The Drôme département may be the best-kept secret in France. While the Drôme river is a tributary to the Rhône, the two regions share little in common. The Rhône Valley, despite its picturesque orchards and steep banks (think Côte-Rôtie), is largely a world of freeways, industry, and pollution. Just south of Valence, the two rivers meet. East of this point, one can follow the Drôme’s crystalline waters upstream to a land that is worlds apart, in one of the most gorgeous corners of the Earth that you never knew was there. A narrow route nationale follows the meandering valley, flanked on either side by hills and eventually small mountains—a precursor to the mighty Alpine peaks found not too far to the east. The region looks something like a French version of Yosemite Valley, sprinkled with quaint medieval villages and with neat rows of vines planted on all the South-facing slopes.
I pulled up to Domaine Achard-Vincent in my rented yellow Fiat Panda just as the harvesters were returning from a long day of work. Jean-Pierre, whose family has been making wine in the Diois (Dee-oo-ah) for several generations, greeted me before returning to tend to the day’s pick: about a dozen large crates packed with clusters of Muscat grapes, straight off the vine. He proceeded to dump the crates into the de-stemmer, demonstrating the process by which the grapes are crushed and eventually pressed. The entire operation is gravity-fed, consistent with the Achard-Vincents’ enthusiasm for organic and biodynamic agriculture. As the pressing began, a steady trickle of liquid turned into a heavy torrent, slowly filling the empty tank under the press. Jean-Pierre handed me a glass and motioned toward the stream of fresh Muscat juice. Its delicious grapiness almost made me wonder why one would even make wine out of it.
However, fermenting the Muscat has been a long-standing tradition in the Diois—the effervescent Clairette de Die, a somewhat sweet wine made mainly from the Muscat grape, is supposed to have outdated the production of all other sparkling wines. The méthode Dioise, as it is called, involves bottling the wine during fermentation, trapping the resulting carbon dioxide gas. The building pressure eventually reaches a point that causes fermentation to stop, leaving a playful sweetness in the wine that is balanced by crisp acidity and low alcohol. Nowadays, of course, the wine is subsequently racked and filtered to remove sediment and prevent any remaining yeast from finishing the job once the wine is in bottle. The Achard-Vincents also bottle a dry sparkler made exclusively from Clairette. Like the more traditional sweet wine, it is equally delicate and lively, showing incredible finesse.
The following morning, I woke early, eager to volunteer my hand in the harvest. The summer heat had yet to kick in and a pillow-like layer of fog still rested against the hillside. I joined the rest of the crew in the vines and began picking. The work was tiresome but snacking on the grapes provided adequate fuel. Finally, the time came for me to continue my trip.
Still sweaty from the intense labor in the vineyard, I knew I couldn’t leave without taking a dip in the crystal-clear waters of the Drôme. I climbed down from the road to the bank of the river before plunging in. I felt refreshed by the bracing cold and cleansed by the translucent purity of the water. My only regret was not bringing a bottle of Clairette to chill in the river and freshen up my palate.