Insider’s 6-Day Wine & Culinary Tour of Southern France & Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Your choice of 6 tour dates (both Sunday through Saturday)
TOUR #1 ~ April 19-25, 2020 ~ SOLD OUT
TOUR #2 ~ April 26-May 2, 2020 ~ SOLD OUT
TOUR #3 ~ May 3-9, 2020 ~ 8 SEATS AVAILABLE
TOUR #4 ~ May 10-16, 2020 ~ SOLD OUT
TOUR #5 ~ May 17-23, 2020 ~ SOLD OUT
TOUR #6 ~ May 24-30, 2020 ~ 1 SEAT AVAILABLE
All tours max out at 54 guests each as that's how many seats are on the bus.
$2,850 per person based on double occupancy
$350 single occupancy upcharge
Price includes all breakfasts, all lunches, all dinners (except Thursday night in Avignon), all beverages (except optional happy hours and a bottle of wine to share at Wednesday night’s dinner), six nights of hotel accommodations, all winery tours and tastings, all other tours listed below (Abbaye, salt marshes and oyster farm) and luxury bus transportation with an on-board restroom within France. Air, train and taxi fare is not included.
NOTE >>> If the euro to dollar exchange rate exceeds 1.15 at the time of the tour we reserve the right to adjust the price accordingly. (It’s currently trading in the 1.12-1.14 range as of June 2019.) This works out to $25 per person (+$3 per single occupancy) for every hundredth of a point above a 1.15 exchange rate. For example, if the exchange rate goes to 1.16, the new cost of the tour would be $2,850 + $25 = $2,875 per person based on double occupancy, and the single occupancy upcharge would increase by $3 from $350 to $353.
20% non-refundable initial deposit due upon making your reservation
40% non-refundable second deposit due 120 days before tour start date
40% non-refundable final payment due 75 days before tour start date
(Trip cancellation insurance options will be emailed to you when you RSVP.)
This tour involves lots of walking that at times will be quite steep and on rocky terrain or uneven cobblestone streets (especially in Carcassonne, Hospitalitas Vineyard, La Sauvageonne and Chateauneuf-du-Pape). If you are physically unable to walk up the equivalent of six (6) flights of stairs in less than five (5) minutes, please do not make a reservation for this tour.
Make sure your passport is valid for at least six (6) months past your return date.
Please SCROLL DOWN for the hour-by-hour itinerary below but here’s an overview of the highlights. This will be a comprehensive, week-long wine and culinary tour of Southern France including Perpignan, Tautavel, Carcassonne, Boutenac, Narbonne, Gruissan, Marseillan and St. Jean de la Blaquiere with the finale in Avignon and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The tour will start in Perpignan and end in Avignon. Perpignan is super easy to get to from Barcelona which is where I suspect 99% of you will start from. Simply take the high speed train (300 km/hr!) from Barcelona Sants direct to Perpignan. There are zero connections and it will take less than an hour and a half. Our hotel in Perpignan is located in a huge complex that also houses the train station so the hotel is only a three-minute walk away from the tracks and is completely under cover. Avignon is in the heart of the Rhone and the train station there is also walking distance from our hotels. I thought it would be an awesome place to end the tour as many of you will want to extend your stay in this region but it’s also super easy to catch a train back to Barcelona (or any other place in Europe for that matter) from here. Keep in mind that there are two train stations in Avignon: the regular one and the TGV one five minutes away which is where the high-speed trains are. If you’re taking a high-speed train, there are frequent connecting trains between the two stations or you can just take a taxi.
So here's the itinerary:
We'll meet in the dining room of Comfort Hotel in Perpignan where we’ll spend the night. (And yes, I will make arrangements for discounted group rates for those of you who want to come in a day early.) After a meet ‘n’ greet happy hour/orientation, we’ll walk as a group less than five minutes away to Restaurant Jean, a hidden bistro down a secluded alley in a lush garden setting behind imposing brick walls. They have an ancient vertical wood-fired grill and their specialty is, of course, anything cooked on it. We’ll sample an assortment of many different dishes all served family style off the grill along with lots of local wine. After dinner we’ll all walk back to the hotel for the night.
Our bus will pick everyone up at the hotel in the morning and we'll head east to Tautavel, an ancient wine-making village in the Roussillon region of southern France. We’ll start with a quick tasting of the local wines at the winemaking co-op in the center of town. As we leave, we’ll be greeted by the local “bandas” musicians playing drums and brass horns who will lead us on a ruckus “parade” through the village (wine glasses in hand, of course) to Le Petit Gris, a beautiful restaurant with a huge covered outdoor patio overlooking the village. We’ll have an amazing lunch there featuring the traditional local specialty of cargolade (escargots cooked over charcoal made from old Carignan vines) and paella served with lots of Tautavel wines.
After lunch we’ll head straight to the medieval walled city of Carcassonne about two hours away. But what a beautiful two hours it will be as we will take the scenic D117 route instead of the highway. The D117 is one of those fairy tale roads literally carved out of rock that winds its way through one of the most beautiful gorges in France. Some of the boulders along the way are the size of three-story buildings that have been surgically dynamited just enough to allow a bus to baaarely pass through. I can already hear the camera shutters clicking and folks gasping OMG.
I’ve purposely not scheduled another winery visit this afternoon to give everyone plenty of free time to explore Carcassonne on their own. While most folks only have the opportunity to visit the cobblestone alleys of this fortress during daylight hours, we're not only going to spend a relaxing afternoon and evening exploring the quaint shops and bars of those same alleys, but we're also going to spend the night there in our own private rooms hewn out of the original castle walls. (Yeah, I know, how cool is that ... but please don't expect it to be ADA compliant.) There will also be plenty of time for you to visit the old fortress and walk the tops of the surrounding walls which I highly recommend. (There is an entrance fee of about 10 euros for this.) That evening we'll walk the almost deserted streets (now that all of the tourists have left) to one of my favorite restaurants, Adelaide. I first discovered this non-pretentious, off-the-beaten-path restaurant after exhausting all of the usual tourist trap places, and what a find it was. Efficiently run, good service and creative takes on the centuries old cuisine of the region. After an obligatory Ricard aperitif (you will become addicted to Ricard by the end of the week) and appetizers, we'll enjoy the specialty of the region, cassoulet. Unlike the mass produced cassoulet typical of most of the city's restaurants, this one is actually made with love ... tender, juicy duck with crispy skin and perfectly cooked, soft yet not mushy white beans. Yum. A real find. (And for anyone wishing to dine in a Michelin star restaurant, you’re welcome to skip Adelaide and dine at La Barbacane restaurant which is right next to the cathedral and still within the city walls. Plan on about 150 euros per person.) After dinner we’ll walk back to the hotel ... with perhaps a slight detour to the bar at La Barbacane for a nightcap ...
After breakfast we’ll pack up and go to Villamajou winery in the village of Boutenac. This is one of Gerard Bertrand’s latest projects and is actually where he grew up as a child and where his father first started making wine. It’s also home to the famous La Forge vineyard (more on that later) which we’ll visit. The facility itself is an ancient co-op winery that is currently undergoing an extensive renovation. When I visited in May of 2019 it was about half done with completion scheduled for this summer so it will be completely finished by the time we get there. We’ll divide the group in half and one half will visit the vineyard while the other half visits the winery. Afterwards we’ll switch up and then all meet together again as one big group in a grassy area next to the La Forge vineyard for a tasting of the four wines produced there. The tasting will culminate with the current vintage of La Forge ... and on Wednesday you’ll get to taste some older vintages of La Forge from magnum so you can see how it evolves!
After the Villamajou visit we’ll head towards Narbonne to Abbaye de Fontfroide, a thousand year old monastery. We’ll tour this now-privately-owned and renovated facility with its maze of gardens, and then have a 4-course lunch paired with four of the wines produced by the Abbaye at their nearby winery. One of the folks from the winery will be there to give a brief narration about each of the wines. Those of you who enjoy our restaurant will absolutely love this lunch as their style is very similar to ours.
After a most satisfying lunch, we’ll head towards the Mediterranean Sea and check into L'Hospitalet, our home for the next two nights. Everyone will have a couple hours to check in, freshen up and relax or explore the grounds before we get back on the bus and head to Gruissan.
Gruissan is a quaint seaside village known for its salt production and great seafood. We’ll tour the salt marshes where you will learn how the salt is harvested and even pack your own souvenir bag to take home. You’ll never use regular table salt again! After the salt tour we’ll have an awesome seafood dinner at a restaurant right there overlooking the marshes. We’ll start with chilled oysters and shrimp followed by lots of cooked seafood served family style. And, of course, there will be plenty of local wine to wash it all down! After dinner we’ll head back to L’Hospitalet for the night.
After breakfast we’ll head about an hour north to the tiny seaside town of Marseillan. On the way there we’ll drive through Pinet where you’ll see the Picpoul vineyards that produce the Picpoul de Pinet wine the area is famous for. It’s one of the few white varietals that can stand up to the flavors of lemon and is also obviously a perfect pairing for the local seafood. Once in Marseillan, we’ll go way off the beaten path down a tiny road that goes straight to the coast to Tabrouriech Le Saint Barth. This is one of the most famous oyster farms in the entire Thau lagoon that is separated from the Mediterranean by only a very narrow strip of land. The water here is very unique because, while it is mostly sea water from the Mediterranean, several inland canals terminate here too, adding lots of fresh water to the mix. The result is a slightly less salty water that is perfect for harvesting oysters. The oysters are harvested off shore on ropes attached to motorized poles which raise and lower the oysters out of the water for a couple hours each day, thus simulating the effect of rising and waning tides. As a result, the oysters contract and expand during this process which exercises their muscle and makes for a much tastier oyster. We’ll visit the state-of-the-art plant where the oysters are cleaned, graded and processed, and then get on a boat to visit the farms off shore so you can see the oyster ropes up close. When we get back we’ll sample a couple different grades of oysters paired with some Picpoul de Pinet. After that we’ll head back to L’Hospitalet for the rest of the day and night for a fun series of meals, tours, treks and tastings!
Upon our return to L’Hospitalet we’ll have a simple picnic style lunch in their park with an assortment of wines. Then we’ll once again divide the group in half. One half will trek (about 10 minutes each way) to the namesake Hospitalitas Vineyard where we’ll see the 60-80 year old Mourvedre and Carignan vines that make up the Hospitalitas blend that we’ll obviously taste right there in the vineyard. The other half will get on the bus for the short ride down the hill for a quick tour of Cap Insula. Because Gerard Bertrand has so many estates scattered throughout southern France, each making their own wine on site, Cap Insula was built several years ago as a central facility for strictly blending and bottling. We’ll see the giant blending tanks, visit the state-of-the-art bottling line (8,000 bottles per hour) and do a quick tasting before returning back to L’Hospitalet in time for the groups to switch up. After everyone gets back from their second tour you’ll have about an hour or so to freshen up for dinner.
But first we’ve got that special La Forge tasting that I promised earlier! We’ll all meet in the barrel room behind the wine shop to taste three years (2007, 2010, 2012) of La Forge from magnums that have never left the winery and have been perfectly stored since release. Should be an amazing experience to see how this wine develops.
After that every couple is responsible to buy one bottle of wine to share with everyone at dinner that night. (We’ll pair up singles so you don’t get shortchanged!) This has always been a fun experience on past tours and this is definitely the place to do it since they have such a huge selection of very reasonably priced wines. There’s a short video that highlights the wines from the estates we’re not able to visit, plus we’ll have an informal tasting in the wine shop where you’ll be able to taste many of their other wines, so you should be able to familiarize yourselves with the many different wine options for dinner. They also have an impressive selection of older vintages in magnums and double magnums (and larger) so if you’re traveling with other couples, I highly encourage two couples to go in on a magnum of something older, four couples to go in on a double magnum, etc. (Pricing, by the way, even on the large format older vintages, is a fraction of what you would expect it to be, so be prepared to be pleasantly surprised at your wine bill!) It should make for a very entertaining dinner where you’ll be able to sample upwards of a dozen different wines and I suspect (if past experience holds true) that there will be lots of bottle swapping going around at dinner!
Speaking of dinner ... rather than doing a formal, Michelin-star style dinner (which is what they’re known for), we’re going to do something quite different. First, we’ll all meet on the patio just outside the restaurant for a standing pre-dinner happy hour with tray-passed appetizers and an assortment of whites and rosés. The chef will have a couple of outdoor grills fired up (fueled with old grape vine trunks of course) and will be preparing an incredible assortment of grilled vegetables and meats so you’ll be able to mingle with him and maybe learn a few grilling techniques if you’re interested. Then we’ll all go inside for an informal, yet very gourmet dinner paired with everyone’s shared wines. It should be a night to remember! As a side note, when I was there for recon in May 2019, I had their formal, multi-course dinner several times (and it truly was amazing) but my most memorable experience was when I somehow got invited to an employee’s-only dinner on a night the restaurant was closed. (I think they felt sorry for me because I was travelling alone!) They basically did exactly what I just described, down to the appetizers, shared wines and grill, and I thought to myself that anyone can contract with a restaurant for a fancy meal but how cool would it be to replicate that true southern France experience instead. When I floated the idea to the folks there, they were enthusiastically on board. So that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing and I’m confident that it will be one of everyone’s more memorable meals!
After breakfast we’ll pack up and say good-bye to L’Hospitalet and start heading towards Chateauneuf-du-Pape. En route we’ll make a detour to the tiny village of St. Jean de la Blaquiere where we’ll visit La Sauvageonne winery. Located high in the hills, La Sauvageonne makes just three premium blends, a white, a rosé and a red. We’ll hike to the top of the hill to a private estate to have an upscale picnic lunch on the grounds paired with the premium wines made here. But before lunch we'll have a very unique opportunity to taste unblended Grenache from two very dissimilar parcels. (This truly is a unique opportunity as our hosts will actually be taking barrel samples from the actual plots we're visiting before they all get blended together.) Anyway, the first stop will be in the lowland vineyards just below the estate where we'll taste Grenache grown among "garrigue," Mediterranean scrub consisting of plants like rosemary, lavender, olives and marjoram. I remember the first time almost thirty years ago that I heard the word garrigue used as a wine descriptor and had no idea what it meant. After walking through these wines and smelling the garrigue in the air and then tasting these aromatic, herbal flavors in the barrel sample they’ve pulled for you, you'll know exactly what it means! Next stop will be to taste the identical varietal but with a completely different flavor profile. As we head up the hill for lunch, we'll make a quick detour into a plot of some old vine Grenache where we'll taste a barrel sample from the almost century-old vines with their gnarled trunks almost a foot in diameter growing through soil-less ground that is basically 100% boulders. The garrigue flavors will be gone and replaced with decadently intense, complex, rich dark fruit flavors instead. It promises to be a fascinating study in terroir that very few folks will ever be able to experience firsthand. Then it'll be time to relax, have a simple yet gourmet picnic lunch, enjoy some great wines (including the blended versions from the two plots you've just visited) and soak in the spectacular views before heading to Avignon.
As I did on Monday when we went to Carcassonne, I’ve purposely not scheduled another winery visit this afternoon to give everyone plenty of free time to explore Avignon on their own. Like Carcassonne, where we'll be staying in Avignon is in the center of the ancient walled portion of the city. The bus will have to park just outside the walls and then it’s about a five-minute walk to get inside the city. No single hotel in the city can accommodate a group our size so we’re going to be in two hotels but they’re both close to each other (about a block apart) and they’re both owned by the same people and they’re both equally nice. It is incredibly difficult and complicated to book hotels for groups our size in small towns so I just need to prepare everyone that there is an outside chance that we may be moved to a hotel just outside the city wall. If that happens (but I think it is unlikely) it will be an upgraded hotel at no additional charge, but you’ll have to walk about ten minutes to get to the city center inside the walls.
Anyway, enough about logistics. After checking into your hotel, the entire rest of the day is free for you to do whatever you like. Avignon is an amazing city and I made sure that we will get here early enough for everyone to visit the Palais des Papes (Pope’s Palace) which is right next door to our hotels. Admission is about ten euros and I highly, highly recommend that you visit. After that grab a map from the front desk and explore the city. There’s one of those mini trains that leaves right in front of the palace on the hour that will take you through the city if you’d like to get a non-walking orientation; otherwise it’s small enough that you can just hoof it everywhere. This will be the only night of the tour that you’ll be on your own for dinner. There are over twenty restaurants (most with outdoor patio seating) within two blocks of the hotels. Or for those of you wanting a Michelin-star dining experience, there are now two Michelin star restaurants within two blocks of the hotels: Restaurant Christian Etienne and La Mirande. Anyway, enjoy yourselves and have a good time ... but don’t stay out too late because we’re going to Chateauneuf-du-Pape tomorrow!
After breakfast we’ll re-trace our steps from the day before to get through the wall to our bus waiting on the other side. Once on board we’ll head to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Our first stop will be at Chateau Gigognan, one of the larger producers on the outskirts of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the village of Sorgues. They are currently undergoing a large-scale renovation which should be done well in time for our tours. They’ve got an impressive fermentation cellar filled with unique giant concrete “tulip” fermenters (similar to the concrete egg fermenters you’ve probably already seen before only several times the size). We’ll visit their cellars so you can see those up close and then have a tasting.
Next, we’ll head to the actual village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The bus will drop us off at the very top of the hill right next to the famous castle ruins. We’ll have some time to explore those for a few minutes and then start walking down the steps leading to the center of town. About halfway down we’ll stop at Le Verger des Papes, a classic restaurant overlooking pretty much all of CdP and accessible only by those stairs. We’ll enjoy a traditional 3-course lunch there paired with some Rhone wines.
After lunch we’ll continue walking down the stairs (about 3-4 minutes) right into the center of the village. Scheduling tastings for a group our size is next to impossible in Cdp because most places are too small so I thought it would be fun to just turn everyone loose in the village so you can taste on your own. There are many tasting rooms and wineries within a two-block radius and most tastings and tours are free. I’ll point out the tourist office to everyone where you can stop in to get free maps and information. And if you’re tired of tasting wine, there are lots of sidewalk cafes when you can relax with an alternate beverage of your choice or you can go shopping in any number of the quaint shops. After about an hour and a half of free time in the village, we’ll all reconvene at the bottom of the hill where the bus will meet us and take us on the three-minute drive to Bouachon. Bouachon is a beautiful winery and one of the very few that can accommodate groups our size. They’ve got a spectacular barrel room where we’ll have a seated tasting including a unique chocolate pairing. After that we’ll get back on the bus and head back to Avignon.
After a couple hours of free time in Avignon to freshen up and/or do more exploring, we’ll meet at Restaurant Le Lutrin located on the ground floor of the Hotel Avignon right next door to our hotels. When you see the restaurant from the outside, you’ll probably be disappointed initially as it looks pretty much like any other run-of-the-mill restaurant with the typical outdoor patio seating area and unglamorous interior. But what you can’t see at first glance is their private medieval dining room hidden underground at the rear of the hotel. Complete with ancient stone floors and walls, rough-hewn timber ceilings and candles as the only light source, this is going to be the perfect venue for our finale dinner! We’ll put a bunch of tables together “last supper style” and serve lots of small tapas-style plates (including some of the best French onion soup and escargots I’ve ever had) plus lots of local wine. It should be a sophisticatedly informal yet absolutely delicious way to end an action-packed week in France!
The tour is officially over after breakfast Saturday morning but I suspect some of you will want to extend your stay here for another day or two. (And yes, I will make arrangements for discounted group hotel rates for those of you who want to stay longer.) Those of you who need to head back to Barcelona (or anyplace else in Europe) can easily walk to the Avignon train station about ten minutes away and make your connections there. (Make sure to read the opening paragraph about the two train stations in Avignon.) Options are unlimited at this point as you can pretty much take a train anywhere in Europe from Avignon ... and usually only in a few hours if it’s on a high-speed train. Whatever you do though, have fun! If commitments back home allow, I definitely recommend taking advantage of this opportunity to do some additional exploring.
Here's the hour by hour (subject to modification) itinerary.
Fly (or cruise) into Barcelona on your own any time you want as long as you get there in time to take the high-speed train from Barcelona Sants to Perpignon (1 hour 23 minute direct train). Comfort Hotel is located inside the train station compound in Perpignan about a three minute walk from the tracks.
06:00 PM meet in Comfort Hotel lobby bar for welcoming orientation
07:15 PM walk to Restaurant Jean for dinner
07:30 PM dinner at Restaurant Jean
09:30 PM walk back to the hotel for the night
07:30 AM breakfast included at Comfort Hotel
10:00 AM bus picks everyone up at Comfort Hotel
10:45 AM arr Tautavel for tasting at co-op, bandas parade, and lunch at Le Petite Gris
01:00 PM dep Tautavel
03:00 PM arr Carcassonne
03:30 PM check into Hotel de Donjon inside the walled city (free time in La Cite until dinner)
08:00 PM cassoulet dinner at Adelaide
09:30 PM walk back to hotel for the nigh
07:30 AM breakfast included at Hotel de Donjon
09:00 AM dep Carcassonne
10:00 AM arr Villamajou Winery in Boutenac for vineyard trek, tour and tasting
12:00 noon dep Villamajou
12:30 PM arr Abbaye de Fontfroide for winemaker lunch and tour
03:00 PM dep Abbaye de Fontfroide
03:30 PM arr L'Hospitalet in Narbonne Plage; check in (2 nights) and free time to freshen up
05:30 PM dep L’Hospitalet
06:00 PM arr Gruissan on the Mediterranean for salt marsh tour
07:00 PM seafood dinner at Cambuse du Saunier in Gruissan
08:30 PM dep Gruissan
09:00 PM arr L’Hospitalet for the night
07:30 AM breakfast included at L'Hospitalet
09:00 AM dep L'Hospitalet
10:00 AM arr Tabrouriech Le Saint Barth in Marseillan for oyster farm and boat tour
11:30 AM Tabrouriech Restaurant for oyster tasting w/ Picpoul de Pinet wine
12:00 PM dep Tabrouriech
01:00 PM arr L’Hospitalet
01:15 PM picnic lunch with Rosé in the park at L’Hospitalet
02:00 PM trek to Hospitalitas Vineyard with tasting (group 1) ~ Cap Insula winery tour (group 2)
03:30 PM trek to Hospitalitas Vineyard with tasting (group 2) ~ Cap Insula winery tour (group 1)
05:00 PM everyone back to L’Hospitalet (free time to freshen up)
06:30 PM La Forge 3-year (2007, 2010, 2012) tasting from magnum in the barrel room
07:00 PM additional time for tasting and buying wine to share at dinner
07:30 PM standing appetizers on patio with whites and rosés
08:00 PM grilled dinner with shared wines in L’Hospitalet restaurant
09:30 PM back to rooms for the night
07:30 AM breakfast included at L'Hospitalet
09:00 AM dep L'Hospitalet
10:15 PM arr La Sauvageonne winery in St Jean de la Blaquiere for vineyard trek, lunch and tasting
12:45 PM dep La Sauvageonne
02:45 PM arr Avignon
03:15 PM check into Mercure Hotels inside the walled city
03:30 PM free time in Avignon for the rest of the day; dinner on your own
09:30 PM walk back to hotels for the night
07:30 AM breakfast included at Mercure hotels
09:00 AM dep Avignon
09:30 AM arr Chateau Gigognan in Sorgues for tour & tasting
11:00 AM dep Chateau Gigognan
11:30 AM arr castle ruins in Chateauneuf-du-Pape
11:45 AM walk to Le Verger des Papes for lunch
01:30 PM finish lunch; free time in village to visit tasting rooms or explore
03:00 PM meet bus at bottom of the hill
03:05 PM arr Bouachon in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for tour & tasting
04:30 PM dep Bouachon
05:15 PM arr Avigon
05:30 PM walk to hotels
07:30 PM walk to dinner at Restaurant le Lutrin (Medieval Room)
09:30 PM walk back to hotels for the night
07:30 AM breakfast included at Mercure hotels (tour over)