I'm not a wine drinker. I don't know anything about wine other than it gives me a headache and makes turn tomato-red. The copain, however, is a connoisseur of sorts and had done some research on the wines of this region prior to our trip, so on the agenda today was a wine tour. I didn't mind, I was really just interested in tagging along to see wine country and the vineyards. And a happy and distracted copain amounts to an equally content me!
It would be another hot day, so after breakfast we drove, top down and sun on faces, to Orange to visit the Roman Amphitheater, which was built in the early 1st century. I was amazed that even back in those days, such importance was placed on entertainment for the masses. The ancient theatre was in great condition, considering it's age, but had undergone a facelift a few years ago at which time the once-wooden roof was replaced by glass and metal to shield the remainder of the stage from the elements. A statue of Emperor Augustus still stands relatively in tact at the top centre of the stage which reaches almost 40 meters high. What's really cool is that this venue continues to host performances and concerts today, and I can only imagine how magical it would be to see a show here amongst the ruins of columns and stone, lit up against the starry night sky. The copain snapped several photos, in great admiration of the engineering behind this great structure.
We had lunch at a local cafe in Orange, and then headed towards wine country, to Chateauneuf-de-Pape, which is an approved and sanctioned (by whom I have no idea) wine region, referred to as an appellation. It was siesta time when we arrived so several of the wine caves (which are essentially shops that sell wine from a particular producer, or "domaine") were of course closed. But we did manage to wander into one or two which remained open during this time and the copain, in consultation with the wine guide that he had bought in preparation for this trip, excitedly picked up and examined bottle after bottle, eventually buying a few as well. We had a particularly good time at the Domaine de Pegau, where we encountered a friendly older gentleman who did not speak English, save for a word here or there. Nonetheless, we stayed in his store for nearly twenty minutes and engaged in lively conversation with him, which consisted of some poor English, some plain English, un petit peu de Francais, and even a bit of Spanish thrown in for good measure. Some hand gesturing also helped us to figure out that a.) he couldn't ship wine to Canada because he produces exclusively for the LCBO b.) he also exports to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore (which is not altogether relevant aside from the fact that the copain had pointed at me and said "Chinois!" at some juncture in the conversation), and c.) the bottle that the copain chose, a 2007 Chateauneuf-de-Pape, would be €40, s'il vous plait. I quite enjoyed chatting with the nice man, glad to be able to practice my French, and hoping that the he wasn't judging me too harshly on my anglophone accent.
By a quarter to three, we had arrived in the small and quiet village of Sablet to meet the guide for our wine tour guide. Olivier, a British ex-pat from London whose mother was French, was an accountant in his former life who wanted out of the rat race (I chuckled knowingly). So he had picked up and moved to the Provence area for a new, and much more exciting career in the wine guiding business. We bounced along in his the large white van that he picked us up in and chatted with him while on the way to a neighboring village to pick up another couple that would be joining us on the tour. His witty and self-deprecating sense of humour was quite refreshing, having noticed that the French do seem to take themselves rather seriously. Olivier appeared to have a great little life here; he lived with his wife and two kids, who were both born in France, he spoke the language fluently, was close with the locals, and conducted two tours a day at €35 a head. In the winter time, when the Mistral (the blustery, cold, and dry northwesterly wind that can reach speeds of 90 km per hour and lasts anywhere from one day to over a week) blows through the region of the Cote-du-Rhone, he conducts research on what else? Wine. He had also recently begun acting as a wine agent, pairing importers and exporters and taking a cut. What a lucky man, I thought, able to work at a job that he is clearly very passionate about in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. How few of us can say the same?
After picking up Marta and Phil, a young couple from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we stopped on top of a hill in a nearby area vineyard to look at some of the vineyards. I listened with much interest as Olivier explained the art of grape-growing; how bad soil grows the best grapes for wine, how the older the vine roots are, the more layers of soil they will cross, which adds to the complexity of the wine, and how the dusty, white-ish parts on the skin of the grape is actually yeast, which aids in the fermentation process. We also learned about the conventions on the bottle labels, about co-ops versus negociants, and about the importance of the terroir from which the grapes come from. To my surprise, my interest was piqued, and I couldn't help but get caught up in Olivier's excitement, which nearly bordered on obsession, as he chattered on rapid-fire about his favorite topic.
We stopped at a winery next, The Domaine la Soumade, a producer of wine from the appellation of Rasteau, which incidentally, had been very recently promoted to the highest and most prestigious tier of wine quality (again, who is responsible for these momentous decisions is beyond me but I suddenly had a mental picture of a bunch of old snooty Frenchmen sitting at a roundtable aruging loudly over whether or not the promotion should be granted). Olivier showed us the fermentation vats, storage barrels, and other wine-making paraphernalia, all the while explaining the intricate process. I really had no idea that it was such an art form, and that there were so many ways to produce wine which result in differences in flavor, alcohol content, colour, acidity, boldness, etc. Whew!
The tasting part was next, starting with the reds. I watched apprehensively as Olivier swirled his glass, sniffed it, took a sip, swished it around, and then promptly spat it out. I decided that I would go ahead and at least swallow a sip or two, as I knew I wouldn't be able to bring myself to purge in that spit bucket, blech! Olivier talked of the tannins, the minerality, the spiciness, and the hint of pepperiness, while I held my breath for my first sip (yes, I realize that my sophistication in this regard is truly underwhelming). But it wasn't bad, fairly smooth and easy to drink, unlike some of the more tart wines that I had tried in the past which made me crinkle my nose after every sip. Olivier brought out some cheese and crackers for us, explaining that wine was meant to be taken with food ("did you hear that, hun?" I said), and that the fat content in the cheese is what neutralizes the tannins and makes the wine even easier to drink. The copain took notes and chatted excitedly with the American couple, who had been to tastings in Italy before and seemed already quite well-versed in their knowledge of wine. I grabbed a few more crackers and slices of cheese and munched happily, listening and nodding politely as Marta explained how Pennsylvania was one of the last states in America to which you could not ship wine. With everyone's glasses empty (mine in that state only thanks to the copain), we moved on to the next tasting, to an even older (and more expensive) bottle of Rasteau. Imitating Olivier and the others, I stuck my nose in the glass for a whiff, took a sip and whispered proudly to the copain "this one is less peppery than the first," as Olivier simultaneously announced "this one is more peppery than the first!" I sighed. The copain nearly choked on his even pepperier wine with laughter. Oh well, I was trying, but I clearly had a long way to go.
We hit another winery afterwards for more tastings, the Domaine Brusset, producer of wines from the Gigondas appellation, before dropping off Marta and Phil, and heading back to Sablet to pick up our car. With five bottles from the region in tow, we were headed back to the hotel.
That same morning we had been awoken by a small white kitten meowing loudly and rapidly outside of the front entrance of the hotel towards which our windows opened. It was let in by some of the girls at the front desk and at one point the copain had spotted it curled up in an armchair in the hotel lounge, fast asleep. When we returned from our wine tour, it was in the front foyer, viciously attacking an offending piece of candy that the girls had given it to play with. My heart, of course, melted a wee bit as I briefly contemplated the consequences of scooping it up into my bag and whisking it away. But I knew better, and so we returned to our hotel room to change for dinner. As we were doing so, it seemed that the little devil decided to go on a bit of an adventure. As we walked towards the car to drive into town, I heard an all-too-familiar meowing coming from above. I looked up and there he was, his little white body wedged between two branches of a large tree. I gasped. Well obviously, we couldn't leave him there; he was clearly stuck, unable or too afraid to make his way back down. The copain took one look at the expression on my face and knew what he had to do. Dressed in a freshly pressed button down shirt and shiny new leather shoes, up the tree he climbed to rescue the pitiful little thing. I stood with arms outstretched under the tree as the copain handed, or rather, dropped the kitten down on me, and caught it, squeezing him tight to my chest. "Le mew," it said, looking up at me with big grateful eyes. I bit my lip and turned to the copain. "My hero!!" I said. "Hrumph," he said, dusting himself off and stomping away. I simply laughed, and shook my head, releasing the little kitten and reprimanding him gently for his poor judgment.
We had dinner in the city of Avignon that night, which is a quaint little area surrounded by a great fortress wall of stone. The restaurant was called La Fourchette, and we were seated in a secluded corner of the restaurant on a Julienne balcony that faced the street. Off to a good start already, the copain ordered a bottle of the Clos du Mont-Olivet from 2001 and we were set. Dinner was another amazing meal; of special note was the tender, melt-in-your-mouth leg of lamb that we both ordered, which was greatly complimented by the wine (or so I was told). Dessert followed by espresso capped off yet another wonderful day.