Wine, Women, and …well, more wine!

If you were to completely ignore the political and religious heritage of this languorous landscape of provincial France, and do nothing but focus on food and wine, you would have your hands and bellies full. You will be cruising through some of the most important wine regions of the world. North of Lyons, you are in Burgundy. South of Lyons, you are in the Cote du Rhone (river banks of the Rhone) region.

Rhone river cruise wines

Burgundy bottles have the sloping shoulders. By Craig Drollett, via Wikimedia Commons

The two most famous wine regions in France are probably Bordeaux, on the southern French Atlantic coast, and Burgundy. Bordeaux wines are considered heavier, with serious flavor, while Burgundies are seen as somewhat lighter and more subtle. The difference between them was once described to me by a French executive. He said Bordeaux wines were so hardy and strong you could put them on a mule cart and bounce them all the way to Paris. However, Burgundy wines need to be cradled like a baby.

If you’ve stood bewildered in front of a forest of labels in your local wine emporium, you may recognize some of these Burgundy sections and representative wine locales:

  • Cote de Nuits (near Nuits St. George), including Gevrey Chambertin, and Vougeot,
  • Cote du Beaune (near Beaune), including Meursault, Pommard, and the Montrachets
  • Cote Chalonnaise (near Chalon sur Saone), including Bouzeron, Givry, and Montagny
  • Maconnaise (near Macon), including Vire, Pouilly, and Loche
  • Chablis (around Chablis, northwest of Dijon), including Fontenay and Viviers

Some of the most recognizable Cote du Rhone labels include Crozes-Hermitage, St. Joseph, Cote Rotie, and Chateauneuf du Pape.

Rhone river wine

The festive Cotes du Rhone. By kmaschke, via Wikimedia Commons

Straddling the boundary between Burgundy and the Cote du Rhone is the Beaujolais region whose wines have elements of the other two regions. This is an almost frivolous wine. Each fall, on November 15, the “nouveau Beaujolais” is widely heralded commercially. In theory, if the nouveau Beaujolais is good, the rest of the vintage will be good. This seems a bit of hyperbole for such a casual wine.

Serious oenophiles (lovers of wine) should pick up Grand Cru: The Great Wines of Burgundy Through the Perspective of Its Finest Vineyards, or The Great Domaines of Burgundy: A Guide to the Finest Wine Producers of the Cote d’Or, Third Edition. For Rhone wines, check out The Wines of the Northern Rhône and The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book. You might even spring for a year of Wine Spectator (1-year auto-renewal) to be up-to-the-minute.

Let’s get down to some serious eating. There can be no better guide for the culinary mariner than the constellation of Michelin stars sprinkled throughout this itinerary. The highest rating is three stars. To give you an idea how tough this is to achieve, there are only 27 three-star restaurants in all of France, as of 2013. The iconic story of the importance of the Michelin stars relates to that the famous high-society Parisian landmark, Maxim’s. When they were about to be downgraded from three stars to two, the chef committed suicide and the restaurant removed its listing from the guide.

Rhone cruise Bocuse

This could be the gateway to gastronomic heaven: Paul Bocuse’s restaurant. By Gordito1869, via Wikimedia Commons

If you are a foodie, or just an admirer of excellence, dinner in a three-star restaurant is something you will remember forever. Bring your wallet! There are six reasonably close to your itinerary, with Paul Bocuse in Lyons being, perhaps, one of the most famous in the world. Here they are, north to south:

Lameloise, in Chagny, near Chalon,

Georges Blanc, in Vonnas, 10 miles from Macon.

Paul Bocuse, in Lyons

Clos des Simes, in Saint Bonnet le Froid, 30 miles from Vienne

Maison Pic, in Valence

Le Petit Nice, in Marseilles

Of course, a restaurant with any Michelin star is going to be great. Get the Michelin Guide France 2013 (Michelin Guide/Michelin) French and (Introduction in English) and plan your gastronomic Tour du France. There are other guides, mostly oriented to all of France, including A Gourmet Tour of France: Legendary Restaurants from Paris to the Cote d’Azur and Food Wine Burgundy (The Terroir Guides).

All your life you have heard of the Cannes Film Festival and, now, you have a chance to visit. It’s not on the river cruise, per se. But, you should take some time to wander through the Riviera before or after your cruise and Cannes may be one of your chosen points of interest. The Festival has been going pretty steadily since 1947. While the Hollywood Academy Awards generally celebrate America film-making, the Cannes Festival is more international in scope. The actual annual event takes place in May.

Southern France cruise Cannes

The prestigious Palme d’Or, grand prize at Cannes. By karel leermans , via Wikimedia Commons

There have been some America winners of the prestigious Palme d’Or, including Mash (1970), Taxi Driver (1976), Apocalypse Now [HD] (1979), Pulp Fiction (1994), and, most recently, The Tree Of Life (2011). However, there have been some outstanding foreign winners that remain cinematic favorites, like: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (English Subtitles) (1964), The Piano (1993), and the 2013 winner, Blue is the Warmest Color.

Finally, a cultural trip to the Riviera, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, has to include pilgrimages to four major art museums of the region honoring Chagall in Nice, (Marc Chagall, 1887-1985: Painting as Poetry (Basic Art)), Picasso in Antibes, (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932), Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence, (Cezanne In Provence), and Van Gogh in Arles, (Van Gogh in Provence and Auvers).