virtually anywhere in France is not complete without smelling a few grapevines at the same time. And in good old wine wanderer fashion, I chose my lodgings well: a 13th Century castle in the midst of a vineyard.
I half expected a moat to descend as I drove up the gravel driveway. Majestic poplars surrounded the entrance, which, in former times, was a sign that passing travellers were welcome. While the castle has been well renovated since then, the spirit of the poplars remains intact. The Ardèchois, I’ve decided, are a pretty friendly lot.
My chosen castle was Chateau de la Selve. It has a somewhat prestigious history, once serving as a frontier post to guard the Kingdom of France, (as it was known in those days) and later gifted by King Henry 3rd to the Duke of Joyeuse (which is a town nearby). Later, and for a number of years, it also served as a base for other distinguished folk when they felt like a spot of hunting and the like. Centuries later, it still retains a sense of aristocracy and, with my room in one of the towers, I was almost tempted to throw down my hair to some wooer down below. While there was no wooer out the window, there was an extraordinary sense of calm, with the perfectly manicured lawn, horses grazing in the paddock beyond and vines swaying in the breeze.
The accommodation consists of nicely appointed apartments, a warm and relaxed atmosphere all around and nice little spots to read under a tree or laze by the pool. I felt really quite at home there, chatting to the odd guest as we crossed paths, or the extremely friendly owner, and the lovely manager Veronique. And then of course there is the wine…
Chateau de la Selve have been producing wine since the early 2000s, converting to organic in 2008 and biodynamic just a few years later. Ensure you book a slot for the guided tour and tasting, as that was a highlight of my stay. You will be immediately whisked towards the castle, passing by the merlot, if they’re still there, as they are slowly being phased out other more suitable varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Viognier…. A full and fascinating recount of the history and then it’s back to the cellar to hear about their different vinification methods. If you’re lucky like me, you’ll get a few sips from different barrels to demonstrate the evolution of the wine, and get up close to their terracotta amphoras, which do nothing to detract from the aristocratic aura. I truly could get used to castle life.
Château de la Selve, Grospierres, Ardèche. Around 110 euros per night for an appartement.
A thing to do
Go canoeing down the gorge at Vallon Pont d’Arc
La Petite Selve (red)
I shared this with friends at a picnic and everyone loved it – generous rich red fruits, a bit of spice and tannins, warm and friendly.
Serre de Berty (red, 2018)
This one is more serious, with the fruit a bit more toned down, making way for earthy touches, a longer finish and more robust tannins. I quite liked it then and there but it will age well too. I also got to try the 2007 version, which was, as expected, less fruity and had more earthy notes and softer tannins.