The Route Nationale 86 was built to link the city of Lyon with Nîmes, some 256 kilometres away. For most of the time, it closely follows the Rhône, rarely straying away from the river itself yet always keeping to its right bank.
There's lots to see, some of it spectacular and there's about as much to taste as stamina allows.
For most of the time, the RN86 follows the river from Lyon in the north to Nîmes in the south. Don't try looking for the N86 on any up-to-date map. As such, it no longer exists. Responsibility for most of what was the N86 was transferred from national to Département level, so it has gone from being an N road to a D, with the numbering changing from Département to Département.
Broadly, it encompasses the following roads: D86, D386, D486, D1086 and D6086. Leaving Lyon itself, most of the old road was swallowed up by motorways.
The first vines of the Rhône
We start at the town of Givors on the D386. With all due respect to this commuter town on the outskirts of Lyon, there is greater interest a little further down the road, though on the other side of the river. A steep escarpment rises above the river. Ruins of a castle are clearly visible as are around 100 acres of tightly packed vines.
These are the first vines of the Rhône which in ancient times were appreciated by the townsfolk of Vienne and beyond. Pliny spoke highly of these wines of Vienne. These vineyards once prospered but were then overshadowed by Côte-Rôtie. They then never really recovered from phylloxera and were abandoned for nearly a century, and in fact only very recently revived.
This is the story of Pierre Gaillard, an important grower with two friends, François Villard and Yves Cuilleron who got together in 1996 to form the Vins de Vienne, a project to revitalise the forgotten vineyards and wines of the Seyssuel area. It's also the story of a future appellation in the making, the name has yet to be defined.
Vienne of course is famous for Fernand Point, one of the greatest of all chefs who passed away the year I was born. His motto was: 'Butter, butter, butter, give me more butter!'
The importance of gastronomy in the world of fine wine cannot be overstated. Great dishes, after all, need great wines.
Still on the D386, the road swings round to the southwest. Suddenly vineyards begin to appear on the right, hanging precariously off the rockface. This is the start of Côte-Rôtie with the little town of Ampuis sat at its heart.
To be honest, there isn't that much to do in Ampuis apart from knocking on doors and tasting wine. The Guigal building dominates everything and of course dominates Côte-Rôtie itself. The cellars, properly underground, are truly splendid and have to be visited. A tasting there is a memorable experience.
The prettiest bits are on the other side of the railway by the river. The Château d'Ampuis is owned by the Guigals and is a rather splendid Renaissance-style mansion, beautifully done up. And not too far way is the tiny port of Ampuis which is leafy and rather cute. On the way there, one passes the Rostaing cellars. René is on the right side of a narrow lane. His son Pierre is on the left, both mirror images of each other!
On the other side of town, the vines rise spectacularly upwards. One or two roads allow one to take in the view in relative safety. One or two others, on the hand provide a more challenging experience and should be avoided! I almost came a cropper on one scary bit.
The village of Tupin et Semons is worth a mention for two reasons. It is in fact two villages, one on the N86 and the other up the top whereas it happens there is a good place to eat. The Auberge de la Source does good simple cooking and has an excellent view of the vineyards. Part of the entertainment is watching people work in the vines and how they work. The road then continues back down to meet back with our road at a roundabout. This unremarkable feature pretty well marks the border with the next appellation: Condrieu.
Moving on to Condrieu
Condrieu is much more of a town than Ampuis but it seems to me a little at odds with the kind of wines that are produced from its extraordinary slopes.
This is Condrieu taken from the other side of the river with the great mass of vines clearly laid out above. It still seems odd to realise that not so many years ago many of the vines didn't exist and that Condrieu as a wine came close to extinction.
My first sip of Condrieu was at the Beau-Rivage, at one time, a much-lauded Michelin-starred restaurant whose sommelier was the spitting image of Phil Silvers, aka Sargent Bilko!
That's just off the steep driveway up to the Château. Driving up is not recommended; it's steep, very narrow with often nowhere to turn around! But it's worth stopping for the beauty of the place, but for the nuclear power station on the other side of the river.
Back to the road again
Something to take note: what was the D386 in the Département of the Rhône now becomes the D1086 in the Département of the Loire. Can this be correct? Well yes it can. Most Départements are named after rivers and here, the Loire is only about 40 miles away. Obviously, they should have called the Département, Rhône et Loire instead. That would have been much less confusing!
This stretch of road doesn't last long in the Loire Département. Vineyards continue on the slopes but there is a new appellation which starts here. This is Saint-Joseph. For the moment, growers have the choice of two appellations: Condrieu from the viognier grape and often occupying the most sheltered slopes and Saint-Joseph from red syrah and white marsanne and moussanne.
A worthwhile detour, the first of many, comes off the roundabout before entering the village of Saint-Pierre de Bœuf to visit the old village of Malleval. The layout of the village must be a thousand years old though not much survived the wars of religion. It's a nice enough spot to spend a little time, visiting potteries or going a little further afield to see vineyards. Back on the main road, the village of Limony marks the end of the Condrieu appellation though Saint-Joseph continues for another 40 miles or so. The village of Serrières is only really remarkable for its fine suspension bridge.
Into the Ardèche
Further south, the traffic disappears as most of it crosses over to the other side to join the motorway. But when time allows, staying on our road makes for a leisurely drive. In the meantime, there has been a change in the Département from Loire to Ardèche and with it a change from D1086 to a more reassuring D86. Time to put on some music maybe!
This is still vineyard country, but the vines are harder to spot. The road goes dead south and the vines tend to hang from side valleys such as the Cance near Sarras. The next place to stop is at the village of Vion. There is nothing remarkable about Vion except that it is one of the six villages that marked the original Saint-Joseph before the appellation was greatly expanded.
A little detour to the village of Lemps is worth doing. This is where the Chave family came from and they still own property here. On the way up the narrow, twisty road are recently planted vineyards. These had been abandoned after phylloxera and have only just been reclaimed by Gérard and Jean-Louis Chave. The ambition is huge, the potential, enough to rival Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie.
After Vion and Lemps, Saint Jean de Musol is the third of the original six Saint-Joseph villages and is famous for its Côte Saint-Epine slope. The road crosses a mountain stream called the Doux. A drive up the valley is worthwhile but there is also a very scenic narrow-gauge railway that goes through the gorges and an hour and half later to the town of Lamastre. It's something I did as a child and I can still remember jumping off and back on the train to pick flowers and causing among adults a considerable amount of stress. In the old, pre breathalyser days, the reason to go to Lamastre was to have Sunday lunch at the Barattero. Pain d'écrevisse, sauce Cardinale was the go-to dish, thousands of gorgeous calories, washed down with white Hermitage or even Château-Grillet, so much more affordable in those days! That was of course just the starter, the overture to be followed by a Lièvre à la Royale and a decanter or two of reds.
Back to reality. Tournon comes next and is a very respectable little town, these days linked and somewhat overshadowed by Tain l'Hermitage across the river. A fine pedestrianised bridge links the two.
Both have their hotels and restaurants but Tain is where the action is. Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Delas are all based in Tain, and if that were not enough there is also Valrhôna, the chocolate factory which, when the wind is in the right direction, sends out aromas of chocolate wafting across town.
Tournon is the fourth of the Saint-Joseph villages and it is its most famous that gave its name to Saint-Joseph.
Onto Mauves which today has the advantage of a bi-pass. Mauves is the fifth of the original Saint-Joseph villages. Wine flows through its veins with several top estates based here. I tend to leave the car in the big open space where at harvest time there is a distillery. Domaine Coursodon is on the square itself. Gripa, Gonon, Jean Marsanne and Gérard Courbis are all within walking distance. And then of course there is Jean-Louis Chave. Though better known as producers of Hermitage, they would be the first to point out that their soul is in Saint-Joseph. One of iconic sites is at the southern edge of the village. It is called Clos Florentin. It's a beautiful amphitheatre-shaped vineyard, surrounded by a wall and its magic is the chink in the cliffs that allows the afternoon sun to play onto to the vines well into the evening. The picture below is of the herb garden where Jean-Louis grows all the herbs necessary for biodynamic cultivation.
Moving on, Glun is the sixth and last of the Saint-Joseph villages. As villages go it seems a little overshadowed by La Roche de Glun on the other side of the river. Two reasons for venturing here and across a slightly tricky bridge. Emmanuel Darnaud makes very good Crozes-Hermitage and one day will also make an excellent Saint-Joseph from vines given to him by his father-in-law, Bernard Faurie. The other reason is food and one of my favourite restaurants: the Auberge Monnet. This is a splendid pub with good, simple food and a brilliant choice of wines. The view of the river isn't bad either.
Châteaubourg is a quaint little village with a château and a couple of fine cellars that can be visited. Cave Durand is in the village itself. Domaine Courbis is right by the main road. Both produce excellent Saint-Joseph and Cornas which is the next village. From just behind Courbis, a road hairpins up to the top and is worth doing for looking down on some crazily steep vineyards. The photo below is of 'Les Royes' and is owned by Domaine Courbis. Unusually here, the rock is limestone and not the more usual granite.
Cornas is a village of vignerons like no other in the Rhône Valley. Small and compact, it houses a veritable community of growers. Every house has a story to tell and history of making the great red wines of Cornas. Nicolas Serrette's cellar, below, always looks to me like the entrance of the crypt, the church looming above!
These days, there is nothing much that separates Cornas from Saint-Péray which has become a sizeable town and a suburb of Valence on the other side of the river. In fact, such was the demand for housing that the vineyards of Saint-Péray came close to disappearing. There was a time too when the sparkling wines for which it is famous became unfashionable. Why sparkling wine? The answer is in the limestone on which part of the vineyard is built on. The grapes planted here retained more freshness and acidity, prerequisites for sparkling wine. It was loved by Queen Victoria, Tsars and Wagner who drunk Saint-Péray while composing Parsifal. The end really came with Phylloxera and it is only now that Saint-Péray is just about coming into its own both as a still wine and sparkling.
The renamed N86 has taken us at the foot of granite, vine-bearing slopes all the way from Ampuis to Saint-Péray. It's not quite the end. The road cuts through urban sprawl and major road junctions, passed the iconic Château de Crussol, made of gleaming white limestone that can be seen for miles around. Saint-Joseph vineyards make a brief reappearance after that at the village of Guilherand-Granges and that almost marks the end of our road in the Northern Rhône. But not quite.
The next stretch is towards Montélimar, capital of nougat of course! On the way there is one small vineyard up in a side valley at Saint Julien-en-Saint Alban. Excellent syrah is made here and sold as Côtes du Rhône and that really is the last outpost of the Northern Rhône.
To the south
The next 20 miles or so is the No-Man's land that divides North and South. Vineyards return south of Montélimar and an attractive detour is to take the D102 to Alba la Romaine, a Celtic and then a Roman city of some importance. There is a Roman theatre and vineyards and I remember scrambling over old stones when I went there as a boy.
The vines are different here, planted further apart and trained differently too. The climate is already more Mediterranean, hotter and drier. Enter a whole new array of grape varieties like grenache, carignan, cinsault and mourvèdre. My first stop unsurprisingly is at Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche, just off the main road. The estate to visit is Mas du Libian with its wonderful full-bodied fruity reds. All made of course by Nestor the shire horse!
Into the Gard
A little further on, the D86 crosses the actual river Ardèche which also marks the boundary with the next and last Département; Gard. Just before the bridge there is a turn to the right onto the D290. This is the portal for an amazing drive through, or rather above, the famous Gorges de l'Ardèche.
The drive is well worth the time and effort but can't be hurried. There is a lot of vineyard, much of it farmed by the excellent co-operative of the Vignerons Ardéchois (yes, the acute accent is correct!). They farm a wide selection of grape varieties including one rarity called chatus which is only found here, and which makes a deeply coloured, structured wine not too far removed from syrah.
Back to the N86!
Back on the road, the D86 changes its name to the D6086. The road goes inland now, away from the river and on its final trajectory towards Nîmes. For a few miles, and for no apparent reason, the road actually reverts to its old name, the N86! Finally! But only for a few miles as it soon goes back to being the D road again.
Bagnols sur Cèze is a bustling town and the only bridging point for a while over the river Cèze. Traffic here is always awful. But before that there is another detour to the village of Saint-Gervais. It is one of those villages that is allowed to appear on a wine label of Côtes du Rhône Villages. Domaine Sainte Anne is the one outstanding estate and one of the first to bottle its own wine. It was also one of the first to introduce the viognier grape to the south. They do a pure syrah which can be excellent and a Mourvèdre-dominated red which is worth a visit. It was one of the first estates to plant viognier in the southern Rhone and also makes outstanding syrah and mourvèdre-dominated red that is invariably brilliant.
Once the river is crossed, there are two more vinous detours. The first is to the village of Cadignac and an estate called La Réméjeanne which makes wines of great finesse and purity. Over the hill, Château Courac is also excellent, especially from the Villages Laudun appellation.
Vineyard soon turns to dense forest and the D6086 go right through it. At the village of Pouzilhac there is a left turn to Tavel which is very worthwhile.
Not for the flowers of course but for the wine! Tavel is unique as it is a pink wine only appellation. Traditional Tavel is no pool-side tipple. It should be quite deeply coloured and very full-bodied though many estates these days feel obliged to make a more Provence-style wine which is a shame. Richard Maby is one of several to make the real thing and wonderful it is too. Tavel is a lovely village to wander round and has one decent place to stay and eat, the Auberge de Tavel.
Back into the forest and our road leads quite naturally to the next stop where, at Remoulins, there are signs to the Pont du Gard, surely one of the wonders of the Roman world and a destination in itself. The walk across its span is a memorable experience as is kayaking beneath.
We are almost at the end of our road trip. Just a dozen miles or so to the final destination: Nîmes with its own wonders of the Roman world and civilised places to stay and eat. Before then, if the appetite for vineyard persists, a left turn towards Redessan will open up the vineyards of the Costières de Nîmes.
It used to be called Costières du Gard and was then considered part of the Languedoc but with that name change and change of region it is now doing somewhat better. Where the Rhône ends, and the Languedoc begins is very much up for discussion!
At some point in the city Route 86 finally comes to an end, meeting up, by the way, with another great road, no less than the Via Domitia on its epic journey from Italy to Spain. But that is another road trip!