After two whirlwind days in Catalonia, we were off to Avignon, the heart of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, to taste some incredible wines.
We are both used to traveling in Europe on a tight budget and taking public transportation everywhere. This time, with our goal of getting out into the countryside and vineyards, we decided to rent a car. Yes, it was a stick shift, as most European cars are, and no, that was not a problem for either of us (my current car is manual). We definitely had our share of adventures with driving in France for the first time, although no accidents occurred!
After settling into our auberge in Rognonas, a little town just south of Avignon, we headed into central Avignon, a stunning medieval city with well-preserved 14th-century ramparts and the Palais des Papes as its focal point. This immense palace is built directly into a massive rock outcropping, with narrow city streets spiraling outward from its base. We wandered up through 700-year-old streets to take in the view from the palace steps.
Feeling adequately cultured, we settled into Cuisine Chic, a tiny bistro tucked into a corner beneath a 7th-century church. Our server presented us with the interactive menu on wireless tablets, providing links to information about each of the wines on the list. Cuisine Chic embodies what I love so much about France: in the shadow of a 1300-year-old church is a restaurant playing with modern technology, and not just in the menu format. The melange of tradition and novelty was equally apparent in the cuisine: our starter of foie gras cured in cognac accompanied with a salad of edible flowers and truffle whipped cream melded traditional flavors with novel presentation and techniques.
Yes, I said truffle whipped cream.
We decided we would make it our mission to eat foie gras as often as possible while in France. Mission accomplished for Day One!
The next day we got up relatively early for our tasting appointments in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The coffee at our auberge was an odd shade of grey, but the croissants and home-made jams made up for the unconvincing brew. Our first stop, Chateau de Vaudieu, was just outside of the tiny village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
We managed to find the place without using GPS, although we did at first turn down what we thought was the driveway but which turned out to be a tractor path. La Schtroumpfette was not amused. This minor detour did draw our attention to the incredible soil the vines were growing out of, or rather, the lack of soil — the vines were growing directly out of huge, jagged chunks of hard limestone rocks. The difference between French and Californian vineyards was immediately obvious — no pampered, fertilized and watered fields here.
When you talk about terroir in France, you are literally talking about rocks. We will discuss this in far greater detail when we get to Burgundy. In the meantime, we should also mention that Chateau de Vaudieu is actually a chateau — a real one built in the 18th century out of the same white limestone the vines were growing out of.
Laurent Bréchet, manager and proprietor, welcomed us and proudly showed us the facilities, once again a blend of tradition and modernity. The original underground cellar is still in use for barreling, but a newer addition houses cutting-edge cement Tulipe fermentation tanks, the first to be used in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The name Vaudieu comes from the original name of the vineyard: Val de Dieu, or Valley of God. The harsh, rocky terrain hardly seems fit for one of the premier vineyards in the world, but these conditions are exactly what makes Vaudieu’s wines so unique and memorable. The large chunks of white limestone impart a creamy minerality and intense acidity to the white wines in particular. The reds are grown in sandier soil for an elegant marriage of varietals with strong tannins and spice. With austere growing conditions and extremely low production, the wines are focused and memorable, the essence of their origins.
Our next appointment was at Domaine la Barroche. Pulling into the address we were given, we were sure we were lost — we found ourselves in the driveway of a typical village house, with a little garden and someone pulling up on a moto just behind us. No sign, no chateau, no vines to be seen. But the someone on the moto confirmed that this was indeed Barroche, and we followed him into the garage, where Julien Barrot, winemaker and son of the proprietor, ushered us into the facility.
We climbed down a ladder from the garage to the cave, a simple underground space with several enormous traditional oak fermentation barrels and a couple of newer stainless-steel tanks. While La Barroche’s facilities were basic, the wines were anything but simple. We had stumbled onto a special opportunity: Julien and a circle of CdP winemakers were gathering to taste through all of the Barroche vintages side-by-side, from 2003 to present. There were over twenty wines in all.
The winemakers stood in a circle around the table, spit bucket casually placed on the floor, as they dissected and discussed each cuvée in hushed tones that gradually grew into a party atmosphere. These were wine professionals, but there was a lot of wine to taste, after all. The wines were fascinating. With such a wide range of vintages and cuvées came an equally wide array of experiences, from dark and rich to lean and focused. At one point, maman Barrot brought out a huge sack of sliced baguette to help soothe everyone’s palates. FInally it was time to adjourn for lunch; as we headed out, Julien handed us an unmarked bottle of house-blend white “just for fun.”
On Laurent Bréchet’s recommendation, we hopped over to Gigondas for lunch, where we found a shady restaurant terrace offering grillades and rustic local rosé, summer in a glass. Gigondas is a tiny mountain village nestled under Les Dentelles, jagged mini-mountains that give Gigondas a unique elevation and cooler climate that is worlds away from the sun-baked quality of Châteauneuf.
While we were in the neighborhood, we stopped into Domaine des Bosquets, the brother winery to Vaudieu, managed by Laurent Bréchet’s brother, Julien. Bosquets is a rule-breaker, offering a wonderfully crisp, almost saline white in spite of the fact that the Gigondas appelation does not permit white wines. A similar attention to quality was evident in the rosé, which provided further evidence that rosé is not “just for girls.” The reds were rugged, like the terrain they hailed from, but with elegant layers of fennel and dark fruit, the result of sandy soil with good drainage. Soil is everything in France — every serious winery will proudly exhibit columns excavated soil and rocks representing their unique terroir. Sun, wind, rain, all contribute, but it is all about the rocks at the end of the day.
After a long day wine tasting, we were ready for dinner. A restaurant down the street from our auberge was offering an aioli, which in French culture refers not just to the mayonnaise-garlic spread, but to the vast platter of steamed seafood and vegetables which is served alongside it. We weren’t totally sure what all of the things were that we ate, but they were all amazing.
After sufficiently stuffing ourselves with seafood, we decided to see what Rognonas had to offer in the way of nightlife. The answer was: one glorious dive bar.
Rognonas obviously doesn’t get many American tourists. We were definitely a subject of curiosity sitting on the terrace, drinking pastis and trying unsuccessfully to blend in. Evidence of improved Franco-American relations: over ten years ago, when I first came to France, nearly every French person I spoke to wanted to know: What do you think of Bush? What do Americans think of French people? Now, in 2014, we were asked: What do you think of pastis? Do you know George Clooney? You know, “waters?” (Apparently Clooney is omnipresent in French ads for Nespresso coffee machines asking, “What else?”). No, we didn’t know George personally, yes, we (or rather I) liked pastis, our bar tab was shockingly low for the number of demis and Mauresques consumed, and we found our way home happy and exhausted.
This post has gotten extremely long, so Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Part Deux will have to wait for tomorrow! If you are still with me, dear reader, I appreciate you. Here is one last photo for today: