Colors of Provence

Tracey Teo

When Ollie, a three-year-old Brittany spaniel mix, spots French farmer and winegrower Christian Allegre, she jumps high in the air like a spring-loaded toy and starts to whine. The earth is wet from a soaking rain the previous night, and she leaves loving, muddy paw prints on her pal’s faded jeans. The gray-haired, mustachioed owner of Domaine Saint-Alban, a wine estate in southeastern France, speaks a few calming words that have little effect on the canine’s frenzied antics. She’s eager to hunt, and every bark seems to say, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

Dog and owner set off into the forest, land that has been in Allegre’s family for generations. His heritage is as deeply rooted in the ancient French village of Grignan as the towering oaks that reach toward a clearing sky.

Before long, Ollie is pawing furiously at the ground, proudly alerting Allegre to a gift he will treasure. The farmer stoops and gently unearths what looks like a dusty lump of coal, handling it as gently as newborn kitten.

It’s a precious black truffle, what Allegre calls black magic, also known as a black diamond. The prized mushroom may not be pretty, but it will fetch a pretty price at the market. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does grow under them. The subterranean mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with trees and attach themselves to the roots.

Ollie gets a tasty reward for her remarkable olfactory prowess.

This tutorial on sourcing truffles is one of many culinary-themed adventures offered on AmaWaterways’ seven-day Colors of Provence cruise along the Rhône River. The 156-passenger AmaKristina sails from Avignon to Lyon, the cradle of French gastronomy and viticulture. Along the way, it stops at many charming outlying villages like this one.

Inside Allegre’s cozy farmhouse, passengers sample truffle-topped baguette, savoring the woodsy, earthiness of this flavorful fungi, and sip Côtes du Rhône wines produced on the estate.

Someone asks why Allegre uses a truffle hound instead of the once common pig to ferret out truffles. The answer is simple. Pigs will greedily devour the cash crop, while dogs prefer less costly snacks. Who wants to wrestle a hungry 300-pound pig for a truffle?

Rosé-Pretty in Pink

Back onboard the luxurious AmaKristina, diners enjoy a five-course meal served by an impeccably trained wait staff that would never tolerate something as egregious as an empty wine glass. There’s a choice of exceptional reds and crisp whites, but in Provence, rosé reigns.

Here, wine is more than a delightful dinner companion; it’s an expression of a culture. Situated on the Mediterranean coast at the southern end of the Rhône Valley, it’s the oldest wine region in France. The Greeks planted vines here as far back as 600 B.C., and the Romans followed suit. Mild winters and hot summers tempered by mistral winds provide an ideal climate for growing grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault grapes.

 These red grape varietals are what make Provence the rosé capital of the world. More than 80 percent of the world’s rosé is produced in the appellations (a wine’s place of origin) of Provence in styles that range from the classic light and fruit-forward to the bold and full-bodied.

French wines can be intimidating to the uninitiated (making sense of the labels requires a certain expertise), but rosé is delightfully unpretentious. It’s a down-to-earth celebrity that doesn’t take itself too seriously, sort of like Dolly Parton. Even bona fide oenophiles rarely wax poetic about what’s in the glass. They simply appreciate the bright flavors of summer fruit.

 Relax with a glass on the private twin balcony of your spacious stateroom as the ever-changing landscape rolls past.

Church steeples puncture the clouds. Bridges come and go. Castle ruins stand proud in their elegant decay. Snow-white swans glide gracefully near the riverbank. The scenery combined with the gentle motion of the ship will lull you into an all-is-right-with-the-world state of mind you may not have known for a while.

If you want company, do your drinking in the lounge, the entertainment hub. “Elton John” sometimes takes a seat at the piano and croons classics like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Oddly, he’s developed a French accent.

Bougie Beaujolais

Beaujolais would be worth the trip even if it wasn’t a premiere wine destination.

In the heart of the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region perches the Medieval hilltop village of Oingt, an enchanting spot where Old World architecture meets breathtaking natural beauty. It feels frozen in time, untouched by modernity.

Gold-hued stone houses with flower boxes overflowing with bright blooms line narrow cobblestone streets that ascend to an ancient castle. Delicate, purple wisteria cascades down rocky cliffs.

This hamlet is the perfect spot to snap photos of the Azergues Valley where vineyards are tucked into the verdant, undulating hillsides.

Domaine Paire wine estate is the place to sample some of the best vintages in the region. Wine is in the blood of owner Jean-Jacque Paire. His family has been making wine in Beaujolais for 16 generations, since around 1600.

Cruise passengers get a tour of the facility and taste rustic reds made from gamay noir, Beaujolais’s signature red grape. Most have high acidity and low tannins, so they pair well with patê and terrines. They’re also affordable, so take home a bottle.

Between Wine Tastings

The cruise offers many ways to experience the history and culture of this pocket of France, and not all of them require sipping and swirling.

Those in search of active pursuits can embark on a guided bicycle tour along the portion of the Via Rhôna bike route that runs through Vienne, an overlooked gem of a town that boasts ancient Roman ruins and a well-preserved abbey that dates to the Middle Ages. Pedal along the outskirts of town past steeply terraced vineyards nestled between purple fields of fragrant lavender.

In Nîmes, history buffs delight in the first century marvel of Roman engineering known as Pont du Gard. The limestone aqueduct bridge that spans the Gardon River was built to supply fresh water to the Roman colony. It no longer serves its original function, but it remains an architectural masterpiece. A triple-tier of elegant arches rises to a height of 155 feet. The UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most well-preserved Roman sites in the world.

As you sail through southern France, drink in the history, the sun-kissed slopes, the laid-back culture, and, of course, the wine.

For more information about cruising on AmaWaterways visit 800-626-0126.