Many years ago our wine scribe Jim Walker, inspired by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence, decided to visit southern France and experience for himself what all the fuss was about. It seems he was favourably impressed as he’s just back from his 25th visit.
It was Peter Mayle, who sadly passed away this January, and his delightful first book about Provence together with our cousin’s offer of free accommodation in the charming village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence that induced us to make our first trek to southern France those many years ago. We adored everything about that enchanting bit of France, the food, the weather, the sights, the history, the people and, oh yes, the wine. We returned often, sometimes with our girls, and developed many friends there along with our wine and tour businesses. And so, after enduring this year’s miserable March weather in Ontario, we were more than a little excited about returning to our cherished haunts this April.
The journey over went quite well till we became enmeshed in the troubles of the French train system, the SNCF. Their three militant unions were staging rotating strikes to protest the Macron government’s intention to scale back retirement ages and benefits. The system is hemorrhaging cash and is deeply in debt. Someone told us that many employees were eligible to retire at age 53 with a pension equal to 125 percent of their top salary!
We were scheduled to take the high speed TGV to Avignon with an hour stopover in Lyon. The train station in the Charles de Gaulle airport was swarming with anxious would-be passengers trying vainly to replace cancelled rides. We took refuge in the nearby Sheraton restaurant and eagerly devoured a breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, croissants and petits pains au chocolat washed down by double espressos. Happily, our train was in operation and left on time. As we scrambled aboard, wrestling our luggage into whatever space we could find, we were told to watch it closely because thieves were in the process of pilfering baggage!
The stop in Lyon was utter chaos. Trains had been cancelled and hordes of passengers were flailing about, scrambling to board just about any available conveyance. But once again our train was in operation and we made it to Avignon with no further excitement. We collected our rental car and thoroughly enjoyed the lovely 20 minute drive to our home-to-be for the next few weeks, a bright and airy two bedroom apartment with views overlooking neighbouring gardens in St-Rémy. One of the best things about this rental (other than the hospitable landlords) is the U Express, a convenience or corner store a mere 100 meters away. In addition to a whole range of delicacies including fruit and vegetables with their provenance clearly displayed, there is a wine corner that would put most of the LCBO’s French wine sections to shame. The prices would too: Côtes du Rhône 5€; Vacqueyras €7; Gigondas €9 and Tavel Rosé €8!
April 1 was a most eventful day. Not only was it Easter, it was April Fool’s Day, (Poisson d’avril in France, where children go around sticking paper fish on unsuspecting victims’ backs) and Hélène’s birthday. We chose one of our favourite local restaurants, Ô Caprices de Mathias to celebrate. As you can see, it was a beautiful day in Provence, a far cry from the climes of southern Ontario. Did that make our day even more enjoyable? Perish the thought.
Whilst on the subject of restaurants, for those lucky enough to be visiting Provence in the next little while, in addition to Ô Caprices de Mathias we found the following to be particularly enjoyable:
- Le Verger des Papes found high up near the ruins of the Popes’ summer palace in Châteauneuf du Pape – be sure to ask for a table on the terrace overlooking the vineyards and Rhône River.
- Les Terroirs in the Place aux Herbes in Uzès – a very good bistro featuring home-style cooking in a glorious plaza.
- Côteaux et Fourchettes off a round-about amid the vineyards near Cairanne – Michelin listed but very reasonable given the overall quality – a delight.
- Café de la Poste in Goult – marvellous salads – a word of caution, the family that has operated it for years has just sold.
- Le Carillon also in Goult – right across from Café de la Poste, this fine dining establishment offers excellent French cuisine and very friendly service.
- Crêperie Lou Planet located in the ancient Place Favier in St-Rémy, one of the prettiest and most entertaining plazas in France – crêpes of course, but the salads are terrific too.
- L’Aile ou la Cuisse found in the heart of St-Rémy – ask for the back enclosed terrace – everything is excellent but the dessert is the pièce de résistance; you get to select from fourteen or so exquisite creations.
It wasn’t all an orgy of fine dining, it just seemed that way. We also visited our nearby wineries – Domaine Palon, Domaine Giuliani and Domaine Roger Sabon and sampled many other local wines from the more recent vintages. I can just hear your cries of sympathy. This is my take on the three most recent vintages from the Southern Rhône:
2015 – They were generally terrific – both reds and whites. The 2015 growing season had been close to ideal (hot in July and August with little rain) and harvesting was a bit earlier than usual under favourable conditions. During the harvest, I had predicted that 2015 was going to be a very good year for Grenache and it turned out I was right. But, to my surprise, the Syrah proved to be every bit as good if not better. In that these are the two principle grapes for the reds from the Southern Rhône, the resulting wines are very, very good, not unlike those of 2009 at this stage of their development.
2016 – I must avoid hyperbole here. The 2016s generally appear to be even better than the excellent 2015s. The wines are similar to the classic 2010s with perhaps even more structure and fruit. The growing season was pretty much ideal, not as hot as 2015 with more light rain and the grapes reached full maturity at early harvest time. There are powerful aromas of blue and red fruit and the wines are concentrated and beautifully balanced. Many vintners are claiming that this is the best vintage in 40 years. It is too soon to tell, but I will concede that the Southern Rhônes from 2016 are terrific.
2017 – I tasted most of these wines from tanks and barrels. It was a very small harvest due to coulure (a condition that prevents the vines from flowering properly) and then drought during the growing season. Vintners are reporting a 30 to 50 percent drop in yields, resulting in much economic hardship (prices are likely to increase accordingly). But, believe it or not, what was harvested in late August (very early) turned out to be quite spectacular. The berries were small and their juice concentrated. Sebastien Palon of Domaine Palon in Gigondas noted wryly that his 2017s were even better than his 2015s and 2016s, but there is not much of them.
In summary, we have a winning trifecta from the Southern Rhône – 2015, 2016 and 2017. There is no point buying the lesser 2013 and 2014 vintages with these beauties present on your favourite liquor store’s shelves.
Our month in Provence evaporated oh so quickly. Time does indeed fly by when one is having fun. We witnessed the Provençal spring unfold. Barren, severely cropped plane trees sprouted their verdant canopies, fruit trees exploded with fragrant blossoms of pink and white, bright red poppies and irises in a profusion of colours appeared in the fields and sleepy sidewalk cafés and terraces suddenly teamed with grateful revellers. But the surest harbinger of the season was the plethora of pétanque games that materialized on dusty lots throughout the glorious land.
We were not too morose about leaving for we knew that we were going to enjoy a second but very different Spring back home. Happy Spring to all.
PS: I invite you to visit my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club homepage to find out about the delicious wines from the Southern Rhône that we have on offer, now by the bottle.
PPS: My recommended wine for this post is the 2016 Châteauneuf du Pape from Domaine Giuliani; a real treat for only $42.75 the bottle.