The Pont du Gard in the French countryside

Fin

Since I’ll never be a movie producer, I finally have another outlet to satisfy my life-long dream to wrap something up with the simple phrase…

I think this is a fitting title to end our trip in France, which you can read about HERE, HERE and HERE.

Our little family recently journeyed into France for a visit with some wonderful friends, Michel and Shirley (read his blog HERE).  We spent a few days with them in their home in Sablet, France.  They were wonderful tour guides, packing in many activities that they knew we would enjoy.  After a day spent touring some of the most beautiful villages in France, we had a serious thirst to quench.  So the next day, we took advantage of our prime location in the Côté du Rhône region of France (arguably one of the most well-known wine producing regions in the world) and drank our way throughout the area.

Cool street art just outside of Sablet

Michel owns a charming bistro in Northern California (Bistro des Copains) that has not only increased his knowledge of Californian and French wines, but also given him a unique “in” to the local wine producers surrounding his village.  It’s one thing to call and set up a tasting, and another thing entirely to call and set up a tasting because “I might decide to purchase your wine for my restaurant”.  Ladies and gentlemen, feel free to unroll your red carpets now!

Michel did a wonderful job selecting three wineries to visit, ranging in size of production, type of wine produced and varying ambiance for our tastings.  We started the tour at, Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil  in Cairanne, a short ride from Michel and Shirley’s home.  Catherine had set up a tasting for us in the production facility next to her home.  Since I could not possibly tell Catherine’s story better than she could, I have copied her brief biography about the wine she produces from Kermit Lynch’s wine merchant website.

Catherine Le Goeuil’s taste for adventure has made her a leading pioneer in Cairanne. Having been born in the Congo to French parents, she had already lived in interesting places, but she longed to return to her roots. In 1993, with little experience and great determination, she and her family bought a six-hectare domaine. Soon after implementing one of their first chemical treatments on the vines, Catherine became very ill. The viticultural direction for the domaine became instantly clear. In her mind, farming as naturally as possible was the only way to go. Over time, she started the conversion to organic farming, and is now fully certified in this methodology. In a village just shy of one thousand inhabitants and only two others who farm organically nearby, her decisions have been met with suspicion and trepidation. Though rooted to the place both figuratively and literally, she is still considered an outsider—not that she lets this dilute her conviction in any way.

Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil
Ouvert (Open)
Part of the modest estate
Inside the bottling facility
French wine bottles
Bottling process in action
Loved the symmetry of the packaging
Julia always has to look her coolest
Jen and Shirley were kind enough to be our “scribes” so Michel and I had the necessary information for the our blogs
Aftermath of our tasting
Julia ran wild in the vineyards

Next, we ventured to Domaine la Soumade, a winery founded in 1979 by André Roméro (website).  We slowly worked our way through a flight of Rasteau before selecting which bottles to purchase (or in Michel’s case, which cases to purchase).

Casks
“Step right up… what’ll it be?  May I recommend a grenache?”
Reading to Shirley
Michel speaking to our host about his wines
Julia plays with the sunflowers
Vineyards out back
Interesting to see the French flag as opposed to the Italian flag

After lunch, we pointed the car toward the much anticipated village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  If you’re no more than a casual drinker of French wine (like me), than you may be questioning that statement.  “I thought Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a grape, or a style of wine, or (what I thought) a region?”  Certainly, a wine as noted around the world as Châteauneuf-du-Pape couldn’t simply take the name of a small village with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants…could it?

Driving into Châteauneuf-du-Pape
The Popes castle sits high above the village
Street in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The central concept to higher end French wine is the notion of terroir, the location where the grapes are grown and wine is made.  The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) classification system uses this concept of terroir when classifying French wine.  It is this rigorous classification issued by the government agency that ultimately determines (in part) how your wine bottle reads.  The history of the AOC dates all the way back to 1411, when Roquefort (yes, the cheese) was first regulated.  It wasn’t until 1935 that the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) was created exclusively to manage the process for wines.

I learned that as you drink wines across France- the labeling practices are different and take on their own set of rules depending on which region the wine was made in and what level of classification the wine carries. The minimum information a label will carry is usually the classification and the name of the producer.  Michel explained to us that in the Côté du Rhône region the ranking of a wine’s quality is fairly easy to determine, starting with Côté du Rhône (the generic label), then Côté du Rhône-Villages (which includes 95 communes), next moving on to Côté du Rhône-Villages (named village) (where the village has earned the right to include its name on the label) and finally the highest class-action, Crus (the most demanding level of distinction, upon which the village will use only its name on the label, without needing to include Côté du Rhône).  There are only 16 communes that have achieved this high level of distinction.  The wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape have been awarded this high level of crus status and therefore, only use the name of the village on the label.

After drinking the spectacular wines of Clos du Mont-Olivet, we toured the proprietors private cellar.  It was jaw-dropping indeed to see bottles of wine that were worthy of serving royalty, reaching values too astronomical for me to fathom.  It also made my draw drop to see Julia running wild in said-cellar and I had to put my camera down to chase her on more than one occasion.  I don’t think stomping grapes the rest of my life to repay the debt of a single broken bottle would have been a wise notion.  The estate is managed by David, the third generation in a line of winemakers of the Séraphin family.  A kind and gentle man, he was happy to take time to explain his wine, show off his cellar, extol a few interesting anecdotes and allow us to take tons of pictures.  David told us that the current spring (when the grapes begin to grow) was the coldest on record since 1887 and that winemakers all over the region were nervous of the outcome.  If the outcome was anything like the wines we drank all day – they’ll be just fine!

A sign hangs outside Clos du Mont-Olivet
Outside Clos du Mont-Olivet
Julia kept herself pre-occupied by drawing…
And tasting French water along with us…
And finally, re-organizing corks
David welcomes us into his family’s cellar
There were thousands of wines inside
Some wines dated back fifty years
They had one of their original floor corking machines
Julia wanted to go “this way” toward the really expensive wines
Another shot of the cellar
Leading back into the production area
Packaging and storage area
Bottles prepare to ship
David prepares an invoice for our purchases

When we left Clos du Mont-Olivet we spent some time touring the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is as firmly intertwined with papal history as it is wine.  In 1308, Pope Clement V relocated the papacy to the city of Avignon.  My buddy Clement V and his subsequent “Avignon Popes” were rumored to be great lovers and promotors of wine during the seventy-year duration of the Avignon Papacy.  John XXII (who came second) is responsible for erecting the famous castle that still stands today, known as the “Popes Castle”.

The Pope’s Castle through an ancient wall
Remains of the Pope’s Castle
View of the valley
In the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
The village was beautiful
Street scene
Looking back up toward the top of the castle
“Hi, everybody!”
“HI, MAMMA!”
That’s so funny… I want to go up there!”
“Ciao, everyone…errr, I mean bonjour!”

Next, we drove to some of the vineyards, which we were surprised to learn were covered in rocks.  Michel explained that these are naturally occurring and even when the farmers rake all the rocks, they simply re-surface again over time.  Of course, everyone embraces the rocks and think its what gives Châteauneuf-du-Pape it’s unique terroir.

The rocks were amazing
Vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
One of the wineries planted roses at the end of each row of grapes
View in the middle of the vineyards
Another angle
Jen and I paid the price for stepping into the fields to snag a couple rocks as souvenirs

On our final day in France, we visited the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge that crosses the Gardon River.  The site is simply stunning to behold, and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre agreed, adding it to their list of World Heritage Sites in 1985 because of it’s historical importance.

Pont du Gard
The opposite side, higher viewpoint
Ancient villa on the Gardon River
We walked to the top of the aqueduct
We followed the route up to the panoramic viewpoint
The trek was worth it – there were stunning views
At the top
Amazing to see the bridge up close
Angle from below
This olive tree, along with it’s sister tree were relocated here and have thrived since 908 AD
Sister tree
Stone placard commemorating and expelling the trees’ history
View from the opposite bank
One of the end caps
The ancient carvings were magnificent.  I think this says, “this end up”
Trees covered the roads to offer shade to the soldiers in ancient times
Nice scenery shot

Finally, we ended our day in Vaison-la-Romaine, a village that showcases an interesting historic perspective.  Not only is the historic section separated into two parts, it is divided in two distinct ways.  On the high side of the dividing river, Ouvèze you have Medieval ruins including a castle.  On the lower side, centered on the Colline de la Villasse, you have the largest filed of Roman ruins in France.  It’s quite stunning to take it all in.

The upper city – the Medieval city
View of the Medieval castle
Some of the Roman ruins
Roman ruins – pillars surrounding a courtyard
Courtyard
They believed this portion was housing
Ancient Roman gate still intact
The ruins covered such an impressive and vast amount of land
Would have loved to known who’s pool this was… some ancient tycoon?
A final look back over the Roman ruins

I hope you enjoyed your tour through France with us (both historical and culinary) as much as we did.  Stay tuned as we return back to Italy and stay busy while Jen’s family comes to stay a month.

Keeping It In The Family
And I Thought Italians Eat Big Meals!

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