The local dimension : Avignon, capital of the Côtes du Rhône

Gateway to the Côtes du Rhône – for visitors, wine enthusiasts and lovers of fine foods

Avignon is both a gateway to the vineyards and a showcase for them, and plays an important part in the local economy. This is where visitors and food lovers from far and near gather to experience the vast range of Côtes du Rhône wines in the town’s many restaurants, and an open invitation to venture outside the city walls into the surrounding countryside. From a political perspective, Avignon is home to the institutions protecting the interests of Côtes du Rhône appellations, safeguarding quality and ensuring the future viability of today’s viticultural practices.

Historic and cultural attractions

Visitors from all over the world flock to Avignon, a city teeming with culture and famous for its historical monuments.  Four of these are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites, recognised for their outstanding universal value; they are: the Palais des Papes (residence of the popes in the 14th century), the 12th-century Saint Bénezet bridge (of the song ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’)  the city walls, and the Episcopal Ensemble on the Rocher des Doms, which existed well before the Palais des Papes was built.

For almost 50 years, Avignon has hosted one of the world’s greatest drama festivals, established in 1947 by Jean Vilar and now held in July every year in the Cour d’Honneur courtyard of the Palais des Papes. The festival is complemented by another, alternative celebration of drama and performance art, the OFF Festival, which hosts live events at various venues throughout the city.

The two festivals alone attract over 600,000 visitors a year; but there is plenty more to see and do, including the Cheval Passion annual equestrian event, the Maison Jean Vilar arts and exhibition centre, a dozen or so museums (including the popular Musée Angladon art gallery), the nearby Carthusian monastery of Val-de-Benediction and the Abbey of Saint-André in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. In 2018, the city of Avignon teamed up with other nearby UNESCO World Heritage monuments, undertaking to work together to promote all UNESCO World Heritage sites listed in Provence

Avignon is one of Provence’s cultural powerhouses; its attractions extend far beyond the boundaries of the town, across the whole of the southern Côtes du Rhône region. With Avignon as the jewel in its crown, the Vaucluse department attracts over 4 million visitors every year.

Wine tourism in the Côtes du Rhône is thriving. Firstly, there’s the city of Avignon itself, full of useful information and the starting point for a variety of walking tours through the vineyards and surrounding countryside. Visitors can choose from an ever-increasing range of activities:

  • There are walking trails through the vineyards, cycle rides, B and B accommodation, gites and campsites, restaurants pairing local wines with local foods, foodie trails, wine museums, wine safaris, introductions to wine-tasting, opportunities to help with harvests (late summer only), and workshops where participants learn about aromas, flavours and the art of blending;
  • Seven destinations within the Côtes du Rhône area have ‘Vignobles et Découvertes’ (Vineyards and Discoveries) quality accreditation; these are tried-and-tested destinations where visitors can take a closer look at the Côtes du Rhône environment and find out more about how and where wines are made;
  • 46 Côtes du Rhône estates have received the Rhône Valley’s own wine tourism award, symbolised by a gold vine leaf, in recognition of their outstanding wine tourism product. Visitors to these sites are assured of a warm welcome and a learning experience above and beyond that of simple wine-tasting.
  • ‘Vins Rhône Tourisme’ is a free, downloadable app featuring an events calendar, ideas for walking trails through the vineyards and a unique look at Avignon, capital of the Côtes du Rhône.

The lines between ‘ordinary’ tourism and wine tourism are becoming increasingly blurred, with many tour operators now incorporating wine tasting stops into their bus tours. Since 2009, the Côtes du Rhône wine bar in the courtyard of Avignon’s Maison des Vins has offered a wide selection of Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages wines for tasting, while in 2016 a new, downloadable smartphone app was introduced to help visitors plan itineraries and find out about the Rhône Valley’s summer programme of wine-related events.  The Wine School welcomes enthusiasts at every level, from beginners to connoisseurs, to learn about wine-tasting and the Rhône appellations through a series of themed workshops, many of which can be tailored to suit participants.

Avignon and surrounding area is a gourmet’s paradise, producing a broad range of local foods to reflect the region’s character. In 2010, UNESCO listed the Gastronomic Meal of the French as part of its intangible culture of humanity; this, of course, includes the cuisine of Provence, whose culinary specialities pair particularly well with Côtes du Rhône wines.

Many top chefs feature classic Mediterranean products on their menus, including fruit grown on and around the Comtat Plain: cherries, peaches, figs, pears, plums, apricots, strawberries and melons, all of which are regional specialities. Almonds, now making a comeback in the neighbouring Gard department, are an integral part of the 13 traditional Provençal Christmas desserts, along with figs, grapes, walnuts, melons, dates, clementines, nougat and a sweet brioche-like cake flavoured with orange blossom. Many of the fruits are processed in Apt, world-famous for its candied ‘fruits confits’. These much-loved treats are used in a wide range of local delicacies including calisson sweets in Aix, chocolate and liqueur papalines in Avignon, and berlingots – boiled fruit candies – in Carpentras. Then there’s nougat from Sault, which is to Vaucluse what Montélimar is to the Drôme, and the brioche-like Pain de Modane from Nyons; even chocolate is flavoured with lavender, rose, jasmine and mimosa –the sunshine flavours of Provence.

Savoury specialities are also on the menu, with PDO olive oil from Nyons and Baux Valley, perfect for drizzling over a tomato salad flavoured with garlic, onions and Herbes de Provence, a garlicky, basil-scented Soupe au Pistou or a ratatouille made with locally-grown tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and courgettes – all classic Mediterranean ingredients. Tarascon lamb with herbs is a traditional Easter dish; Banon AOC cheese in its chestnut-leaf wrapping is a soft goat’s cheese make in the local hillsides, while truffles from Comtat Venaissin are known as the ‘black diamonds of Provence’.

Côtes du Rhône wines pair beautifully with these different foods, making some very popular combinations.

  • Rasteau’s Vins Doux Naturels (naturally sweet wines), Muscat Beaumes de Venise and Saint Péray sparkling wines are perfect to serve with dessert;
  • Rosés go well with herby salads and summer barbecues – or just enjoyed on their own;
  • Red wines bring a new dimension to lamb dishes, ratatouille or rich, garlicky stews flavoured with spices, rosemary and thyme.
  • Dry, fruity white wines are a perfect match for Banon goat’s cheese.

Avignon is the administrative and legislative headquarters of the Côtes du Rhône and a base for the Syndicat des Côtes du Rhône, whose task is to safeguard local regional products, by law if necessary, protecting the Côtes du Rhône and Rhône name against improper or fraudulent use. The Syndicat, along with local winegrowers and INAO, is responsible for drawing up production specifications for the different appellations. It also monitors production practice, checks producers show the required level of skill, and audits the quality of the wines, notably during the certification procedure. (Certification is performed by a separate regulatory body). The Syndicat is also tasked with inspecting the vineyards and production processes on a regular basis.

The vineyards are an essential part of the local economy. The Rhône Valley is France’s 2nd largest winegrowing region. The 70,000 hectares under vine produce 2.8 million hectolitres of wine, making average yield around 40 hl per ha.  Côtes du Rhône AOC wines follow a strict hierarchy based on quality – the majority of wines produced (66%) are part of the regional appellation, 16% are Côtes du Rhône Villages and 18% are Crus. Reds dominate, accounting for three quarters of total production, followed by rosés with around 15% and whites at 10%. Organic production is soaring; plantings have risen by about 15% over 6 years, to a total of 14,500 ha in 2017.

The wine economy is hugely important to the region, particularly in Vaucluse, one of the Rhône Valley’s main agricultural départements. 32,000 hectares are currently under vine, divided between over 2,800 winegrowing estates and accounting for 32% of Vaucluse’s farmland.  Viticulture creates 50,000 jobs in the region, both directly and indirectly.

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