Savoring the Rhône Valley: The Flavors of an Iconic Region

This past June, I spent an evening wandering around the medieval city of Avignon. At a friend’s suggestion, I made my way to Avenio, a small restaurant in the heart of the city serving Provençal cuisine. I was warmly greeted and promptly seated by a woman I would later find was the co-owner of the restaurant, Pauline Casamatta. I perused the menu of regional fare given a distinctive modern update, swooning at the suggestion of plump summer tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and a dusting of truffles, eggplant roasted with garlic, and fresh tuna tartare.

In a time when many restaurants in America champion the fact that their menus are local and seasonal, at this little Provençal establishment, it would be unheard of to do it any other way. At least, that’s what Casamatta’s facial expression suggested when asked to talk about the food she and her husband, Chef Jérôme Nolin, serve.

“We cook based on what we have,” says Casamatta. “If it’s what the farms and producers have to offer, that’s what we use to plan our menus. That’s what makes the food good; it’s authentic to who we are here.”

Casamatta speaks for family-owned restaurants in villages throughout the old world, and her comments are also a happy indicator to outsiders that they’re in for a true taste of the region. This was reflected in each course, from the house-made tapenade with toasted pain de Beaucaire that arrived with a glass of house rosé, to the brightly dressed tuna tartare with a petite salad of fresh greens, and the soulfully rich local truffle risotto, balanced with a surprisingly light and mineral-driven Vin de Pays Viognier Casamatta suggested.

This was the first of many similar meals I’d have during my weeklong exploration of the Rhône Valley. And while it certainly isn’t the only region I’ve visited where food and wine are intrinsic partners, it was a clear reminder that where wine is grown—whether iconic Cru or vin du pays—the local food will elevate the experience.

The pedigree of the wine consumed at a meal like this, particularly when shared with friends and family, seems to matter very little within the local culture. While it certainly helps when you’re dining at an establishment known for its well-appointed wine list, places such as Avenio only offer wines from their own region, usually from lesser-known producers unavailable in the States. So when the owner of a restaurant wants to pour me a rosé from a producer whose estate is not 20 miles from town, I say, “Oui, bien sur!”

Geography of the Rhône Valley

The vineyards of the Rhône Valley hug a 125-mile stretch of the Rhône River from north to south, with the southern wine regions fanning out from the river as it approaches the Mediterranean Sea. The region is divided into two distinctively different growing areas.

The Northern Rhône Valley

In the Northern Rhône, vineyards cling to steeper, terraced slopes, and the climate is more continental, with higher rainfall, greater seasonal temperature shifts, and growing conditions impacted by the drying winds of the Mistral.

Found here are the world’s most iconic expressions of Syrah: Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, and Cornas. Though unique within the separate communes, Syrah wines of the Northern Rhône are typically both powerful and elegant with pronounced fruit framed with smokiness, pepper, olive, and savory herbs. Hermitage produces white wines from Marsanne and Roussanne that are light and golden, with floral and roasted almond aromas. Condrieu and Château-Grillet are known for their classic expressions of lush Viognier, offering powerful aromatics with apricot, honey, and fragrant flowers. Near Valence, Saint-Péray is known for still and sparkling wine made from Roussanne and Marsanne.

The Southern Rhône Valley

Following a nearly 30-mile gap that extends from just south of Valence to Montélimar, the Southern Rhône begins with Grignan-les-Adhémar, a commune known for lavender, truffles, and olives but also gaining ground with elegant white and red wines. Directly south of Grignan-les-Adhémar, the region is home to nearly a dozen other appellations, which enjoy a predominantly Mediterranean climate with an estimated 2,600 hours of sunshine annually. Though rainfall can be abundant in certain parts of the year, the Mistral wind is key in purifying the sun-soaked vineyards from diseases and pests.

The Southern Rhône is where 95% of Rhône Valley wines are grown. Here, the soils vary to include limestone outcrops and alluvial deposits such as the rounded river stones, known as galet rouge. Wines from the southern appellations are generally blends dominated by Grenache, with Mourvèdre and Syrah as complementary varieties that provide structure and depth of color. Cinsault and Carignan round out the top five red grape varieties of the south, but in significantly smaller percentages.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape holds the banner as the most prestigious appellation in the region but is followed by a cast of quality appellation including the Grenache-heavy Vacqueyras and Gigondas as well as the Vin Doux Naturels-designated Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise and Rasteau, and the rosé-designated Tavel.

A Rich Culinary Heritage

What enchants me most about the cuisine of the Rhône Valley is the innate energy and power in the flavors that come from the earth. This is best exemplified in the summer months, when fields of vibrant lavender and sunflowers flourish; fig, apricot, and olive trees are pregnant with ripening fruit; and weekly markets are flush with a rainbow of radiant fruits and vegetables. At the table, olive oil is as present as salt and pepper. Olive oil, not butter, leads in the kitchen, particularly in the South.

Also in the South, seafood, poultry, lamb, and goat cheeses are more prominent due to the proximity to the sea and lack of grazing land for cattle. Flavors take on more spice and herbal character from the Mediterranean climate and aromatic herbs of the region, including lavender, fennel, and anise.

Further north, the cuisine takes a lead from France’s culinary capital, Lyon, which is famous not only for elegant gourmet cuisine, but also for rustic, hearty fare best complemented by the wines grown throughout the Northern Rhône. Prominent ingredients include cured meats, sausages, truffles from Tricastin, and lake fish. Slow-cooked or braised dishes of beef or veal are common, and potatoes and onions factor more heavily into daily dishes, such as gratins and tarts. Cheeses from the broader region include Beaufort, Abondance, and Reblochon.

The region's culinary heritage dates back to 600 BCE with Greek trade in the south; later Roman viticultural influences moved further north by the first century. While the mélange of cultures along the Mediterranean Sea have most influenced the flavors of the Southern Rhône, in the Northern Rhône, Roman expansion was met with Gallic influences that culminated in river port cities such as Vienne, which became major points of trade.

Forced to be resourceful, generations have looked to the land to inform their cooking. There’s nothing subtle about the flavors here, so it should come as no surprise that the wines are anything but shy.

The nearly two dozen grape varieties of the Rhône produce some of the most interesting and complex wines in the world. And while there any number of pairing combinations you could splice together, from Syrah and flavorful Indian curry to Viognier with spicy Louisiana barbecue shrimp, the adage of “what grows together, goes together” has perhaps never been more appropriate than in the Rhône Valley.

Recipes from the Rhône

As a cookbook author, I spend a lot of time putzing around the kitchen marking up cookbooks with notes and adaptations, working with chefs to translate their intentions into approachable terms for the home cook, and methodically testing recipes. I’m not a chef by trade, nor am I technically trained—but I don’t find this essential in the search for authentic flavor. And when it comes to the Rhône Valley, flavor is de rigueur and simplicity its greatest asset. Here are a few classic recipes, adapted from chefs and cooks of the Rhône Valley, that you can easily make at home.

Tapenade Provençal

Sea breezes from Mediterranean Sea are credited with adding freshness and vibrancy to the wines of Costières de Nîmes, not 20 miles from the coast. Here, rosé wines can be as bashful as Provençal styles or as rich and concentrated as Tavel. The Grenache-dominant 2015 Capitelles Rosé from Château Mourgues du Grès is a perfect example of the fresher style and makes an ideal match for this classic Provençal appetizer.

1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 garlic clove, peeled
4-6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 salt-cured anchovy filets
1 pound good quality black pitted olives (preferably Kalamata), drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1 bay leaf, ground
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Bread, for serving

Put lemon juice in a small bowl. Grate the garlic into the lemon juice, stir together, and set aside.

In a small frying pan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add anchovy filets and stir with a fork, lightly mashing the filets to dissolve them in the oil. Once dissolved, let cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and lemon mixture and let cook for about 30 seconds more, then remove from the heat.

In a food processor, combine the anchovy mixture, olives, capers, bay leaf powder, and thyme. Add the remaining 1 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, depending on the desired consistency. Pulse until the ingredients are well combined. Serve at room temperature with toasted slices of bread.

Poulet d'Avignon

In Lirac, Rodolphe de Pins of Château de Montfaucon demonstrates his passion for Clairette with his 2015 single-varietal Comtesse Madeleine made from 150-year-old vines. Though the acidity is restrained, the mineral quality of this wine offers a vibrancy that lifts the creaminess and richness of this classic Avignon dish.

8 skinless bone-in chicken thighs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sliced onion
1 tablespoon brandy
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups white wine, divided
1/2 cup sliced carrots
1 cup mushrooms, halved if large
1 cup diced apple, such as Fuji or McIntosh
1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream

Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Pan-fry chicken thighs for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Remove chicken and set aside on a plate lined with paper towels.

To the same skillet, add the onions, brandy, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions become tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Slowly sprinkle flour over the onion mixture and stir to combine. Stir in broth and 1 cup of the white wine. Stir in carrots. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, until the liquid is reduced and the carrots are tender.

Remove the lid and stir in the mushrooms and diced apples. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce heat and stir in crème fraîche or sour cream and remaining wine. Return the chicken to the skillet and let cook on each side for 2 to 3 minutes.

Serve the chicken with a few spoonfuls of sauce ladled over each piece.

Shiitake Risotto with Black Truffle

When Pauline Casamatta served a glass of Viognier with this dish, I was curious to see if the two would work together. To my surprise, the freshness of that particular Viognier brought lift to the creamy risotto but also had a broad enough palate to complement its heft. The Domaine de Montine 2016 Viognier from Grignan-les-Adhémar would be a good fit. For those seeking a red wine, Cécile Dusserre of Domaine Montvac brilliantly balances mineral, acid, and purity in her 2015 Variation, a 100% Grenache Vacqueryas.

For the mushrooms:
1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, sliced into 1/4- to 1/3-inch pieces
1 large onion, halved, thinly sliced lengthwise
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves

For the risotto:
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 large onion, diced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice or medium-grain white rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 cups (or more) vegetable broth, warmed
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons shaved black truffle, optional
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

First, prepare the mushrooms. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss all ingredients together on a rimmed baking sheet, then spread the mushrooms and onions out evenly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until the mushrooms are tender and light brown around the edges, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Once the mushrooms have been roasting for about 15 minutes, start the rice. In a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add onion and cook until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add rice and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Add wine and stir until almost all the liquid is absorbed, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in about 1 cup of the hot broth. Simmer until the broth is almost absorbed, stirring often, about 4 minutes. Add more broth, 1 cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding the next and stirring often. Continue until the rice is tender and the mixture is creamy, about 20 minutes longer. Stir in the mushroom mixture, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, cheese, and shaved truffle, until everything is well combined. Transfer to large bowl, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.

Lamb Chops with Lentils du Puy

The sweet and gamey notes of lamb combined with an herb crust and the earthiness of lentils grown right in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes make this dish a perfect match with the depth and flavors of Syrah—savory, herbal, peppery, and gamey. Try something like the 2014 Pierre Gonon Saint-Joseph.

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
3 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves
4 double-rib lamb chops
1 cup French green lentils du Puy
1 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced carrot
1/2 cup diced celery
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef broth

In a shallow baking dish, combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with the garlic, thyme, and rosemary. Add the lamb and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 6 hours, or overnight.

Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the lentils, stir, and reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, return the lentils to the saucepan, and set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add diced onion, carrot, and celery, and cook until tender, about 5 or 6 minutes. Stir the sautéed vegetables into the lentils, cover, and set aside.

Heat a large sauté pan over high heat, then add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan. Season the lamb chops on both sides with salt and pepper. Add the chops to the heated oil and sear over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes on each side. Transfer the chops to a rack to rest.

Pour the red wine into the same pan and place over medium heat, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Slowly stir in the beef broth. Season with salt to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the sauce has reduced by about a third. Skim the fat from the surface as needed. Serve spooned over the lentils, with the lamb chops alongside.

Apricot & Goat Cheese Tart

In June, apricots orchards around Beaucaire are laden with sweet fruit begging to be picked. A simple summer tart made rich with the addition of goat cheese is a sweet indulgence. The 2015 Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise from Domaine La Ligière smells like jasmine and has a refreshing lift that would be perfect with a slice of this tart.

For the dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon salt
4-6 tablespoons ice-cold water

For the filling:
12 ounces Neufchâtel cheese
4 ounces goat cheese
4 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4-5 apricots, peeled, pitted, and sliced

Using a food processor, pulse together the flour, butter, and salt until the butter is about the size of small peas. Drizzle in the ice water a little at a time while pulsing, until the dough forms a loose ball. You may not need all of the water. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and quickly form into a 1-inch-thick disk. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

After 30 minutes, remove the dough from the refrigerator and place on a floured, flat surface. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Lift it into a 12-inch tart pan and gently press it in. Refrigerate for 10 minutes. Line the base of the pastry with parchment paper and fill the pan with pie weights or 1 pound of dry beans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned. Remove the weights and paper and bake for another 15 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly before filling.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

In a small, deep bowl, beat the cheeses with an electric mixer until smooth. Add 3 tablespoons of the sugar and beat for about 2 minutes more. Add the eggs and blend well.

Pour the cheese mixture into the prepared crust. Arrange the sliced apricots in concentric circles on top of the tart, beginning in the center and leaving no spaces between the pieces of fruit. Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for 15 more minutes, or until the center is set. Remove from the oven and let cool.

Refrigerate in the pan for at least 4 hours before removing, slicing, and serving.