Travel: River cruising through French wine country, Burgundy and Provence

I'm in Alain Ducasse's Parisian restaurant Allard, in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, tucking into a plate of escargot and discussing the wine list with friends. While one suggests a Louis Jadot​ from Beaune, I'm keen on a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. "But only if it's a Skalli​ 2007," I say. 

Now, before you shout "wine snob" let me explain – a week earlier I didn't know a Chateauneuf-du-Pape from a toadstool.

My foray into French wines began on the Cote d'Azur where I joined Avalon Waterways' Avalon Poetry II for an 11-day Burgundy and Provence cruise from Nice to Paris, a route that travels through four of France's premier wine regions – Provence, Rhone Valley, Beaujolais and Burgundy. 

Since my go-to technique for selecting French wines didn't extend beyond choosing a pretty label (or what was on sale at Dan Murphy's) I'd signed up for all the optional wine-focused excursions. Though the Burgundy and Provence trip isn't a dedicated wine cruise, there are enough options to allow passengers to create their own itinerary within the set itinerary.

By taking the slow route to Paris, my plan was to immerse myself in the history and heritage of these famous vineyards, to slip into the rhythm of afternoon siestas and sorbets and enjoy the countryside with its famed olive groves and lavender fields. But mostly I just wanted to be able to order a bottle of wine in a chic Paris restaurant without looking like a fool.

ARLES TO AVIGNON 

Arles arrives in a flame of yellow – a fireball sun, a van Gogh painting, a field of sunflowers glowing like sparklers – while Avignon is all Roman ruins and pampered popes. Not any popes, but that small group from the 14th century (1309-1377) who fled the turmoil of Rome to take up residence in Avignon. "But even once things settled down the popes were reluctant to go back," says our guide Miriam, leading our group on a tour of Avignon's Papal Palace.  "They'd developed a taste for the local wines." 

To learn more about these blessed grapes I join an optional tour to Chateauneuf-du-Pape (meaning "The Pope's new castle"), the nearby village where the popes idled away their summers. Today the ruined castle looks across the tops of 300 boutique vineyards, a corduroy quilt decorated with terracotta villas and laced with cypress trees. Gathered at long tables in the cavernous tasting room of Skalli winery's Pavillon des Vins we learn about terroir, and how the red river rocks from the last ice age give the characteristic flavour, and that to maintain AOC certification the vines must not be irrigated, supported by wire or harvested by machine. "Every year is a poker game," says our host, Benigne Barbier, " and 2007 was a winner." I'd already decided the same, setting back to the ship with a bottle of the 2007 ($49) under my arm. 

AVIGNON TO LYON 

From Avignon we cruise out of Peter Mayle's memoir A Year in Provence and straight into the northern Rhone with its wide valleys and steep granite hills. While wine pilgrims travel by plane, train and automobile to visit the fabled village of Tain-l'Hermitage, the birthplace of syrah, we simply glide alongside and dock against the opposite bank. 

After the included walking tour of the medieval city of Tournon, and a visit to the "Garden of Eden", a hillside garden that was once a retreat for Jesuit monks and Catholic nuns, I take a footbridge across the Rhone to the holiest of hills – the Hermitage. 

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With a viticultural history dating back to the Romans, this 120-hectare hillside is one of the wine world's most famous appellations. I'm out of luck for tastings, as most wineries require advance appointments, but I find a shop that offers sampling to serious customers. With my first sip of a Hermitage I taste the rocky earth, the red berries and complexity for which the region is known.  And finally I get it, the importance of terroir, and how it's not just the soil, but also the climate, elevation, rainfall, perhaps even the breeze, which goes into making a wine unique. "Like childhood," the shopkeeper tells me. "It's all the external factors that create the final product."

During our afternoon sail to Vienne I relax in my suite while the vine-raked hills trundle by. As a point of difference to other river cruise ships Avalon Waterways' "suite ships" have done away with exterior balconies, opting instead for wall-to-wall glass doors that slide back, turning the entire Panorama suite into an open-air balcony. As a bonus the bed is strategically angled to face the scenery. If there's a better way to arrive into a new city, I'm yet to find it.

LYON TO MACON   

From Lyon we leave the Rhone River behind, taking a hard right at the new Musee Des Confluences, cruising along the Saone River to Macon. Some passengers opt for a free morning, others choose a shore excursion to the fairytale-like Chateau de Cormatin, while I sign up for a chardonnay wine tour. 

The first thing I learn is that the Maconnais region, or more precisely the nearby town of Chardonnay, is where chardonnays originated. The second thing is how light and luscious they are compared to what I'm familiar with. A product of the 200-million-year-old limestone, there's no way you'd ever refer to a Burgundy chardonnay as a "chardy''. "And never, ever put ice in it," says our guide.

The landscape is spectacular, particularly around the Rock of Solutre, a prehistoric limestone escarpment now classified as one of the "Grand Sites de France". On all sides the rows of vines fall like a tulle skirt, bunches of purple sequins gleaming against the green fabric, a sight that hasn't changed for centuries.

Later we gather in the wine cellar of the medieval Chateau de Pierreclos, swirling, sniffing and sipping (but rarely spitting) our way through three different wines – a young 2014 Macon Pierreclos, a 2013 Saint-Veran, and a 2012 Pouilly-Fuisse. Surrounded by barrels, with gravel underfoot and soaring arches overhead our host introduces us to the subtle variations between each. "If you don't like a particular wine," she says. "It doesn't mean you have bad taste, it just means it's not your taste."

MACON TO BEAUNE 

On our final leg we head towards Beaune, cruising along the Saone through classic Burgundy country, a medley of medieval villages and mustard farms, chateaus and churches. Our farewell dinner includes regional specialties such as smoked duck breast on mango confit, traditional bouillabaisse, roast beef tenderloin on Bearnaise sauce and a cheese platter of French Roquefort and Chevre Buche. 

While the onboard wine list is extensive (and at last I'm starting to make sense of it) I mark the occasion with my treasured bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  It is more exquisite than I remember, probably because I'm sharing it with friends, know a little about the history and am drinking it while cruising though its birthplace. It's a wonderful moment, which I mark by souveniring the cork and squirrelling it away in my handbag.

The next day Beaune beckons. While the late-medieval Hospices de Beaune dominates the skyline, it is the palpable joie de vivre of relaxed contentment that strikes me most. This bustling town, the unofficial capital of the Cote d'Or, celebrates the joy of the grape like no other; making it, swirling it, selling it and drinking it.

 We arrive on a Saturday, which means one thing, market day. One look at the tables laden with giant wheels of cheese and I take off like a truffle pig, sniffing my way from smelly cheeses to slippery olives, stinky sausages to the darkest, plumpest loaves of bread imaginable. A slice here, a slab there and I create my own picnic for the last part of our journey to Paris aboard the TGV. But first, I need to put my new-found skills to the test.

As the rain clouds part and the sun floods the market square I pull up a chair at an outside bistro. The waiter approaches with a menu, but I already know what I want, a glass of Macon blanc, preferably a 2012, with aromas of white flowers and citrus, smooth and full in the mouth. Yes, I think I'm ready for Paris. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

avalonwaterways.com.au www.france.fr 

CRUISING THERE 

Explore Burgundy and Provence in 2016 with Avalon Waterways on an 11-day itinerary between Cote d'Azur and Paris. Prices start from $4395 a person twin share in a Deluxe Stateroom (lower deck) including one night on the Cote d'Azur, a seven-night cruise on the Rhone and Saone rivers on board Avalon Poetry II, and two nights in Paris. Fares include all meals, wine and beer with dinner, gratuities, transport, entrance fees and most tours. The Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Macon wine tasting tours are optional extra excursions. Phone 1300 230 234 or see www.avalonwaterways.com.au   

 GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific operates several flights a day from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to key European gateways, including arrival and departure points for Avalon Waterways' cruises. See www.cathaypacific.com.au 

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Avalon Waterways.

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