Before dinosaurs roamed the earth, back in 1969, Mel and I left England to live in Provence. It was the beginning of our wine journey. Mel used that time to co-author his book on the “Wines of the Rhone”. His partner-in-wine was John Livingstone Learmonth who has updated the book many times. Recently John published a detailed tome on the Northern Rhone (a ‘must-buy’ for everyone who loves the Rhone and for those who need a stool to sit on in front of the fire!). He also has a doozie of a book on Gigondas.
We settled in Aix en Provence for five years before moving to the States. We returned to France in 1990 and stayed until 1996. These days, unfortunately, we only go over for 7 days to create our wine blends for Tortoise Creek – it never seems long enough. This April we decided it was time to go back and “inhale” the region properly once again; so we rented a little village house in Sablet in the southern Rhone just north-east of Avignon & Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Here are a few extracts from our diary.
The Air France redeye from Boston decanted us at Charles de Gaulle airport at dawn. A quick 5 minute trot took us to the airport railway station where the TGV train was waiting to take us at 200-plus miles-an-hour to Avignon. It is always slightly shocking to see how much better the trains (and most other infrastructures) are designed in France compared to the USA. Just 3 ½ hours later we picked up our little diesel-powered Fiat outside Avignon station. After a short half-hour drive through plains of well-tended vines we entered the wee gem of a village called Sablet in the heart of the Cotes du Rhone. The village was built on a mosquito bite of a hill in the year 800 AD. They didn’t have Fiats in the 9th century!
Our home in Sablet
We had already visited the village briefly last year to suss it out. We knew the miniscule cobbled streets were made for horses NOT vehicles so we prudently parked at the bottom of the village by the ‘Café des Sports’ (it seems there’s a “café des sports” in every town and village in France). Mel staggered up ancient stone staircases, under Roman arches, round and around circular cobbled streets lugging our book-filled suitcases and at last found Number 1, rue Centrale, where a lovely English couple were keeping the key for Number 20, our destination (after more cobbles & more perpendicular stone steps!). The key opened the great oak door of No. 20 into pitch darkness. We were immediately faced by more stairs! Up and up we groaned like Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo in Notre Dame. The living-room had a lovely log fireplace and French doors onto a sunny terrace surrounded by herbs and flowers. We dropped our suitcases on the endless stairs and found another vast fireplace presiding over more sofas and a big oak table in the middle of a lovely Provencal kitchen. Mel opened another set of French windows onto the terrace and my beady eyes spied Sabatier knives and fabulous Le Creuset casseroles on the lavender blue tiled kitchen shelves. Cooks heaven! We literally crawled up even more stairs on our knees to the bedrooms. Exhausted, we fell into bed and passed out. Ah but wait!
Exactly twenty minutes later the church bell chimed seven p.m. OMG! The bells are actually in our bedroom! We laughed and turned over. Then they donged 7 again!!! We sat bolt upright and realized that the house we had rented was clinging to the rockface right underneath the church! We showered and fled out to dinner in the next door village of Seguret which is another one of the loveliest villages in France. We were the only guests in the dining-room – a Saturday night! The recession has decimated the small restaurant business in Europe. Blearily we drove back to Sablet where mercifully the church bells are silenced after 10 p.m.
At 7a.m., however, at the crack of jetlag, we were ‘donged’ awake and in addition to the seven sledge-hammer chimes it clanged TWICE, it continued with yet more tolls calling the faithful to communion!! We groped our way down to the car seemingly thousands of feet below and headed for the market in the old Roman town of Vaison la Romain
How we adore the French marketplace; the characters – a Salvador Dali moustache here, a crimson-haired dame there tottering along on 4-inch heels two sizes too small and a dozen or so adorable twenty-forty somethings tripping around with baskets with their impossibly cheery and cheeky bums waggling provocatively to one and all. Of course the amazing produce and the general feeling of “well being” in the market are reasons alone to go early and just sit in a café and watch it all unfold. We found a good parking space but couldn’t find the market! There were a few sleepy farmers drinking pastis and rot-gut rose and eating baguette sandwiches beside their white vans in the village square – but that was all. We sat down glumly in a café and ordered two ‘grande crème’ coffees, ‘un escargot’(a circular twist of croissant bread with custard and plump raisins) and, of course, a hot and buttery croissant. That first taste of French coffee and all the accoutrements is a thing that dreams are made of. After glumly reading about the interminable squabbling of election politics in Europe and America in the International Herald Tribune, we were startled around 7.45a.m. when all hell broke loose around us. More white vans, loud yelling, arm and hand gesturing for parking rights and more swearing as the farmers, wives and offspring tried to erect their tables and tents and parasols as quickly as they could. Then came the heaving of wooden crates of pristine Spring produce which had to be unpacked and arranged like so many dolled up debutantes at a ball. Asparagus, white and green, artichokes of all sizes, tiny fingerling potatoes, strawberries galore, mushrooms, olives and spices – fish, meats and cheeses, Soliedo tablecloths, olive wood salad bowls, and on and on and on. There was one woman just selling her eggs with the poop still on them and another with 2 freshly skinned rabbits and a few bunches of parsley. It was a sight to see.
By the time we had filled our baskets it was now 9 a.m. so Mel decided to go to a bank to open an account and deposit a check to have cash rather than have to pay the exorbitant fees for credit cards abroad (blatant usury). We went into the Societe Generale (one of the largest of the French banks) and asked to open an account. The prim matronly teller stared at us as if we had asked her to take all her clothes off. She said we needed an appointment. “OK”, we said, “can we have an appointment?” She frowned and spent 5 minutes on her computer and then said we could have it in a week’s time! We left and drove back to Sablet. It’ll be much easier in our own village where they know the owners of the house we are renting, we thought. We went into the Credit Agricole (another large bank) and were informed that we couldn’t open an account until they had compiled a ‘dossier’ for us (personal bank file) which would take a couple of weeks because they needed to verify our home ownership (electric bills, etc;), our passport status (British and US), our bank accounts (in America) all by mail because E-mails and faxes can’t be used for monetary transactions unless one is a resident. We sighed and left. The next day, we drove to Orange (twenty minutes south just north of Avignon) which is a big town with an incredibly well preserved Roman theatre built in 35 BC (not many Fiats then, either). We parked with great difficulty in the center and went into a Banque de Paris et Pays Bas (yet another big national bank) and were asked to sit down and wait. Just 3 minutes later a young manager called Jean, sporting bright red socks and pince nez on the tip of his Roman nose, ushered us into his office. We recounted our frustrations in trying to give any bank some of our cash so that we could use a checkbook and have some liquidity for buying in the market and going to restaurants. He laughed uproariously and then grinned at us and said “There’s always a way round that!” About an hour later we had our account and Mel and Jean discussed socks, the French elections and rock bands and then we shook hands and took our leave. There was a 17-euro parking ticket on our windscreen for overtime! Hey! Nothing in Provence can be done quickly!
Domaine de la Janesse, Chateauneuf du pape.
In the early 1990’s Mel had been helping Eric Solomon with some of his Rhone connections. We became good friends with the folks at Domaine de la Janesse and also at Domaine Marcoux in Chateauneuf du Pape and, on only our third day in the Rhone, we went off to buy some wines for our months’ stay. We had an appointment to see the Sabon family at Domaine de la Janesse at 10 a.m. We were welcomed with hugs all around as if we hadn’t ever left France. Monsieur Sabon and Mel reminisced on their greatest tastings in the old cellars with Eric back in the early 1990s. They laughed about the time when Eric had asked for a cuvee of unfiltered Grenache. That tasting resulted in Janesse, cuvee Chaupin being born. We delighted in all of their current wines and, as usual, they were incredible; deep, purple-perfect velvet. We couldn’t afford more than a couple of bottles of the Chateauneuf and so we stocked up on their Cotes du Rhone and their terrific Cotes du Rhone Blanc as well as their ‘Viognier pure’ which we fell in love with (at a much friendlier price than its cousin in Condrieu in the northern Rhone).
Monsier Sabon told us of one of his favorite restaurants in the region called “La Tourne au verre”in Cairanne which means something like “wine swirling glass”! Next day we had to meet up with one of our Languedoc producers and so decided to go there with him for lunch. It was love at first bite! The prix fixe, three course lunch was only fifteen euros – including tax and tip which is about $18!! We had a terrific “brandade de morue” (salt cod smushed up with olive oil) followed by saddle of rabbit in a mustard sauce and tarte aux pommes to follow. Yep – only $18! The wine list had a mind-boggling 650 wines on it, all at incredibly good value, too. We marinated ourselves in a superb Roussanne from Yves Cuilleron for the bargain basement price of 18 euros ($23). They offer it by the glass for $5. We returned a few days later with our friends Tim and Stephanie Johnston who own Juveniles Wine Bar in Paris (the BEST!). Tim is great buddies with Marcel and Marie Richaud of the Domaine Richaud in Cairanne. We tasted all of his deep, satisfying, mellow-throated wines including the 2001, 2004 and 2007 all of which were brilliant. The sun shone on the terrace and we bonded and laughed with our new ‘vinopals’. It is one of the finest domaines in the Cotes de Rhone Villages.
The week before we arrived in the Rhone, the weather had been beautiful and very warm. One day after our arrival the temperature dropped by twenty degrees! In fact it was fifteen degrees warmer at our home in Rye, New Hampshire! So when our first Sunday came around we were thrilled that we had been invited to lunch in the lovely town of La Garde Freinet, near St. Tropez about 2 ½ hours south. When the weather is bad on a Sunday, it is definitely a good lunch day!
Our hosts were Deke and Jilly Arlon, a dynamic duo of writer (Jill) and manager (Deke) of hundreds of film, TV and rock and roll personalities, books and films. Luckily for us, they are both sincere lovers of all things foodie and winey as well! We drove up to their extraordinary aerie overlooking St. Tropez and the blue waters of the Mediterranean. The perfume of wisteria hit us as we opened the car doors and the Jill and Deke brought us into the most beautiful hidden Paradise in the clouds. Comfy, English furniture in front of great wood burning fireplaces, high ceilinged rooms with massive ancient beams and everything bathed in warm, sepia and sunny colours leading us outside to the terrace with a pool surrounded by mature trees and cascades of flowers. But the barbecue caught our attention. There was their son, Tim, (a tremendously talented rock and blues singer under the name “T.D.Lind”) with his young wife and utterly adorable 3-year-old stoking the oak logs on an immense fireplace/grill/barbecue. Behind him was a massive table groaning with dishes filled with giant artichokes and dips, warm terrine en croute and generous glasses from magnums of local rose. We grinned from ear to ear and informed our hosts that we would be spending the rest of the month with them. Deke himself ruled the kitchen. He produced a meltingly moist and yet crunchy Provencale lamb shoulder with more miniature cutlets grilled with thyme and rosemary on the barbecue served with tiny buttery new spring peas, fava beans and carrots. Mountains of cheeses and apple tarts followed. This, of course was eaten at the big wooden table next to the comforting crackle of logs as the rain poured down in a deluge beyond the covered terrace. This was all washed (literally!) down with the finest local domaine white wines, then Condrieu, then a fabulous red St Joseph ’05, then Brainaire Ducru ’82, then Cornas ’06, then a late harvest Condrieu. This was the best Sunday lunch ever!
Forty eight years of marriage!
Breakfast in the market, a two hour walk into the glorious beauty of the wild hills above Gigondas, lunch at the Tourne au Verre in Cairanne with a bottle of Henri Bonneau’s Chateauneuf du Pape 2001 (perfection) and for dinner I cooked us a fresh salmon trout in black butter with the first peas and fava beans of the season A perfect day!
Roaming the Rhone
We spent a great deal of our time exploring the Cotes du Rhone and its many villages, the Cotes de Ventoux and the Costieres de Nimes (a really exciting region with huge potential). When we were first in the Rhone all those years ago, white Rhone wines were pretty much garbage but ow there are so many superb wines. We saw a lot more organic farming practices everywhere which was also encouraging. The Rhone is still our biggest love and still has so much potential,
It’s now time to head home and hopefully the trains, planes and automobiles will all work in our favor and not indulge themselves in that other very French pastime; going on strike!
If you visit the regions here are our recommended restaurants. All reasonably priced!
Vaison La Romaine; Le Brin d’Olivier, Tel; 04 90 28 74 79.
Charming local restaurant with terrace and fireplace and very reasonable.
Roaix, Le Grand Pre. 04 90 46 18 12.
Two restaurants in one. The little bistro called Le Preface is incredible value and the main restaurant enjoys a Michelin star.
Cairanne. Le Tourne au verre 04 90 30 72 18.
Our favorite. Food is good simple bistro fare with a fabulous wine bar and amazing wine list
Gigondas. L’Oustalet. 04 90 65 85 30. The restaurant belongs to the Perrin family of Chateau Beaucastel. It is new and charming with excellent food.
Les Florets Restaurant. Nice hotel but food is terrible!!
Piolenc (north of Orange). Au Comptoir. 04 86 71 67 81.Another terrific bar au vin with good food and excellent wines
Uchaux. Le temps de vivre 04 90 40 66 00 and Cote Sud 04 90 40 66 08
Both are very good value and excellent Provence, local food. We love both although prefee Le Temps de Vivre.
Ste Cecile des Vignes. Campagne, Vigne et Gourmandises. 04 90 63 40 11. Lovely setting in this old market town. Excellent local food and great prices