Think back to the last wine tour you took. If you’re like us, you probably stopped at a handful of wineries, enjoyed a few complimentary (or not) slurps of wine, talked to a more or less knowledgeable wine server, and left with a bottle or two for your cellar. Someone in the party no doubt was unable to enjoy the tour as much as the others, blood alcohol and driving being incompatible partners.
Lorne decided to circumvent these problems before we left Canada by booking us a full day tour of Rhone wineries with Wine Safari , a one-man business featuring the talents of Mike Rijken, whose skills as a chef, wine importer, and luxury hotel food and beverage manager have taken him around Europe. After he picked us up at our apartment and loaded us into his van, we discovered to our delight that we were his only clients that day and would receive a private tour. Cool.
As we drove along a country road with vineyards on either side, our wine education began. Mike filled us up with information about the history of wine in France, including the industry’s geological, meteorological, cultural, and religious facets. Our first stop was at the ruins of the 12th century summer house that earned Chateauneuf du Pape its name. We marvelled in spectacular views of the Rhone Valley, and heard stories that indicated the Popes who resided in the chateau were not only interested in wine as a sacramental beverage.
A few miles up the road, Mike pulled over and invited us to tramp with him into a rocky vineyard. Apparently, vines only thrive in the least fertile soil, so the presence of rocks and sand are a necessity for their growth. Not only that, but the stones absorb heat during the day and reflect it back at night so the ripening process continues under the stars
Each vine was only about three feet tall, kept intentionally dwarf-like to avoid being destroyed by the Mistral winds that can sweep down from the north at any time of year and blow a crop to pieces in a matter of hours. In spite of this height precaution, 50% of this year’s Chateauneuf du Pape grapes could not be harvested, since an uncommonly cold spring brought extensive frost and hail damage.
Just up the road, we pulled into Domaine Le Pointu for our first winery tour. The owner greeted Mike with a hearty handshake and went back to work, trusting Mike to show us around, explain the operation, and help us sample the product. The owner’s 7-year-old son was dating unassembled wine boxes, while his 5-year-old brother received tutoring in the art from his father (“a little smaller, Mathieu”). After finding out more about the various steps of wine making, we sat in the warehouse among gigantic palettes of wine bottles and began sampling. Mike uncorked bottle after bottle. Some he recommended for nights when “John and Mary are coming up the driveway, and you throw a pizza in the oven, remembering how much they eat and drink.” Other bottles he advised us to drink over dinners “when it’s just the two of you, with a nice piece of salmon or some scallops.” Even though neither of us was driving, we realized we had better learn how to sip and swallow only occasionally, while swishing and spitting more often.
After lunch in the courtyard of an out-of-nowhere country restaurant, Mike reappeared for the afternoon portion of our tour. We visited Domaine les Goubert, a father-daughter operation in Gigondas, another renowned winemaking region. It’s interesting to note that wineries in France are known by their domain name, or region, and not by the novelty-style monikers so common among North American and Australian winemakers. Not only that, but the grape varieties are seldom listed on the bottle. The thinking here is that the grape “expresses” the soil, climate, and geography of the domain, rather carrying its own generic importance.
At Domaine Les Goubert, the daughter leaves us to our own discoveries soon after we arrive. We appreciate the coolness of the basement operations tour, then go upstairs for tasting. We agonize that we are only allowed to bring two bottles each into Canada, but we finally make some selections and climb back into the van.
On the way home to Caromb, Mike tells us that in his “off season” he shares his knowledge of Rhone wines with students in hotel schools across Holland, Germany, and Switzerland. Lucky students, I think, and feel fortunate that we’ve had the opportunity to benefit from a little of Mike’s vast understanding of wine and a lot of his passion.