By Robert Haas. Special thanks to Jeffery Clark, who provided most of the photos.
I’m back in Vermont, basking in the afterglow of our Tablas Creek cruise of the Rhone. It was a ten-day celebration (including the optional three-day visit to Paris and Champagne) of great food and wine, organized by our partners at Food & Wine Trails. By the end, new friends felt like old friends, and our 120-person group had made the S.S. Catherine ours. On a personal level, I very much enjoyed sharing with the group the homeland of the Rhône varieties that we have nurtured at Tablas Creek Vineyard.
About one half of our large group of adherents opted for the Paris-Champagne addition, July 30th-August 1st. The Bel Ami Hotel was comfortable, nicely air-conditioned (needed in the hot weather France has been seeing this summer) and well placed around the corner from Paris landmarks on the Boulevard St. Germain, such as the Brasserie Lipp, and the cafés Deux Magots and Café de Flore.
For the trip to Champagne, we arrived in Vrigny at the property of Roger Coulon, propriétaire-récoltant on the Montagne de Reims, with an hour and a half bus trip. Coulon produces only about 90,000 bottles from his own vines. His cellars were straightforward, simple but modern. We tasted his wines. They had an artisanal terroir character that I loved. We enjoyed an excellent champagne lunch at his close-by restaurant, Les Clos des Terres Soudées. He paired his various cuvées of champagne with each course. We then visited the cellars of Taittinger -- quite a contrast -- with traditional old cellars cut deep into the Champagne chalk under Reims, followed by a tasting of their wines. The visits were enjoyable and educational. Some of us preferred the artisanal drier, richer style of Coulon and others the traditional "grande marque" style of Taittinger.
We had some time to spend on our own in Paris and then took the TGV from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Avignon on the 2nd to join the rest of the cruisers boarding the ship. On my first visits to pre-autoroute France in the 1950’s, that trip down the N7 took 10 hours. The TGV made it in 2.
The voyage began with a short overnight sail to Tarascon, a little south of Avignon, from where there were interesting shore visits to Tarascon, a city that dates back to the late bronze age. It has a riverside castle from the 15th century that is known as "The King's Castle" (Château du Roi René).
There was also a visit to Arles, which is close-by. Arles is a fascinating city. It was a Phoenician port by about 800 B.C., taken by the Romans in 123 B.C., and still is home to some of the best-preserved Roman remains outside Italy. In modern times it was an attractive abode for Vincent van Gogh, who arrived there in 1888. Many of his most famous paintings were completed there, including The Night Café, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhône, and L'Arlésienne.
The centerpiece of the cruise was the stay in Avignon, which provided a base for twin cellar visits and delicious open-air lunches in the court of Château de Beaucastel. It was fun to share the Beaucastel secrets with our group. We were too large a group to all go at once so half the group went on the 3rd and half on the 4th. Everybody got to taste from barrels and visit the old spotlessly clean cellars, as well as learn about Beaucastel's wine making. Each day, those not on the Beaucastel visit got to tour the old city of the Popes with its palace and crenelated walls.
From Avignon we sailed north to Viviers, and then on to Tain- l'Ermitage. This stretch was during the day, so most of us assembled topside to enjoy the views and the passages through the écluses (locks). I was fascinated by the ship's design, from the ballast tanks below that fill with water to the to the retractable pilot house, railings and awnings, all to lower the ship's profile in order to pass under low bridges across the Rhône.
Tain- l'Ermitage was a second highlight. We received a very good tour of the Hermitage vineyard and a sit-down tasting of Chapoutier wines. We were also treated to an excellent lunch served with northern Rhône wines. I was interested to see the upright cane and spur pruning of the Syrah, a pruning we have adopted at Tablas on "Scruffy Hill."
From there, we continued north to Lyon, passing the vineyards of Côte Rôtie and Condrieu on our port side just as we were served a dinner on board paired with wines of those very appellations from Maison Nicolas-Perrin.
On day 5 of the cruise (August 7th, for those keeping track) we got to tour Lyon, a center of classical French gastronomy, and home to the remains of two side-by-side spectacular Roman amphitheaters: one for music and the other for drama. In the evening we reconvened on the Catherine for a nice Tablas Creek cocktail party in the ship's lounge, followed by dinner in the dining room.
Lyon marks the northern edge of what France thinks of as the Rhone Valley (though the river originates in Lake Geneva, in Switzerland). But the cruise continued north to dock in Macon on the Saône, for an excursion to nearby Burgundy. Many guests took a bus to Beaune, toured some of the vineyards of the Côte de Beaune, and visited the 15th century Hospices de Beaune, scene of the annual wine auction of wines from its vineyards. We heard this was all wonderful. However, Barbara and I, along with Neil and Marci Collins, instead took a car and drove through the vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé and Beaujolais to visit an old friend Claude Geoffray, the 7th generation proprietor of Château Thivin in the Côte de Brouilly.
From Macon we all sailed overnight back to Lyon where we debarked August 9th and went our own ways.
Although the unusually hot weather was noticeable on shore visits, no one seemed daunted, and they proceeded as planned and seemed to be enjoyed by all. The ship, of course, was well air-conditioned and the cabins very comfortable. The food and service aboard was excellent, far exceeding my expectations, and the wines from Famille Perrin, Beaucastel and Tablas Creek set the scene. We were definitely on a Food and Wine Trail. Lots of good conversation flowed in the Leopard Bar before and after dinner.
We are already looking forward to our next cruise in 2017.