This Wine Tour in Provence is designed to deliver the ultimate exploration of the French province 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 teaching moments. The quality of the food experience during the tour is crucial, and you may expect excellence, authenticity, and sharp wine pairing.
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 over more than 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, 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.
* Saturday May 20: 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 May 21: 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 May 22: 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 Riviera fare, and some of the best whites produced in the whole south east.
We will then 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, your chance to win back your tour ticket price!
We will eventually head to our hotel at the edge of Ramatuelle, near Tahiti beach, and will enjoy there a dinner of rare quality, the chef is from my home town, and was trained there "chez Pic," the well-known Michelin 3 star restaurant.
* Tuesday May 23: After a memorable breakfast Riviera style, 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, with 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 Arles, where we will stay three 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 yearly festival on that art. The city also sits on the edge of the Rhône river and Camargue is in the air as well.
You have the choice of two hotels of different styles and equal supreme quality in this tour, both a stone throw from each other, in the very epicenter of Arles, see tour options page.
Dinner one of Arles most atmospheric restaurant.
* Wednesday May 24: We will enjoy Arles with a late departure after a breakfast on the central square next to our hotels (weather permitting), and then a bit of free time in its streets 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. 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), Christian shrine atmosphere, omnipresent Toro, 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 and scientific process. 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.
* Thursday May 25: Another late departure and subsequent leisurely breakfast on the square as well as free time in Arles's streets.
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, but a very promising one, notably for rosés and whites. 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 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.
Return to Arles for more street roaming or a game of pétanque before dinner in another special Arles restaurant.
* Friday May 26: We can still take the time to enjoy Arles one last time, before leaving for the Mourgue du Grès, an extensive high quality producer in the very southern Rhône Valley, north of Arles. They produce high quality, out of the ordinary wines at great value points.
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, 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 12th 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 an alternative time span.
Welcome Gastronomic Dinner at the castle.
* Saturday May 27: Late start, and excellent lunch at the foot of our main destination. For given our new accommodation status, today we visit the king of the region, that we will be seeing everyday from afar, towering everything: the Mont Ventoux, that we are going to see very much up close. 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, 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.
Driving back through the Dentelles de Montmirail, another world heritage treasure of Unesco's register.
Gastronomic Dinner at the castle, on the light side.
* Sunday May 28: 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 will go enjoy L'Isle sur Sorgue, a delightful small town offering a rather pittoresque all day market on Sundays, as well as lovely settings.
Pétanque, and gentle gastronomique dinner at the castle.
* Monday May 29: Today we visit provençales rising stars. We start the day with Robin Grangeon in his Domaine du Parandou, a 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 seemingly permanent good mood.
Robin is a Sablet producer, a lesser known appellation in the Rhône wines, producing lighter, more aerial wines. We'll meet Robin in his vines, where he will explain to us what makes a Sablet what it is. We'll then go to his chais for a tasting before heading to the nearby village of Gigondas for a lunch with him on the shady and inviting square.
Your choice of free time in Gigondas or Pétanque under the trees.
In the later part of the afternoon, we visit Corinne Depeyre, a new comer on prime stage wine making, as well as in the Contrat Wines portfolio. Corinne's personality is extremely endearing, strong, thoughtful and deliciously provençale. The same may be said of her wines, which are also intense, with notably a late harvest red Grenache which is almost unique in the world.
Corinne will open her chais to us, will explain us all what we want to know. We will of course taste, possibly play pétanque, it is addictive, and we'll have dinner together, at the property.
* Tuesday May 30: 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 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 sin the chais. We will have lunch together in a very nice restaurant nearby with notably some white and red Chateauneuf du Pape.
After that we will drive to the actual village of Chateauneuf du Pape, see what remains of the castle and then wander down the streets, eventually reaching Domaine Durieu, another Chateauneuf du Pape producer from which I am going to start importing a very old vines Plan de Dieu, and with whom we will also have a tasting.
After that, 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.
* Wednesday May 31st: 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 tour a bit of the wines, and then understand what makes Rochecolombe so unique. we'll then taste, including next vintages off the tanks or barrels, and have lunch at the Castle with Manon, Laeticia and Roland the owner, 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 want to 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 fo 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 post paleolithic gastronomic at the castle.
* Thursday June 1st : 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 lovely people who hosted us.
We now have to go see other skies, Parisian ones, which is not really a punishment! We'll have done last relaxed morning at the castle, exploring its park trying to surprise the deers, then load the vans, have a salad lunch and then hit the road to my hometown to catch a train.
High speed train for Paris where we will arrive 2:20 hours later.
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 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 beautiful ultra Parisian location, that actually few people know.
* Friday June 2nd: Free day in Paris, option to tour it with me, as well as meet for dinner, see options page.
* Saturday June 3rd: 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, as well as meet for dinner, see options page.
* Sunday : This it folks, at least for me, I have another tour in Bordeaux starting soon, and I need to attend to its preparation. But you are welcome to stay in Paris as long as you'd like, I can book your room for as long as you'd like, provided that this is done as soon as possible, given that our hotel is very popular! See options page.
We'll see each others again.