Water levels on the river sometimes cause changes to the itinerary on a river cruise. For example, when we were in Porto, Portugal, in the spring of 2016 we heard the Viking River Cruise on the Douro River was transporting passengers entirely by bus because the river was flooding. Our Viking River Cruise was scheduled to leave the Rhône River at Lyon, cruise up the Saône River, and dock at Mâcon on day 7. Instead, the captain announced our ship would stay in Lyon because it might not make it under the bridges on the Saône due to high water levels.
While we missed views of the Saône from the ship and didn’t get to visit Mâcon, the accommodation seemed quite seamless to me. We would still travel by coach through the Beaujolais region for an included wine tasting at Le Château Pierreclos. The only difference was that a complimentary lunch would be provided for us at a restaurant afterward because we wouldn’t have time to travel back to the ship before our afternoon optional excursion to Cluny Abbey.
The scenes from the coach and the commentary offered by our guide made the longer bus ride totally worth it.
French wine is complicated and I certainly don’t know enough to be an expert but I now know more than I did before. At least I feel a little more comfortable looking at a French wine label. When buying wine in the U.S., the most important information on the label is the varietal or type of grape such as Syrah (my favorite), chardonnay, pinot noir, etc. In France, the varietal is usually not found on the label at all. Instead, the most important information is the Appellation d’Origine Controlée or AOC. Each region has rules and guidelines that determine whether the wine qualifies for AOC classification. The most well-known appellation and easiest example to explain is Champagne. In order to earn the AOC of Champagne, the wine must come from the region of Champagne. Anything else is just sparkling wine and can’t claim the name of Champagne. According to Wikipedia, there are currently over 300 appellations including Beaujolais, Chateauneuf du Papes, and Côtes du Rhone, to name just a few that we encountered on our river cruise in France.
If a wine doesn’t meet the rigorous standards for AOC, it’s either a table wine or a country wine (Vin de pays). I’m sure we drank some of these in France but truly they are good enough that we didn’t know the difference.
Driving through the Beaujolais region which is just 34 miles long, we saw lots of vineyards. Beaujolais is often thought of as a young light fruity red wine made from Gamay grapes best consumed immediately or soon after release which always occurs on the third Thursday of November. Actually, that is true of Beaujolais Nouveau which accounts for one-third of the wine produced but the AOC Beaujolais Villages and the top 10 Beaujolais Cru have a longer shelf life.
We were fortunate to have spotted two of the Beaujolais Cru vineyards. The Moulin-a-Vent, named after a local windmill, is considered the King of Beaujolais.
The other Beaujolais Cru vineyard we spotted was Juliénas, named for Julius Caesar, as the welcome mural indicates somewhat obviously.
We stopped first at the Rock of Solutré, close to the village of Solutré-Pouilly, located in the wine-producing area of Pouilly-Fuissé.
In the 1860’s, the discovery of thousands of horse and reindeer bones around the base of the rock resulted in a now discredited theory that 20,000 years ago Cro-magnon man herded the animals over the edge of the rock to their death. The presence of the bones remains an archeological mystery to this day.
Even more amazing than this archeological site was the incredible beauty of the surrounding vineyards among the rolling hills. I’m sure it was our good fortune to visit when the autumn color was at its peak. We arrived following the completion of harvest which depends on around 300,000 minimum wage pickers throughout France for about a two week period each year. In the Beaujolais region, all grapes must be picked by hand although that requirement varies in other regions.
Looking at the countryside one wouldn’t suspect the harvest in this area was one of the worst in 30 years due to terrible weather conditions including frost, heavy rains, hail, drought, and mildew. You can read more about the devastation here.
Back on the bus, we headed onward to our wine tasting but just up the road, we spied these animals on the loose; I just can’t tell you whether they were sheep or goats.
Chateau de Pierreclos is a restored medieval castle that offers wine tasting, a bed and breakfast, and a wedding venue. Prior to our tasting, we wandered around on a self-guided tour enjoying the grounds and the setting on a crisp autumn day with only a sprinkle or two of rain.
At our appointed time, we followed our group to the wine cellar where we enjoyed the wines included in our tasting.
Following our tasting, we were directed to a modern spacious shop where we perused and bought local products to take home with us. Then we boarded our coach again for transportation to the restaurant for lunch before our afternoon visit to Cluny Abbey. But that’s the subject of my next post so please join us next time.
Based on events from November 2016.