This Wine Tour in Provence is designed to deliver the ultimate exploration of the French favored by most tourists, and which is at the origin of wine production in France, with also the richest collection of roman and pre-historic vestiges. History is omnipresent in this tour that often operates as a time machine. We'll even go 38,000 years back, visiting the oldest cave paintings site in Europe, a fascinating experience, opening our minds to a vision of very early European life that defies conventional intuition.
Of course this being a wine tour, we'll have quite a few visits with some of the best winemakers of France's South East, Provence. This is my native region, so you may bet that the producers I represent are really among the very best ones. These winemakers will open their house and heart for us, we will share meals together, and unforgettable bon vivant moments. The quality of the food we'll have is of utmost importance for me, and all the restaurants in this tour are selected to deliver a rare experience, both in terms of authenticity and excellence.
All the hotels we go to are of the 4 stars category or equivalent, and provide rare charm and character.
Being a professional photographer with a career spanning almost 50 years, photography and art have a strong place in my tours. In this tour, we will notably visit and have lunch in his house, with my mentor, Denis Brihat, a world famous photographer who has known, and of course photographed, Picasso and Jean Cocteau. I will bring my portfolio with me, in order to foster discussions about photography and art, also showing where some of my most important photographs have been shot, how and why. The second driver, is my friend René from my second school of photography, and he is a photographer in his own right, totally capable of offering an "alternative" view. So if photography has interest for you, you are on the right page, and we are on the same one.
* Saturday September 10: Departure from RDU (or wherever you depart from) to JFK and then to Nice via direct flight, or whatever other flight arrangement suits you.
Unless you have elected to come enjoy Nice early, which is of course possible, see option's page for "Pre Tour additional nights in Nice."
* Sunday September 11: Arrival in Nice International Airport after a striking descent on the beautiful Bay of Angels.
This day will be dedicated to acclimating after the trans-Atlantic flight. Lunch at a restaurant on Nice's downtown beach. After lunch, relaxing stroll in Old Nice up to the Castle, to capture the view seen on the photograph "Le Démon sur la Baie des Anges," (see on left).
You may also lounge by the pool on the hotel's rooftop, where we will have a "Welcome to All" glass of Champagne before heading for dinner.
Dinner in the old town.
* Monday September 12: We'll leave the hotel by 10:00 and drive to Chateau Saint Maur in Cogolin, near Saint Tropez, a producer of exceptional Vermentinos. We will have a tour of the estate, which expands 100 ha in the heart of the French riviera, followed by a lunch with seafood and some of the best whites produced in the whole south east. After lunch, we will go to the Clos de Capelune, up in the mountains, the highest altitude plot in that region, see photograph on the right. This is where the prodigious Clos de Capelune white is produced. We will taste this wine there again, contemplating the glorious view and listening to how this unique plot is able to produce such an exceptional wine.
After this out of the common experience, we will go spend some time in Saint Tropez, the mythic and beautiful small port on the Mediterranean, made famous by Brigitte Bardot. You will be able to explore the village or play pétanque on the famous Place des Lices, where so many stars have played before, and possibly may come to challenge you in 13 points!
We will eventually head to our hotel in Ramatuelle, perched on the height of the Golf of Saint Tropez, for a dinner on the terrasse.
* Tuesday September 13:
After a memorable breakfast, we will head toward Aix en Provence and Domaine Richeaume, see photograph on the right.
The estate sits at the foothills of the Montagne Sainte Victoire, which was Cezanne's favorite subject, and mine too when I was living in a nearby village in pre-historic times.
Domaine Richeaume is a ground breaking estate which has innovated and set trends in the region for the past 45 years. The production of the Domaine is absolutely stunning, with reds that are rich, deep, strong in fruit, notably black currant, and melted tanins, refreshing but profound whites and powerful yet all in finesse rosés. All the wines are biodynamic.
We will have a picnic at the Domaine with Sylvain, of course accompanied by his sublime wines.
After the visit we will first take a little road offering a stunning view on the montagne Sainte Victoire, see photograph on the left, and then will head to our hotel in Camargue, where we will stay two nights. This hotel, was once owned by Victor Hugo's family. They received the luminaries of the time, artists, political celebrities like Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Leon Blum etc. The hotel has been modernized since, see photograph on the right.
There is a beautiful pool there and we will have an aperitif, then dinner at the hotel. A game of pétanque might be in the cards.
* Wednesday September 14: Camargue is the estuary of the Rhône river, the largest river in France. It is a swamp, not unlike the bayous of Louisiana, only under a different climate and therefore a vastly different vegetation and wild life, alligators are somewhat uncommon in Camargue! We will first visit Aigues Mortes, a beautiful medieval town built by Louis IX at the time of the crusades, and we'll go around the town on top of its ramparts.
We will then have lunch in a charming seafood restaurant, home cooking style, in the Saintes Maries de la Mer, a cultural mecca, swinging at the rhythm of the Flamenco. This is where the Famous band "The Gypsy Kings" are from. Their music is always in the air in Les Saintes.
After lunch we will take a stroll, absorbing its rather rare "Gardian" (cowboy from Camargue) atmosphere. before heading to see some pink flamingoes.
We will finish the day at Domaine Scamandre. Scamandre is a Domaine created from scratch by a couple of dentists who fell in love with the region and teamed up with an oenologist. They produce delicious organic wines following a very thoughtful and scientific process, and are released after about 8 years of aging. We will visit the domaine with Nadine Renouard who founded the Domaine with her husband, and then will proceed to a festive evening at the domaine with a game of pétanque, apéritif and delicious food prepared by our host.
* Thursday September 15: Today we head to the Rhône Valley, first driving through the Alpilles, the lovely mounts north of Arles that seduced Alphonse Daudet, Van Gogh and many other artists.
Our destination is Chateau Romanin, a 60 Hectares estate on the north side of the mountain range, east of Saint Remy de Provence. We are there in the Baux de Provence appellation, a rather new (30 years old) appellation, but a very promising one, notably for rosés and whites. Chateau Romanin is a biodynamic producer, and their white and rosés are stunning, extremely expressive and mineral, with an elegant balance and distinctive aromas. They also produce two remarkable olive oils.
We will visit the cathedral chais carved in the roc, and be explained why Chateau Romanin is there and what makes the wines so different from most other wines in the region and beyond. We will have lunch with members of the staff in their reception room which offers a stunning view over the Rhône Valley up north, all the way to Avignon.
After lunch we will head north to our hotel in the Rhône Valley but making first a stop at Le Pont du Gard. This Unesco World Heritage site presents the tallest Roman aqueduct in the world, built in the 1st century and wonderfully preserved (see photograph on the left). We will enjoy a private guided visit, explaining how and why this aqueduct was built. We will have a privileged tour of the top story of the bridge, which is not freely opened to the public, and where water was going through 2000 years ago. It will offer both a beautiful view and a captivating perspective on the history of this edifice, how it functioned, and beyond that, will shade some light on how Romans and Gauls lived 2000 years ago.
From there we will drive to our hotel nested in a 12th century castle in the heart of the Rhône valley, see photographs on the left. This hotel is nothing short of magnificent, and will offer a unique chance to live for a few days in an alternative time span.
Welcome Gastronomic Dinner at the castle.
* September 16: Lazy late start as we are going about 10 minutes away, to the tony estate of La Présidente. This is one of the largest estates in the Rhône Valley, where it became prominent with the work of Max Aubert, its original founder. La Présidente produces some excellent Cairanne, and a stunning Chateauneuf du Pape, on 20 Ha that they owned there in one of the best locations and the vicinity of other prestigious names.
We will visit the estate, and have lunch in a very nice restaurant overlooking the Rhône river in Chateauneuf du Pape, with Simon Gauthier who now oversees winemaking at La Présidente. Lunch will be followed by an exploration of the village.
After that, we will drive through the gorgeous route that leads to Orange, a town that Romans considered one of the most important towns in Gaule. There we will visit the antic Amphitheater, one of the three best preserved in the world. This is a marvel from the first century, and it is fascinating to see its phenomenal wall right in town, a literal stone throw away from cafés and restaurants. The acoustic of this theater is so good that it is to these days, the scene of a very prestigious lyric art festival.
We will have an apéritif in Orange, followed by an outdoor dinner, on the terrace of what is probably the best table, right in town.
* Saturday September 17: Today, we leave our castle to see a papal one: we visit Avignon, this superb town nested behind its ramparts, and where the Popes lived in the 14th century.
We'll first go to the market, one of the most vibrant markets of Provence, and admire the beautiful architecture of this old town that goes back to the middle ages before being somewhat re-designed when becoming the residence of the Popes.
We'll have lunch on one of the old town squares, enjoying the festive mood that this town always has.
Avignon looks a bit like a fairy tale town, with its magnificent Palace of the Popes, and its "cut" bridge. There is a lot of history behind these two seemingly improbable monuments, and we'll have a private extended guided tour of both, in English, that will explain to us, why a cut bridge (the original "Bridge to Nowhere"), and how Popes ended up in Avignon for a couple centuries, which by the way, left some deep tracks in the wine world.
After this, you will be able to roam the town by yourself for a couple of hours before we meet for apéritif and then dinner, enjoying the joyful urban provençal style of the town.
* Sunday September 18: Relaxed start today. We go to the Luberon, the legendary part of Provence subject of countless books, notably the Peter Mayle ones (A Year in Provence), who by the way, owned some of his work and was a fan of my mentor, our host today.
Our Destination is Bonnieux where I have arranged a special lunch at my mentor's house. Denis Brihat is a photographer of international recognition, and the current spiritual heir of Edward Weston, the West coast photographer who first promoted photography as an art form, and inspired generations of photographers, starting with Ansel Adams. Denis settled in Bonnieux in the 50's after living in Biot in the vicinity of Picasso, Jean Cocteau etc... His work is unique in the history of photography and has had a big influence on mine. His wife Solange will prepare a lunch that will be accompanied by some of the wines we visit. This will be a rare treat, blending provencal wines with world class art and delicious home cooking.
Denis will present us his work.
After this visit with one of the most senior Princes of Photography, on our way back home, we'll pay a visit to the king of the region, that we will have seen everyday from afar, towering everything: the Mont Ventoux. This giant is famous for his testing ascent in the Tour de France, which often sorts the ultimate winner from the rest of the peloton. We will drive to the peak, probably understanding what riders of the Tour de France endure in this legendary stage. From the top we will be cousins with the clouds, and will have a breathtaking 360˚ view over the Rhône Valley and the Alps, all the way to the Mediterranean, and Italy on a bright day, see photographs on the right.
Apart from its magnificence, the view really helps grasping the geography of the entire region.
Driving back through the Dentelles de Montmirail, another world heritage treasure of Unesco's register.
Dinner at the castle.
* Monday September 19: Today we go north, eventually reaching the edge of viticulture in the Southern Rhône Valley. With climate change, there is sometimes a bit too much heat in the most southern part of the valley, for pleasant wine to be made, and it is therefore fitting to find one of its most surprising and qualitative producers of Côtes du Rhône, up there on the northern edge. Today we meet Vincent of Mireille et Vincent, one of the newest additions in the stable of Contrast Wines producers.
I make it sound as if we were going all the way to Siberia, but no, this is just 25 minutes north east of our castle. We'll meet Vincent in his vineyard, where he will explain to us what he does and why, and then we'll taste some of his production with him.
We'll then go have lunch in Grignan, an adorable village on the southern edge of La Drôme (the department in which I was born). It is difficult to predict several months in advance what we'll eat, but the rumor is that it will be well out of the ordinary!
After lunch we will climb our way to the Grignan castle, that may be seen from far away, and made Grignan famous. This is a renaissance castle nested on top of the village. From there one gets a magnificent view on the Rhône valley all around, the Dentelles de Montmirail and the Mont Ventoux. We will have a guided visit in English, explaining the history of this castle, and how it ties with Madame de Sévigné's famous letters to her daughter.
From there we will go visit Robin Grageon in his Domaine du Parandou, another recent addition to Contrast Wines stable, and the most jovial producer I know, always giving away the sun of his native Provence through his unparalleled good mood. We will have a visit with Robin, and dinner with him in Séguret, one of France's most beautiful village, perched on the flank of the valley.
* Tuesday September 20: Drive to Chateau Rochecolombe in Ardèche, on the other side of the Rhône river. Rochecolombe is a stellar organic vineyard, producing award winning wines. Like Mireille et Vincent yesterday, it is located in the northern tip of the appellation's geographic area, which is probably not a coincidence.
You may notice that this is one of the few "Castles" in the Rhône Valley wine universe, where there are mostly "Domaines." This is not anecdotical, and it may explain why this estate of more than 60 Ha, run very efficiently, truly provides every year, the best value one can find in the Côtes du Rhône appellations. We will have lunch at the Castle with Manon, and catered by a gem restauranteur from the surroundings, friend of mine and Rochecolombe.
After lunch we will drive to the Grotte Chauvet, and after its visit we will drive down the Gorges de l'Ardèche, stopping at several breath taking belvederes.
The Gorges are a magnificent site, where many caves can be found that were inhabited by our pre-historic ancestors, as early as 300,000 years ago. The most treasured of the caves is the Grotte Chauvet. It is registered as a Unesco World heritage site, and contains some of the earliest known and best preserved figurative cave paintings in the world: 38,000 years old. It is not possible any longer to visit the actual grotte, but French authorities have built a perfect replica, which is the world's reference for conservation of parietal art.
Dinner at the castle.
* Wednesday September 21: I don't know yet about you, but my experience is that by then, I have gotten very much used to living in this prince-like way, and it is always heart pinching to have to say "adieu" to the beautiful castle and the lovely people who hosted us.
We now have to go see other skies, Parisian ones, which is not really a punishment! But before, we have one last stop to make in our exploration of Southern Rhône Valley wines, in its epicenter: the Plan de Dieu. You will understand when you see it, why it was named that way, and why the Côtes du Rhône would not be that famous all over the world, without this amazing vineyard in its very geographical center. Contrast Wines is proud to work with the Domaine Rose Dieu, where Damien Rozier produces exceptional Sainte Cécile and Plan de Dieu wines. These are characterized by a superior concentration and excellent balance, they deliver the almighty power of the Grenache and Syrah wrapped in a velvet glove. We will have a visit with Damien on one of his plots, and then a tasting either there or at his cellar, depending on weather conditions.
This will be followed by lunch at my Plan de Dieu's favorite restaurant.
After lunch we'll catch a high speed train for Paris where we will arrive 2:40 hours later.
Our hotel is very close to the Place des Vosges, in the Marais, a beautiful and most perfect location.
ABOUT THIS HOTEL: this is an hotel unique in Paris, set in a building as old as that magnificent square, the oldest in Paris, and where Victor Hugo lived. D'Artagnan, the hero of The Three Musketeers novel, but who actually existed, came to this building many times. The hotel offers a blend of historic setting and modern comfort. Rooms have original hardwood floors, bathrooms are of Italian design, beddings are of premium quality, and linens are washed on location for ultimate sanitary control.
Nothing is superfluous, everything is thought through here, ecology, comfort and service are on the forefront. The lift is tiny, starts on the second floor and goes up to the 5th (there are 6 floors). Of course going through the stairs is a healthy exercise if you prefer, and the staff will bring your luggage up and down if you'd like. This is the ultimate Parisian hotel, blending authenticity, history, prime location and absolute elegance.
Dinner and stroll in Paris.
* Thursday September 22: Free day in Paris, option to tour it with me, see options page. Dinner together in the Marais.
* Friday September 23: Free day in Paris, option to tour it with me, as well as meet for dinner, see options page.
* Saturday September 24: Taxi to Paris Roissy Airport, or more fun in Paris if you extend your stay, and come with us have lunch at the Eiffel Tower, see full program on options page.
* Sunday September 25: Today we go spend the day in Versailles, visit the castle and its magnificent gardens, see options page. If you have extended your stay in Paris, you may just meet us for dinner, or follow your own itinerary.
And after this, starting Monday September 26, I have to selflessly sacrifice myself, bouncing at a frenetic rhythm all over the French Republic, preparing next year's tours, tasting new wines, new vintages, finding new producers, trying new restaurant etc. But you are welcome to keep living in Paris at this hotel for as long as you wish, I am happy to arrange this for you.