My Trip to France
In October 2017, I was traveling to Croatia for a friend’s wedding. I knew I wanted to extend the trip for an additional week in Europe, but I wasn’t sure what country to choose. I had recently finished Julia Child’s memoir My Life In France, which left me feeling completely inspired and deeply curious about Provençal cuisine. Though I had experienced authentic French cuisine 7 years earlier on a visit to Paris during my semester abroad, something about the South of France had me intrigued.
I was also longing to learn more about French wines from the Southern Rhône Valley. For years I had been wine tasting during weekend trips to visit my parents in Paso Robles. Over the years I noticed an increasing amount of Paso Robles wineries producing Rhône varietal wines because of resemblances in climate and terroir to the Southern Rhône Valley. I was eager to visit the Rhône wine region to experience these similarities for myself and to generally learn more about winemaking in the region.
A friend and I began our week in France with 3 days in Avignon, a charming medieval city steeped in history and loaded with exceptional cuisine and extensive wine lists. Avignon is the perfect home base for exploring Provence and is the closest major city to the Southern Rhône Valley. Though Avignon explored in its entirety is not to be missed. I scheduled a Southern Rhône Valley wine tour with Mike Rijken of Mike’s Wine Safari after checking out his reviews on TripAdvisor. Mike picked us up from our hotel with only one other couple on a gorgeous Saturday morning and we were off to the vineyards.
A Bit About Mike
Little did we know we had just hit the jackpot on wine guides! We were all blown away by the amount of wine knowledge Mike shared throughout the day. Not only was he knowledgeable, Mike was also hilarious and showed us a good time.
Originally from Holland, Mike began his journey into hospitality by completing hotel management school in Germany. In 1983, Mike moved to Paris to study languages. While in Paris, he began studying wines at the wine academy of Steven Spurrier. For those who aren’t familiar with Steven Spurrier, he was the English wine merchant who hosted the “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting in Paris in 1976. This blind tasting put California wines on the map as well-credentialed French judges determined California wines to be the best. Specifically, the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay were the top ranked choices. So Mike was educated by the man who had the foresight to put on this historical competition.
Following the wine academy, Mike went on to work in the kitchen of a one Michelin star restaurant in Holland. He eventually returned to France to work as an assistant to Master Sommelier Jean Claude Wallerand at restaurant Le Montrachet. Then in 1990, Mike became the Public Relations and Hospitality Manager at Château de Beaucastel where he received prestigious guests and lectured about the soil, grapes, and wines. When Mike began his own private wine guide business, he reached out to “some guy named Rick Steves” and hosted Rick’s partner on a private wine tour. Mike has since been featured in multiple Rick Steves guide books. So when it comes to food and wine, Mike definitely knows what’s up.
The Wine Tour
On our way to the first stop of our Southern Rhône Valley wine tour, Mike began lecturing on the history of winemaking in general. He shared that Armenia has the oldest wine complex currently known dating back 6,100 years. The Sicilians follow with wineries dating back 4,000 – 5,000 years. The Greeks (my people!) were pioneers in winemaking and brought their winemaking knowledge to other parts of Europe, while the Roman Empire purchased vineyards and continued to grow them. Monasteries were essential players in expanding wine’s global reach. They put wine into casks, placed the casks on ships, and wine was able to spread from Europe to Africa, Australia, and South America.
As we drove into the surrounding vineyards of the Southern Rhône Valley, Mike explained while the people from Bordeaux and Burgundy became famous winemakers, the Rhône Valley began as small farms with poor farmers. Then the early 1900s brought the Industrial Revolution and new advances in farming along with it. The smaller farmers in the Rhône Valley began aligning with one another and forming co-ops with their grapes and wine. Then the “Bordeaux man” came to the Rhône Valley to purchase wine and small farmers were able to start making more money. Now, the Rhône Valley is the second largest wine producing region, only second to Bordeaux. Between Lyon and Avignon there are around 8,000 wineries and 30% of the Rhône Valley population is involved in winemaking. With those kind of stats, it’s easy to feel this part of the world was created for winemaking. I grasped that sense of purpose looking out at vineyard upon vineyard as far as I could see.
First Stop: Châteauneuf-du-Pape
We first stopped in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation on the hilltop of the ruins of the Pope’s summer home. The literal translation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is “new castle of the Pope” and we were standing next to what’s left of the no-longer-new Pope’s castle being quite literally blown away by the Mistral.
As a Californian, I had experienced the hectic Santa Ana winds, but the Santa Ana’s have nothing on the Mistral! A cold, strong, wind coming down from the Alps, the Mistral accelerate as they blow through the Rhône Valley and down towards the Mediterranean. The Mistral can get up to 185 kph (or 115 mph for us Americans), which is insanely fast. Later that day we learned the Mistral are the main reason the vines in the Southern Rhône Valley have to be kept low as opposed to vines in the Northern Rhône that can be planted on steep, 45 degree angle slopes. The Mistral were so brutal on the day of our tour that we hopped back in Mike’s van after snapping a few quick photos to hear him speak more on Châteauneuf-du-Pape and on Château Maucoil whose vines share the hilltop with the Pope’s summer home.
Mike shared the wines in the Rhône Valley are distinguished by different quality levels. From lowest to highest these AOC classifications are the Côtes du Rhône, Côte du Rhône Villages, Côtes du Rhône named villages (21 villages are authorized for this), and the Crus. The Crus are allowed to be recognized by their village name only without requiring mention of Côtes du Rhône on the label. Wine Folly does a nice job of breaking this down here and here is a lovely map illustrating the appellations of the Rhône Valley. On our sunny Saturday in the Southern Rhône Valley, we were lucky enough to visit wineries in two of the Crus, Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC and Gigondas AOC, with a stop for lunch in a third, Beaumes des Venise AOC.
As we warmed up in the van, Mike explained Châteauneuf-du-Pape encompasses around 7,000 acres and 300 wineries. There are 13 varietals allowed to grow in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Picpoul, Terret, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Picardin, Clairette, Roussanne, and Bourboulenc. We slowly drove by the vines of Château Maucoil, which has all 13 varietals planted in their vineyard, as Mike described the characteristics of each variety. I was able to capture characteristics of most of the varieties as follows:
- Grenache – The king of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Loves sunshine, the more sunshine the better. This variety started in Sardinia, then went to Spain before coming to France. Grenache doesn’t ripen further north of the Southern Rhône.
- Syrah – Big and bold. The other major grape variety in the Rhône Valley besides Grenache.
- Mourvèdre – Gives wines like Grenache a backbone. Offers structure and complexity. Not as sensitive to coming into contact with oxygen, so brings longevity to wines.
- Muscardin – A blending grape comparable to “putting salt and pepper on your salad.”
- Terret Noir – Another “salt and pepper grape.”
- Vaccarèse – Floral and elegant.
- Counoise – A unique spiciness.
- Cinsault – Gives wines a nice aromatic balance. Often used for Rosé because of its thin skin. Rounds out the rough, tannic edges in wine. Has the biggest berries.
- Roussanne – Big aromatics. Tastes very honey-like. Should stay in low yields or else Roussanne loses its defining characteristics.
- Picpoul – Offers good acidity. Brings brightness and vividness to wine.
- Clairette – Flowers and freshness. Produces wines with good floral bouquets. Makes good sparkling wines.
Grenache is definitely the most widely used grape here and the first four grapes of this list represent about 92% of the grapes used in the region. Mike also let us know that AOC regulations require Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines to have a minimum of 12.5% alcohol by natural fermentation. And even if the whole harvest yield is perfect, by law 5% of the yield needs to be thrown out as “bad grapes.”
As we drove from the hilltop overlooking Châteaneuf-du-Pape, Mike explained there are mainly 3 types of soil in the Southern Rhône Valley—river rock (galet), chalky, and sandy. Throughout the day, we would stop at vineyards and see each type of soil. On our way to our first winery, we stopped at an expansive vineyard along a small road leading into the horizon.
This vineyard had the river rock soil. Here, Mike shared over 2 million years ago when Africa was still connected to Europe and the Mediterranean Sea was completely dried up, the Rhône River was 20 miles wide coming down from the Alps. 20 miles wide! You wouldn’t be able to see across the river, which is now traversable by bridge. Obviously over time, the Rhône River shrank in size and left behind rocks from the riverbed that make up part of the Rhône Valley soil we were currently standing on. The stones were also pushed around and eroded together for thousands of years, creating soil that is mineral rich with elements like quartzite and silica. The stones benefit the grapes and vines in the hot, sunny climate of the Southern Rhône. Even in the shade, temperatures can reach up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but dig a few feet deep under the stones and the soil will still be cool and retaining moisture. The rocks also retain heat throughout the day and radiate that heat to the grapes at night, contributing to high sugar levels and thus higher alcohol content.
Much of the soil in Châteauneuf-du-Pape lies atop white Urgonian Limestone. Already I was seeing similarities in terroir with Paso Robles back home – limestone soil, and sunny, hot temperatures by day with cooler nights.
We were visiting the region following harvest, but got lucky with a few grape clusters left on the vines. Mike demonstrated how to tell if grapes were ripe for picking. If the grapes are ripe, once pulled from the cluster the stem should show red where the stem is newly exposed. When you squeeze the grape itself, the flesh should squeeze out and the seed should easily separate from the flesh.
With the Mistral more mildly blowing, we picked and tasted the wild rocket sown between the vines to diversify the soil. It tasted like fresh arugula bought at the farmer’s market! We hopped back into the van and drove by salt deposits left behind by the Mediterranean millions of years ago. Mike had anecdotes about most of the prominent wineries we passed along the way. We were also taught the term garrigue, which is that woody, pine, herbaceous quality found in some wines.
Next, we made our first stop for wine tasting at Roger Sabon.
At the time, little did I know Roger Sabon is one of the best producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As the “Ambassador of the Rhône Valley,” Mike knew his way around the winery well. He first took us into the cellar and production area before we tasted through some incredible wines. Here are a few fun facts I jotted down while in the cellar:
- In Chateauneuf-du-Pape, white wines are made by pressing whole clusters of grapes.
- Depending on the wine maker, some red wines are also made with whole clusters (no de-stemming) while fermenting on the skin. This can allow for more aeration and potentially greater fruit extraction.
- Once fermentation stops, the free run juice is taken out. Then the skins are pressed for remaining juice. The free run juice is kept separately from the pressed juice, which may be blended back in later for added color and flavor.
- Concrete tanks are best for controlling temperature.
- Stainless steel tanks are good for short periods of fermentation.
- Wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape should be laid down for 10-12 years.
- Wine can also get jet lag. If you’re ordering wine from overseas or bringing wine home from your travels, you should wait 1-2 years before opening the bottle to have it match your expectations.
- Rule of thumb for Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines: between 5-10 years from vintage, let the wine lay.
And some hilarious Mike-isms picked up throughout the tasting…
As designated driver, Mike had to spit out most of his tastings, but let us know it was ok not to.
“When wine is this good, you spit on the inside.”
When we taste Roger Sabon’s Reserve, the most full-bodied of the tasting with notes of spices, dark red fruit, and leather, and I proclaim it my favorite…
“Women like wine with balls.”
We tasted through about 10 or so wines at Roger Sabon. As a typical tasting flight goes, we started with whites and moved on to reds. Then Mike had us round out the tasting with a white wine. Say what?! This was a new experience for me. I had never experienced this while wine tasting in the states, but I have to say I’m a fan.
As Mike promised, finishing with a white wine served as a sort of palate cleanser and actually allowed my palate to pick up more nuances and greater depths in the white wine. I ended up buying a bottle of the 2014 Renaissance we finished the tasting with, along with a couple of others. I was enjoying the moment too much to capture tasting notes of each of the wines. Though I did manage to snap some photos of the tech sheets for reference. I included those here along with a shot of Roger Sabon’s American distributor in case you want to order a bottle or two of your own.
Lunch in Beaumes De Venise
Following our visit to Roger Sabon, we headed to Beaumes de Venise for lunch at Restaurant Côté Vignes. An idyllic restaurant set amongst the vines with an enticing menu.
I opted for the lunch special which included salad, a choice of pizza, and dessert at a fair price. The salad was unbelievably fresh and so elegant in its simplicity. Crisp lettuce, flavorful tomatoes, and a vinaigrette with fresh garlic.
My pizza was life-changing to say the least. Unlike any other pizza I had before with fresh, gooey brie, potatoes, thick ham, salty olives, and herbs de Provence. I still dream about this pizza!
My friend had a salad of prosciutto and melon with a balsamic glaze, a classic combination that never fails to please. She also ordered the creamy gnocchi which were cheesy, pillowy bites of heaven.
We also split a bottle of 2014 Ventoux Martinelle with our tour companions that was full-bodied and peppery with notes of dark berries and tobacco. A lovely complement to the richness of my delectable French pizza.
Following lunch, we drove past Vacqueyras on our way to our final stop in Gigondas. Mike told us Vacqueyras literally means “stoney country,” which I thought could be a nod to the potential stoney soil in the region although Mike said much of the soil in Vacqueyras is sandy soil. The sandy soil produces smoother wines and is prime soil for Grenache and Clairette Blanc. In Vacqueyras, up to 70% of a vineyard can be planted with Grenache, but no more than that.
Domaine Les Goubert
We quickly reached Gigondas as Mike explained the meaning of the name – “beautiful country.” Gigondas was beautiful country indeed. This AOC produces 2% Rosé. The rest is red wine production and wines from Gigondas must contain at least 50% Grenache.
We ended our day of exploration at Domaine Les Goubert, a charming winery ran by a father-daughter team. Before heading in to explore the cellar and taste through their wines, we walked out into the vines to check out the sandy soil and some old vine prunings.
After exploring the wine cellar, we tasted through Domain Les Goubert’s whites and reds. Of course, we had to end on a white wine note and here Mike did something very special for us. Earlier in our tasting flight, we had the 2016 Sablet, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Clairette, and Roussanne. Mike snuck back down to the wine cellar and came back with a dusty, unmarked bottle with 2002 stamped on the cork. He said,
“I don’t do this for everyone, but after hearing you speak about wine all day I know you will appreciate this and take this message with you.”
We did a small vertical tasting of the 2016 and 2002 Sablet. Right away we noticed the deep, golden hue of the 2002 as opposed to the very pale hue of the 2016. The 2002 had a much thicker viscosity than the 2016, clearly due to its age. While the 2002 had stronger hints of sweetness on the nose than the 2016, it was much more developed on the palate. Notes of honeysuckle, florals, and complex minerals filled the 2002 palate and it did not taste even a hint as sweet as it smelled.
Mike’s message was this, white wines can also offer as much boldness and depth as reds. Depending on the varietal, they can lay down for extended lengths of time. Most people don’t buy whites to age them, but this 2002 Sablet compared with the young 2016 proved that some whites are meant to be aged.
Informative, entertaining, and palpably passionate for wine, Mike offered the best wine tasting experience I’ve ever had.
Somewhere between tasting grapes just plucked from the vine with hair blowing in the Mistral and standing in the quaint tasting room at Domaine Les Goubert savoring the aromatics and flavors of a 15 year old French wine, I realized this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. Two months following my Southern Rhône wine tour, I found myself quitting my job in San Diego and making a big move. I headed to beautiful wine country in Paso Robles to start a new gig at my favorite winery in the region. I also started Palm & Vine to document my adventures pursuing my passions in food and wine. I will be forever grateful to Mike Rijken for leading by example while boldly pursuing his passion for wine, thus encouraging me to do the same. I will always cherish this magical day and Mike’s sage advice…
“Never drink water. It makes you rusty on the inside.”