What do you say if you’re invited to join a family vacation, but it’s not your family? Well, if it’s your partner in wine’s family – and it’s in a part of France you’ve never been to before – you say yes Helen! I’ve recently returned from a glorious week in the Ardèche, in the Rhône-Alps region of France. While I hesitate to spill the beans about this still-relatively-undiscovered area of France and its overwhelming natural beauty, charming ancient villages, astounding prehistoric caves and superb local food and wine, I also feel I owe it to the loyal Sippity Suppers out there to offer a little hint on what the Ardèche has to offer.
First off, Helen booked a magnificent complex of three stone-walled houses overlooking a heavily wooded valley with a view to the medieval hilltop village of Montreal. Not a bad start. If you can tear yourself away from reading and rosé (R&R) by the pool, there are plenty of things to do in the Ardèche. The (medieval) town of Largentière is only a twenty-minute walk down the road – offering cafés, croissants, pain au chocolate, baguettes, charcuterie, crêpes, local wines, patriotic statues, Nôtre-Dame-des-Pommiers (a thirteenth-century church), winding cobblestone streets, precarious stone stairways and several bars and shops to explore.
Hop in the car and an hour or so later you can find yourself canoeing along the Ardèche River toward (and under) the Vallon Pont d’Arc, an imposing natural stone bridge. This spot is popular with tourists, mostly French and of course a few Germans, and is on the route to several spectacular caves, or grottes. We toured the ancient (and sadly dying) Grotte de St. Marcel with its lone Paleolithic painting, naturally formed rimstone pools and cathedral-like chambers. We continued on to a recreation of the Grotte Chauvet. The “real” 36,000-year-old cave was discovered in 1994 and authorities wisely closed it to visitors to protect its treasures: live stalactites and stalagmites, 300 paintings of rhinoceroses, lions, bears, owls, mammoths, a herd of horses and an artistic array of handprints. Check out the Werner Herzog documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and be amazed.
Last but definitely not least, we went wine tasting. We motored over to Tain-l’Hermitage in a different corner of the Ardèche to sample the artistry of M. Chapoutier. We were treated to a personal tour of the biodynamic vineyards by the personable David, then took a short stroll to the tasting room. Helen had met well-regarded winemaker Michel Chapoutier some years back in L.A., so we were given the royal treatment.
We began by tasting the “Prestige” collection, four whites then four reds. Chapoutier is known for producing single-varietal wines, even in areas that usually produce blends. For example, 13 varietals can be used in a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but Chapoutier only uses Grenache. Hence the first two wines we tasted were 100% Marsanne, with the luscious Lieu-dit Hongrie from Saint-Péray as the standout. I quite liked the intense vivacity of the 100% Viognier Condrieu Invitare that followed– apricot, nectarine, nutmeg and top notes of Good Earth tea with orange zest– so I bought a bottle to share with the family back at the villa.
My mind was blown with the ninth and tenth wines. These were from the “Fac&Spera” collection. I saw David consulting with one of his colleagues before offering us a soupçon of the last remaining bottle of 2012 Les Greffieux rouge: a glorious, generous, unbelievably round and rich (yet balanced) dark fruit elixir. Or as Helen said, “it’s like drinking part of your soul.” Finally, the “Rolls Royce” of Ermitage, Le Pavillon. I was beyond taking notes at that point, so you’ll just have to trust me that it was a singular experience.
So be nice to your friends! You never know when you’ll end up in a new family in a hitherto unknown part of the world like the Ardèche. KEN