Not all travel is glamorous. There is the getting to the destination, and basic sustenance part to go through sometimes, which can’t always involve charming wine to match the food – but in France they really do try in anyplace! We stopped along our autoroute between Aix en Provence and Avignon for lunch. The French autoroutes are 6 lanes highways, with the general speed ranging from 110km/hr to 150km/hr, and are toll roads but affordable and efficient. The rest stops are so well designed, are nearly a pleasure, with the gas prices advertised well in advance, and signs indicating which brand of restaurants/gas station you may encounter. The stations are really snack-friendly: deluxe sandwiches, cheese selections, fresh fruit, pastries~ plenty more than just Twinkies and beef jerky. We enjoyed sampling odd signature French potato chips, including Roast Turkey with Thyme.
We stopped at one station that had a full buffeteria style diner with salad bar, fruit bar, dairy bar, and of course, more pastries. But hungry and in road-travel mode, I opted for the burger. While it was cooking, I observed the vast rows of half bottles of wine from the area that you could have with your meal. I think I was getting spoiled by our suppliers, and didn’t desire to choose a gas-stop wine to go with my lunch. Sitting down with my food, to my surprise my burger was essentially raw. Cam indicated that they tend to do that in France. So “when in Rome” I tried my best to get the taste of French beef. Half way through, I realised sometimes being a tourist means you don’t have to conform, and I just finished my yogurt instead. Other than that, the autoroutes are great!
The next four days were to be dedicated to the Laurus Wine Class, which Sandra and I were to attend. A pit stop on the way was first though to the town of Tain L’Hermitage, home of the famous Hermitage appellation in the northern Rhone region. Hermitage has, like Burgundy, some very small parcels with very expensive and prestigious wines. Our stop was at a larger producer in the area, M. Chapoutier. We were guided briefly though the vineyards quite literally still within the town limits, at the foot of the Hermitage hill. The very steep slopes are at constant threat of erosion, and are terraced, preventing any mechanized work.
Chapoutier has been in business since 1808, and provides a wide range of over 36 wines from France, as well as now producing around the world. Recently they provide biodynamic selections. Theirs labels are also known for being legible in Braille, after Maurice Monier de La Sizeranne, owner of the plot of the Hermitage La Sizeranne, who is the inventor of the first version of abbreviated Braille.
The name of Hermitage probably first appeared in the XVIIth Century in memory of Henry Gaspard, a knight from Stérimberg , who having come back from the Crusades , lived as a hermit on a hillside. The little churchlike building is still on the hill above and has become a symbol of the appellation.
Among the tasting line-up, my favourite white was the Condrieu, which is 100% Viognier. Viognier is an aromatic white with a bouquet of apricots and violets, and has great depth and viscosity, perfect for Asian dishes and heavier fish dishes such as salmon. We are also able to sample two roses, one of them from Tavel, which an appellation in the region that exclusively produces dry rose wines. Fresh and crisp and delicious! Among the red, the Sizeranne 2007 was one of my favourites, 100% syrah, thick and powerful with dark fruit and gamey flavours.
With that brief interlude in the northern Rhone, Cam took us back south for our stay at Le Cloitre Saint-Louis, in the heart of Avignon. You may recognise Avignon for two things: the “Sur le Pont D’Avignon” song that stuck in my head the whole time I was there; and the Palais des Papes, the Papal palace built in 1335 century during the Catholic Great Schism. Surprisingly, the pont D’Avignon is the Pont Saint-Bénézet, which was constantly under construction over centuries, and to this day only reaches out across half of the swift Rhone river.
With Pope Clement V, Avignon became the home of the antipopes in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the whole town is fortified with huge walls and only a few “portes” to gain entrance to the heart of the city. Avignon’s old centre is also a great walking city, with broad avenues and bustling open places, with patio cafes and plenty of shopping . In the older quarter, another good example of ancient Roman origins, are the narrow winding mazes of streets in cobblestone, dotted with medieval architecture. The Palace of the Popes, a fortress built out of a natural rock outcrop, is now a Unesco world heritage site.
Our hotel is converted from a Jesuit seminary from the XVIth centrury, with thick walled simple rooms whose windows open to a peaceful courtyard with the plantain trees and a large fountain. This is a hotel that is elegantly decorated but kept plain with monastic restraint. It boasts internet access, but I think the thick construction of walls 6 or more feet deep prevent a very good connection. Otherwise the breakfast buffet is plentiful, the beds are comfortable and the room decor is modern and chic.
We are greeted in our room with a gift from the Laurus group, a corkscrew, and two-bottle wine gift pack! A lovely welcome! Greeted in the lobby by our hosts from Laurus, Anthony and Karine, we met the other Laurus class goers.
I have to admit before joining this group, I had given no thought to who else might be attending the course, and I discovered we had quite a range of classmates from the wine industry. From other retailers, to wine agency representatives, to importers and distributor, as well as professional sommeliers, we had an international crew of a dozen wine lovers. We were taken on a night-time stroll through the old part of the city to a cozy little bistro called La Cuisine D’Olivier. We were served a lovely multi course meal alongside the introduction to Laurus wines. I practiced my French with the Laurus associates, which always gets better with wine! And the tradition of a four hour supper did not fall short with this group either, finishing with coffee and dessert. We were then walked back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep, for a busy day was ahead of us!