After completing our cycle around the villages near Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we drove a short distance to the large village of Beaumes-de-Venise, where we parked up at a free aire at a small winery. The Domaine Bouletin was currently being run by the fifth generation of the founding family, a real multi-generational affair with wine-making. We were all alone in the aire, fully supplied with free electricity and all necessary services, and we were able to pick up our usually elusive Orange wifi from inside Benny; all quite luxurious for us. It’s usually the simple, little things that make the experience so nice and restful, and with all our needs catered for we settled in for a few days.
We went for a short exploratory walk around the nearby village, locating the useful local shops, main square and church, before walking up and around the hilly historic centre. The route led past an historic fountain, then up to a terrace and an outdoor theatre seemingly built into the rock. The views from the top let us see right over the town and all the way down the valley and beyond. We later had a lovely wine tasting with the current owner, a little old lady who let us taste five or six different wines whilst chatting away to us in French. We bought a five litre box of our favourite red, and were advised that the wine would last for three months once opened; we very much doubted it.
The following morning was cold and windy, but we still had to cycle the tempting countryside. We first popped into town again to pick up a few provisions, before heading out on a long loop we had planned the night before. We headed out of the village on steep but empty roads, with a view over to Mont Ventoux, snowcapped and extremely dominant in the flatlands, standing tall on our left. We then dropped off the hill we were crossing to reach a canal, where we continued off-road along the canal tow-path. The canal was empty of water, overgrown and scruffy, so not quite as pretty as was hoped. The path was cut up and occasionally wet with mud, the outside bank lined with tall grasses that rustled in the wind as we passed. We visited several local villages, the highlight being the large medieval centre of Carpentras, and passed through many bare vineyards, with the occasional field of apple and persimmon trees breaking up the pattern; a lovely cycle.
Leaving our cosy and comfortably private spot in Beaumes-de-Venise we drove first to the beautiful village of Gigondas for a quick look, before proceeding to the nearby village of La Baume-de-Transit, where we parked up in the midst of a grove of olive trees, in the heart of the grounds of another winery. Again, we were the only visitors, and had a few hours of relaxing in the confines of the gardens, with a donkey and several sheep quiet in a pen behind us, before we approached the main farmhouse for our dégustation.
We were met by the son of the current owner, who unfortunately had an injured eye from a recent farming accident. We had a thorough tasting of many wines, before being offered a quick tour of the facilities and bottling plant. It was a small operation, with many of the repetitive tasks associated with bottling still being undertaken manually, which made it all the more personal and interesting. In our varied discussions, we mentioned not having tried truffles much before, so were gifted with two small truffles to try, and oddly also a free breathalyser kit for our future travels. It was another lovely visit, tour and a great overnight spot, so we happily purchased another five litre box of a fruity, spicy red we both enjoyed to see us through the coming weeks.
Via Valréas to Domaine de Lumian
From La Baume-de-Transit we moved on to the town of Valréas, were we parked on the side of the road near the tourist office and walked around the centre of town. It was a very busy town, with a huge amount of traffic and poorly parked cars littering every wide, tree-lined street. We walked around the rather scruffy medieval centre, where we found the obligatory church and small square, but little else of note. We passed large groups of school kids recently released from class, making quite the raucous escape. From here we moved on, stopping and leaving several possible dégustation domaines due to them either not being open or us not liking the initial impression of their available aire.
We finally drove to another large winery, again being the only visitor, where we felt a nice vibe and were happy to relax. We were again treated with all services and free electricity hook-up and a private picnic table. We were parked up near to several large wine storage vats that were either being replaced or had been moved outside for intensive cleaning. In their aire, we rustled up a fresh truffle omelette for lunch, to try out the local ingredients given to us the previous day. We enjoyed the fluffy eggs on our private picnic spot, feeling quite French and rather smug.
Later we had multiple tastings and an informative tour of their cave facilities. Definitely a larger scale operation from previous stops, there were many large stainless steel wine vats, all with very large diameter hose connections for moving wine around, complete with automated bottling and labelling machines. We found out that some of the top end wines are stored, aged and finished in flavour-intensifying oak barrels from the US. We passed through the bottling plant in a fog, as a misty air was obscuring the complex machinery due to it being spray-cleaned at the time. There was one guy hand fixing ‘wine gold award’ stickers on unfilled five litre boxes of wine, an accolade evidently earned after the boxes were manufactured. The Domaine used to have up to 2000 motorhomes over the annual season visiting their cave, but the numbers have dwindled in recent years as there are now so many more producers offering the same service to attract potential customers in. It was the original and still one of the very best.
Only a short drive away we parked up, again supplied with welcome free electricity, in a municipal parking aire near to the Mairie in the, well, not really a village, more the meagre crossroads, of Montbrison-sur-Lez.
We cancelled our initial plans to cycle due to blustery high winds, so instead we found a local walk through the vineyards and lavender fields with assistance from the helpful staff at the Mairie. The entire landscape was in muted pastel colours, looking like it had recently been lime-washed. The regimented rows of off-season lavender bushes were painted in a light sepia tone, quite different than their bright late spring appearance. The path was unmarked and proved difficult to follow with the poor map we had been given, so we kept getting lost and having to retrace our steps. We even had to cross fences on occasion to remove ourselves from fields where we shouldn’t have been, even if the map suggested we were on the correct route.
We reached a small chapel and, after a brief look around, lost the mapped path again. We decided to cut our losses and head back on a gravel path at the back of the chapel not shown on the map. This proved to be a very easy, neat and direct way, on a much more walkable stone path that many previous, and it led us perfectly back to where we parked up.
AYME TRUFFE, near Grignan
Early in the morning we move on, only another five miles south east, to a private business called AYME TRUFFE, a specialist truffle farm near the town of Grignan. We spoke briefly to the owner and received a printed truffle recipe sheet that could prove useful. Although they are not officially open this time of year except by appointment, they are still happy for us to stay in their grounds, and today we are the only visitors.
After a short look around we decided to go for a long cycle to explore the local villages, so got organised and headed out. We crossed a dried-up river bed as a shortcut and soon arrived at the medieval village of Grillon, where we looked around main square and impressive walls. We cycled up to the top of the impressive stone walls fortifying the village and enjoyed a wonderful view out across the valley floor. From here we continued into the rolling countryside, through vineyards and latent fields with soil recently turned and awaiting their next crop. There were many more lavender fields, set out in very neat rows, looking soft and grey under the dull, winter sky.
The next place we reached was the village of Richerenches, a truffle orientated village that had a lovely museum featuring Truffles and Wine accessed from within the Tourist Office. We read and learnt quite a lot about the horticulture of and specialist cuisine associated with truffles; a very interesting and informative stop. We bought some baguettes in a local shop, as it was nearing lunchtime and we didn’t want to be without any until the shops open again after 4pm. Outside, the sky suddenly had a portentous look, the wispy clouds hanging low with a dull, murky shine that suggested they were pregnant with snow.
Our next stop was Visan, another town built into the hillside with a church at the highest point. We cycled to the top through very narrow openings between buildings, where we had our snack lunch on a wooden bench before descending back to road level. A large bank of dark grey and menacing cloud was closing in fast, so instead of continuing our proposed longer loop, we searched out a shortcut and headed home fast, due north.
We raced along and made it home a lot quicker than when heading out, with a quick 36km completed, before we packed away our bikes in Benny’s garage. Less than a minute after closing the door behind us and setting our kettle to boil, the expected rains begin, slowly spitting at first, as we congratulate ourselves on avoiding a soaking. Then on the horizon we see another huge cloud bank, spotted black and approaching fast, fill up our windscreen. Within a few seconds we experience a massive drop of heavy, sharp hailstones, accompanied with almost simultaneous thunder and lightning. An opaque layer about an inch thick covered our skylights almost instantly, the angry roar of the thunder and the constant percussion of the hail made any conversation impossible inside our suddenly very vulnerable tin-can home.
We watched with awe and concern for about an hour as the clouds dumped their cargo on us. After the storm passed, we watched a truffle farm worker resume his work on a cultivated patch of land outside Benny. He selected small trees and planted them out, with them several years later to be transferred to their permanent place on the farm. Truffles are a fungus, similar to mushrooms, that grow in specific conditions under complex tree root systems. It can take 8-12 years for trees to reach a maturity that allows the truffles to fully develop their mycorrhizal networks within the root systems. The process of setting up a business to artificially farm and supply truffles, known in France as trufficulture, is currently given a tax exempt period of 15 years as an incentive. We were fascinated to watch the beginning of a new phase in a long, and financially very risky, process that will hopefully provide the residents of this region of France with fresh new, tasty truffles in future years.