On board a Viking Longship in Trévoux, France (Photo: Viking)

A Wine Lover's Guide to Cruising the Rhône River

On board a Viking Longship in Trévoux, France (Photo: Viking)
Cruise Critic contributor
Rebecca Toy

Last updated
Feb 23, 2024

Read time
6 min read

The Rhône River offers some of the world's most well-regarded wines whether you're a seasoned sommelier, ready to try your first glass, or just love to try different styles.

Major wine regions in France have designated areas of origin, or Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC.) Each region has distinct and exceptional vineyard village areas known as a "cru." The Rhône passes through prestigious AOCs and crus, and with this range of options, you're sure to find something for your taste buds.

Maison Bouachon produces a regional red blend with several complex well rounded vintages

Just remember, as you set out to sip your way down the river, sampling wine is about having fun and discovering what you like.

While the wine world can sometimes be intimidating, a little information pours on the confidence. This guide for dedicated or aspiring wine lovers introduces each wine region, what to expect, and how to experience their unique styles.

We set sail on a seven-day cruise along the Rhone River with stops in Lyon, Tournon, Avignon and Arles, to sample the best of French wines.

Lyon, France and Beaujolais Wine

One of many vineyards in Beaujolais (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

The region: Beaujolais is just north of Lyon and the northern half of this appellation has rolling hills of granite, schist and limestone, giving these generally higher quality wines complex minerality. The southern vineyards grow in flatter stretches of sandstone and clay. Beaujolais is also known for the polarizing Beaujolais Nouveau, a mass-produced and briefly fermented red wine released in November. But the area has more than the nouveau; ten internationally esteemed crus get plenty of range from their diverse climate and terrain.

Featured grape varietal: The gamay grape reigns supreme in Beaujolais, making up almost 98% of the vineyards. Gamay produces a light-bodied red wine with floral and fruity aromas more potent than other reds. White wine here is chardonnay, with a more mineral than buttery style thanks to the area's ancient volcanic rock.

Farm to table truffle tasting on a Viking River Cruise shore excursion (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

How to experience it: Viking offers free, half-day tours to Beaujolais wineries during the two day port of call in Lyon. Winemakers explain what makes Beaujolais unique, the winemaking process and the history of these family-owned chateaux before you tuck into a tasting. The full-day Beaujolais and truffles tour visits farm-to-table businesses that pair crisp whites with fresh goat cheese and a range of pairings with a host-cooked, three-course meal at a truffle farm. The final stop is one of the region's famous crus for a vineyard stroll and full tasting.

Independent Meanderings: Antic Wine, in the pedestrian heart of Old Vieux, is one of the best shops in France for discovering bottled treasure. Run by a well-traveled sommelier, this narrow store is filled from cellar to roof with a vast collection for sale.

Top wines to try: One of the best known crus, Fleurie, has complex wines with a range of berry, floral, and spice notes. Morgon has full-bodied wines, and rare Chénas bottles have wild rose aromas.

Learn More About First Time River Cruising

Tournon, France and Côtes du Rhône Nord Wine

A vineyard in Tournon France (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

The region: The Côtes du Rhône, or Rhône Valley, is a long wine region following the river and split into north and south sections. The north produces less than 5% of the region's wine but has more famous crus than its southern partner. Steep hills cut through the narrow valley in the north, and the area excels in grapes that thrive with a bit of root-clinging stress. As the local saying goes, grapes like syrah "like a view."

Featured grape varietal: This is home to the world famous syrah grape. Also known as shiraz, syrah produces bold, full-bodied reds that support styles with tannin, spices, or fuller fruit profiles. For those convinced they don't like "heavy" reds, try the range of the region's syrah.

Vineyard trek tour in Tournon (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

Independent Meanderings: For those that don't want to hike, it's easy to cross the bridge and wander the north bank for a self-guided tasting tour. Wine shops like Maison M. Chapoutier, Maison Delas Frères, and Ferraton Père are less than a ten-minute walk from the ship. Tain l'Hermitage has a bustling shop around the corner.

Tournon Vineyards where the Hermitage Cru is produced (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

Top wines to try: One of the oldest in the region is Chateau Fortia, the gorgeous estate that hosts tastings and tours of its cellars. Maison Bouachon also nails the regional red blend with several complex, well-rounded vintages with fruity aromas.

• Want to know more about first time river cruising? Check out our comprehensive guide.

Avignon and Côtes du Rhône Sud Wine

A Viking Longship in Avignon, France (Photo: Viking)

The region: The majority of wine in the Côtes du Rhône region comes from the south and, of these, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the oldest and highest regarded cru. The 14th-century popes wanted wines that would rival Burgundy. In 1316, Pope John XXII started vineyards surrounding the papal summer castle in this rocky region.

Featured grape varietal: Like other stops on your cruise, Châteauneuf-du-Pape mainly grows grenache and syrah, but mourvèdre rounds out the classic trio. This rich red has plummy and dark berry characteristics, often with peppery notes. Mourvèdre is sold solo, but most red wines here are finely tuned "GSM" trio blends.

Palace of Popes, Avignon (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

How to experience it: Viking's half-day tour to Châteauneuf-du-Pape buses you to the historic region where short vines burst through soil stacked with palm-sized quartz from ancient glaciers. Winemakers explain how viticulture advanced in this seemingly inhospitable terrain. Tastings showcase the red and white blends at famous chateaus. A brief stop at the village is all you need for a stroll, shopping, or a lovely glass of wine at one of the many tasting rooms. Views from the ruins of the pope's summer residence look out to Avignon.

Independent Meanderings: In Avignon, opportunities to explore regional wines are everywhere – and the city center is just a short walk from where your Viking ship docks. Le Vin Devant Soi is just outside the main square and offers 32 self-pour wines to taste. The Bar des Halles in the city market–visited by Viking's free tour–is loved by locals for wine and beer. A wine bar named AOC is between the two, fittingly featuring Rhône Valley wines with ample outdoor seating.

Wine tasting at Maison Bouachon, Avignon (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

Top wines to try: One of the oldest in the region is Chateau Fortia, the gorgeous estate that hosts tastings and tours of its cellars. Maison Bouachon also nails the regional red blend with several complex, well-rounded vintages with fruity aromas.

Arles, France and Unique Camargue Wines

Viking Hermod docked in Arles in the Camargue region of France (Photo: Rebecca oy)

The region: Arles sits outside France's famous wine regions, but the area still has something local for your glass. The Rhône connects with the Mediterranean in the marshlands of the Camargue, and the strong mistral wind, salty sea, and fertile delta soils produce light, sparkling rosé and gris wines perfect for the sunny coast. The Camargue's main rice crop also makes a unique fermented wine.

Featured grape varietals: Wines of different colors, gris and rosé, match perfectly with this otherwise rugged area's pink and white-washed tones. Grenache noir and grenache gris grapes both shine. Rich and flavorful with medium-body, grenache lends itself well to nuances needed for a well-balanced, off-color pour.

Migratory flamingoes in the Camargue region of France south of Arles (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

How to experience it: The day-long excursion with Viking's guide to Camargue includes visits to a nature preserve and traditional cattle ranch where lunch includes local wines. In the medieval walled city of Aigues-Mortes, try some roses at the cafe patios around town in your free time,  or bring some wine back onboard your ship to enjoy your wine purchase al fresco on Viking’s Aquavit Terrance at the bow of Viking’s Longships.

Independent Meanderings: The best place to try Camargue's fermented rice wine, LeGuiShu, is in its birthplace, Arles. The Michelin-starred restaurant L'Atelier will make sure you have delicious pairings.

Top wines to try: Domaines Terres de Sable and Domaine de Montcalm are popular labels from the many small vineyards in the delta.

Publish date June 28, 2023
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