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A little more than a year ago, I was invited by Crystal Cruises to host a wine-tasting group on the Crystal Serenity cruising the Mediterranean. Our itinerary featured sailing from Marseilles to Barcelona with stops in Italy, France and Spain along the way. My wife, Barbara, and I thought a “pre-stop” in Avignon — the gateway to the Southern Rhone — would be a great addition.

When our invitations went out, we quickly booked 26 friends for the Avignon portion of the trip and an additional 30 wine, food and travel lovers joined us on the Crystal leg of what was to become a memorable adventure.

While on board the Crystal Serenity, I conducted two wine tasting seminars, a five-course wine pairing dinner and a day trip to Corsica’s southern growing region of Ajaccio with wine pairing lunch centered around local selections. I plan to cover details about the cruise in a couple weeks but for now, I’ll focus on the special experiences we all shared in Avignon.

The Southern Rhone is a region rich in history and bound by a common passion for exceptional wine, food and hospitality. During our three-day visit, we explored the wide variety of excellent vinous and culinary options available while meeting a host of people keenly committed to sharing their unique spirit — we couldn’t have felt more welcome.

We stayed at the historic Hôtel Le Prieuré Baumanière just across the river from Avignon in the picturesque Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. From there, we ventured to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas for in-depth tours and tastings at Château de Beaucastel and Château de St.-Cosme. Both heralded châteaux for their wines and history. Each day, I also planned multi-course wine pairing lunches in and around the magnificent town of Gigondas and dinners in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

Upon arriving at the hotel , we enjoyed a welcome reception on the hotel’s beautiful patio with wines from the Côtes-du-Rhône Villages complemented by an hors d’oeuvres section prepared by the chef of Le Prieuré’s Michelin starred restaurant.

The reception was followed by a five-course dinner at Bistro Moulin-Maison Bronzine that began with an introductory olive oil tasting at their historic in-house olive mill. Dinner continued the Côtes-du-Rhône Villages theme with selections paired to each course from rosé to a complex blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah from Jean Alesi and finishing with a most intriguing Liquor d’Olive from the Bistro Moulin family’s production.

Our first full day took us to neighboring Châteauneuf du Pape for a private tour of the grounds, cellar and production areas along with an in-depth tasting at the region’s most highly acclaimed Château du Beauscastel. Here, the vineyards date back to 1792 and have been under the Perrin family ownership since the early 20th century.

We were treated to current, library and upcoming releases of their most prized wines. 2017 Beauscastel Blanc (scheduled for release next spring) began the tasting followed by the very rare RVV Cuvée (100 percent Roussanne-Vielles Vignes) and Coudoulet from Beaucastel’s vineyards across the road and outside the Châteauneuf border in Côtes-du-Rhône Villages.

These spectacular wines preceded an introduction to the Château’s highly acclaimed reds that are blends of all 13 (both red and white) permitted varietals within the appellation. We also tasted the highly anticipated 2016 that sits on top of virtually every critic’s chart. Then, to demonstrate how the rouge gracefully ages, we sampled the 2009 and 2000 for a rare perspective and a true highlight of our visit.

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Lunch followed in neighboring Gigondas at the Perrin family’s most prestigious L’Oustalet. Here, our multi-course lunch featured all local fare prepared by the talented Chef Laurent Deconinck with pairings to the wines of Châteauneuf, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras. Each course was as beautiful to look at as it was to savor.

After an intriguing amuse-bouche, we enjoyed the critically acclaimed 2016 Château Beaucastel Blanc alongside an enticing rouget. An incredible ravioli of cepes took the descriptor of “ravioli” to another level. The main course of lamb was prepared in the tradition of Provence and lent the perfect pairing to the Châteauneuf Rouge from Domaine de la Barroche, which was topped off by a cheese course and delightful Bertrand Stehelin Blanc.

Dinner that night was at Le Jardins de la Livree, a charming 14th-century home and gardens just a short walk from our hotel. Our five-course dinner featured the delectable cuisine of chef/owner Pierre Grangeon with wines from St. Joseph to Baumes de Venise, along with two selections from the famed Château La Nerthe from Chateauneuf.

On Day 2, we returned to Gigondas for a special visit to Château de St.-Cosme and their highly sought-after wines of the area. Following an exhilarating tour of the château (sections dating back to the 2nd century), the gravely hillside property and narrow chambers of the ancient main building, we gathered in the oldest section of the cellar and were enthralled hearing more of St.-Cosme’s glorious history while sampling seven highly rated and collectible wines.

We began our vinous adventure with St.-Cosme Côte Rôtie from the north followed by their most popular Gigondas appellation selection from the extraordinary 2016 vintage. And then the surprises kept coming with all three 2016 single vineyard offerings—Le Claux, Homas Fides and Le Poste—showing their individual character and charismatic appeal. A look back at the 2007 Valbella was followed with bright Condrieu lending a finishing touch to an exceptional visit.

Our lunch at the acclaimed Côteaux et Fourchettes in Gigondas met with rave reviews from all as two wines from several lesser known surrounding areas of the Southern Rhone were perfectly paired with each course. The exceptional artistry of Chef Cyril Glemot was evident in each dish from start to finish beginning with an exciting cold soup of tomato and beef to an indescribable crunchy praline and creamy chocolate Guanaja.

Our farewell dinner at Le Prieuré was an epicurean delight expertly orchestrated by General Manager Alexandre Favier, Sommelier Laurent Davin and Chef Marc Fontanne. We explored wines from across the Rhone and began with a surprisingly delightful sparkling (pétillant) Gamay and ended with a stellar Muscat de Beaume de Venise from Enchanteurs.

Each course in between was paired with two wines from different Rhone appellations to demonstrate not only the beauty of the dish but also the diversity of the wines. The Châteauneuf Blanc and Hermitage Blanc for the Sea Bream, Châteauneuf Rouge and Gigandos for the Hare Ravoli along with Côte Rôti and Cornas for the beef main course were all terrific and beautifully framed Chef Marc’s excellent talent.

The iconic wines from across the Rhone were a joy to explore, the cuisine was a delight to savor and the many people we met will remain in our hearts and minds forever. More to come in a couple weeks on some equally enchanting experiences aboard the Crystal Serenity.

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Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at napavalleyregister.com/wine-exchange or e-mail me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.

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