By Robert Haas
"Cruising" a river seems like an odd term. One usually cruises on an ocean. But two old northern Rhône wines with our roast pork loin last night reminded me of the pleasures of the Rhône River.
I have visited the Rhône River Valley over a hundred times since 1954 and have viewed the river from both banks but have never seen the banks from the river. Nor have I stopped at the little ports along the way. This will change next summer, when Barbara and I will join Neil and Marci Collins to lead the Tablas Creek Rhone River Cruise. It will be a new experience, and one I am really looking forward to. I have always loved the old town of Avignon and its crenellated walls, where the cruise will begin. And, of course, the ruins of the famous old pont d'Avignon, where on y danse tout en rond. It will be fun to see these things from comfortable quarters on a boat.
Along the southern Rhone, our itinerary will then take us to Arles -- one-time home of Van Gogh and the location of some of the best-preserved Roman buildings outside of Italy – and Tarascon, with its imposing medieval castle.
We will also, of course, be making a pilgrimage to Château de Beaucastel, our partners in Tablas Creek, and friends and colleagues for 45 years. This visit will include a special tour of the property and a classic southern Rhône lunch in their gardens prepared by Beaucastel's Michelin-starred chef Laurent Deconick.
Next we’ll head north, to Tain L’Hermitage, a landmark destination for lovers of the northern Rhone’s signature Syrah, Roussanne and Marsanne grapes. I have spent many days over the years visiting the historic cellars of famed northern Rhône appellations such as Hermitage, St. Joseph, Cornas, Condrieu, Château Grillet, and Côte Rotie. No less a wine lover than Thomas Jefferson said in 1791 “Hermitage is the first wine in the world, without a single exception”.
Further north we'll continue to Lyon, a center of French gastronomy with the architecturally famous Place Bellecour, for a few days. While there we’ll make an excursion to Chalon-sur-Saone on the Côte Chalonaise, the southernmost Burgundy appellation, and on to Beaune, a center of the Burgundy wine trade. I have visited the Beaune area regularly since 1954 and see the old streets very little changed. A major attraction, as well as the surrounding vineyards of Beaune, is the old Hospices de Beaune, originally a charity hospital founded by of the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th century. A tour there includes the remarkable architecture and a view of the famous Beaune Alterpiece, a triptychpainted in the 17th century by Rogier van der Weyden.
The culinary pleasures of the Rhône Valley are legendary, with Mediterranean influences from Provence in the south and the classic French cuisine of Lyon in the north: olives, fruits, nougats de Montélimar, quenelles, andouillettes, saucissons de Lyon, and the Lyon original, onion soup. I can never get enough of those.
And the wines of the Rhone, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cotes du Rhone, and Tavel in the south to Condrieu, Côte Roti, Hermitage, Cornas, and St. Joseph in the north, can be exceptional. On the cruise ship, we will be dining together as a group most nights, with wines selected from the Rhone, and a few from Tablas Creek, of course.
Back to last night’s roast, which was flavored with rosemary and juniper, hallmarks of Rhône Valley seasonings. The wines, both red and white, had aged well and complemented the food. The Hermitage white, a blend of mostly Marsanne and some Roussanne, was nutty and deeply flavored, minerally and honeyed, and attested to the rewards for aging Rhone whites. The St. Joseph red, all Syrah, was savory and deep, with flavors of coffee, roasted meat and syrah’s signature white pepper. Both were wonderful.
Barbara and I are very much looking forward to joining Neil and Marcy and sharing our experience with our fellow cruise guests next August. We hope that many of our friends will gather with us for the fun.