French 101: Vin means wine and Balades means – literally- walks, but really it means hikes. So what better title for this blog?
After all, we are VinoHikers and, as the cover photo suggests, Beaujolais is replete with balades. But with the opportunity to experience this beautiful countryside and experience some wonderful wines – wines, that seem to have been developed solely for the purpose of hiking – come some challenges.
Challenge #1: Finding and then getting around properly in this world famous wine region. I mention world famous because you would think that the area would be awash with filled tourist’s buses and tourist shops occupying a significant portion of the villages. But, not so the case. Therefore, a car is a must.
Countryside means exactly that; vineyards surrounding small villages with only the occasional large city breaking the serene setting. So don’t expect to be able to adequately experience France’s wine regions without a car. Car rentals are inexpensive as long as you don’t take the rental agency’s insurance which will double the daily price of the car. Check with your credit card issuer and your US car insurer, as many cover car rentals while traveling. Make sure you have proof of that coverage with you. We managed to keep our transportation expense to under $20US per day, including fuel. But remember, small is better when it comes to navigating the small village streets.
Challenge #2: Now that the mode of transportation is set, one must figure out where to go and in what order. We relied heavily on our traveling companion, the grand lady of navigation, the ever present eye in the sky; our dear friend, The Google Bitch. She could find roads so narrow that we had to fold in the mirrors to prevent them from being ripped off the car. There were also times that I swore she was leading us to the edge of the world, to be swallowed up by demons in the abyss. But, I think that sometimes she just wants to toy with us (she has a great, albeit sick, sense of humor), to see how trusting we are of her skills, because when things got dicey, she would always find an alternate route. Trust is a must and as long as you keep her properly juiced and supply her with a healthy serving of data, she will steer you to some heavenly destinations.
The final challenge (#3) is lodging. After all you don’t want to sleep in the car, do you? Remember, I said that we’d be in the
countryside. Marriott, Hilton, et al, don’t build big fancy hotels in the countryside, so what to do? We found that Airbnb worked well in this part of the world. The bonus was that this put us in the heart of the quaint communities; the very places that we really wanted to explore and learn about. Things like local markets and boulangeries, butchers, simple daily life, etc. Our tip when using Airbnb is to read the reviews and make sure that there are plenty of them.
The logistics taken care of, let’s get on with the story at hand, the Beaulolais wine region. As you may recall from Carrie’s last post, we had an incredible week exploring the Southern Cotes Du Rhone region, but it was time to move on. Our plan was to stay in the small village of Millery, just 15km south of Lyon, France’s third largest city, which would require us to drive all of four hours up the Rhone Valley. As usual, we avoided the highways, putting our trust in the Google Bitch to navigate us through the maze of local thoroughfares which would take us through the heart of the valley and its many villages. We chose this leisurely route partly to enjoy the scenery and partly to find a syrah that we could enjoy with a nice vinohike lunch. Just as grenache is the predominant grape of the southern region, so goes syrah in the north. Some of the best syrah in the world, we heard.
Last Call for the Cotes Du Rhone – Oh the Syrahs and a Surprise
Lunch time found us near the village of Cornas. One of those places that we had read about, famous for their syrahs. Ahh… but lunch time in France! “Do we have a backup wine in case we can’t find an open store or winery?” I ask Carrie. You see, almost everything in France closes between noon and 3pm. Knowing this we’re always prepared with emergency imbibements. Smirking she replies with; “Of course, I’m no rookie.” So we strolled through the quaint little streets of Cornas, which appeared nearly deserted, until we stumbled upon a little boulangerie/ sandwich shop which was actually open. I asked the shopkeeper if he knew of a place we could find some of their famous syrah. “Mais certainement. marche dans cette rue, puis à droite. Cherchez le panneau pizza, puis tournez à gauche. Eh, voila! Vous trouverez Domaine Alain Voge.” I ask him if he thinks they will be open. He shruggs and says: “peut-être.”
Let’s give it a go, I say to Carrie, and a few minutes later we’re greeted at the winery door by a smiling and friendly gentleman eager to share some of his wines with us. As you might expect the wines were fabulous and after we purchased as much as we could carry, he asks us to wait a moment while he goes to the cellar. He returns with a bottle of sparkling wine made from Marsanne grapes in the Champagne style. While we’re sipping this nectar from the gods, he issues a challenge. “If you can find anyone anywhere else in the world doing this style of wine with this grape email me and let me know. I don’t believe that you will find it anywhere else.” To date we have not. How about any of you? Learn more at Alain Voge.
Millery – How the French do Suburbs
Obviously our vinohike lunch was a success and after a few more hours of driving we arrive in Millery. Perhaps the quaintest damn village in the world. Our Airbnb, on a narrow cobblestone street is across the street from from an elementary school, close to the only bar-restaurant, and near the local winery. If being able to experience real French society at its finest is on your list, this is a good place to start. What a great base camp to explore the Beaujolais region.
The City and Family Visit
But first Lyon must be explored, so we drove to a nearby light rail station, parked the car, and rode calmly and comfortably into Lyon.
No need to test my driving skills in a large city. As luck would have it my second cousin Mathias, his wife Channa, and new son Norah, live in Lyon. They were able to join us for dinner after our day of exploring Lyon, giving us ample time to share life and family stories. It was really nice to reconnect with my past. Thank you Mathias and family.
The Beaujolais Wine Region: AOC, Villages AOC, Crus? It’s All So Complicated
The French are really good at making food and wine really complicated. I think they figure if they make it difficult it gives it an
air of superiority, and, therefore, better than all others. So, Beaujolais takes some effort to understand. More than just the predominant grape, Gamay is very nearly the only grape grown in the area. The wine from this varietal is light, fruity and drinkable young. Very young as a matter of fact. I’m sure many of you have participated in the Beaujolais Nouveau experience, released for consumption after only a few weeks of fermentation on the third Thursday in November. But there’s much more to this varietal than just a quaffing wine, but here’s where it gets complicated.
Many much more knowledgeable people have written on this subject, so I won’t bore you here. Suffice it to say that there are 3 classifications, 30 villages that can add their name to the label, and 10 regions within the Cru Beaujolais AOC. These 10 regions produce the most complex and full bodied wines. If you’re hungry for more go to WWW.winefolly.com and search for Beaujolais.
Full Circle: The Reason We’re Here. Yes, The Countryside
Wine is meant to be a social affair, I believe. To be drunk with friends enjoying each others company, at events or with food, and of course, on a vinohike. And what better place than the rolling vineyard clad hills of Beaujolais, with a wine that just seems to have been made to enjoy the outdoors, in the sunshine, watching pillowy white clouds roll by.
The short 30 minute drive from Lyon puts you into the southern end of the 10 mile wide by 34 mile wide Beaujolais region. Stay north of the Nizerand River and visit the villages of Julienas, Moulin-a-vent, Fleurie, and Morgan for wonderful examples of this varietal accompanied by some of the most beautiful country you will ever see ( at least the ones covered with vineyards).
Our week in Lyon/ Millery and Beaujolais was one that I’ll remember forever. To visit family brought back wonderful memories of growing up in this beautiful country. The scenery, the food, the culture all beyond wonderful. And yes, the food here is awesome: Lyon is considered the gastronomic capital of France. And oh yes, the wine! Yes, the wine. More photos below.
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