This the third year in a row that my friends Don (store manager and wine educator at Sherlock's in Decatur) and Jennifer (French language instructor and French culture expert) have organized a small-group trip for a week in France, touring wineries and immersing ourselves in the French culture. In 2010 I justified the first trip to Bordeaux (more expensive than our normal vacation budget) to my husband by telling him it was "the trip of a lifetime...Don and Jennifer have never done this before, Rosie and other friends are going, I'll never have access like this...it's a once in a lifetime opportunity!". And it was truly an amazing experience...so much so that they have started doing it annually...and, of course, who could pass up such an opportunity?
So, 2010's trip of a lifetime was Bordeaux, 2011's was burgundy and Champagne, and this year we head to the South of France to explore the Rhone Valley and the sunny villages of Provence. There are 6 of us on the trip (several of us who have been on the other trips; all of us know each other from wine or French classes) plus our fun, knowledgeable and super-organized guides Don and Jennifer. The itinerary is filled with visits to vineyards, wine tastings, shopping, eating and immersing ourselves with the locals.
We all met in the town of Valence and spent Sunday getting acclimated before the tour started in earnest on Monday am. Our courteous and professional French bus driver Francis picked us up and we headed out for our first wine visit..Chapoutier in the Northern Rhone, in the Hermitage appellation. The really cool thing about this trip is that Don gets us access to some of the best wineries in France...and it's always an intimate and personal tour, not your typical tourist tasting. Our visit to Chapoutier proved to be no different...we were met by our friendly and knowledgeable guide Emily, who took us out to the vineyards and showed us the grapes growing up the steep slopes of the Hermitage, rising up from the Rhone river valley. She explained the history and traditions of the Northern Rhone wines, then followed it up with a tasting of 7 representative wines.
We were then treated to lunch by Chapoutier...Emily took us into the "employee cafeteria" and we ate with the winery employees. Like all things French, their version of an employee lunchroom is way cooler and much more tasteful than ours...we enjoyed a hearty French lunch of salmon, beef, haricot vert and chocolate mousse, all prepared by a serious chef and accompanied by Chapoutier wines. It was a great lunch and an amazing experience! (see--this is why I call it the trip of a lifetime!!)
Our second tasting of the day was at Guigal, another very well-known Northern Rhone winery. The production at Guigal is larger that Chapoutier, so it was interesting to tour the massive caves with barrels of all sizes and the very well-organized and modern bottling and production area. Our cute French tour guide Stephane explained the process for making, bottling and selling/distributing the wines, then provided us with a tasting of some very delightful whites and hearty reds (Syrah).
We all climbed back into the bus and Francis got us safely home, navigating some very small and winding roads that provided beautiful views of the Rhone Valley and the sloping hills covered with vineyards.
We finished our first day by having a beautiful dinner at a hip and cool restaurant, Le 7-- the smaller and more casual bistro run by a well-known chef, ann-Sophie Pic, whose other restaurant has a Michelin rating of three stars. As you might expect, the food was as beautiful to look at as it was delicious to eat. It was a great end to a great first day!