At Crillon le Brave, a tiny hilltop town, we stayed at the Relais & Châteaux property of the same name, a dramatic hotel of gardens and terraces and glorious views. We spent several days pitching boules and gazing down at the vineyards and lavender-covered hills that stretched to the horizon. Because I love wine, I visited a few producers. But my wife and two preteen sons stayed behind at the hotel, and they seemed to be enjoying the trip as much as I was.
And that’s a hallmark of wine country, a sense and sensibility you’ll find from Sonoma to the Greek isles. It’s always a grape-growing area, of course—and the wine made from those grapes needs to be renowned enough to be part of the area’s identity. But it’s also a place where wine’s particular virtues have been incorporated into the prevailing mind-set. Wine is convivial; it draws people together, at restaurants and cafés and at home. Yet at the same time, wine is contemplative. You can’t spend much time around it, or the vines that produce it, without considering some grander philosophical concepts in the seasonal rhythms of growing and harvesting grapes and the artisanal labor of transforming them into something beyond mere juice.
I felt those rhythms even in loud, chaotic Carpentras, where we spent our first few nights. Perfectly positioned to explore the area, it’s the hub of a wheel that encompasses Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and Vaison-la-Romaine. You wouldn’t call Carpentras pretty, yet it has glorious aspects. It’s multicultural, with its Turkish restaurants and Tunisian bars and shops selling incense and fezzes and Indian spices, but one afternoon I took a walk and landed on a wooden bench outside a music school, where I heard a violin lesson through an open window. The scene was so quintessentially Gallic that I felt like I’d gone back half a century, to when the only language you’d ever hear on those streets was French.
I’d booked us a room at Maison Trévier, a town house dating from the mid 1700’s that sits in the midst of the shopping district. We ended up occupying the entire middle floor, which includes a kitchen and a vast sitting room decorated with impressive-looking oil portraits that could have hung in the provincial museum down the street. Gina Trévier, the granddaughter of a grape grower, had owned a wine bar in Paris for 15 years but came south in 2005, she said, for a healthier lifestyle. I understood what that meant after she prepared us dinner: a salad of spinach, fresh fava beans, and olives, then stewed duck with turnips and carrots.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of happy voices from below. My boys were already downstairs in the garden, shaded from the warm morning sun by a canopy, reveling in a singular breakfast of fresh bread smeared with organic apricot and quince jams that Trévier had preserved the previous fall, a semi-savory cherry cake, and homemade cherry juice. “When you find good wine,” she told us as the birds chirped, “you will always find good food and a nice place to stay.” I hadn’t imagined that my wine-country fantasy would include quince jam and cherry juice miles from any winery. Yet when I look back now, that morning captured the essence of the trip as much as any wine-soaked dinner or picturesque drive.
On one of our last mornings, I set out alone for Gigondas and Château de Saint Cosme. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the southern Rhône’s most famous wine, but I actually enjoy Gigondas better, and Saint Cosme’s most of all. Gigondas itself is higher and cooler than Châteauneuf, and unlike its neighbor, its soil isn’t studded with shiny stones that serve to radiate heat and reflect the sun up into the vines. As a result, the grapes in Gigondas don’t get nearly as ripe, and the wines are able to show a litheness, a nimbleness, that the thicker and more powerful Châteauneufs lack.