Clos Des Papes was my favorite wine tasting in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. If you trust me at all, that should be enough to get you to put it at the top-of-your-list. But in case you don’t trust me, trust the wine critics. Jeb Dunnuck cannot stop talking about their wines (scored the 2016 rouge 100PTS) and Wine Advocate also continues to rate it highly. But best of all, it’s free to taste (though I would expect them to start charging soon), they normally pour the current vintage and the one previous, and they also have their white wines to taste! When I visited, I couldn’t believe it. I spent more time here than I intended tasting the wines and speaking with their wine ambassador. But I have no regrets and enjoyed every minute of it.

With enough money, you could build one of the most gorgeous wineries in the world. But try to build a winery into the hill that your town sits on and make it beautiful, rustic, classy and have it work as a functioning winery. That takes a great deal of patience, care, and skill. That is exactly what Famille Mayard has done with the construction of their winery / tasting room. The entrance doesn’t seem like much when looking at it from the street. But once you head inside, it feels like you have been transported to someone’s cellar, because that is exactly what it looks like. Match that with great wines and you have a hidden oasis in the bustling town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Like other small places I love, you want to see them succeed and have plenty of customers, but sometimes, you also want the winery all to yourself.

The 2012 Domaine du Pegau was one of the first bottles that truly opened my eyes to the possibilities of the world of wine. Up until that point, I had mostly tasted fruit driven (American) wines, wines with both fruit and terroir influence (Bordeaux), and those that were driven by wood and age (Spanish). Never would I have thought that a wine could taste like a rare roast beef with crackling black pepper. That was my introduction to the garrigue character of French Syrah from the Rhone. Afterthat wine, I remember wanting to explore more wines from more areas to see what exotic flavor profiles were out there. It’s strange to look back on that experience today now that I am a WSET Diploma student preparing for my Unit #3 exam. Time does truly fly and I am very appreciative of the wines that first piqued my curiosity. You can definitely count Domaine du Pegau among them.

I love Cooperatives. Besides cheering for the feel-good story of the little guy going against the goliath corporations, cooperatives enable smaller wineries to survive together and to express their uniqueness and creativity. In order to push the wine world forward, we need people to be constantly experimenting. At cooperatives like Cave de Tain, smaller growers can sell their wine under the collective brand or try something new and bottle it under their own brand. And this is not some drop-in-the-bucket market volume either. Cave de Tain is one of the top 3 largest wineries in the area (along with Jaboulet and Chapoutier) and was established in 1933, giving it 85 years of experience. Not only was I surprised by the wine quality, I was also surprised by their access to the best grapes, their state-of-the-art facility, their affordable prices, and their foot traffic (the place is ALWAYS filled with customers). I don’t know if the customers are cheering for the little guy too, but they sure shop like they do!

One of the first things you learn about marketing is placement of product. If customers can see it, that’s a big part of the battle. Unlike Jaboulet and Chapoutier, which both have ideal placements for their storefronts (next to the main square and train station, respectively), Ferraton is a short walk to a beautiful spot on the river. But because it isn’t along the path of most foot traffic, it gets significantly less visitors than the other two. And it’s a real shame - Ferraton’s store feels like the ideal balance between chic and classic, their wines are some of the better values in town, and you’ll likely get a much more personal experience because of the reduced foot traffic. You are making a mistake if you do not visit Ferraton during your stay in Hermitage.

When you are in Hermitage, Chapoutier needs to be your first stop because of its reputation alone. Though, if you are asking me where you can get the best tasting experience in the city, then I would recommend Paul Jaboulet Aîné. In return for a tasting fee that is modest by Napa standards, you will be able to sample their top flight white and red Hermitage wines, including the famous La Chapelle. Their wine store / tasting room is in the main square of the city too, which makes it very convenient to pair with lunch or dinner. And to be perfectly clear, La Chapelle has to be tasted. You cannot leave the city before doing so.

With the exception of Guigal, it would not be a stretch to say that Chapoutier was the winery I was most looking forward to in the Northern Rhone. I knew the views in Hermitage would be extraordinary (they still somehow surpassed my expectations), but the moment I saw Chapoutier’s name on the wall after arriving at Tain l’Hermitage, I knew I needed to drop off my bags and rush over there ASAP. After a tour of their vineyards and a tasting of their wines, it’s hard to do anything else the rest of the day except find some amazing food, enjoy a bottle of their wine, and stare at the river (or the vines opposite the train station if you are lucky with your view).

If you know Ampuis, you know Georges Vernay. Sometimes, it is just that simple. While Guigal might dominate the production in town and the wine publication headlines, Georges Vernay has simultaneously been a force and steady hand that has guided the area for the last 30+ years. You want accolades you say? How about he was president of the Condrieu AOC for 30 years? Or that magazines in the 1980s said that he was the pope of Condrieu? But don’t worry - he doesn’t need to rely on his past laurels as the wines he and his daughter produce today are also fantastic and need to be tasted.

Although you hear about the sublime character and quality of Cote Rotie wines, you may not have had one before. And even if you have, it was likely from Guigal or another large producer such as Chapoutier. Even I have never had Cote Rotie wines from a small producer before this tasting. And as luck would have it, I struck gold in Rhone 2 Vallees. Not because their wines scored 100 points in a magazine, but because the wines expressed the terroir well, they were approachable, they were affordable, and their producer was one of the nicest people I have met. Did I mention that I was also staying at their hotel? If Guigal is the reason you visit Cote Rotie, you must make sure to stay here overnight.

If you are talking about the quality of the wine and tasting experience, I am not sure there is any other winery in Alsace that surpasses the experience offered by Domaine Weinbach… Unlike many of the larger producers in the area (e.g. Hugel, Dopff, etc.), you do not go to a storefront for a tasting. You actually visit their estate in Kayserberg where they usher you into one of the rooms in the house to enjoy your tasting by yourself (or with your group). You do need to make a reservation for the tasting and therefore need to plan your schedule for the day a bit, but the reward for doing so is entering this sublime state after 90 minutes of tasting, after which you feel as if there is nothing more you really need to accomplish that day. I know I didn’t!