Spelunking and winetasting in the Rhone Valley
I’ve done winetasting in many different and exotic locales, from the vineyards of Champagne during one of the coldest winters ever (think minus 20 degrees Celsius and sitting in the snow on cardboard – believe it or not it was fun!) to dangling 100 metres up in the air whilst tasting- but the most exhilariating to date has to be the recent tasting I did 125 meters underground.
The tasting was all part of a recent road trip I participated in with Visit Southern France. For this wine tasting, we were in the Ardeche Department of the Rhone Valley.The aim of the trip was to showcase all the wonderful things you can see and do in the Rhone Valley regionas well as the numerous Michelin starred restaurants that seem to abound in the area. We travelled to the Rhone Valley via TGV from Paris courtesy of Voyages-SNCF in a little over 2 hours, impressive! I love those TGV trains.
Me, being the Wine Sleuth, was keen to get in on the wine tasting so when I saw the caving activity, I figured this would be a bit of a lark, tasting in some touristy enchanted “grotto”. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised when Raphael Pommier, a local winemaker and Nicholas, a local guide, showed up with caving jumpsuits, helmets and headlamps. This was not going to be any ordinary traipse through the caves, we were going to do some serious spelunking, going off the beaten path and getting to see parts of the cave that ordinary punters are usually not allowed access. We were in the Grotte de St.-Marcel d’Ardeche, a cave that was discovered in the 1880’s and so far stretches over 60 kilometres.
Once we got suited up, we were off! Only 400 metres of the cave is accessible to tourists so once we had come to the end of the trail, we literally climbed through tunnel and were into the depths of the cave. Luckily our guide Nicholas has been working in the cave for over 20 years so we felt safe in his hands. Our first stop was to a spot inside the cave where we could do a bit of wine tasting. Raphael is a seventh generation winemaker for the Domaine Notre Dame de Cousignac in the Cotes du Rhone Villages appellation. Raphael is very interested in trying new things to improve his wines. He and group of three other winemakers hit on the idea of aging their wines in the natural caves. He says that it has had an effect on the wine and that it brings out the minerality and terroir in the wines.
Once we settled in and the wine was poured, Raphael asked us to turn off our headlamps. I have to admit I was a bit scared to turn off my light, it’s unsettling to be in complete darkness, not being able to see anything but after a minute or two, I adjusted and we tasted the two wines Raphael had brought. One was a wine that had been fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, the other came from the barrels in the caves, both syrah. Tasting in complete darkness, really forces you to concentrate only on the aromas and flavours of the wine. The first one was young and fruity but it was the second that had been aged in barrel in the cave that really jumped out of the glass. It was so aromatic and full of fresh mineral notes both on the nose and palate. It was an interesting taste experiment.
After that we carried on making a big loop (I think) to exit the cave. Along the way we got to zipline through the cave as well as shimmy across a monkey bridge. I’d never done either but they were amazing experiences, dangling 20 to 40 metres above the cave floor.
All in all an amazing experience and one that I won’t soon forget. The department we were in was the Ardeche and to get there we had to pass through the Gorge d’Ardeche, a beautiful gorge that has been carved out by the river. Definitely worth visiting. I wish we had had time to go canoeing but I’ll have to save that for another time.
A big thank you to Visit Southern France, Ardeche-guide.com and Raphael and Nicholas for taking us to the cave. Next, Segways and Electric bicycles as I continue my trip through the Rhone…