THE FRENCH CONNECTION: A WONDERFUL DAY IN PROVENCE WINE COUNTRY

Story and Photos by Ron James

For wine enthusiasts, almost nothing is as exciting as visiting a new wine region. And there are no wine regions that stir the soul and prime the palate like the legendary vineyards of France. On our most recent Mediterranean cruise on the Celebrity Silhouette we stopped for one day stop in working-class Toulon, France’s second largest port and gateway to the beautiful coastal towns and wine country of Provence.

We considered renting a car to visit some nearby wineries, but were deterred by memories of a very bad experience a couple of years earlier that turned into a cruiser’s worst nightmare. The last time we cruised into this port, we rented a car for a day trip to Aix-en- Provence. After getting lost and circling Aix for close to hour, we finally found the entrance to the old city and enjoyed a nice stroll and lunch in this charming village. Then we began a hellish two-hour ride back, filled with traffic, tolls and a search for a gas station. If we didn’t return the car with a full tank, we faced a ridiculous penalty from the rental car company.

After dropping off the car, we hailed a cab and slipped the driver an extra 20 bucks to get us back to the ship before it sailed. He drove like a crazy man through the narrow busy streets – like Steve McQueen flying down San Francisco streets in the movie “Bullet.” We made it to the ship with less than five minutes to spare. No problem.

So this time, we almost decided to stay on the ship, which would have been sin considering we were in one of the most beautiful corners of France. To salvage our port stop, I Googled wine country tours in Toulon, hoping to find someone who could provide a first class wine country experience and get us back to the ship on time.

One company, Wine in Provence, stood out right away, probably because of the four TripAdvisor Certificates of Excellence listed on the bottom of the company’s webpage. I was also reassured by the fact that they were featured in Rick Steves’ guidebooks. A quote from Steves on the homepage hit my sweet spot too: “At Wine in Provence, smart, young, and enthusiastic Americans…are eager to help you discover French wine and food… Their dream is to show you a side of Provence that you wouldn’t otherwise see –through the lens of French food and wines.”

My email to the tour company received a prompt reply, promising an outstanding tour of wine country, even if it was off-season. Done deal.

It was sunny, but cold and blustery, as our party of four headed down the gangway for a short walk down the pier and through security gates to the controlled chaos of tour guides loading bundled-up groups of cruisers. The owner of Wine in Provence, Michael Ippolito, pulled up in a shiny new SUV with comfy seats for the four of us, a basket of fresh pastries, and water.

Michael drove expertly though the narrow streets of Toulon while giving us an intro into French wine tasting. He explained that American wine enthusiasts over analyze wines, sniffing and swirling in search of exotic fragrances and complex acidity, sugar, color and even texture. In France, he explained, most everyone drinks wine, most at every meal. They open the bottle, pour it into a glass and if it tastes OK they drink it. This suited my world view of wine perfectly: If it tastes good, I like it.

According to our guide, most French winemaking operations don’t have formal tasting rooms. Retail marketing doesn’t rank high there, unlike the majority of small wineries in America where wine tasting rooms and wine clubs provide significant income. French winemakers focus on farming the land and hand off their products to middlemen for distribution. The times are changing, though, as a new tech-savvy generation of family members takes charge and turns to social media, tasting room sales and wine clubs.

Our schedule was to visit four wineries and scenic highlights along the way with a lunch stop at a nice bistro. The idea was to visit a diverse cross-section of wineries, small and large. After a short hop on the freeway we headed west on the Route de Crêtes toward the beautiful French coastline north of Toulon to our first destination in Cassis, Clos d’Albizzi.

Michael explained that the now 35-acre vineyard was owned by the Albizzi family who settled in the area in 1523. The family was a powerful dynasty in Florence, in the same league as the Medici. Our host, François Dumon, was a direct descendant of Florentine family. In my mind’s eye, I expected a sort of gentleman’s farmer sporting French designer causal togs a la Lord Grantham in “Downton Abbey.”

As we pulled into the driveway bracketed by rows of gold and red vines floating in a sea of dainty white flowers, a tall man dressed in blue mechanic’s overalls emerged from a door of a classic Provencal two-story farmhouse. His hands were covered with black grease. He must be one of the farm hands, I thought. Michael immediately greeted him in French. After a few moments, the man nodded to the four of us and smiled. It seems that winemakers in these parts, even ones with blue blood, work on their own tractors.

François excused himself to clean up and emerged dressed in French farmhouse casual blue jeans and tan golf shirt. He also was wearing a warm welcoming smile as he led us into a rustic room and started pouring his finest. In this region of Provence, white and rose wines are king. The soil, the sea breezes and sun are ideal to produce delicious, easy-to-drink wines. Each one we tasted passed my French test of fine wine – they tasted great, pour me another please.

The winemaker blends Marsanne, Clairette and Ugni Blanc for their fruit forward white wines with just enough acidity to keep them bright and refreshing. The rosés are blends of Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvèdre grapes, offering the same drinkability with slight cherry notes. We also tasted “cooked wine,” a Provencal specialty made from grape juice concentrate by evaporation and fermented. The sweet wine is served as an aperitif and traditionally accompanies Christmas dessert. François was a gracious host and communicated with smiles when his limited English failed him. After the tasting and stroll around the winery and vineyard, we piled into our SUV for our next adventure.

We continued up the winding two-lane Route de Crêtes for several miles and pulled off into a public parking lot. A dirt path led to dramatic view point from inside Calanques National Park high above the seaside town of Cassis. The view was spectacular, and despite a few tastes of wine we were not lured to the cliff’s edge as some locals were. My wife Mary did go for a walk and waved to us from what seemed like a perilous point. I motioned for her to step back, but she said she was never in any danger. We were amazed to see rock climbers emerge from the vertical sandstone cliff stretching many hundreds of feet below. Personally I would rather wine taste than rock climb… but that’s just me.

You can never tell a book by its cover and our visit to our second winery, Domaine Ray-Jane, in Le Castellet, just north of Bandol, was proof that first impressions can be seriously wrong. We parked in a small lot fronting a slightly run-down building and stepped inside a small office cluttered with paperwork and a few cases of wine.

We were introduced to winemaker/owners Raymond and Jane Constant. Dressed in a well-worn wool sweater, Raymond looked like he didn’t mind getting his hands dirty making wine. He didn’t speak much English, but was enthusiastic as he led us on a tour of his complex – and Michael proved to be an excellent interpreter. I really didn’t expect much on this tour, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting visits to a winemaking facility I’ve ever experienced.

Like the Albizzis, the Constant family has been making wines for a very long time, in their case since 1288. His family’s long history drives Raymond’s passion for not only for making wine, but collecting the tools and equipment used in vineyards and wineries for nearly 800 years. When we made our way down a staircase into a large room, I expected to see the typical vats and presses, but instead there were thousands of antique wine-related items stacked ceiling high. I was blown away by the volume of stuff – and then he led the way to a number of similar rooms just as full of artifacts and machines. All I could say was wow!

Finally we made our way to his ultra-modern winemaking room with state-of-the-art temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. Right next to straw covered jugs used to sell wine to the locals for the last century were boxes of wine ready to be shipped to markets around France. Thinking that we were at the end of our tour, winemaker had one last surprise for us.

Raymond explained that he was building a winemaking museum to showcase the rare tools of his ancestors. Then he led us to a brand new building still under construction that wouldn’t look out of place in Napa or Sonoma. The new museum was being built with beautiful stone quarried from local mountains; giant wooden beams crisscrossed the room above the stone floor. We were honored to vist this place. It will surely be a destination for wine enthusiasts and historians around the world.

Of course there were the wines, mostly roses, made mostly with Grenache grapes, blended with 20 percent each of Mourvèdre and Cinsault varietals. They were great examples of the famous wines of Bandol and we bought a couple of bottles to enjoy on the ship. We bid adieu to Raymond and headed to lunch.

During the previous hour, Michael’s cell phone had rung constantly. We were running quite late and his wife Cyrielle, who coordinated the tour in real time from her home office in Aix-en-Provence, was urgently trying to move us along. We ended up having to cancel one of our tasting appointments so that we would get back to the ship on time.

If Domaine Ray Jane was memorable for its wines and vast antique collection, our lunch was equally memorable – perhaps the best dining experience of this six-week travel adventure. Michael drove us to the nearby ancient village of Le Castellet, with a population of just under 4,000. One of the region’s top tourist attractions, the feudal village is perched on a promontory overlooking a patchwork of Bandol vineyards. The cobblestone streets are lined with beautiful old houses covered with wisteria and bougainvillea. Many have been carefully restored and now house craftsman’s workshops, art galleries and eateries.

We expected a quick sandwich and soup for lunch but we were delighted to be treated to a full-on French gourmet adventure. La Goguette, a tiny but charming restaurant that seats 16, is the pride and creation of Chef Maxime D’Orio and his wife Stephanie who almost single handedly runs the front of the house.

We ordered the three-course tasting menu which consisted of a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts – each meticulously prepared and beautifully plated. D’Orio honed his skills with star chefs Régis Marcon and Jean-François Rouquette at the Park Hyatt Vendôme in Paris. The modern French dishes he served reminded me of the best farm-to-table California. Every dish was delicious and flawless and the local wine proved equal to the meal. Stephanie’s friendly and professional service capped off a world-class lunch.

Our leisurely meal consumed close to two hours, so we had just enough time to visit our final winery of the day, Domaines Bunan. Unlike our previous stops this winery operation was designed to host a lot of visitors – it would have been at home in the best of California wine countries.

After Michael took us on a tour of the large modern wine making facility and a quick taste of rose wine out of a giant two-story stainless steel tanks, we made our way through the well tended beautiful gardens to the tasting room where we met our hosts Françoise and Claire Bunan.

Unlike, the two previous wineries, Bunan is a baby, and a beautiful one at that, founded in 1961 by Paul and Pierre Bunan, who had emigrated from Algeria. They fell in love with the land in Bandol region, and managed to scrape together enough to buy it.

Paul’s daughter Françoise is in charge of the communications and public relations and Pierre’s daughter Claire, is a budding wine marketer and has and has developed sophisticated social marketing strategies including a multimedia tour app for touring the winery.

Claire and Françoise represent the new generation of French winemaking families. They treated us to some more wonderful Bandol wines as they told us the story of their family and winery – a perfect cap to a perfect day. Three distinct wineries offering wonderful wines, friendly and enthusiastic winemakers, a gourmet dining experience and a great guide who will forever be our man in Provence. It was a shore excursion we will always remember – and we made to the ship in plenty of time for sailaway.

IF YOU GO
Unless you’re a native or an expert in Provence, the only way to get this experience is to hire a top rated tour company like Michael Ippolito’s Wine in Provence. It was absolutely a day to remember.
Cruiseship
Celebrity Silhouette – www.celebritycruises.com/
Tour Company
Wine in Provence
http://www.wineinprovence.com/
Wineries
Clos d’Albizzi – www.albizzi.fr/
Domaines Bunuan – www.bunan.com/
Domaines Ray-Jane – www.ray-jane.fr/
Restaurant
Le Gougette
www.facebook.com/la.goguette.lecastellet