Friday, June 14, 2024

France Finale

It’s been almost one week to the hour since Rob and I opened the front door to Woodhaven after being gone for 23 days. Our 14-year-old cat, clearly having given up ever seeing us again, summarily hissed at us and slinked away into our bedroom. She forgave us within minutes and hasn’t really left us unattended since. Getting readjusted to this time zone has been tough, what with the cat needing hourly reassurance that we are still here and breathing. She’s lucky she’s otherwise adorable.

Pretty much the scene at Woodhaven
for the past week

As friends have asked us over the past week how our trip was, I have noticed both Rob and I are sort of perplexed how best to answer. On the one hand, it was a truly epic adventure that we had long dreamed and talked about taking. We saw, smelled, and tasted much of France through a firehose of three action-packed weeks. We realized our goal of learning about French wine and can now visit that aisle of the wine store with more confidence. Two nights ago, as we opened a newly acquired bottle of Chablis, I said, “A Chablis. That’s in the northern part of Burgundy, which means this is a Chardonnay!” Rob gave me a high-five as I danced around the living room in wine-knowledge victory. WHOO HOO! The trip worked!!

But the trip was also challenging. We were WAY out of our comfort zones. Although we had an itinerary, we had hired someone much more capable to put it together for us. I had a 1-inch binder full of confirmations and tickets and vouchers. Each day was like a scavenger hunt, with pieces of paper leading us to the next train station, hotel, restaurant, tour, or wine tasting. I got pretty good at saying, “Nous avons des réserves” (we have reservations). It was weirdly freeing to have a plan but not really know what that plan was -- to trust that a good plan had been made and I just needed to follow along one step at a time.

We had some bumps along the way. A cancelled flight. Two piercing hotel alarms. A hotel without hot water. A train without a place to sit. A train that hit something and caused delays. A hail storm with no shelter. A digestive system that rebelled most of a night. A back that screamed for 3 days.

Super duper crowded train.
I was standing in a stairwell.

It took us hours to dry out. We dripped
all over the train that finally arrived.  

But, similar to getting Norovirus on the very first cruise I ever took, none of those bumps substantially detracted from the trip. They were mostly shoulder shrugs, things we couldn’t do much about and had to navigate around. A much-needed lesson for a control freak.

It was a trip filled with transitions. Every 2-3 nights we were in a new town in a new hotel with new outlets and buttons and switches and bathroom fixtures to figure out. We traveled around by train, and I was surprised how quickly that became a confident mode of transportation. By the third station, we waltzed into the lobby like locals. Knowing we needed to wait until our train was assigned a platform, we joined all the heads gazing up at the Departures board, grateful that numbers look the same in English and French. However, our not-carry-on suitcases gave our tourist status away. Many French train stations don’t have operable elevators or escalators, so there was a LOT of luggage lugging up and down stairs. We have already discussed how we will pack lighter on future on-the-go vacations.

Gathered to watch the blue screen to 
tell us where to roll to next.


I can not begin to tell you how
grateful I am for this man. There
are so many things I simply could
not do were it not for him.
This trip is but one.

And it was a trip filled with French stuff. French food, French words, French customs, French scenery, French style, French people. It was both exhilarating and exhausting to be immersed in so much Not Home.

We actually managed the language barrier pretty well. By the end of the trip, I was able to get the gist of what was being said to me and could usually cobble together enough words to reply. I was super jazzed to order full lunches in French and ask a question here and there. I took it as a great compliment that people would reply to me in French, assuming I understood them. Of course, my blank stare was a tip off and they would then smile and say, “Is English better?” Such kind, benevolent, bilingual people they were!

But I also sort of enjoyed not knowing what was going on around me. Other people’s conversations were just white noise since I didn’t really understand what they were saying. It was oddly relaxing and liberating just to rest in the unknown.

I was surprised how much I do not really like French cuisine. We had a few nice dinners and honestly, they were too fancy and saucy and heavy. I found I much preferred street food, like bread and ham and cheese and chocolate over the exotic and weird duck liver and snails and frog legs. Accordingly, Rob and I both managed to lose some weight on the trip. We certainly did not overeat (or overdrink), and we walked at least 3.5 miles daily. I have already failed at my resolve to continue that healthy habit at home.

The perfect meal. Salami, cheese,
baguette, dark chocolate, wine.


This was advertised as a Taco.
It was not. 
Not bad, although the limp
fries inside were a surprising
addition.


My favorite lunch was splitting
one of these sandwiches. Simple, 
tasty, filling, and totally orderable
all in French. 

I was also completely unprepared to learn that I care a lot more about fashion than I realized. Or, rather, MY fashion. To be efficient and minimize laundry, I invested in several Merino wool pieces of clothing prior to packing. Touted for being temperature regulating, odor resistant, and comfy, it was to be the perfect travel wardrobe. And it was, sort of. I only washed the four shirts once the entire trip, and I didn’t wash the two pairs of pants I alternated until we got home. I was amazed!

But I was also bored out of my mind. The clothes were all solid colors and dark (winter colors on sale) and made me feel so incredibly frumpy and dull and lifeless. I hated having no patterns or personality or fun with my clothes. This was a surprise, because deciding what to wear is definitely NOT a daily highlight for me. My feelings of wearing a potato sack were made worse by the fact that I was schlepping that sack around France, where women could not only wear burlap, they would accessorize it and effortlessly look like Jackie Onassis.

Me pondering how bored I am of
that shirt.

By the time we got to Champagne, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I hated the clothes I was toting around and I hated how completely unpulled together I felt. With a couple hours to kill before the next train ride, I left Rob in the hotel lobby while I went shopping. Knowing that “Prêt-a-porter” means “ready to wear” – in other words, inexpensive, off-the-rack clothing – I was stoked to spy “Prêt” on a store window. Less than 30 minutes later, I emerged with a bag filled with sanity and confidence. It is AMAZING the power and magic of a simple jeans jacket. And a colorful scarf. Totally blew my mind that I cared so much. So, travel wardrobe lesson learned: the Merino wool is awesome and dull. Definitely pack my French Jeans Jacket and a few accessories next time.

SO MUCH BETTER! I had worn
that outfit without the jacket and 
hated how blah it felt. 

Even though we were on the move, I loved the slower pace of French culture. They never seemed to be in a hurry, other than Paris – and even then, it was sort of a waltz of activity instead of a mosh pit of chaos. Every day in every town we visited, stores closed between noon and 2:00pm so people could go home and eat a proper meal. There seemed to be a priority on food. Not just eating it, but enjoying it, savoring it, sharing it. I rarely saw people using their phones in restaurants or sidewalk cafes. When it was time to eat and socialize, the French folks were present with the people and food in front of them. It was refreshing…and that sort of startled me.

Even in the rain, French people take time to
socialize in sidewalk cafes.

As we learned about French wine, I started to think of wine in a new way. Terroir is the term for the whole environment a wine grape is grown in – the weather, the soil, the proximity to a road, the elevation. I started to think about the terroir of a glass of wine (this is not an actual concept in the wine world; this is just me letting my mind wander a bit).

There’s the wine itself, but there’s also the shape of glass that it’s in, the time of day you are drinking it, the people you are drinking it with, the circumstances of the moment (a meal? a tasting? a celebration? an escape?), the food that might accompany it, the temperature of the air around you, the view, the reason that particular wine was chosen. I started to realize that often, a glass of wine is just part of an experience. But sometimes, if given a chance, that glass of wine IS the experience. We just need to slow down and notice it and let it be a participant instead of an accessory.

I have hinted a few times at “next time” we take a trip like this. Do we have one in mind? No. Not yet. But this trek around France opened our eyes to a different way for us to travel. It showed us that we can handle being uncomfortable. We can exist in and enjoy a culture we aren’t familiar with, speaking a language we barely know. We can be adaptable. We can take chances. We can enjoy not knowing.

Slow down. Rest in the unknown. Trust that there’s a good plan in place even if you don’t know what it is. Being efficient can be dull. Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders when stuff you don’t like happens.

Fascinating lessons when I thought I was just there to learn about wine.

And with that, I will end with my Cheat Sheet of French Wine. This is a super basic summary of what I learned on my almost-summer vacation. Salut!



BORDEAUX

  • Southwest France
  • All about blends
  • Reds only
  • Left and Right bank of river
  • Left Bank = Medoc = Cabernet Sauvignon with others blended in
  • Right Bank = Saint-Emilion = Merlot with others blended in


LOIRE VALLEY

  • East-west valley to the Atlantic Ocean
  • Lighter, medium bodied wines
  • Mostly whites (Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, Muscadelle near ocean)
  • Red is Cabernet Franc

 

CHAMPAGNE

  • Three main grapes = Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier
  • Most are made from Pinot Noir
  • Most are white but some can be pinkish
  • Serve it in a wine glass

 

ALSACE

  • On border with Germany
  • Almost entirely whites
  • Main grapes are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner
  • Much more complex and interesting than US versions
  • Colmar and Schœnenbourg are the best areas

 

BURGUNDY

  • Confusing!!
  • Only two grapes = Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
  • It’s all about the geography of where the grapes are grown
  • Negotiants are BIG part of process

 

NORTHERN RHÔNE VALLEY

  • Southeastern part of France, boundary with Southern Rhone is Montélimar
  • Red grape = Syrah
  • White grapes = Marsanne (heavier), Roussanne (delicate, finicky), and Viognier (only grown in Condrieu)


SOUTHERN RHÔNE VALLEY

  • Almost all reds, and almost all are blends
  • Traditional blend is GSM = Grenache (80%), Syrah (20%), Mourvèdre (20%)
  • Home of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is impossible to know what you are buying unless you ask someone who knows

 

 

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Conflicted in the Southern Rhône Valley

When we put together our wish list for areas of France to visit, the Southern Rhône Valley was at the top of my list. Over the years, I have discovered that I love wines from this part of France. Especially red wines from an appellation called Gigondas. I didn’t know why I liked them, or even what grapes they were made from. I just knew that when I found a bottle with “Gigondas” somewhere on the label, I was in for a deliciously winey treat.

So, as you can imagine, I have been excitedly anticipating the final stop on our French Wine Tour expedition. The grand finale. Three weeks and 20 years in the waiting. I had pretty high hopes for our three days frolicking about the Southern Rhône Valley. And??

It started out pretty rough, with lots of disappointment. But, it ended wonderfully.

Gorgeous view of Châteauneuf-du-Pape during
last lunch in the 
Rhône Valley (I'm not counting
the sandwich in the train station)

Train-station baguette with pigeon
accompaniment. Yeah, I'll chose
to remember the other "last lunch"
instead.

We arrived in Avignon on Monday at about lunchtime. I was in a lot of pain. The hotel in the Northern Rhône Valley was horrible for my back. The hotel’s furniture was low, the bed was hard, I tried to handwash laundry in the bathtub, all the chairs at the hotel and our wine tastings were awful. It all culminated in a lot of pain – with no way to properly treat it other than pain meds and encouraging self-talk.

We dropped off our luggage at our Avignon hotel, with promises our room would be ready in 4 hours. Four hours to wait for a bed to lie down on. It was a gorgeous day – finally warm and sunny! – and we already had tickets for the famed Palais des Papes – a 14th century palace where the Pope hung out for about 60 years when Italy and France were debating where the Pope should live. So we ambled through cobblestone streets and up a few hills to the Palais.

I did my best to appreciate the history and exhibits and video reproductions of what the Palais likely looked like in its prime. But good Lord, there were a lot of steep stairs! I told Rob to please enjoy and take his time; I would meet him at the end. I trudged through the Palais, took a couple of photos, shed a few covert tears of pain and exasperation, and wondered why such a supposedly holy place really felt more like a big ego trip for the King of France and his appointed Popes.

A replica of the palace. It pretty much still
looks this way, but a bit bigger.

Gritting my way through the day!

I mostly took photos of stairs, so I 
would have documentation if I 
perished on them.

Still needing to kill some time, Rob and I walked out on the Pont d’Avignon – a bridge that once spanned the Rhône River but kept falling apart in floods. It is now a partial bridge that is mostly famous because of a children’s song. Here is a link to a video if you want to get some French phrases stuck in your head. Here is a link to a video if you want to get some French phrases stuck in your head. Rob and I eventually dislodged the earworm by thinking about “Baby Shark.”

It was super windy and no, we did not dance on it.

Finally in our cavernous hotel room, fed, medicated, and hopeful, I went to sleep with lots of anticipation for what I was sure was going to be the Best Day of the Trip!

Our tour company set us up with two full days of Southern Rhône Valley wine tasting. We were surprised and excited to learn that our tours were private – just us and our guide – and that our guide was a sommelier. Whoa!

You might have come across one of these fancy, highly-trained people in a swanky restaurant. Sommeliers go through years of training and extensive testing in both wine knowledge and service to earn their title. They are experts in wine and pairing wine with food. Part of their testing is to be able to taste a glass of wine and correctly identify what grape(s) it is made from, what part of the world it was made in, who made it, and in what year. They are freaky and impressive.

Our guide Céline in her element.

As Céline drove us into the heart of the Southern Rhône Valley, we learned she had been a sommelier for over 30 years and had worked in some super fancy (but unknown to us) Michelin 3-star restaurants around Europe. Eventually the long hours and high stress got old, so Céline started her own company educating touristy wine enthusiasts about 15 years ago. We were clearly in very experienced hands. I was jazzed!

We arrived in Gigondas and I was enthralled. The tiny appellation sits in some very distinctive, rocky mountains. Its soils and terroir are therefore very unique. The village of Gigondas has less than 500 residents and is not really accessible by large vehicles. Most tourists arrive via small cars or bicycles. Despite some world-renowned wines, the people of Gigondas are determined not to let their popularity change who they are.

Not a super great photo but the best I was able to
get of the jaggedy rocks that define Gigondas.


Super cute town with one restaurant, one pottery
studio, and one art studio.


View of the Southern Rhône Valley from
the church in Gigondas

As our first tasting got underway, I eagerly listened to Céline review how to evaluate a wine. You look at the color, you smell it, you swirl it (to release aromas), you smell it again (to see if you released anything new with your swirling), you taste it, you wait a little bit, you taste it again (because the first taste of any wine can be a little shocking to your tongue), you describe it.

I was pretty familiar with this process, although I learned some new vocabulary. The first smelling is called “the first nose.” The second smelling is called “the second nose.” And apparently, the more the noses are different from each other, the more complex the wine is. Cool!

But then things got hard.

I was quickly informed that I was not tasting enough of the wine. I needed to taste half of what Céline poured in my glass for the first taste and then the rest in a second taste. And I needed to roll the wine around in my mouth – a roll, not a swish (I wasn’t doing either). I expressed some concern about drinking that much wine for each sample; if I finished each serving she poured, Céline was going to have to pour me into her car by mid-afternoon. So Céline recommended I follow her lead and spit out the wine after I tasted it. Fabulous.

To best evaluate the color of wine,
you want to look at it against a 
pure white background. It's amazing
how few wineries have white counters.

When it came time to describe the wines – what we were smelling and tasting – Rob and I were corrected a few times on our observations. No, we weren’t smelling cherries, we were smelling raspberries. No, that wasn’t bread crust, that was grass. No, that wasn’t a flower on a plum tree, because there aren’t plum trees in France so that smell wasn’t known. It was mostly likely violets – which I have never intentionally smelled.

Granted, I was in a fair amount of pain (and not on any pain meds because I knew I would be consuming alcohol). And therefore my patience and openness to being directed were stifled. But I was rather annoyed at being told what I was experiencing with the wine. I’m a pretty observant person with a love for words. I am comfortable describing what’s happening around and to me. I was not appreciating being corrected on what I felt was a very personal, subjective experience.

I followed Céline’s instructions and filled my mouth with more wine than I really wanted – so much that I really couldn’t taste it. I rolled it around in my mouth. I spit it out. I tried to describe the flavors using the boring adjectives Céline wanted (blueberry) instead of the ones that give me such joy (blueberry Pop-Tart). I was trying to be a good student – because, for goodness sakes, she was a sommelier! – but I wasn’t having any fun.

We left Gigondas and I was devastated. It was the place I had most anticipated visiting, the wines I was most excited to taste and learn about. Instead I had wasted the experience trying to taste wine the “right way” instead of “my way” and as a result, didn’t feel like I had tasted the wines at all.

Thrilled to be there despite the wine
tasting disappointment.

I took advantage of a short break to regroup with Rob. He was feeling similarly frustrated with being told what we were tasting and not having our fun banter of trying to nail down our own specific, goofy descriptions. I told Rob I wanted to be open to learning to taste wine in a new way, and that I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to learn from a professional. But at the same time, I wasn’t enjoying the wine or the experience. And Céline’s car was bumpy and my back was screaming and lunch was awful and and and…

The afternoon was a little better. I decided to spit out the first taste but swallow the second one. Oddly, spitting all the wine was muting my ability to taste it. Something about swallowing the wine, letting it get to the back of my mouth and throat, added to the flavors and allowed me to appreciate it more and describe it better. I quietly wrote notes with my own descriptions while casually listening to Céline’s. I felt like I was finding a compromise between how I wanted to experience the wine and how Céline wanted me to.

Super nice wine lady who seemed to
have a similar palate to mine. We 
liked a lot of the same wines (not just
at her winery) and she was intrigued by my idea
of describing the taste of wine with colors.
Example: Petit Verdot (not tasted on this trip)
always tastes blue to me. Yep, I liked her because
she wasn't telling me I was wrong all the time. 

The next day – our final day of wine touring – was MUCH better. My back pain eased up and I was better prepared for the day. Remembering that I have a very small mouth – as noted by numerous dentists and endodontists over the years – I decided to ignore Celine’s rule of sampling all of the wine she poured in my glass. Instead, I would taste what felt was the appropriate amount for me. If any was left over, I would use the dump bucket. And I would not spit. Spitting was getting in the way of my ability to taste flavors, as was the rolling thing. And I would not be ashamed to use my goofy descriptions, even if they went over a French woman’s head. I decided that I would taste, experience, and evaluate the wine as Toni, not as a sommelier.

MUCH happier! Much like wine, 
balance is the best.

Don’t get me wrong – I did learn a lot from Céline. I have 7 filled notebook pages as proof. I learned the importance of the first and second nose. I learned what steps in the winemaking process can yield specific flavors. I learned more about what “minerality” really means. I learned that I should intentionally smell more of the world around me. I learned a little about how specific flavors change as wine ages. I learned what a “green harvest” is (hint: our vineyard will be experiencing one as soon as Rob can get to his clippers). I learned that there is joy in examining a wine as an expert and joy in examining a wine as a passionate amateur – and both are valid as long as there is joy.

It was a great day. And a great conclusion to our epic expedition. By the end of it, Céline and I hugged.


Céline and Rob examining a Grenache
grapevine and discussing the benefits
of a green harvest.


Toni and Rob in their element.

Despite the rocky start, I ended up loving the Southern Rhône Valley. I am so grateful I got to see with my own eyes the unique terrain and terroir of Gigondas. I loved seeing the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation – which looked like a small Napa-like resort area in some spots – and marveling at its bizarrely rocky soil (yellow quartzite rocks that look like river rocks but are actually from the ocean). I loved the warm air (finally got to wear my dress!) and the sweet honeysuckle-like smell of the yellow “broom” flowers. I was excited to see lavender fields along the train tracks, not realizing we were so close to Provence. I loved seeing the Rhône River meander through the valley, looking at times very similar to the Columbia River at home swaying through the Gorge. Although I doubt I would return to Avignon (too big and bustling and touristy), I would love to spend more time in the quaint, historic, sleepier villages in and around Châteauneuf-du-Pape.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape (town and appellation) 


Aren't those rocks crazy?? With
permission from Céline (she knows 
people), we might have brought one home.
And yes, I might at some point taste it.

The meandering Rhône River


Lavender fields, as seen whizzing by on the train.

So aside from the whole sommelier experience, what did I learn about Southern Rhône Valley wine?  Here’s a map to get us started!

Avignon is the city in the lower middle.
Gigondas is the bright green appellation.
Vacqueyras is the tiny bright pink one.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the yellow one.
It is the most famous appellation in the
Rhône Valley and alone produces more wine than
all of the Northern Rhône Valley.

The Southern Rhône Valley is mostly about blended wines; only a small percentage of wines are monovarietals (100% a single type of grape). And it is mostly known for red wines (90% of the wines from the Southern Rhône Valley are red).

The grapevines in the Southern Rhône Valley are really old! Whereas “old” was considered 50-60 years in other areas of France, in the southern Rhône, “old” is 80-120 years old.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the very first appellation created in France in 1936. It was created because wines from the area were fantastic (they were the wines the Pope drank!), so cheaters were either stealing wine from the area and mixing it in with their own lesser-quality stuff, or they were just slapping the prestigious name on their label regardless where the grapes came from.

Winemakers are allowed to use a whopping 14 different types of grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As a result, there are endless combinations and ratios of possibilities. Some folks even play around with mixing red and white grapes together! Of the 14 different grapes, there are 4 main red ones and 3 main white ones that are used. The main reds are: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault. The main whites are White Grenache, Clairette (smells like pineapple juice and canned green beans), and Roussanne.

A very cool display of the different
types of grapes allowed to be used
in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The classic/traditional red blend for the Southern Rhône Valley is called “GSM” which stands for the three grapes that are blended together. The three red grapes are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. The traditional ratio is 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 20% Mourvèdre.

Isn't it gorgeous?? And see how handy
the white paper is?

The wines out of the Southern Rhône Valley tend to be much better after they have aged at least 10 years in the bottle. You have to be a VIP or pay big bucks to sample a wine that old, so you are left trying to figure out how a 2021 wine you taste today will taste in 2031. Unless you are a sommelier, or have A LOT of experience with wines, this is largely an impossible task.

Because the wines we were tasting were so young, we were often told “It is too early to be drinking this” as the wine was being poured into our glasses. They all had fruity flavors but were also pretty tannic (making my tongue feel like a wrung-out sponge). I guess they were good?? So hard to project taste into the future!

Before arriving onsite, I knew I really like Mourvèdre. In the United States, we can often find bottles of this deep purpley-red wine without any other grapes blended in. It is a bold, earthy, dark grape that adds a fun layer of dirt and farminess to the GSM blends (trust me, dirt and barnyard can be super fun in a wine!). So I wasn’t surprised to discover that the wine I liked the most was a GSM with 30% Mourvèdre instead of the standard 20%.

Among the descriptions Rob and I finally allowed ourselves to use for the wines we were tasting:  For reds: the strawberry-black pepper ice cream from Salt & Straw; deep red rose; bread crust; red licorice; fruit roll-ups; Christmas prime rib; blueberry Pop-Tart; cherry Tootsie Pop sucker. For whites; France; pina colada; Peep; asparagus; ocean, Perrier water; pineapple juice; nectarine; Golden Delicious apple.

Gigondas has big, bold red wines. A neighboring appellation called Vacqueyras blends the same grapes but its wines are much lighter and fruitier and can be consumed much younger. The difference is largely elevation and soil (limestone, granite, and red clay in Gigondas; sand and white clay in Vacqueyras).

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is famous for its rocky soil (in most places; some areas just have sand and limestone). The locals call the rocks “pebbles” but they are large rocks you might find in a rustic fireplace. In some places, they have to dig down about 3 feet just to find soil if they need to plant a new vine. The rocks absorb the heat of the sun during the day and then release the heat into the vines and roots at night. The heat helps quicken the ripening while the rocks also help keep any rainfall from quickly evaporating from the ground. The "pebbles" no doubt add to the premier quality of this fancypants appellation’s wines. 


Cool display of the different soils found in 
Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This plus the option of
using up to 14 different grapes = SO many variables!
Pretty much impossible to buy a wine from
Châteauneuf-du-Pape unless you have a guide.


And so with that…our French Wine Tour is done! I am both relieved and incredibly sad. It has been a remarkable 3 weeks of travel, education, perspectives, history, tastes, vistas, and dreams come true. It was both exactly what I hoped for and nothing like I expected. It has deepened my knowledge of wine and intensified my curiosity. We have plans to smell lots of fruits, flowers, spices, and earthy stuff to expand our abilities to identify tastes and smells beyond our 1970s-kids experience. We have a list of wines to search out when we get home. We plan to do blind tastings to help us hone our senses. We will NOT become sommeliers.

I plan to write at least one more blog once we get home about how the trip affected my mind, body, and spirit. Insights about food, clothes, anxiety, partnership. But first, a few train rides, a few plane rides, and a lot of kitty snuggles ahead.


Best friend and travel partner I could
hope for. He makes my dreams 
come true.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Feeling at home in the Northern Rhône

As we exited the train at our stop in the northern Rhône valley (a town called Tain l’Hermitage), I immediately felt more at home. Something about being in a small gorge, surrounded by steep hills covered with vineyards felt familiar. And the architecture felt more Italian (or Californian, your pick), with frequent stucco buildings and tile roofs.

Although Ancestry.com’s DNA test told me otherwise years ago, I have always felt a strong pull and connection to the Mediterranean, especially Italy and Greece. While I have thoroughly enjoyed being a visitor throughout France the past couple of weeks, as we get closer to the Mediterranean, I find myself feeling like I am coming home to a place I’ve never been. It just feels right.


We still had our suitcases with us from the train
station when I declared, "This stop is my favorite!"

So despite an achy back that sidelined me a bit, I absolutely LOVED the northern Rhône valley. So much so, discussions are already underway about ways we might return to explore it in more depth. It is breathtakingly beautiful, friendly, approachable, and much easier to grasp than Burgundy. It looks like French wine county, with a river and bridges and castles and grapevines climbing hills that should really only be accessible to mountain goats.


Rhône River looking north


Red poppies, vineyards, old church
PERFECTION!


By law  and physics  all grapes are harvested
by hand. There is NO room for heavy equipment!
Or much of anything really.

Our stay in the northern Rhône allowed us a bit more free time than the rest of our tour. In fact, we had one day completely free – the only such day on our itinerary. Probably because it was a Sunday and France refreshingly sort of stops on Sundays (except in large touristy places like Paris and Champagne). It seems to be a day of strolls and sips and laughs and family. Many businesses are closed and the pace is just slower. It’s quite lovely. I think the French might be onto something.

During our three days in and around Tain l’Hermitage, we wandered through a Saturday market, took in the vistas from a castle tower, hiked into a vineyard, did a little shopping, tasted some great chocolate, and discovered some wonderful wine. This has been an incredible trip and yet this was my favorite stop so far.

France shuts down between 12:30pm and
2:00pm every day. This pop-up market was
but a memory by 1:00pm. 


The hill across the river is an appellation called
Hermitage. It is small but special due to
the steep south-facing slopes. We were in an
appellation called Saint-Joseph for the photo op.

More room for equipment here, but still
hand-picked grapes.

Before I talk about the wine, a few words about chocolate.

Tain l’Hermitage is home to a chocolate company called Valrhona established in 1922. What a fun surprise! Rob and I had heard of Valrhona – and even got to sample some of its premium chocolate – thanks to a dear friend of ours. Donna followed up her career as a US Navy Nurse to become a Chocolate Laboratory Instructor at Hershey’s and is now a freelance chocolate expert offering super fun in-person and online chocolate classes (YES! SHAMLESS PLUG! Donna is awesome! Check her out here!). Rob and I did one of her classes via Zoom during an anniversary trip on the Oregon Coast a few years ago. A week or so prior to our class, Donna mailed us some chocolate samples, including a sample of “gold” chocolate from Valrhona. It was a wonderfully weird white chocolate that was yellowy blond in color and tasted like toasted marshmallows. I remember it well because I got to taste it again very recently at the Valrhona factory!


"Cocoa Paste" is also called "Cacao Liquor."
Either way, it is SUPER bitter. As much as I like
dark chocolate, I only ate a pinky fingernail-sized
chunk of this, making faces the whole time.


MUCH better! This is "gold" or "blond"
chocolate. It was accidentally invented
by a Valrhona chef in 2012 when he left
some white chocolate in a water bath
for too long.
 

I love chocolate so I’ve been on a few chocolate tours over the years. I must say, Valrhona’s tour was a whole new level of interaction and tasting. Most food tours make you learn about stuff before you get to sample it. They want you to know how it’s made, where it’s made, why theirs is special, blah blah blah. Well, the Valrhona folks are kind, benevolent, generous people who know you are there because you want to eat chocolate. So just a few steps into the exhibit, you have the first of ten – yes, 10 – free samples to taste. But they don’t just give them to you. They have these super cool dispensers that are activated by your entry ticket.

The machines are smart enough to
keep track  only one sample per
ticket. Click here to see a short video!

At various displays, as they talk about different types of chocolate or different parts of the chocolate-making process, you scan your ticket to get a little square to taste. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, blond chocolate, chocolate from South America, chocolate without any sugar added (the "cocoa paste"), chocolate before it has been ground down and smoothed out. It was a self-guided tour that let you taste and learn at your own pace. It was brilliant! And delicious! And lots of French people – some quite a bit older than me – were gleefully bouncing from one dispenser to another gathering up “free” chocolate squares like it was Halloween. It was so fun! As was the “boutique” gift shop afterwards. YUM!

Pain meds and chocolate onboard!

Yes, but what about the wine?? Oooh, SO good! Let’s start with a map.

The town in the middle called 
Montélimar is about where the 
boundary is between north Rhône 
and south 
Rhône. 

The Rhône valley is a north-south valley in the southeastern part of France that runs about 150 miles along the Rhône River. The river eventually ends up in the Mediterranean Sea. There are over 50 appellations in the entire valley, 8 of which are in the northern part. 

Our wine education consisted of visiting two tasting rooms plus a lunch with wine pairings. We also enjoyed some snacks and wine at our hotel. Everyone was super friendly and helpful and proud and excited to share their wines with us. It was casual, informative, and so fun! Here’s what I learned.

Our guide showing us a rock from
the area and talking about the
"minerality" found in the whites. That
is a term used often in discussing white 
wines. I'm thinking I need to wash and
taste a few rocks when we get home to 
really understand what it means. Yes, I'm
serious! And clearly in deep...

The northern Rhône has just one red grape – Syrah – and three white grapes – Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. There’s only one appellation that makes Viognier (the area called Condrieu), so for the most part the whites are just Marsanne and Roussanne, and sometimes a blend of them.

Marsanne is a much heartier, more robust grape than Roussanne. It’s easier to grow and work with. As a result, there are more 100% Marsanne wines in the northern Rhône than 100% Roussanne wines. However, there’s no French rule insisting that the winemaker tell you what grape your northern Rhône wine is made from (really, French Government?? ALL your rules and THIS is not one of them?? Merci a whole bunch.) So you either have to know, ask, guess, or take a chance when buying a bottle of white wine from the northern Rhône valley. Or not care and just enjoy the mystery!

Yes, we tasted all of these! And yes, I made use
of the dump bucket despite how good they were!

The Viogniers we tasted were so fun!! We’ve had Viogniers at home. They are most distinctive because they smell like flowers and taste like lemon juice (VERY generally speaking). The smell and the taste don’t match at all, so it can be super fun or super annoying, depending on your mood and expectations. The Viogniers from Condrieu, though, were not like this! They smelled like apricots and tasted like watery lemonade with apricots floating in it. Trust me, they were SO GOOD!

Not much left of the lightly yellow Viognier!
And if we had had kids, we would have been
the couple in the background.

As we tasted probably 10 different Marsanne and Marsanne/Roussanne whites, I decided these French Rhône varietals are the perfect Goldilocks white wine. They aren’t big and bold and oaky like a Chardonnay…and they aren’t super acidic and lemony and bitey like a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris. They are right in the middle of all those characteristics. A little bit of weight and roundness and honey with some citrus lemonyness. Now officially my favorite white wine(s), if I had to pick a favorite.

The northern Rhône reds – all Syrahs – were a gorgeous deep purply red. Each time one was poured in my glass, I couldn’t not say, “OH! That’s so pretty!” They were a bit lighter and fruitier than versions we have had in the United States. I enjoyed all of them except one, which we suspect had been opened too long and we got the last of the wine in the bottle (telltale sign: a bunch of sediment in our glasses. I asked about it and was simply told they do not filter their wines. If I had purchased the glass of wine, I would have asked them to please replace it with wine from a newly opened bottle. Yes, it’s ok to do that.) Among our descriptions as we tasted along the dark, richly colored Syrahs: black currant, blackberry jam, ham, Easter dinner, diluted Mountain Berry Kool-Aid, shortbread cookie with a blackberry jam spread, tomato pasta sauce, cherry tomato, asparagus, canned green beans, peppercorn steak, and cranberry juice. Fascinatingly, one red I had with my pesto ravioli lunch was an amazing pairing (recommended by the server). The bright fruitiness of the Syrah actually complemented the vegetable herbiness of my pesto really well! Left on my own, I would have paired it with a white and had a totally different taste experience. Wine is SO FUN!

Doesn't that look delicious?? I'm 
finding I'm not a huge fan of the 
heavy French sauces and dishes
found in the northern and central
parts of France. SUPER happy
to be heading south now!

As much as I have loved our time in the northern Rhône, I am excited to head even further south. And, as enchanting as our historic 18th-century-mansion-turned-hotel has been, it has killed my back with such short furniture and low fixtures and lack of flat surfaces in the bathroom. Yes, first-world-travel problems. Thank goodness for wine and chocolate! And train tickets!

They called this a snack. I called it
dinner. Either way, the furniture is
adorable and painful.