The activities available for us to select from today were shopping with the chef in Avignon followed by a culinary class, an excursion to the Luberon region and Senanque Abbey, or a visit to Rousillon, famous for its lavender industry. Or, if you’re a wine lover, you could opt for a visit to the commune of Châteauneuf-du-Pape to visit a winery for a tasting. We opted for the latter. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is so named because the introduction of vines to this region was instigated by one of the Avignon Popes in the 1300s.

We were promised a scenic drive to reach the commune. It certainly started off that way, as our coach crossed over the Rhône and soon entered a wine region. Under sunny blue skies, we drove through vineyards to the left and right of us until we reached a small village and turned into a side road. Our bus stopped and could go no further. It happened to be right outside a police station and there was a police vehicle now blocked by our bus from leaving the compound. There was a friendly exchange between one policeman and our driver. He offered her help and pointed out directions. At one stage he got onto his phone and began searching for information. He guided her as she manoeuvred the bus around, as it was quite a tight turn in that narrow street. Then he smiled and waved us on our way. Our guide informed us that our vehicle was too wide for the narrow street we’d been on, and that the driver was now heading all the way back to Avignon to take another route, this time through an industrial area. So back we went until the vineyards were behind us and soon our ship and then the Popes’ Palace and the Pont du Avignon appeared. We drove past them and left town in a new direction. Our guide was right. We did drive though a number of industrial sites on this new road, but eventually we entered wine country and once again on both sides of the bus were green fields of vines.

As we approached Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the vineyards on either side of the road were prolific. The vines were low to the ground. Quite a few of the vines appeared to be relatively old, as their stems were thick and gnarled, and had likely produced numerous vintages.

Our coach pulled into Maison Bouachon, one of the wineries which produces Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s famous vintages. Our sommelier, Julian, explained the terroir of the region to us. A simple definition is that terroir is a combination of the soil, the environment (wind, rain, sunlight, neighbouring plant species etc) and human knowhow and labour. He talked about environmental factors such as the mistral (the strong cold wind which sweeps across the Rhône valley), the low rainfall and the stony soil. Julian spoke about the vines putting their roots down very deep into the soil, seeking moisture and the goodness the plants take from the soil at that depth.

Julian explained that a set of rules govern wine production in Châteauneuf-du-Pape that must be observed by all winemakers wishing to include the appellation of origin (AOC) on the wine label. These rules include no irrigation, the grape variety must be one of thirteen approved varieties (grenache and syrah are common ones here), there is a minimum number of plants per hectare and a maximum planting distance between rows, that only reds and whites can be made (no rosé), and that there is a minimum alcohol percentage of 13.5%. There are other rules too. Non-observance will exclude the winemaker from printing Châteauneuf-du-Pape on the label.

Julian instructed us on the art of appreciating wine during the tasting. How to hold a white wine glass so that the warmth of your hand does not alter the temperature of the wine. How to hold it in front of your fingers to test it for clarity. How you need to smell the wine first without swirling, and then again after a good swirl to sense the changes that occur. When drinking the wine he told us how to move your mouth and tongue to ensure it goes to all parts of your mouth, so that different parts of the wine will create different taste sensations. Our first wine was a white, retailing at 30 euros. Next we tasted a red Special Edition, also retailing at 30 euros. This one is produced so that you can drink it now. We learned to roll the glass on its side to observe the viscosity of the wine on the glass surface, and how and where to gain the effect of the tannins when we drank it. Our final glass was another red, the Reserve Dedication, retailing at 60 euros. This wine can be put away for 10 to 15 years before drinking, as it will improve with age. Its tannins were stronger, and the taste lingered much longer on the tongue and in the back of the mouth.

It was an informative and educational session. Sessions like this are really enjoyable when it’s clear the presenter not only knows his subject well, but also is very passionate about it. Julian was terrific and I personally really enjoyed his wine choices.

Following the wine tasting, we spent half an hour walking the streets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It’s only a relatively small commune. Typical of other communes we’ve visited over the past week, it’s quite hilly. Some of the buildings are very old, possibly medieval. Dominating the hilltop above the village are the ruins of Pope John XXII’s Castle. He was the second of the Avignon Catholic Popes. It was constructed in the early 1300s. The final occupants of the castle were the Nazis in August 1944. They used it as an observation post and ammunition store. Before they left, they attempted to destroy the building, but only partially succeeded, leaving one high wall still standing today. From the castle hill you could look out over the valley to the Rhône in the west and across cultivated vineyards on the eastern side. The eastern view reminded me a little of the views I had from San Gimignano in Tuscany on our previous European trip.

We left the commune by means of a meandering road through some of the vineyards surrounding it. You can see evidence of how stony some of the ground was in the photos below. The road took us back through the village once more and from there we returned to Avignon on the road we came in on. We returned to a delicious barbecue lunch on our ship.

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