I’ve long considered myself a Francophile, and a bit of a foodie. So I’m embarrassed to admit that my first introduction to the famous French food and wine town of Tain-l’Hermitage came via my husband’s desire to visit a tourist railway on the border of the picturesque Rhône-Alpes region of central France.
But, perhaps I shouldn’t feel so bad. Despite Tain-l’Hermitage being home to 6000 residents and both M. Chapoutier Wines and Valrhona Chocolate, the town is far from a typical tourist trap.
Situated an hour south of Lyon, Tain-l’Hermitage rests comfortably off the beaten track in France, on the bank of the Rhône River. Many river cruise ships appear to make a ‘whistle stop’ here, however to truly explore the area, travellers may wish to stay longer to experience all the town offers and get a real feel for its charm.
A master of French wine
The sun was shining brightly on the morning of our visit to M. Chapoutier, with blue skies providing a perfect backdrop for the vines. However, the interior of the cellar was just as you would expect it – dimly lit and atmospheric.
Our education into the famous Rhône-Alpes wines commenced with us sampling a number of white wines before our English-speaking Sommelier walked us to the vineyard. And for those looking for something a little different, a self-guided tour on electric bikes was also available.
Our five-minute journey to the vines was punctuated with snippets of the Chapoutier family history, which is forever linked with the town. The sun warmed our backs as our Sommelier expanded our knowledge of French soils, grapes, exposures and appellations.
Upon returning to the tasting cellar we were treated to the red wines, which were very much to our tastes. The Chapoutier team were keen to entertain their Australian visitors, so much so that they opened a bottle of Chapoutier’s Australian wine for everyone to taste.
The contrast between the French and Australian wines was marked. Our palates are well tuned to Australian wine, but the robustness of the Australian drop was a real shock after our earlier examination of the elegant French wines.
Wine lovers should definitely make the time to visit both the tasting cellar and the vineyard. The latter requires a booking, but it is worth the effort to lock in a specific date and time.
There are wines available to suit every taste and every budget, and if you happen to arrive by rail, the tasting cellar is open all week and is just steps from the railway station.
Excellent French food, off the beaten track
Just a few doors from M. Chapoutier is the excellent restaurant, Le Mangevins. Once I’d worked out what a treat Tain-l’Hermitage is for food lovers I researched the local restaurant scene. I’d been impressed by its mention in the Michelin Guide, and by reviews. So I was pleased when our Sommelier was quick to recommend the restaurant for lunch.
As the restaurant only seats around 20 diners, bookings are advised – although we were lucky enough to secure a table without a reservation. The restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner on weekdays only, is run by a husband and wife team. He looks after the wine and front of house, and she cooks the delicious food. In typical French style, the dishes, change daily and the choices are driven by the availability of the freshest produce.
The care taken in matching wine to our food choice – slow cooked lamb – was impressive, with Monsieur recommending a special single vineyard red wine for us. Our host ensured we got a real feel for the provenance of the wine.
If you are visiting Le Mangevins for lunch, you might choose to show some restraint and skip dessert – especially if you are planning to visit the Valrhona’s Cité du Chocolat that afternoon.
A must for chocolate loving Francophiles
The Cité du Chocolat is a must for anyone with even a passing interest in chocolate. It provides visitors with a complete chocolate experience and a wander through the Discovery Centre is the perfect start to your visit. Here you learn about the chocolate making process in a fun and interactive setting. It is rare to visit an attraction where adults are having at least as much fun as children!
The language used to describe the chocolate was very interesting. Words like terroir and Grand Cru, typically used in relation to wine or coffee, are also used for chocolate. Your education even includes tips on how to taste chocolate correctly.
On the topic of tasting, samples are generously provided as your journey through the Centre takes you from natural produce to finished product. Understanding which chocolates appeal to your palate is important if you wish to limit decision time in the boutique.
A massive range of chocolate is available at the Cité du Chocolat Boutique, together with a large variety of chocolate related goodies. The river boat cruise passengers do get to visit the boutique – a bus load descended like locusts while we were there, but there did not appear to be time for the guests to take in the whole experience and were gone within minutes.
Beside a French river
An excellent place to enjoy an aperitif in Tain-l’Hermitage is riverside, where you can watch the world float by, and delight in the views over the river to the historic fortified town of Tournon-sur-Rhône. As it happened, the terrace of our hotel, was a perfect place to enjoy a glass of chilled local white wine, and watch the parade of tourists and locals cross the footbridge linking the river banks.
Tournon-sur-Rhône, Tain’s riverside companion offers history, shopping and excellent eating and is worth a visit in its own right.
If you’ve remained on the Tain side of the river and you can’t tear yourself from the river views when hunger strikes again, dining on regional specialities at Quai is a great option. We experienced excellent service with the staff helping us practice our French while they put on an amazing show of preparing Crepes Suzette for us. The lovely owner even shared a taste of their Grand Marnier.
While it may remain off the beaten track in France, there is so much to keep travellers occupied in Tain-l’Hermitage, and so many treats to be found. And that’s before they even try to find the tourist railway.
Do you have a favourite treat from Tain-l’Hermitage? Maybe a favourite meal, wine or variety of chocolate? If so, we’d love for you to share it.
1 & 4 & 6 © Scott Gould.
2. Chapoutier by Jodi Bart, via Flickr.
3. Wine bottle label by Grant hutchinson, via Flickr.
5. Chocolate truffles, via Wikipedia.