Beyond the thick city walls of Avignon and its historic Palais des Papes, the ancient gnarled vines of Châteauneuf du Pape and the satellite districts of the Rhône are poised for their annual cycle of renewal. Only the white spring flowers and lilac blossom that add an extra splash of colour to the patchwork of vines rooted in soils of white pebble, golden sand and brown clay hint at the abundance to come in this warm southern- French region fed by the mighty Rhône river.
The climate has been kind to the Rhône valley in recent years, with a series of good to excellent vintages in both cooler north and sunny south: 2009 is a warm vintage of ripe, powerful wines, while the first 2010s I tasted this month seem endowed with the perfect balance of fruit and freshness. With one or two exceptions, the wines of the Rhône may not come with the fancy address of a Bordeaux château or Burgundy domaine, but a leap in quality combined with favourable vintages has helped the local vigneron steal a march on his more prestigious competitors when it comes to good-value drinking.
Red wines here are based on the aromatic, spicy, black pepper-scented syrah grape in the north with blends of grenache bringing red-berry and white-pepper flavours the closer you get to the Mediterranean. Whites are increasingly excellent, so let's hope that more of the blends based on marsanne, roussanne, viognier and clairette will see their way to the UK. For a taste of a fine Rhône dry white, try the 2009 Saint Péray, Les Vins de Vienne, £13.99, waitrose.com, a wine whose ripe, concentrated appley flavours and vivid freshness are based on the marsanne grape.
The best value in the northern Rhône is usually to be found in Crozes Hermitage reds made of pure syrah clinging to the riverbank's terraces. A mature example, perfect now with pink-roasted lamb or rose veal, is the delightfully spicy 2007 Crozes Hermitage Rouge, Terre d'Eclat, Domaine de la Ville Rouge, £15.95, Jeroboams shops, London, with its twist of black pepper. If you find that too pricey, console yourself in the arms of the more youthfully exuberant 2009 Gaillard Syrah, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, £9.99, buy 2 = £7.99, Majestic, a Crozes in all but name for its perfume and voluptuously juicy black peppery fruit.
The complexities of the southern Rhône's broader palette of blends and numerous villages may be harder to unravel but they'll repay the effort. Good value extends from the affordably cherryish glugging qualities of the 2009 Sainsbury's Côtes du Rhône Villages, £5.99, or darker berry-fruit concentration and mouthwateringly spicy qualities of the 2007 Domaine de Cassan Tradition, Beaumes de Venise, £8.49, Waitrose.
Current 2009 offers from independent specialists are well worth a look for juicy reds such as the Perrins' fragrant and succulently dark cherryish 2009 Vinsobres Les Cornuds, £75-£80, a case, in bond (duty and VAT to be paid on delivery), Goedhuis & Co (020-7793 7900), Divine Fine Wines, Birmingham (0121 745 6999). For a star in the making, Domaine Santa Duc's 2009 Vacqueyras, Les Aubes, £108 a case, in bond, Berry Bros & Rudd (0800 280 2440), is a wonderfully intense grenache-based red full of garrigue herb and spice and rich cherry and blackberry fruitiness; a divine red to get you dancing merrily away on the Pont d'Avignon.