Trish and I just returned from a Rhone River cruise in Southern France, sponsored by Food and Wine Trails. Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles, CA, collaborated with the sponsor and recruited about 80 of its wine club members to sign on for a week’s journey from Tarascon to Lyon.
Google Maps clocks the drive from one town to the other at less than 3 hours. It took the boat 7 days and nights. All-day stopovers, 2 planned doublebacks, 14 locks and a cruising speed of 11 knots (13 mph) all indicated we were no hurry. Roman ruins, a 14th century Papal palace, sites painted by Van Gogh, the food capital of France (Lyon) and, of course, some of the most famous vineyards in the world all argued for going even slower! For me, it’s a bit like listening to dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet. You just want to slow things down to savor every moment.
One of the many highlights of the trip was a stop in Avignon to visit Château de Beaucastel in the northern reaches of the Chateauneuf du Pape region. Beaucastel . . . a 16th century name and estate . . . was purchased by the Perrin Family in 1909. Four generations of Perrins have now been involved in running the estate. Highly regarded by wine critics, the Chateauneuf du Pape vinified here is the family’s leading blend. More recent notoriety of the family name came about upon the release of Château de Miraval Rosé, a joint-venture the Perrins have with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The Chateau gardens, the cellar tour, the tasting . . . all were all top-notch and consistent with a storied Château. But the highlight of the afternoon was the lunch prepared by the starred Michelin chef from the Restaurant L’Oustalet in Gigondas. It went as follows:
Amuse-Bouche: Chilled Eggplant Mousse with Summer Truffle and Chive. (Glacé d’Aubergine à la Truffe d’été) This was served with a Famille Perrin Reserve Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2014 from magnum. The Grenache Blanc and Marsanne, the dominant grapes in the blend, paired beautifully with the creamy mousse and the light summer truffle.
Fish Course: John Dory with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Almond Cream Sauce (Le Saint-Pierre de Méditerranée aux Girolles, sous une emulsion au Lait d’Amande). This was served with the Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc 2013. An ideal pairing where the blend of Grenache Blanc, Picardan and Roussanne grapes provided complexity, while the oak barrel fermentation (about 30%) provided the body and creaminess to stand up to the mushrooms and the Almond Cream Sauce. The best pairing of the day! Good to remember Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc when you serve your next cream soup or sauce.
Meat Course: Roasted Loin of Veal with Summer Truffles and Au Jus Cream Sauce (Carré de Veau rôti à la Truffe d’été, petits Légumes « du Jardin » au Jus). This was paired with the signature wine of the Chateau: Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape (Rouge) 2011.
The wine is a blend of the 13 grape varietals allowed in the region. But unlike most Chateauneuf producers, Beaucastel uses more Mouvèdre, up to 40% in the blend. This grape, coupled with the spicy Syrah and the bright acidity of the Grenache, makes for an elegant but powerful blend. The so-called iron fist in a velvet glove. Extremely well-made, but too powerful for the veal and the cream sauce. Delivering notes of black currant, dried cherries, leather and licorice, this wine is best served with a steak or a stew that can stand up to its power!
Dessert: Blanc-Manger with Crystallized Sage Leaves (Blanc-Manger Fleurs blanches et Sauge crystal). Having never had Blanc-Manger before, I found this particular version to be a cross between Crème Brulèe and rice pudding, with the granularity of the “rice” smaller, more elegant. This excellent, cold dessert was paired with Famille Perrin Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2011, a sweet wine vinified from the Muscat grape. This was perfect with the dessert: light, refreshing, not cloying. It was also the boat’s dessert wine, of which I took frequent advantage.
The boat cruise was a great way to experience the Southern Rhône, with its bounty of food, wine and history. But since the boat did most of its cruising during dinner or at night, I missed the opportunity to sit on the sun deck while we cruised upstream . . . watching the beautiful countryside roll by. There is a sense of freedom (escapism, maybe?) associated with boat cruising that was nicely expressed by Huck Finn when he said: So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us.