The story so far: After a long drive from London, we had finally arrived in northern Provence, spending our first afternoon exploring the lovely Coustellet farmer’s market. Our next stop was the hilltop village of Menerbes where we enjoyed a truffle-tastic lunch at the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin; followed by a visit to the Ochre Conservatory in Rousillon. From there we drove on to another picturesque hilltop village, Bonnieux, where we enjoyed a candle-lit tasting dinner by chef Edouard Loubet. The following morning we joined one of Edouard Loubet’s chefs for a cooking course in the Bastide de Capelongue kitchens, followed by a stellar lunch. That evening we found ourselves at the dreamy Chateau de Mazan for a cherry-themed dinner. The following morning we enjoyed a tour of the Terraventoux vineyards on electric bicycles, with plenty of stops for sampling local food and wine, followed by a wine blending workshop at Maison Lavau. Now read on…
In the world of wine, there are many estates that achieve greatness, but only a handful of estates that achieve legendary status – the kind of names that become a byword for expensive luxury even among those who have never drunk a drop of them. Names like Domanie de la Romanee-Conti, Château Lafite Rotshchild, Château Margaux, Dom Perignon, Château Yquem… and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which was the next stop on our trip through the Vaucluse region of Provence. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is both a town and a wine region in northern Provence, although according to wine appelations it falls within the Southern Rhône valley. Literally translated, the area’s name means “new castle of the Pope”, a name which it received in the 14th century when the Catholic Pope Clement V chose to relocate the papacy to the nearby city of Avignon rather than Rome. Clement and successive Popes were regular consumers of the local wine and did much to improve local viticulture, motivated at least in part by self-interest The popes were also responsible for the building of the castle (now ruined) which gave the are its current name.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape region covers about 3200 hectares and 80,000-110,000 hectolitres of wine is produced annually – 6% white and 94% red, all of it labelled AOC Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The climate of the region is relatively mild because of its southerly location and the predominant red grape is Grenache (unlike the cooler northern Rhône wines in which Syrah dominates) . Wines are almost always blends featuring any of the up to 13 grape varieties that are legally allowed to be added to Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines according to AOC rules (such as Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsaut). The small white wine production is made up mainly of Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clariette, Rousanne and Picpoul grapes. And yes, I could carry on providing you with vinous facts and figures all day – but drinking the wines seems a far more sensible approach than just talking about them!
And drink we did! We were taken to dinner by the charming Hortense and Christine from the Federation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers at Restaurant Gérard Alonso in Sorgues where we were seated outside on a tranquil bamboo-lined terrace to enjoy the balmy evening, excellent food – and of course excellent wine. Upon arrival,we were presented with a plate of small amuse bouches including triangles of tangy cheese-topped flatbread; bread cubes topped with a sunflower seed pesto; and savoury financiers with creme fraiche and broad beans. This was followed by individual espresso cups of chilled Charentais melon soup, topped with salty slivers of local cured meat – a heavenly combination and one that I really need to try at home this summer. For our starters, Nick and I chose the Terrine Bayaldi topped with two fat, juicy Breton prawns and a rich tomato sauce; and the cocido de riz (rice stew) using Camargue rice, topped with wild turbot, petit pois peas, and shaved summer truffles. Hortense and Christine had decided that we should start with some of the rare white Châteuneuf-du-Pape wines and for our drinking pleasure they had selected a 2011 Domaine du Grand Tinel (60% Grenache blanc, 20% Clairette, and 20% Bourboulenc). This was in impressively balanced wine, filled with fresh, crisp citrus flavours and an elegant minerality – balanced and lovely. But even more to my liking was the 2009 Château de vaudieu, Clos Belvedere (100% Grenache Blanc) which had a rich pale gold colour and an almost Viogner-like straw & herb nose. The palate was a lush mouthful of apricot with a lovely balanced acid zestiness. A nuanced and delicious wine – and both wines left me wondering why on earth the appellation does not produce more whites.
Up next were the red wines – and what an impressive lot they were. Starting with the youngest, there was the 2009 Clos de Caillou Cuvee Les Safres (95% Grenache, and 5% a mixture of Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Vaccarèse). As befits it youth, it had a deep ruby colour and an alluring nose of ripe berries and sunshine. The palate was similarly packed with layers of red fruits balanced out by nice, grippy tannins and toasty vanilla notes from its maturation in oak. Accessible and lovely. Next was the 2007 La Bastide Saint Dominique (80% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 5% Morvedre, 5% Cinsaut), a powerhouse of a wine with black pepper, dark plums and earthy notes on the nose, followed up by a complex palate of dark ripe berry and plum notes and a spicy finish with a hint of cloves. (Apparently, it’s also not very expensive, making it a hit bargain tip in my book!) The second-last wine we had was the 2004 Domaine de la Solitude, Reserve Secrete (60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, made from 50yr+ old vines). I fell in love after just one whiff of the nose of this deep, purply red wine: Vanilla, blackberries and liquorice all wafted up from the inky depths of the wine, as well as a minerally note like a freshly sharpened pencil. The palate did not disappoint either – full of powerful dark berry and Christmas pudding flavours with almost chewy tannins and a long, long finish full of dark cherry notes. Just marvellous. And our last wine of the evening was the 2001 Bosquet du Papes “A la gloire de mon Grand-père” (95% Grenache, 2% Cinsaut & Clariette, made from vines a hundred years or more old). On the nose, it held the promise of dark plummy fruit, peppery spice and hints of cocoa or dark chocolate; but the palate was surprisingly lively and fresh, despite its age. Given the amount of jammy fruits and balanced tannins that the wine is still showing after 11 years, it must have been a monster in its youth, but like the grandfather it is named after, it wears its age well. A rare treat. Together with the reds, we enjoyed our main course of la tourte de pigeonneau de pays – an individual pigeon pie, served with rocket and rich pigeon jus. You know how they say that wines match best with the food alongside which they have developed? Well this was a case in point. The rich pigeon and buttery pastry was more than a match for the brace of outstanding red wines that we enjoyed, adding their own spicy notes to the gameyness of the pigeon without overwhelming it.
I had been eyeing out the spectacular cheese trolley since our arrival, and now the time had come for me to sample it. I’ll never forget the panic that gripped me years ago the first time I was faced with a French cheese trolley (I believe it was in Gordon Ramsey at Claridges) – I had no idea what would be to my liking at all, having grown up on a diet of Gouda, Cheddar and Feta! But the intervening years of obsessive cheese consumption stood me in good stead and my eyes ran over the labels lovingly as if reading the names of old friends: Reblochon, Comté, Brie Truffe, Morbier, Chevre… Tasty old friends. The cheeses also worked very nicely thank you with the reds already on the table. And of course, no meal is complete without dessert, which took the form of a trio: raspberry sorbet with a tuille; a small chocolate fondant; and a small creme brulee. By this time, we were simply pouring whichever of the wines on the table we favoured to see what matched the cheese (I thought the Château Vaudieu Clos du Belvedere matched rather well). In fact, throughout the meal the thought that kept occurring to me is how fantastically food-orientated all of the wines we tried were.
(Please note that shortly after our visit, Alonso and his wife Josette sold the restaurant. It has reopened largely in the same form as La Table de Sorgues and is now run by Sandrine and Jean Paul Lecroq, who I have heard are doing a fantastic job carrying on the tradition of excellence that the Alonsos started. The menu changes according to what is seasonally available and takes the same format as above (amuse bouches, starter, main, cheese, dessert and mingnardises) for €60 per person.
Our accommodation for the night was at the nearby Château de Mourre de Tendre (formerly Clos Grenadiers), run by the hostess with the mostest, Florence Paumel. Once again, our rooms could not have been more textbook Provencal if they tried. It is evident from the moment you arrive that Florence has paid attention to every detail, from the rustic yet elegant garden furniture, to the beautiful bedroom in muted tones filled with homely touches, to the plate of fresh financiers in each room. Bonus points, too, for the Fragonard orange blossom toiletries – my absolute favourite. Although we were on a pretty tight schedule, we did make time to lie on the pool loungers for an hour or so in the late afternoon sun, reading our books and snoozing. The following morning, breakfast was laid on for us at a cosy table on the terrace overlooking the pool. While we enjoyed our meal, Florence explained to us that she andd her husband also bottle their own wines, under the label Château du Mourre du Tendre (literally “little hill of love”), widely regarded as some of the most traditional and age-worthy wines in the appellation. Florence very kindly gave us a bottle to take home, and it’s currently stashed in our “cellar”, biding its time till a special occasion comes along! If you are planning a trip to the southern Rhone valley, I would definitely recommend spending a couple of nights enjoying Florence’s Provencal hospitality.
GOOD TO KNOW:
The Vaucluse Tourist Board has more information on their website about Avignon as well as ideas for themed weekend breaks in the vicinity of the city. You can find out more about the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area on their dedicated tourism website and more information on the wines of the region from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers’ federation.
By plane: The nearest airport is Avignon. By train: Avignon station is the nearest large station, served by the TGV Méditerranée.
Restaurant La Table de Sorgues
12 Avenue du 19 Mars 1962
Tél. 04 90 39 11 02
DISCLOSURE: I visited Restaurant Alonso and the Mourre de Tendre B&B as part of a self-drive trip that was partially funded by the Vaucluse Tourist Board – both my meals and accommodation were paid for by the tourist board. I received no remuneration for the trip other than food, wine and accommodation and all opinions are my own
Other posts in my Vaucluse series include:
- Visiting the Vaucluse: Coustellet farmer’s market
- A truffle lunch at La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, Menerbes
- Conservatoire des Ocres and Silvain nougat makers
- A tasting menu at Restaurant Edouard Loubet @ Bastide de Capelongue
- A cooking day at Bastide de Capelongue
- A cherry-themed dinner at Chateau de Mazan
- A cycle tour of the Terraventoux vineyards
- A wine blending workshop at Maison Lavau