France Trip - Week Two in the Northern Rhone

The second half of our Rhone River cruise took place in the Northern Rhone. In my last blog, I shared our experiences in the Southern Rhone. We transitioned from the Southern Rhone, into the Northern Rhone as we passed the vineyards of St. Peray and Cornas. And arrived in the town of Tain L’Hermitage.

St Joseph
The fourth day of our river cruise started at 10:00am, as our group gathered in Tain L’Hermitage and walked across the pedestrian bridge that connects with Tournon-Sur-Rhone. We walked along the streets, past the Tournon Castle, to the trailhead that headed up the hill to the vineyards of St. Joseph. It was a fairly steep climb along switchbacks. At the top, we reached the Tower Pierregourde. This is one the few remaining ramparts of the old city walls. We were told that at one point the local clergymen made rope for the ships that would travel up and down the Rhone River. Pirate invaded the town, and hung the priests from the tower for everyone to see from the river. It was a warning not to stop here. As we walked further, we arrived at the terraced vineyards of St Joseph. The vines were staked with a single post, and tied with twine. The pruning was done to encourage the clusters to grow towards the bottom of the vine. They were terraced in rows of three to four vines deep on “Challe or “Challa”, depending on the dialect. The cost of land on this side of the river is about 30% lower than the Tain L’Hermitage side. Winters on this side are colder, due to the north facing slopes and more shade.

We headed back down toward the river crossed back to the Tain L’Hermitage and headed up into the vineyards of Hermitage (more about Hermitage in a blog to follow). We hiked up to "Les Bessards", just below the hermit’s chapel. We then walked down to the "Le Méal" vineyard, and had a wine tasting.

Cote Rotie
After the tour, we made a quick trip to the Valrhona Chocolate factory (considered the best chocolate in Europe). Made it back to the ship just before we set sail for Lyon. We gathered in the Leopard Lounge, at the back of the ship for the Dragonette Cellars wine pairing dinner. During dinner, we kept going out on the back deck to get views of the vineyards at Condrieu and Cote Rotie.

Lyon from Notre Dame de Fourviere Cathedral
In the morning, we boarded a bus in Lyon, and crossed the Saone river, then headed up the hill on the west side of the city and arrived at the Notre Dame de Fourviere Cathedral. The views from the top overlooked the entire city, and our guide was pointing out all the features and areas below. 

Les Halles Grand Hôtel-Dieu
The next stop as at Les Halles Grand Hôtel-Dieu, where we had a small cheese tasting. The old hotel was actually an old hospital that was built in 1184. There is some concern by the locals that what was originally a free hospital for the public is now being turned into a business enterprise. They were still in the process of refurbishing the place, but there are numerous little markets and restaurants on the river side of the building. All the food shops were very new, and offered all sorts of baked goods, cheeses, and meats. There were also wine shops, and fish markets.

Vieux Lyon
We next stopped at the Halle de la martineire. Here we had a cider tasting along with a smoked fish pate. We then walked down the street to see La Fresque des Lyonnais, which is a large mural on a 3-story building, that outlines some of the historical figures of Lyon.

Our last stop was back across the river in the old part of town, the Vieux Lyon, where we walked the old cobblestone streets. We walked down Rue des trois Maries, then walked through one of the traboules that took us out to Rue St Jean, where we stopped at the Boulangeriedu Palais, to taste pink praline cakes, which are made with caramelized almonds. 

The Abbey at Cluny
During the night, we headed up the Soane River, and arrived in Macon. In the morning, we joined a small group of people from our Dragonette Tour group and hopped on a bus to explore the Maconnais and Beaujolais countryside.

We drove past the Abbey at Cluny. Along the road, we saw many of the Charolais, white cows, that are an AOC beef.  First stop was at a Goat Cheese factory: Chevrerie La Trufiere, in the village of Lys. Cheese and wine tasting Wines were presented by the winemaker: Christophe Perrin, of Domain Christophe Perrin. He presented five wines, which were served with different aged goat cheeses.

Black Truffles
Next stop was at a truffle farm: Les Cos Piguet. The owner (Oliver Devevre), and his 15-year old dog (Chinook) gave a black truffle digging demonstration beneath the hazelnut trees. He grows nine different types of truffles in numerous locations. This time of year, the truffles were dried out. The season is really in the fall. After, we went to his house for lunch and wine pairing, where we met winemaker, Kerrie de Boissieu. Kerrie and her husband own Chateaude Lavernette. Kerrie presented a number of wines, including one of the finest St. Amor Beaujolais I have ever tasted.

Domaine Nadine Ferrand
Our last stop was at Domaine Nadine Ferrand, just outside of Macon. They only make white wines. Very modern tasting room, with some the vineyards right outside the tasting room.

As we drove back to the ship from the tasting, we saw many of the Macon and Beaujolais vineyards along the highway. Back aboard the ship. We met with the rest of our wine group in the Leopard Lounge for final drinks together, before heading to the main restaurant for the farewell dinner.
Our Wine and Food Trails Tour Companions

Check back for segment three of our trip to France, as we explore Lyon, Dijon and Burgundy.

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France Trip - Week Two in the Southern Rhone

The second segment of our trip to France (click here of the first week of the trip), a Rhone River cruise, commenced with check-in at the SS Catherine, a Uni-World river cruise ship. We had booked the trip through Food & Wine Trails, to join a group organized by Dragonette Cellars. Among those in our wine group was another wine blogger, Randy Smith, who writes Check him out. Great guy, and interesting interviews with winemakers.

Check-in was simple and stress free. We were taken to our room, and waiting there was a welcome note from the Dragonette’s along with a bottle of their 2018 Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc. This bottle would come into play later in our trip, as we never opened the bottle (what’s a sommelier to do when on vacation without a corkscrew).

After dinner, we returned to our room to find a bottle of Champagne on the nightstand, and a note from the Dragonettes and the crew, congratulating us on our 35th wedding anniversary.

Les Arenes, Arles
Overnight, we travelled from Avignon south to Tarascon. At 8:45am we met on the dock and divided up into buses, and headed to Arles. This was our first experience with the Mistral winds. They were blowing pretty good. It was a short drive, and we walked into the ancient city. We heard about the connection with Van Gogh, as well as the Roman Ruins. As we walked up the streets, we first came to Les Arenes (the Roman Amphitheater), then walked up around the corner to the Theatre Antique. Both were still in use, and had been set up for Bastille Day celebrations. 

Cafe at Night - as it is
Next walked to Espace Van-Gogh, a sixteenth century hospital. It's major claim to fame is that it was where Van Gogh was committed after the infamous episode of cutting off his left ear in December 1888. As we walked there, our guide pointed out a bakery that she claimed had the best olive bread she had ever had. We walked back to bought some bread, and admired the shelves of baked goods. We sat in the Place de la Republique. We rejoined our group, then walked back through town and stopped at a sidewalk café, where Van Gogh had painted his famous “Café at Night”, then went around the corner to Church of St Trophime. Our ship left the dock around 6:00pm, and headed back up to Avignon. We watched from the upper deck, as we went through a lock in the river.

Palace of the Popes
The next day, my wife chose to join a group and visit the Pont du Gard Aqueduct, the world’s tallest Roman bridge. I walked across the street from our ship, and joined a tour of the walled city of Avignon. The city was conducting their yearly City Festival, with hundreds or shows and performances being done. The city was very crowded. We walked the cobblestone streets and made our way to the Palace of the Popes, but I had to leave the tour early to get back to the ship for a specialized tour of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. At 11:30, Met our Sommelier and tour guide, Kelly McAuliffe. Lunch at La Table de Sorgues, for wine tasting and lunch. I will go into detail more on the lunch in another blog about the foods of France, but it was an extraordinary two-hour French lunch. 

Domain de la Janasse
After lunch, we headed to La Clos du Caillou. Founded in 1895. It is the one blank spot in the Chateauneuf-de-Pape AVA map. This was then followed by a tasting at Domain de la Janasse, where we met with Isabelle Sabon. Again, I will follow up with an entire blog post about the trip to Chateauneuf-de-Pape, as it is a fascinating region. 

We arrived back to the ship at 6:00, and the ship left right after we boarded for the little town of Viviers. Some may recognize this medieval town from the film “Chocolat”.

In the morning, we met our guide, a local who was a refugee of Vietnam. We walked down the tree lined streets, where she pointed out the high-water marks from when the Rhone flooded the town. The town only has about 4,000, and is a fully intact medieval town. As we learned, they are working to restore the town, and re-invent it as a stopping point for cyclists, ride from the Alps down the Rhone to the French Coast.

Ruins of the original church
We arrived at the town square with our first look at the rock, where the 12th century St. Vincent’s Cathedral is built. The original church was built in 475 AD, but all that remains are the walls atop the rock. We wound our way through the narrow streets, eventually making it to the top of the rock, where the entrance was a gated wall only open to the clergy. They lived above all the towns people below. We entered the church and listened to a local organist play about five songs on the large pipe organ. We were also told about the missing tapestries in the church, Apparently, they were stolen, and all but one was recovered. Three were still out for restoration and cleaning. We walked out to the site of the original church (the top of the rock) that overlooked the city. In the distance you could follow the Rhone river upstream, with views of the nuclear power plants in the distance. 

Tree-lined streets
As we worked our way back down into town, our guide took us to her house, and invited us in. Her house was actually two houses put together as one. Her husband was there, and they allowed us to wander throughout the house, as they offered us cheese, and wine.
At the end of the tour we watched both the locals and some shipmates play Pétanque. It is basically a French version of Bocce Ball. Instead of rolling the balls (like in Bocce) the balls are tossed in a backhanded motion, and the balls are made of steel, and slightly smaller than bocce balls. Other than that, the rules seem similar.

Dragonette Seminar
We were back on board the ship by about 12:30, and left dock at 1:00. Back on ship we had a tasting and seminar on Dragonette Cellars wines, and vineyard locations, put on by John Dragonette. Four wines were tasted, 2017 Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay, 2015 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir, 2012 John Sebastiano Grenache, and 2014 John Sebastiano Syrah.

As the ship moved up river, we transitioned from the Southern Rhone wine region to the Northern Rhone Region passing the small hillside vineyards of St. Peray located at the top of a hill. All terraced with a western exposure. Further up river, the larger terraced, hillside slopes of Cornas came into view.

We arrived at Tain L’Hermitage around 9:00pm, with our first views of the famous hill of Hermitage and the St. Joseph Vineyards. There were a lot of white swans on the river. The rivers are pretty dirty, and most people don’t go in. Also, the current is pretty treacherous.
St Joseph Vineyards as we arrived in Tain L'Hermitage

Check out the second part of our Rhone River Cruise, the Northern Rhone and Soane, by following this link.

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