Letting Provence out of the Bottle

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This is the time of year when the insistent heat and stark light of summer have retreated and Provence is bathed in a warm, golden glow that is like a lingering caress before the harsher days of winter. The mellow autumn season is the perfect time to explore this little piece of paradise on earth, which is also the oldest wine-growing region of France.

Vineyards have been part of Provence’s sunlit landscapes ever since Greek sailors first landed on its shores in the 6th century BC. The rows upon rows of grapevines that stretch their dark, gnarled branches up to the sun are as much a part of the region’s scenery and history as the tortured shapes of the olive trees, which they resemble.

Now that the main stream of visitors has departed, making it possible to ramble at leisure, stopping when and where the spirit moves you, for a meal or an overnight stay, let us take you on a tour of five of the region’s quality wine-growing areas.

In each one, we give you a simple recipe for earthly bliss: take a couple of outstanding vineyards, add a choice of nearby gourmet restaurants and charming hotels — some of which can be found under one roof — and savour the combination in a setting that is one of Nature’s masterpieces.

The first vines were indeed planted on the coast by the Greeks, when they founded Marseille, but it was the Romans who deserve the credit for spreading vineyards throughout Provence. Now, they carpet the region, from its Mediterranean seaboard to its verdant inland valleys and forested hills, right up to its sculptured mountain ranges.

In Roman times, all the wine produced was rosé, and that is still the colour of wine most often associated with Provence. But in addition to light, fruity rosés, perfect for summer drinking, the region also produces a wide range of hearty reds and some surprisingly crisp whites. The grapes traditionally used for its reds are local varieties such as Mourvèdre (known as the dog-strangler!), Tibouren and Cinsault, now being blended with international names such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Grenache. The whites are a marriage of Provencal old-timers like Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Marsanne, and relative newcomers to the region like Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Since 1935, when France developed a strict system of wine laws, the highest quality wines from a specified area are granted A.O.C status — Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. It is a tightly defined certification of origin, ensuring that wines with the A.O.C. label have met a long list of requirements, including permitted grape varieties, maximum yields, minimum alcohol levels and vinification techniques.

The wine-growing areas of Provence that follow have all earned the appellation classification: one as long ago as 1936, one as recently as 1995. With that kind of quality assured, you will find the wines sliding down so easily that we thought it best to provide a choice of nearby hotel/restaurants where you can rest from your tastings and gather strength for the next lap of your tour.

All the vineyards we describe are happy to have you come and taste their wines, and the vast majority have English-speaking staff. The opening hours we list at the end of the article were correct at time of going to press, but it never hurts to give them a call before you go, just to check that there have been no changes.

Finally, before we start, let us be quite clear that we will be taking just a few small sips from the vast and varied wine cellar that is Provence. We are merely uncorking some sample bottles for you at a handful of remarkable vineyards. The region has countless other liquid assets for you to discover and add to your own personal address book. A votre santé!

Cassis: The oldest AOC in Provence (1936)

Let us begin at the very beginning, down on the Mediterranean Coast. Not far from where Greek sailors founded Marseille 26 centuries ago, the pastel-colored little port of Cassis nestles at the foot of Cap Canaille, France’s highest sea-cliff. From its picturesque harbour you can take a boat tour of the calanques, inlets of crystalline, deep-blue water carved into the white limestone coastline, or take the more energetic option of admiring their transparent depths from above, by hiking along the well-marked, spectacular GR98-51 trail that borders the coast.

Once the view of those sparkling depths has worked up a thirst, internal refreshment is at hand, in the form of the excellent wines of Cassis, a unique phenomenon in Provence. In contrast to all the other wine-growing areas, which produce mainly reds and rosés, a good 75% of the wines of Cassis are crisp, clean whites, which are the ideal table companion to the famous local fish stew, bouillabaisse.

On the hillside above Cassis stands Château de Fontcreuse, a stately home once belonging to Colonel Teed, a British Army officer who fell in love with the area and launched himself into winemaking in 1922. Nowadays the estate is run on exemplary lines by Jean-François Brando, the head of the Cassis vintners’ syndicate.

In the village of Cassis itself, and blissfully free of any bus tours, since they cannot park nearby, is the elegant Clos Sainte-Magdeleine, which has most of its grapes, all organically grown, planted in terraces on the slopes of Cap Canaille, around the impressive Art Deco mansion. Its floral whites, with a definite tang of the sea to them, simply cry out for some fresh seafood to accompany them.

You will find a wide choice of restaurants serving just that on the seafront. One of the best is Nino +33 (0)4 42 01 74 32 (Menu: 32EUR).. Their bouillabaisse is the genuine article and the service is relaxed and friendly. Just a little way out of Cassis, in an idyllic setting at the tip of the diminutive presqu’ile (promontory) of Port Miou, La Presqu’Ile (+33 (0)4 42 01 03 77 Menus: 29 — 46EUR) is worth seeking out for its combination of wonderful food with a wonderfully romantic sea view. To either work up an appetite or work off your meal, there are five seaside tennis courts that can be rented by the hour.

If you would like to watch the sun set over the sea, you have until November 1 to book into Les Roches Blanches (+33 (0)4 42 01 09 30; rooms 90 – 260EUR) a 24-room, 4-star hotel in a superb setting, which closes for the winter. The nearby 27-room Hôtel de la Rade (+33 (0)4 42 01 02 97 ; Rooms 90 – 140EUR) stays open year-round and will give you the impression of going on a cruise, without ever leaving shore. Poised over the sea, its teak terrace with canvas-covered railings sets the nautical theme, which carries on inside, with seashell décor and brass portholes.

Bandol: The best-known AOC of Provence (1941)

A short, scenic drive east of Cassis, the Bandol region spreads around the resort of Bandol, with terraced vineyards climbing from the sea up to the Sainte Baume mountain range.

“Quality, not quantity,” is the motto of the area’s winegrowers, and they adhere to a punishing set of regulations to live up to that credo. Fresh rosés account for 55% of Bandol wines, but it is the gutsy, long-lived reds made from the distinctive Mourvèdre grape and aged in oak casks for at least 18 months, that have made the area’s reputation.

On Sunday, December 4, Bandol will hold its annual Fête du Millésime, a great opportunity to taste the new wines of this year’s harvest. There is always a theme – it is “Games” this year — and the wine producers have great fun getting dressed up. Join the crowd, which is plentiful but happy, wandering along the port from tent to tent, sampling and spitting, either into the spittoons provided, or directly into the sea. By the end of the day, the fish in the harbour must have a hard time swimming a straight line!

Like most beach towns, Bandol has a string of seafood restaurants along the seafront. One of the best is the busy Auberge du Port (+33 (0)4 94 29 42 63; Menus: 32 — 42EUR). If you go for the Wine Fair, make very sure you reserve! The more casual Wine Bar of the Auberge, the oldest one in Bandol, serves an eminently reasonable 18EUR menu of grilled meats and fish, with wines by the glass.

Some of the greatest Bandol reds, with a life expectancy of 20 years or more in good years, come from Château Pradeaux, which has been in the Portalis family since 1752. Just outside the beach town of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, with a perpetual sea breeze protecting the vines from diseases, the château was designed in the style of a Roman villa. It is covered in rambling roses, and has an assortment of friendly dogs snoozing in various corners.

Right in Saint-Cyr, is the four-star, 133-room Dolce Frégate (+33 (0)4 94 29 39 39; Rooms: 147 — 560EUR), a hotel with every modern comfort and convenience, as well as one of the top ranked golf courses in France. Its facilities also include an indoor heated pool, 3 tennis courts and a spa.

Just 15 minutes away, at the foot of the medieval hilltop hamlet of la Cadière d’Azur, Alain Pascal, the new star among Bandol vintners, named his domain, Le Gros’Noré, in memory of his father, a corpulent man called Honoré, or ‘Noré, for short. Alain, a former boxer, is a man who does not mince his words or compromise — particularly on the quality of his wines. Since 1997 he has been producing an outstanding red and a superb Mourvèdre-dominated rosé.

At the top of the village, L’Hostellerie Bérard (+33 (0)4 94 90 11 43; Rooms: 80 — 259EUR; Menus from 44EUR) is an inviting stop for a meal or for the night. Both a welcoming 40-room inn housed in an 11th C convent and a fine regional restaurant, it has a superb view from its luminous dining room. Chef René Bérard shares his palpable love and knowledge of Provençal food in the 4-day cooking courses he runs every month except January and August.

Côtes de Provence: The Biggest AOC of Provence (1977)

With a sprawling 45,000 acres of vines dispersed from Aix-en-Provence to Nice, this appellation offers wines of every colour and style. Rosés make up 75% of the production, reds account for 20% and whites for just 5%.

The quickest way to get an overview of the immense quantity of vineyards is to visit the area’s Maison des Vins – the Vinotheque — in the medieval town of Les Arcs, on the river Argens. You are close to some spectacular scenery here, like the Pennafort gorges, where water cascades down deep-red rocks crowned by umbrella pines. At the Vinotheque you can sample a free selection of Côtes de Provence that changes every week and buy, at producers’ prices, any of the 600 wines that are kept in stock.

In the idyllic countryside just outside Les Arcs, is Château Sainte-Roseline, a state-of-the-art vineyard located in a 12th century abbey. It is visited both for its consistently good reds, whites and rosés, and for its Romanesque chapel, containing an immense mosaic by Chagall and, in a crystal reliquary, the remarkably well-preserved 14th corpse of Sainte-Roseline herself.

Also in Les Arcs is the recently built, magnificent Château Font du Broc, which combines two noble pursuits: winemaking and horse breeding. The château, with its stupendous Gothic-vaulted cellar, took four years of work and would be worth visiting even if you did not want to taste the wines. You would be wrong to pass them up, however. Everything on this grand estate, where peacocks strut around self-importantly, is opulent and well made, and the luscious, prize-winning reds, as well as the full-bodied rosés, are no exception.

For dinner and the night, visit another marvel in the area: Chez Bruno (+33 (0) 4 94 85 93 93; Menu 56 – 110 EUR; Rooms: 84 — 130EUR), the truffle king of Lorgues. A genial, generous giant, Bruno will greet you in person, with the warmth of a long-time friend. He also beams down as Jesus, from a humoristic mural of the Last Supper painted on the walls of his restaurant! Do not take offence, but do take second helpings! The truffle menus are a gastronomic experience not to be missed, and four rooms await those who wish to digest them in peace.

Opposite the deep-red cliffs of the Pennafort gorges, floodlit at night, the idyllic, Michelin-starred Hostellerie Les Gorges de Pennafort +33 (0)4 94 76 66 51; Menus: 49 — 110EUR; Rooms: 185 — 220EUR) is a destination no self-respecting gourmet should pass by. Its ebullient owner and chef, Philippe Da Silva, dishes up such delicacies as a divine foie gras ravioli with Parmesan, and he always adds little extras, leaving you groaning with pleasure at the end of the meal. His wife Martine watches over the elegant, 16-room hotel, making sure that everything is of the same high standard as her husband’s cooking.

Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence : The Most Elegant AOC of Provence (1985)

Stretching from the Durance River south to the Mediterranean, and from Mont Sainte-Victoire west to the Rhône Valley, this appellation covers some 4,000 hectares, where 75 vignerons produce 50% rosés, 45% reds and 5% whites. The rosés are fruity and easy-to-like, and the top reds do not just resemble Bordeaux because of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape used in them, but also for their ability to age well.

The region’s centrepiece is the lovely town of Aix-en-Provence, which charms all who visit with its splashing fountains, honey-coloured mansions, lively cafés and fashionable shops. The great painter Paul Cézanne was born and died here in 1906. To celebrate the centenary of his death next year, Aix, together with the National Art Gallery of Washington, is organizing a fabulous, not-to-be-missed exhibition of 110 of his works in the town’s newly renovated Granet Art Museum.

If you want to savour the charms of Aix, make the Hôtel Le Pigonnet (+33 (0)4 42 59 02 90; Rooms: 200 – 380EUR) your base for vineyard exploration. Set in showpiece grounds on the southern outskirts of town, it is privately owned, impeccably run and has a restaurant that is an attraction in its own right.

From Aix, it is a short drive northwest along the N7 to one of the most gracious wine estates of the appellation. Château de Beaupré, a former stagecoach relay, was planted with vines in the late 19th C by Baron Emile Double. You will be warmly welcomed at the stately château with its courtyard and fountains, very likely by the present Baron Double in person. He pours tasting samples generously from the estate’s expanding range of wines in all colours. Particularly good and good-value, are the red and white Château de Beaupré.

Beautiful châteaux like Beaupré, with vineyards attached, are plentiful in the Aix countryside. A recent addition to this collection of architectural gems, only 7 km north of Aix, is the splendid Domaine de la Brillane. Built from the ground up within the last five years, the magnificent ochre-coloured building overlooks 18 hectares of vines that predate it, but had to be nursed back to health by the domain’s charming and energetic creator, Rupert Birch. Together with Mary Mertens, his partner in all of life’s adventures, he produces three organic reds that have quickly started earning enthusiastic praise from the wine trade. Five tastefully decorated chambres d’hôtes, with sublime views out of every window, give you the chance to experience the daily life of the vineyard first-hand.

One of the restaurant addresses Rupert and Mary may well share with you is the Relais Sainte Victoire (+33 (0)4 42 66 94 98; Menus: 25 – 65EUR) right at the foot of the magic mountain of Aix, which Cézanne painted so many times. Its jovial owner René Bergès made headlines this spring when he decided to hand back his Michelin star because he was tired of the constant pressure of having to live up to the restaurant guide’s high expectations. Since his announcement, he has lowered his prices, but not his standards, and more people than ever have been coming to enjoy his Provençal specialties.

In surroundings that have none of the natural splendour of the Relais, right beside a large shopping centre 5 km to the south of Aix, the 30-room Château de la Pioline (+33 (0)4 42 52 27 27; Rooms: 185 — 290EUR: Menus: 45 – 60EUR) proves that beauty can survive in the unlikeliest places. Blessedly sheltered by a wooded park from the sounds and sights of frenetic commerce outside, the 16th C century, beautifully restored château is a hidden jewel. Young, talented chef Olivier Brissy serves classy cuisine in the classic beauty of the Golden Drawing room.

Les Baux-de-Provence: The Most Distinctive AOC of Provence (1995)

An easy hour’s drive east of Aix-en-Provence, the Alpilles mountain chain lifts its chiseled profile to the sky. Girdled by olive groves, almond orchards and vineyards, it is crowned by the dramatic ruins of the medieval citadel of Les Baux, from which the mighty warlords of the area, known and feared as a “race of eagles” surveyed their domain.

The vineyards, spread below, were once part of the Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence area, but earned their own appellation for the reds and rosés, which account for 90% of the area’s production, in 1995. By nature, they are wines with a marked earthy character that sets them apart. Organic and biodynamic production methods are gaining ground among the local vintners, who believe in working with nature’s rhythms to make the most unadulterated wines possible.

Biodynamic methods, which avoid all use of synthetic chemicals and treat the vineyard as a living entity to be respected, have been applied ever since 1989 at Château Romanin, just a few kilometres east of St. Remy. The cellar, a magnificent underground cathedral dug into the mountainside, is a magical place, built on tellurian principles, i.e. on intersecting planetary force lines. Whether you believe in such power fields or not, the complex reds and refreshing rosés made under its soaring arches regularly win awards.

A short drive, punctuated by a succession of breath-taking vistas, will take you to La Cabro d’Or (+33 (0)4 90 54 33 21; Menus: 45 — 85EUR; Rooms: 180 – 450 EUR) an idyllic 31-room auberge set amongst lovely gardens at the foot of Les Baux. The cuisine is Michelin-starred, yet you can eat there for 45EUR because its young chef, Michel Hulin, is more interested in client satisfaction than a big profit margin. La Cabro closes from November to mid-December, reopening in time to treat yourself with a special meal during the Christmas season.

Within a couple of kilometers, in the hamlet of le Paradou, the 15-room Domaine Le Hameau des Baux (+33 (0)49 54 10 30; Rooms: 170 — 210EUR) is one of those special addresses to share with close friends. A collection of character-filled old buildings — a barn, a cabanon, a chapel, a dovecote and a mill – have been restored with impeccable taste, keeping the relaxed feel of a private home, with just the right dash of contemporary boldness.

The second wine estate around Les Baux we suggest you visit, is a veritable showpiece outside Fontvielle, near the windmill that inspired the French author Alphonse Daudet to write his “Lettres de mon moulin”. Château d’Estoublon, originally built in the 15thC by Benedictine monks, was burnt down during the Wars of Religion and rebuilt in the 18th C. In January 1999 it was purchased by the Schneider family, owners of Breitling watches. They spared no expense or energy to renovate the buildings and replant and revive the vineyard and olive groves. The estate has converted to organic winemaking and called in Eloi Dürrbach, one of France’s top vintners, to provide expert help in producing wines that are full of character, tasting of the soil on which they grow. A visit to Estoublon gives you the opportunity to sample both the domain’s wines and its excellent olive oils.

From there, pick one of several scenic routes to take you back up past les Baux, to the chic little town of Saint Rémy de Provence, with its tempting boutiques and markets. Many international movie stars prefer its more discreet charm to the resorts on the Mediterranean coast. To be pampered like a star, stop over in the sumptuous Hostellerie du Vallon de Valrugues Tel: +33 (0) 4 90 92 04 40 Rooms : 150 – 260EUR). Its many hedonistic comforts include a gastronomic restaurant (Menus: 53 – 88 EUR) a spa, a private putting green, a billiard room, tennis courts and, of course, a glamorous swimming pool.

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Source by Ester Laushway