Lyon, the epicenter of French gastronomy! Located in the midst of no less than 4 different wine regions as well as the freshest produce, it’s the perfect place for anyone who loves the richness of diversity in food and wine. In order to experience as much as we could in a short period of time, we decided to concentrate our exploration of the wine scene by touring the local wine shops and wine bars. I wanted to see what each proprietor was excited about, which varietals were on the menu (if they even had one), and what they wanted to share with us. Our plan turned out to be better than we could have imagined!
We were welcomed into shop after shop with warmth and generosity, and more importantly, we were educated, teased, and delighted by an incredible array of wines from the nearby Rhone, Languedoc, Beaujolais, and Burgundy.
I tasted wines I had never heard of and fell in love with regions I had previously overlooked. While most regions of France proudly focus on purely local cuisines and varietals, Lyon’s celebration of diversity, and even the new and different, was a welcome surprise!
Straight off the plane, my husband and I sought out a charming little wine bar, Mademoiselle Rêve, for some good French wine and a little dinner. The tiny shop was packed with locals but we eventually found two stools outside and set up shop for the evening on an old wine barrel. I took one glance at her list and knew exactly what I wanted - the Viognier. Viognier is a grape varietal that originates (and arguably shows best) in the Northern Rhone, a region just south of Lyon. If wine was a person, Viognier would be a classy, elegant woman - not overly feminine or delicate, not flashy or trendy, but truly chic and elegant. If you prefer a more traditional wine description, it’s floral but not sweet, golden hued with an exotic bouquet, flavors of apricot and peach, and at its best it has just the perfect bit of acidity to round it all out. Just as true elegance should be, you don’t notice one single quality because the blend and combination of these qualities is what creates this simply beautiful wine. Even my husband Riley, after taking a sip of my glass concluded, “You’re right, I don’t think there’s any other way to describe this wine except simply beautiful!” Going against my own advice, I stuck stubbornly with Viognier that first night, while taking sips of Riley’s red blend from the Languedoc region. I’ll admit that Viognier isn’t the easiest wine to pair with food - the lower acidity and floral qualities can be tricky, but it suits the simple fish and chicken dishes of the Rhone cuisine perfectly!
On our second day we stumbled upon our next wine adventure. The owner, an older, slightly scrubby gentleman at first pretended he was closed (claiming he couldn’t take any customers because he was closing in 30 minutes). He must have taken pity on us and our broken french and big smiles, and once he realized we were from San Francisco we were golden. Suddenly he was open for us and we happily joined him at the counter. In our best french and his best english we learned that the shop was hundreds of years old and formerly housed by the nuns. We talked about our mutual love of San Francisco, the soccer match the previous night, and eventually we turned to wine. He was the embodiment of what I like about wine - no pretense, no snobbery, just genuinely passionate about wine and excited to share what he knew with us. We glanced at his list and decided to simply ask him to pour us what he was most excited about. We were in for a treat - he poured us the most refreshingly crisp glasses of Vermentino - something off the menu that had just come in. Vermentino is actually an Italian varietal, but we both agreed that its medium acidity and minerality, balanced with an almost almond-like quality was the perfect wine for a hot summer afternoon. It’s also a great wine for pairing with vegetables and Riley’s all-time favorite, pesto.
On our last night in Lyon we decided to have a “progressive wine bar dinner.” We decided we’d tour as many of the recommended wine bars on our list, while snacking on cheese, saucisson, and whatever other delicious concoctions we could find along the way. Lucky for us the top two spots on our list were a mile (and one huge hill) apart, so we had time to walk off the wine along the way!
The first spot of the night, Chateau Neuf de Peuple, is the kind of wine shop with no menu, where the owner simply pours you different wines until you decide you like something and then he fills the glass. I can’t imagine it’s a profitable business model, but it’s my favorite way to taste! In fact, the owner reminded me of a younger version of the frenchman from our first wine shop - very casual and laid-back, but simply excited to share his wine with us and hopeful to show us something new along the way. He started us off with something really interesting - a sparkling Marsanne from the Saint-Peray area of the Rhone valley. While excitingly new to us, it was a bit too sweet for our liking at the moment, and we asked to keep tasting. Next he poured us a sparkling Syrah. Now this was something we’d never tasted before and it was perfectly refreshing.
The July heat was hitting us hard, and this glass was pure summer. It had just a hint of sweet strawberries and an effervescence that was more than welcome.
We finished with a Cinsault and Syrah blend from the Languodoc that was traditional for the area, but new to my palate. I’ve learned since that the Languedoc is actually the largest wine producing region in France, but it’s been completely overlooked for years (due to the amount of cheap bulk wine that is became known for as well). Fortunately, there’s a new wave of winemakers making high quality wine and pushing for the Languedoc to take back its reputation for producing world class wines. It’s a region that has a variety of climates, wine making styles, and grapes - and it’s worth doing your research on which wines are worth checking out. I’ll admit that it’s not an area I’d ever thought much about before this trip, and one that I’ll be excited to dive deeper into in the future!
And to wrap up our evening we marched through the cobblestone streets of old town Lyon and up the hill to the most charming, quiet neighborhood perched high above the rest of the city. Teenagers, young families, and older couples alike were all sitting outside enjoying the view. The kids were playing football, the adults sipping on wine and playing bocce - it was everything you dream of when you think of living in France. And finally, there was our wine shop just at the edge of a beautiful plaza. We were greeted warmly and asked if we wanted to be served in the park or in the shop. As romantic as sitting in the park drinking wine sounded, we decided the likelihood of being forgotten was pretty high, so we found a table in the tiny old wine shop.
We tasted our way through Rhone, Languedoc, Burgundy, and even a bit of Italy. We lined up a Viognier, a Marsanne, and Chardonnay side-by-side - enjoying the similarities and differences that can only be detected when next to one another. To finish off the night we savored the spicy Syrahs of Northern rhone, and the perfectly blended GSMs (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre) from the Southern Rhone.
Before leaving San Francisco I had been warned that the French might seem closed off - “Whatever you do, don’t hug people when you meet them!” I heard over and over again. I have to say, my short trip to Lyon softened my fears quite a bit! In shop after shop we were welcomed with warmth and a smile, and we chatted, tasted, and had a wonderful time learning from each person we met. I was also warned that the French can be closed off to anything “new” - confident that the way they do it in their city is the only way and the best way. Yet, here we were being shown wines from all over France and beyond - being made in both new and traditional ways. It was the perfect introduction to our year abroad and I can only hope that our genuine excitement and passion for learning about wine will open as many doors in every other city we visit!