Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Ramblin' in the Rhone

After my hedonistic Bacchanalia of liver abuse in Burgundy, I jumped into a rental car (what better type of vehicle to abuse?) and shot down the lovely highways of Southern France. It was a beautiful day, and my little car had no trouble hitting 150-160 kph (95-100 mph). Man, it is so much fun driving in Europe, the roads are well-maintained and the speed limits high (130 kph). The only drawback? VERY expensive tolls, but what the heck, if it gets me a pothole-free ground-level quasi-flight to my destination, I'll happily pay.

The Rhone Valley is a long expanse of steep hills following the curves of the Rhone River from Lyon almost down to the Mediterranean. The soil is very rocky and dry, with very high temperatures in the summer and a steady wind, the Mistral, which has been known to blow for over a third of the year and can drive people mad. If you haven't experienced the Mistral, you don't know how that constant pressure, that insistent howling can just reach into your head and scramble your brain. There are parts of the Rhone where trees grow straight for about a foot or two, then curve sharply to the South, a physical manifestation of the Mistral.

I ended up in Tain l'Hermitage, a charming if small town along the Rhone, with a beautiful pedestrian suspension bridge linking it to a sister city, Tournon. Looming over the town of Tain l'Hermitage is the Hermitage hill, an extremely steep, rocky promontory with a small chapel all the way at the very top. The story is that a knight returning from the Crusades, the Chevalier de Sterimberg, decided to live a hermit's life at the top of the small mountain, thus the name Hermitage Hill.
The Romans came through here as well, recognizing the stony soil and west-facing hillside as a perfect place to plant grapes. Of course, the ones making the decision were probably not the ones picking the vines...

It really is amazing that anything can grow in this soil, and in this heat to boot. It's dry most of the year as well, and to handle the constant push of the Mistral the wines are trained on single stakes as opposed to wires in the traditional Guyot training (see pic).
This is an absolutely wild and sauvage landscape, a beautiful world where Nature seems to want to resist Man's incursions by making his life as difficult as possible. As opposed to Burgundy, which is a virtual carpet of grapes from the Beaujolais to the very walls of the city of Dijon, the Rhone is a hodge-podge of vineyards clinging to steep hills following the Rhone and atop wind-swept, sunny plateaus, between which one finds the odd nuclear power plant and industrial site.
I spent the next two days meandering between the wineries which had interested me and rambling via the back-roads taking pictures, which I'll post later.
What a life.


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