This Wine Tour in Provence takes place in the region where I grew up, and eventually started my career. I am extremely proud of the program during these two weeks together, and I am certain that it will provide you an authentic if luxurious vision of Provence, most likely different from what you may have read or experienced before.
This is where wine production started in France in Roman times, and where you will find the richest collection of roman and pre-historic vestiges. History and Art are omnipresent in this tour, that often operates as a time machine. We'll for instance 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 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. The producers I represent there are second to none, and will open their house and heart for us. We will share meals together, and unforgettable teaching moments. The quality of the food experience during the tour is crucial, and while this is a wine tour, it is also a truly gastronomic one, marked by excellence and authenticity.
All the hotels we go to are of the 4 stars category or equivalent, and provide rare charm and character, including a unique 16th Century castle/hotel with a star level table preparing its own organic produce.
I am thrilled to welcome Doug Diesing in this tour. He is of course the owner of Seaboard Wine in Raleigh, one of the best wine shop in NC, which you would not know from Doug's unassuming personality. Doug is a fine wine connoisseur, and a Rhône wine specialist, and I am certain that you will all enjoy him sharing his expertise, and his company during this journey.
Being a professional photographer with a career spanning over more than 50 years, photography and art have a strong place in my tours. 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, Jean Cocteau and other luminaries of that golden age. 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 captured, how and why. The second driver, is my friend René, from my second school of photography. He is a photographer in his own right, totally capable of offering an "alternative" view, to mine that is! And then we will have an extended stay in Arles, the French modern epicenter of photography. So if photography has interest for you, you are on the right page, and we are on the same one.
* Friday May 17: Departure from RDU (or wherever you depart from) to JFK or Atlanta, and then to Nice via direct flight, or whatever other flight arrangement that may have suited you.
Unless you have elected to come enjoy Nice earlier, which is of course possible, see option's page for "Pre Tour additional nights in Nice."
* Saturday May 18: Arrival in Nice International Airport after a striking descent on the beautiful Bay of Angels, or by train if you choose to take a high speed train from Paris.
Most of our travel companions will probably arrive on this day, so those arriving early can just relax by the pool on the hotel's rooftop, take a stroll on the famed "Promenade des Anglais," the seaside walk, shop in Nice's elegant shops, or catch up with the sleep lost during the flight.
We will all meet for dinner, but before then we will have a "Welcome glass," before on the rooftop terrasse.
Dinner in town.
* Sunday May 19: We are still taking it easy today, with a free morning to go to the beach, start exploring the surroundings, etc.
We'll have lunch at a restaurant on Nice's downtown beach down the street from the hotel. After lunch, we will take a relaxing stroll in Old Nice up to the Castle, and among other things, will capture the view seen on the photograph "Le Démon sur la Baie des Anges," (see on left).
We will walk back to the hotel, refresh, change, and walk again to dinner. Nice is a place to walk, or swim.
* Monday May 20: Nice is a charming town, but we have to leave it to head toward Aix en Provence. Our exact destination is 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, at the very beginning of my photographic career.
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 fresh tasting, as well as profound whites, and powerful yet all in finesse rosés. All the wines are biodynamic.
After the visit we will have a picnic type of lunch with Richeaume's wines at the property with the owner.
After lunch we will take a little road offering a stunning view on the Montagne Sainte Victoire, see photograph on the left, and then will head to Arles, where we will stay four nights and spend as many hours as possible, roaming the streets filled with history, quite urban shops, and a haunting presence of photography since this town is the theater of a major yearly photograhy festival. The city also sits on the edge of the Rhône river and Camargue is definitely in the air.
You have the choice of three hotels of different styles and equal supreme quality in this tour, all within a short walk from each other, in the very epicenter of Arles, see tour options page.
Dinner in one of Arles most atmospheric restaurant.
* Tuesday May 21: We will enjoy Arles with a late departure before heading to Camargue.
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 with a vastly different vegetation and wild life, alligators are somewhat uncommon in Camargue! On our way to the Saintes Maries de la Mer, we will drive the forbidden road by the big swamp, where one may see pink flamingoes.
We will then have lunch in a charming seafood restaurant, home cooking style, in the Saintes Maries de la Mer, a cultural mecca named after Saint Marie Magdeleine and the two other Maries, who are said to have landed there after escaping persecution in Palestine. This small town by the Rhône and the sea, is swinging at the rhythm of the Flamenco. This is where the Famous band "The Gypsy Kings" is from, and their music is always in the air in Les Saintes.
After lunch you will enjoy some free time to explore the place, absorbing its rather rare mix of "Gardian" (cowboy from Camargue), Gypsies vibes, Christian shrine atmosphere, omnipresent Toro culture, and beach resort.
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 a high caliber oenologist. They produce delicious organic wines following a very thoughtful process in which science plays a part . We will visit the domaine with Nadine Renouard who created it with her husband, and then will proceed to a festive evening with a game of pétanque, apéritif and delicious food.
* Wednesday May 22: Another late departure allowing you to enjoy Arles's streets in the morning light and coolness.
We will then drive to and through the Alpilles, the lovely mounts north of Arles that seduced Alphonse Daudet, Van Gogh and many other artists.
Our destination will be 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, rear has already produced some stars with international recognition. Chateau Romanin is a biodynamic producer, and their white and rosés are stunning, extremely mineral and expressive, with an elegant balance and distinctive aromas. They also produce 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.
Return to Arles for more street roaming or a game of pétanque before dinner in another special Arles restaurant.
* Thursday May 23: Today we will enjoy a free day in Arles, which I know everybody will adore with its peaceful Provençal pace, its quaint shops and photographic creativity.
This will be a perfect occasion to go see the Foundation Luma (our hotels are linked to it), a world class art space with a strong presence of photography, and/or do whatever you'd like, including Pétanque as we are traveling with boules!
* Friday May 24: After our last night in Arles, we will head north, with a first stop at the Milan Winery in Saint Remy de Provence, which has gained a fair amount of recognition in modern, often "natural" wines, that are always very well made and addictive.
We will have a tasting, and then will do a picnic on location with local foods.
After lunch we will head 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, a definitely Roman task. 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 16th century castle in the heart of the Southern 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 a luxurious alternative time span.
This hotel is also as organic as it gets, with organic beddings, and one of the best tables of the region, a starred level one, focused on produce from their own organic garden. Meals at the gastronomic restaurant offer a rather vegetal and light cuisine.
Welcome Gastronomic Dinner at the castle.
* Saturday May 25: We will start the day with a visit with Corinne Depeyre, one of the most phenomenal Woman Vintner of the region. Her nice provençal accent betrays her lovely, jovial and easy going personality. She makes very distinctive wines, including a superb rosé, a Natural Pink Bubbly, a late harvest Grenache noir that is totally unique, and reds of great character.
We will meet her in her vines not too far from the Castle, and then will go to her cellar to further delve in her universe. Of course we would not be as rude as not join her for an aperitif and subsequent lunch, that will reflect the joie de vivre and provençale conviviality to be expected, marked with simplicity and authenticity.
Before having the time to digest, we will go to the rest of our day exploring the region from its most magnificent altitudes. We will therefore drive through the Dentelles de Montmirail a UNESCO World Registry small mountain range that will grace out every day panorama in the region. And then we shall visit the king of the region, that we will also see everyday from afar, towering everything: the Mont Ventoux, with whom we will be about to get intimate.
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, and at its top we will be cousins with the clouds, and will have a breathtaking 360˚ view over the Rhône Valley, 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, and put everything in perspective.
Return to the castle. Pétanque.
Gastronomic Dinner at the castle.
* Sunday May 26: Relaxed start today as well. We go to the Luberon, the legendary part of Provence subject of countless books, notably the Peter Mayle ones (A Year in Provence), Peter Mayle 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 subsequent 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 totally 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.
On our way back those willing to take a longer drive will come with me through some lovely Gorges, while others may be able to go back directly to the hotel with René and help him train at Pétanque or lounge by the pool.
Dinner at the Castle.
* Monday May 27: Lazy late start as we are going about 15 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 who was crucial in helping the Côtes du Rhône become what they are today. La Présidente produces some excellent Cairanne at their original location, as well as some Chateauneuf du Pape, on 20 hectares that they owned there in one of the best locations and the vicinity of other prestigious names.
We will visit the estate, Simon Gauthier who now oversees winemaking at La Présidente, will show us some of the property and we will taste some wine in the chais. We will have lunch together in a very nice restaurant nearby with notably some white and red Chateauneuf du Pape.
This is the Chateauneuf du Pape day, and after lunch, the Domaine Durieu from whom I now import another Chateauneuf du Pape, will take us for a tour of their vineyard, in the Plan de Dieu where they have a very special plot, as well as in Chateauneuf. This will be followed by a tasting in their chais.
We will then be ready to explore a bit the village of Chateauneuf du Pape, see what remains of the castle and wander down the streets.
After this, we will drive back to the castle through the gorgeous route that leads to Orange, a town that Romans considered one of the most important towns in Gaule. That route offers one of the most beautiful panoramic view on the Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail, the background of our daily excursions.
Pétanque and another sublime dinner at the castle.
* Tuesday May 28: Today we cross the Rhône river, to drive to Chateau Rochecolombe in Ardèche, on the right bank of the Rhône. Rochecolombe is a stellar organic vineyard, producing award winning wines. It is located in the northern tip of the appellation's geographic area, which is probably not a coincidence.
This is a more than 60 Ha estate, run very efficiently, and providing every year the best value one can find in the Côtes du Rhône appellations. We will tour a bit of the wineyard, understanding what makes Rochecolombe so unique. we'll then taste, from bottles, tanks and barrels, and have lunch with Manon, Laeticia and Roland the owner. The lunch will be 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 a registered 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 (later in the gorges, I will be able to point out where the actual grotte is), but French authorities have built a perfect replica, which is the world's reference for conservation of parietal art.
I should emphasize that this is nothing short of a life altering visit. It is beyond fascinating to dive as profoundly as such a visit allows, in the actual lives and psyche of those early ancestors of ours. This is like stepping into a time machine, that will take us far, far back in history, to the really very early stages of humanity.
Dinner with post paleolithic gastronomy at the castle.
* Wednesday May 29: This is our last touring day before Paris, and I have reserved a special treat. This morning we head to Vacqueyras and all along the way we will be graced again by the sight of the Dentelles de Montmirail that we visited a few days ago. In Vacqueyras we will be offered a very privileged visit of the Maison Arnoux, which is one of the largest winemakers in the southern Rhône Valley. The visit will be conducted by my actual brother who runs the whole operation, and is very involved in the wine making because of his extraordinary palate and understanding of wine.
François-Xavier will offer us a very exclusive technical and comparative tasting, allowing us to understand the alchemy of barrel wine aging, and what parameters the winemaker plays with in order to develop the aromatic nobility of the wine. Maison Arnoux is the producer of the famed 1717 which ages in some of the very barrels that we will study during this tasting.I am pleased to report that the wines that we will be tasting, including the 1717, will be available in North Carolina in early 2024.
We will then have lunch with François-Xavier in a nearby restaurant.
Relaxed schedule this afternoon, with maybe visit of one of the lovely villages in the surroundings, and/or depending on the group's mood, relaxing by the pool or playing pétanque at the castle. It is always possible to split the group into, one going back to the castle, and one exploring more.
Pétanque, pool etc.
Last gastronomic dinner at the castle.
* Thursday May 30: I don't know yet about you, but my experience is that by now, 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 gracious people who hosted us.
We now have to go see other skies, Parisian ones, which of course, is not really a punishment! We'll leave the castle in mid morning in order to be in Valence my home town for a lunch at the foothill of another castle which dominate the town, an altitude excellent restaurant.
High speed train for Paris where we will arrive 2:15 hours later a little bit before 6:00 normally.
Taxi to our hotel in Saint Germain des Près. Our four star hotel is located in the heart of Saint Germain des Près, and not far from the Seine river. This is both a beautiful and central location, from where we can walk almost everywhere in Paris, and we do need to do some walking after two weeks of rather decadent indulgences!
The hotel is very comfortable, safe and with a great staff. Over the years, I have developed a great relationship with Marco, the Director, who provides extra care to my customers and myself, and I am absolutely certain that you will greatly enjoy your stay there. And why not, right? We are going to be in one of the very most desirable locations in Paris!
Dinner in a gem Parisian restaurant, outside the beaten path for sure.
* Friday May 31: Today you will be enjoying as free day in Paris. You also have the option to tour Paris with me, as well as meet for dinner, see Paris options page.
* Saturday June 1st: This is the official end of the tour, unless you have chosen to extend your stay in Paris, which is always possible and desirable, especially given where we stay and what the options are.
So if you want to enjoy a bit more of this delightful city: free day in Paris, option to tour it with me today we are having lunch on the Eiffel Tower, as well as meet for dinner, see Paris options page, today we go from Saint Germain to Le Marais, see some deeply Parisian landmarks and quaint corners, as well as shop a bit.
If you are regrettably heading to the airport, the hotel will be happy to arrange a taxi to pick you up, and it is of course best to let them know the day before.
* Sunday June 2nd : If you are still enjoying Paris, you could want to tour it with me, as today we go to the Eiffel Tower, and lunch there, see Paris options page. One last meet us for dinner option, as tomorrow I have to leave to prepare the upcoming fall tour on my way to the Bordeaux Tour that starts in a couple of weeks.
We'll see each others again!