Vicky Bishop reports from the Rhône valley

A wild picnic, Dromara takes Jilly cherry scrumping, awesome chocolate and fabulous Condrieu...

It was all change at Montpellier airport as I said goodbye to Julia who has been the last person to ride Dromara. She was there on that beach in Greece when I announced four years ago that I was going to ride round France – and has been a great support in bringing it all to fruition. It was also time to say goodbye to Ben who has been a brilliant driver and welcome Fairfax Luxmoore to the team from his base in the New Forest not far from the Fortune Centre (my charity No 2).

The Gonnet brothers at Domaine Font de Michelle in Bedarides who make very good Châteauneuf-du-Pape very kindly leant us a field which Lily and Dromara agreed was a great spot after being stabled for the last 10 days.

Michel and his brother Jean Gonnet were the very first people I met on my recce trip back in February to ask if they could ride with us – and what rides they had planned! That Saturday we unboxed our girls at Gigondas and were introduced to their own horses: d'Yquem (Michel's solid but willful and exuberant iron grey), Zara, Bibi and Chico whose saddlebags were bulging with goodies. We climbed the first 100-plus metres on foot leading the horses up high above the village, then mounted and rode on up into the Dentelles de Mireilles with the jagged rocks piercing the skyline above us. After several hours of climbing both up and downhill, not to mention jumping up steps off an ancient stone bridge which I had naively thought was just for a photo. I scrambled up and Lily deftly followed in my footsteps without even touching my heels while d'Yquem dug his chunky toes in and said Michel must be joking. However, our western-style picnic with a French twist beckoned on the other side and they all finally followed suit.

After offering our girls a drink we secured them in a shady spot with fresh spring grass and opened up the saddlebags. Whilst Jean lit the camp fire we drank chilled pastis and Magalie produced their rosé from Domaine Beaurenard which went so well with her homemade salad of carrots and chickpeas flavoured with cumin. A hint of the 'southern cuisine' we had been told to look out for that is infiltrating the cooking of southern France. Michel's andouillettes from a local specialist butcher arrived bronzed from the glowing embers and we washed them down with their Côtes du Rhone and Rasteau from Beaurenard. Then a very good but rather wobbly cheese collection appeared which had fared better in the more sedate saddlebags of Chico than the shattered remains of crisps that d'Yquem had launched from tree to tree! Magalie produced the best clafoutis made with local cherries that we ate our entire time in the region – a natural partner for the vin doux naturel from Beaurenard. With coffee there was a choice of a blend of eau de vie de Poivre and Poivre alcool or a delicious fortified Verveine made like sloe gin. Amazingly enough the journey home went very smoothly...

After 25km in the saddle and five km or more on foot we finished the day with a very good tasting at Le Vieux Télégraphe with Daniel Brunier. I have always been a fan of their Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but their Gigondas Domaine les Pallières 2000 was a real highlight.

Jilly  Goolden with the horses Jilly Goolden joined us fresh from filming on the Orient Express for a horseback tour of the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (carefully guided by the brothers Gonnet to avoid the huge pudding stones) including those belonging to Domaine Font de Michelle, Domaine de la Font de Loup, Château Rayas, Château Vaudieu, Domaine de Beaurenard, Domaine de Nalys, Domaine de la Carbonnière and Domaine de Vieux Télégraphe. After which we retreated from the southern sun to La Tapenade in Bedarides for a typical Sunday lunch where we were both most impressed with their Cuvée Etienne Gonnet 1999. Before heading north to St Joseph we spent a morning riding around the vineyards of Cairanne as guests of the local Syndicat, organised by Marie Pierre Delpeuch. The Circuit de l'Aygues – Ste Cécile les Vignes started from the l'Ecurie du Muzet and included a tour of four producers of which Domaine de la Présidente was definitely our favourite. We made quite a cavalcade with Lily and Dromara pacing out in front hotly followed by a horse and cart driven by Richard Sommer bearing non-riders and then other guests on horses from the stables bringing up the rear.

Our last stop in the southern Rhône was without the horses. Claudine Chambovet, a freelance journalist and the sister of Alain who owns St George's Equitation where the horses stayed near Montpellier, turned out to be a wonderful fount of all local knowledge – vinous and foodie. She whisked us off to St Remy de Provence and into the cool of Joël Durrand's small but immaculate chocolate shop. This man is a chocolatier par excellence. Each of his carefully researched 32 flavours look identical in their matt dark coats except for the pale numbering on the top side. Each number corresponds to a unique flavour sensation. No 7 is Guyana – a 40 per cent milk chocolate with nutmeg, cinnamon, sun-dried bourbon vanilla and fresh lemon peel. Then there was No 28 – Depending on the Season – and we tasted Provence Almond Praline with saffron pistils from the Camargue. But the problem was I liked Nos 10, 13, 18 and others too...

Alain Perret's eyes really opened up as our mint-green mean machine of a horse box rolled into the quiet square of St Pierre de Bouef in St Joseph. I knew him to be a keen rider who had ridden to Switzerland to propose to his wife. Now he and Kati live here and as his thriving business keeps him from his horse he had enlisted the support of his old friend Jean-Marie Rulajner, one of the region's great endurance riders who not only hosted the horses but proved to be a brilliant guide. Jilly and I followed him as we traversed the plateau high above the Rhône sampling more cherries en route before we joined up with Alain on his horse and clambered downhill past the steep vineyards of St Joseph on our way to Chavany where we met André Perret and tasted his excellent Condrieu in the cool depths of his cellars.

The next time Jean-Marie took us out it was up nearly all the way. This time we left both the Rhône and the plateau well behind as we climbed on foot and horseback from their stables at la Brunarie through Lupe and Bazin up to 1000m into the Park of Pilat – an alpine world all of its own. Here we met Alain and watered both the horses and ourselves at the Auberge de la Croix de St-Sabin and just stopped to catch our breath and appreciate this very special spot. Each time we have quietly notched up 25 – 30km: no wonder the horses are eating well and look so fit!

This has been a region rich in aromas and flavours. One great new combination that I had never tried before is Condrieu and asparagus. Having thought I had missed the season we had a wonderful dish at the Bellevue Hotel in Les Roches de Condrieu, perfectly matched with Alain's very stylish Les Ceps du Nebadon. Then in the middle of a smart trade tasting (with Jilly and I in our jodhpurs) on the elegant balcony of Château la Nerthe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in amongst some great wines we came across the produce of Eric Convert, a fantastic baker in Avignon. Delicious grainy brown breads baked with black and green olives, and another flavoured with hazelnut and sausage. The walnut and cheese (Comte) was also a great combination. Finally Syrah. For me it has been like a rediscovery from Alain's well structured St Joseph to the elegant Côte Rôtie from Domaine George Vernay and the more earthy style of Bernard Burgaud – what an experience... what a privilege...

Stop Press!

A huge vote of thanks must go to all vignerons who have generously donated some amazing wines for our big auction on 25 September at The Crypt, c/o The Bleeding Heart Restaurant in London. More details will follow in the next report. All proceeds will go to The Great French Ride's three charities.