What’s it really like to take a wine and food trip with Wine Lovers Travel?

Have you ever wondered what it’s really like to embark on a wine and food trip with Wine Lovers Travel? We strive to provide accurate descriptions of our tours, showcasing the incredible places you’ll visit, the delightful wines you’ll savor, and the unforgettable experiences you’ll have. But let’s dive deeper into the heart of our journeys and discover the true essence of these extraordinary adventures. Join me as I recount my recent escapade through the Rhône Valley wine region with Caliza Winery, an experience that exceeded all expectations.

I just returned from back-to-back trips escorting Caliza Winery in France through the Rhône wine regions. This was followed by a week in Spain with Harmony Cellars exploring the Costa del Sol from Seville to Malaga.  These were very different trips and outstanding times—even better than our promotional descriptions. 

In this blog, I’ll tell you about the Caliza trip to the Rhône and will publish a follow-up on Spain.

Exploring the Rhône Wine Regions

Our Caliza group was 20 very serious wine aficionados, all of them anxious to visit as many great wineries as possible.  They wanted to visit the big boys as well as discover the hidden gems, and we delivered.

We began in Lyon, which is at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, and a center point of some of France’s greatest wine regions.  With only a week, we had to leave behind the Saône as it flows through Burgundy (plus near Champagne and Chablis) and focus on heading downstream along the Rhône.

Immersed in Lyon’s Rich Culinary Heritage

Staying at the iconic Hotel Dieu, a former charity hospital and palace and now an Intercontinental Hotel, our welcome dinner was at the famous Le Nord.  Famous because it was founded by Paul Bocuse, Lyon’s native son and one of the founders of modern French cuisine. Feasting on a menu that started with warm pistachio sausage on a lightly dressed salad of baby greens, followed by quenelles, a fish “dumpling” that is one of Lyon’s most beloved dishes and covered in lobster sauce.  Dessert was a deep chocolate tarte with crème anglaise and whipped cream.  Our wine pairings were perfect and a preview of the days to come—a Croze Hermitage from Laurent Combier and a Viognier from M. Chapoutier.

M. Chapoutier Winery - Rhone Valley

Journeying to Prominent and Hidden Wineries in the Rhône Wine Valley

The next day we headed south to Ampuis for a private tasting and tour at E. Guigal, the biggest name we visited.  It’s a balance taking my groups to the boutiques as well as the known wineries, but no trip to the northern Rhône Wine valley would be complete without Guigal.  Given our connections, we tasted both their more current releases, such as wines from Condrieu, Hermitage and Côte-Rotie, and their main attraction, affectionately known as LaLa!  These wines retail for hundreds of dollars, and they generously poured their 2016 La Landonne, one of the three LaLa’s (the others being La Turque and La Mouline).  While at Guigal, we were also treated to a tour of the gorgeous grounds and their wine museum, which houses ancient wine-making relics and even a copper still.

All this wine gave everyone an appetite, so we made the brief drive to the charming town of Tain L’Hermitage and a wine-paired meal at our favorite place Bistrot de Serine.  Here we enjoyed prosciutto-filled artichokes and seafood risotto, with wines from François Villard from Saint-Peray and a Condrieu produced by Lafoy. 

Even though we had a luscious chocolate and pistachio and chocolate confection accompanied by a poire granite pear wine by Eric Bordelet, you cannot go to Tain L’Hermitage and not visit its famous chocolate shop Valrhona. The group acted like kids in a candy store buying up everything from candies to baking chocolate to cocoa mix.

Discovering Hidden Gems and Unique Experiences in the Rhône Wine Valley

The next stop in Tain was Yves Cuilleron, a true hidden gem where the 4th generation, 23-year-old Edgar, is the current winemaker.  Here we tasted a robust sampling of their various wines including Digue, a white Saint-Joseph and Labaya, a Condrieu.  The final winery of the day was another boutique producer Christophe Pichon, whose Promesse and Tess both from Côte-Rotie were the standouts.

After a free evening back in Lyon, we headed south again the next day to one of the more unusual wineries we visited, Domain Du Tunnel, the passion project of winemaker Stephan Robert, located near Saint-Péray in the Cornas AOC.  Named after the old train tunnel which is now used for storing the wine at the perfect temperature, Le Tunnel turned out to be a group favorite.  First, we were given a walk through the vineyards, where we got to see their unique method of managing the growth of the vines by using straw “tie-bands” to guide the vines up evenly spaced stakes in the ground.  Then we descended a spiral staircase to the production facility, where everything is done by hand down to the post-it notes attached to each barrel showing the changes in content during the aging process. 

Domaine Du Tunnel - Rhone Valley Wines

We tasted all of the current releases, ranging from white to rosé to vin noir (black wine) and a very special 2011 Cornas that Stephan poured just for us.

Lunch was back in Tain at Les Mangevins, a jewel box of a restaurant you would never find unless you were with someone in the know.  Hidden in an alleyway, this restaurant creates amazing food and wine pairings, all the more remarkable because it’s run by only two people.  The wife, originally from Japan, is the chef and her husband is the sommelier.  Each dish was as delicious as it was beautiful.  An amuse-bouche of avocado spread on homemade bread followed by a starter of Gravlax with pea shoots and mignonette sauce served with a Crozes-Hermitage from Domaine Vendome.  The main was a perfectly cooked veal medallion accompanied by a Saint Joseph from Coursodon.  Dessert was simple—sweet strawberries sprinkled with Valrhona chocolate bits.  The real dessert star was a glass of VDN—which stands for Very Delicious Nectar!  Seriously.  Not quite a classic dessert wine, but definitely with a tinge of sweetness, this was from David Reynaud.

Le Mangevins Restaurant

You’d think we’d be ready for a nap and return to Lyon, but we had more wineries to visit.  Domaine de Combier is a tiny producer of exquisite wines.  No fancy facility, just a production room where our tasting glasses were set up on cases ready for shipment.  Winemaker Laurent Combier was bottling, so he was literally printing labels and packing bottles as our sommelier-guide ran the tasting of his interpretation of northern Rhône whites and reds.  Then back to Lyon for one last night before moving on to the South.

Uncovering Lyon’s Rich History and Culture

However, you can’t stay in Lyon and not at least take an overview tour, so that’s what we did before leaving.  Heading to the top of Fourvière, the highest point in Lyon, our private guide shared a brief history of Lyon and gave us time to go inside the majestic basilica, with its ornate architecture, and most dazzling the intricate mosaics embedded with gold tiles.  Downhill we walked the main streets of the old town, where we walked through a traboule, one of the many secret passageways dating back from the 4th century and now occupied by apartments.  Before leaving the old town, we stopped at one of the last remaining silk printing shops.  Silk was a major industry in Lyon, and where silk screening was invented.

Our final stop before departing was a visit to Les Halles Paul Bocuse, the native son of Lyon who became the chef who brought French food to the world.  Although hardly the largest food hall/market in Europe, this is probably the most elegant with vendors selling everything from the freshest oysters to foie gras to the best French pastries and bread.  Our guide took us to vendors providing tastes of quenelles, cheeses and charcuterie and the famous Lyon pralines made with almonds candied in pink sugar.

Definitely a good time for a nap, we rode for about 3 hours to the Pont du Gard, the 2,000-year-old aqueduct built by the Romans to provide fresh water to the ancient city of Nîmes.  What makes this so remarkable is how massive and tall it is, some 160L feet high, and yet it was built long before any modern engineering knowledge existed.  Our private guide explained how the Romans were able to hoist up the stones, showing us a drawing of the “crane” they built, and also how they constructed the arches. We had the experience of walking through the upper-level channel where the water flowed, an experience which required special arrangements by Wine Lovers Travel.

Journeying through the Southern Rhône Wine Valley Region

The day ended in Avignon, a lovely walled city in Provence, and it was our base for visiting some of the best wineries of the Southern Rhône. 

The next day we started with the wonderful Domaine de la Mordorée, a personal favorite that not only produces Rhône wines but also wines from the lesser-known Tavel and Lirac AOC’s, both just to the west of their more famous cousin Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We tasted all 3, and as much as I love Châteauneuf-du-Pape, particularly those heavy on Mourvèdre, I really enjoyed the smooth drinkability of Lirac.  Following our private tasting, we walked up the road to a most charming restaurant called La Courtille, where we feasted at long tables set in a blooming garden, just like in a movie! 

Kelly McCauliffe - Sommerlier Guide - Rhone Valley Wine Trip

We were having such a fun time that we were very late for our next appointment at La Font du Loup, so they packed up wines for us to take back to Avignon to do our own tasting led by our sommelier-guide.  That turned out to be a great experience because we sat in the courtyard of our hotel, the Hotel d’Europe, and due a leisurely tasting without the time pressure of more appointments. 

But first, we had one more winery visit, to Domaine de Beaurenard, a well-loved Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer.  Most interesting was a display of the 15 (or 18 depending on whether you count red and white versions of the same grape as one or two) grapes that are permitted to be blended into Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Each of the wines we tasted demonstrated how different the wines can taste from one appellation because the winemaker has such broad discretion regarding which grapes are used and how they are blended.

Following all that wine, we needed a little culture, and because the next day was Sunday when most wineries are closed, we used the time to visit some of the area’s charming villages.  First was L’Isle sur la Sorgue, which is famous for its antique market and on Sundays, its general market of food, produce, crafts and anything else you can imagine.  Next was the hilltop town of Gordes with its amazing vistas and medieval architecture.  Last was Roussillon, built into the ochre cliffs, which are stunning shades of red and gold.

From Châteauneuf-du-Pape to Cultural Gems in the Rhône Wine Valley

Our final day was in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with our first stop being Domaine de la Janasse.  Another of my favorites, this wine can be found in the US, but it was a treat to visit the winery.  We toured the production facility, where we also did our tasting.  What was most interesting was how much the terroire, the soil, impacts the taste of the wine.  An example was tasting two 100% Grenache wines.  Chaupin grapes are grown in sandy soil, making the wine high in acidity with soft tannins.  Vieilles Vignes (which means old vines) is grown in soil covered by gallets , the round cobblestones which keep heat in the soil and make the wine less acidic, though equally delicious. 

Our last lunch was at Côteaux et Fourchettes (knives and forks), a delightful restaurant in Carianne, in the Gigondas region.  An amazing meal that included a salmon mouse appetizer followed by braised baby lamb and accompanied by regional wines from Camin Larredya, an Ammenite Vouvray and a Domaine Saint Amant Grangeneuve from nearby Beaumes de Venise.

After lunch was a tasting at Domaine des Bosquets in Gigondas, where Julian Bréchet is the winemaker.  We had to trek up a steep hill to reach the winery, but after such a sumptuous lunch, a little calorie-burning was welcome.  Although Bosquets winegrowing history dates back to the 1300s, winemaker Bréchet started his journey there in 2006.    Unlike many of the other wineries in the regions which produce blends, Bosquets tends to make pure varietals, such as 100% Grenache, Mourvèdre or Syrah.  Like Janasse, they grow their grapes in different soils, so the Mourvèdre grown in sandy soil tastes much different than the one grown in limestone.

Norwegian Winemaking and Clos de T

The final winery of our journey may have been the most unusual because the winemaker isn’t even French.  Norwegian Evan Bakke learned winemaking in California under the tutelage of Helen Turley, then moved to France and married a French woman.  His Clos de T is in Ventoux, and is grown in Triassic soil, giving the winery its name.  Mostly Grenache-driven, Evan’s wines are smooth and very drinkable, even the newer vintages.

Thoroughly sated with wine and food, Clos de T marked the end of the trip.  This was no ordinary wine trip in France and was definitely designed for travelers who are serious about their wine.  Based on comments along the way and post-trip, we delivered exactly what this group expected to do. They are already talking about their next journey to another wine region using a similar type of itinerary.

Gail Sherman in the Rhone Valley

Was this a typical Wine Lovers Travel trip?  The answer is there is no typical trip.  Every trip is developed to meet the wants and expectations of our winery hosts and their club members.  The common element is that we offer trips that give you access to places, experiences and people you wouldn’t find on your own.