Provence has been Europe's most inspiring playground since the Romans put up theatres and arenas. ANTHONY PEREGRINE explores.
From the rugged outlines of the Alpes de Haute Provence to the more rounded forms lying on the beach at St Tropez, the region both challenges and inebriates. Its culture is warmly welcoming but also sufficiently rooted in time and place to withstand the millions of visitors. It has not been ruined by tourism – you can lose the crowds in any number of mountains, hidden valleys and undiscovered villages. But you know all that. Less well-known is that it’s a splendid spot for wine tourism. Provence has had great wine domaines for centuries. But it hasn’t had, until recently, much great wine. The standard Côtes de Provence pinks rarely survived the transfer from a sunny terrace in St-Cyr to a wet day in Walthamstow. Some still don’t, but others have moved on. There are now not only far more elegant rosés, but also reds and whites of substance. Your trip to Provence is a perfect opportunity to discover them because (a) they tend to be produced in lovely places and (b) they tend not to be widely available in GB. We simply haven’t kept up with Provençal wine progress.
Tour de provence
Follow me, then, around a handful of domaines which combine a proper welcome for visitors with wines worth visiting for. A few also offer pretty nifty accommodation.We start at the Château de Pourcieux in the Mont Ste-Victoire zone, to the east of Aix. We are met by Michel d’Espagnet, whose family has been in Pourcieux village for 350 years. He is a working aristocrat with much charm, living in classily ramshackle surroundings. Both château and French-style gardens are grand but weather-beaten and the wine cellars under the château are more workplace than showpiece. ‘People prefer it like that,’ he says. The effort, you see, goes into the wines. If the pure white, strong but rounded rosé and well-structured 1999 red set us off on the right foot, the 1996 Grand Millésime attains a species of Syrah-driven southern nobility – complex, spicy and full of ripe fruit. Like family and property, it’s got life left to live. We head east to the heart of the CdP. Off a long, winding road out of Vidauban, we stumble into a lost valley of parasol pines, olive trees and vines, overlooked by the Maures mountains. At the Domaine de Jale, François Semine’s family have been in place just two years – since dad uprooted them from their native Normandy. They have renovated the isolated 18th-century domaine so that it feels at once authentic, modern and homely. It also includes two chambres d’hôtes due to open in July at £32 a room. I’d book straight away. I recently tasted my way through their range of wines, up to the beautifully concentrated red Cuvée la Nible, in the company of two German chaps. At the end they bought three mixed cases each. If I’d had their kind of money, I’d probably have followed suit.
Just outside Les-Arcs-sur-Argens, the Château Ste-Roseline proclaims itself ‘a haut-lieu of tourism and culture’. Unusually, this is correct. The set-up is graceful, fascinating and not-to-be-missed. It’s centred on the Ste-Roseline chapel, where the preserved saint’s body has lain on view, attracting pilgrims since the 13th century. She is now a bit blackened but overlooked by a lovely Chagall mosaic full of angels. Beyond are the cloisters where the château hosts regular concerts and, beyond that, the château, wonderful gardens and well-thought out winery, whose modernity does nothing to dent the seigneurial atmosphere. The two-hour visit is terrific. A ‘haut-lieu’ indeed, and now with wines to match. Owner Bernard Teillaud and young winemaker Christophe Bernard are getting the best from their southern grapes and sun-baked earth. There’s balance and structure in the rosés, sweet harmony in the whites and the top Cuvée Prieuré red has the size and depth to last 15 years.At the Château du Rouët – beyond Le Muy – Bernard Savatier’s medal-strewn, hugely expressive top-range wines Cuvée Belle Poule constitute one reason for making the trip. The other is the magnificent setting. Rouët is not so much a château as a hamlet isolated amid forest, vines and a wild woodland garden, all in the lee of the red Esterel foothills. ‘Out of time’ is the phrase and you can stay there – in chambres d’hôtes (£45 per night), gîtes (from £280 per week) or, if mob-handed (around a dozen) in the comfortably elegant main house itself (from £1,000 per week).
And so we move to the Château de Berne, near Lorgues. Opening out at the end of one of the less promising lanes in Provence, Berne is less a wine domaine, more a mini-kingdom and conceivably the best wine visitor centre in France. Naturally, this has given rise to charges of vulgarity from those resentful of the professionalism on show. Ignore them. From the grounds (lake, gardens, walkways) via the winery and reception centre (new-built but feeling old) to the catalogue of activities and cultural events (jazz picnics, exhibitions, classical concerts) this is a class act and a good, genuine place to be.There is also an on-site four-star auberge (from £130 per night). Few hotels I know have more pleasingly informal style or attention to detail. But wine production remains the focal point. And if you can find the merest hint of vulgarity in the Cuvée Spéciale range, you are a better (or possibly worse) person than I. By now, our Provençal expectations are high: a good welcome in fine surroundings with wines which speak of the sunshine south in cultured tones. We are not disappointed at Château Roubine, between Lorgues and Draguignan and one of my long-term Provence favourites. Here, the rosés – in common with the best regional pinks – abjure excess initial aromas in favour of rich fullness sufficient for gastronomic purposes, the top-range red recalls the northern Côtes-du-Rhône and the pure-Sémillon white is both robust and supple. The cellar overlooks a vast bowl valley full of vines while, in maîtresse-des-lieux Valérie Riboud, the place has one of the more attractive wine ladies in Provence. I wouldn’t, though, mention this within earshot of her husband, Philippe. He’s still the size he was while winning Olympic fencing medals for France.
Not far away, in a wooded residential suburb of Draguignan, Swede Lars Torstenson oversees the Domaine Rabiega, a Scandinavian outpost (it’s owned by the Vin & Sprit company) making some of the most consistently interesting wines in Southern France. Torstenson is both laid-back and fanatical, eternally experimenting to obtain the finest expression of his adopted terroir. ‘I don’t want to get overtaken by young guys,’ he says. His Oak Case, for instance, has the same wine aged in wood from six different countries.The Rabiega calling cards are, though, the red Clos Dière cuvées I and II, wines of an elegance and finesse you never thought to find in Provence. They more than justify the detour to a snug little cellar with an easy, open welcome. Let us now imagine our quintessential Provençal estate. It will have a long drive through oceans of vines, an imposing main house and a courtyard around which workers might live in the feudal manner. It will have the tinkle of fountains in the shade of great plane trees and the suggestion that little ever happens but that things get done all the same. Welcome, then, to the Château de l’Aumerade at Pierrefeu, one of the oldest and biggest (550ha) family domains in France where the plane trees are 400 years old and everything has a Provençal accent. There’s a fine little museum of traditional santon figurines, and aïoli on the terrace if you sign up for the day-long wine visit (min: 15 people, £15 per head). Seated there with a bottle of condensation-beaded Aumerade rosé – aïoli’s perfect accompaniment – you might fleetingly believe you’ve landed in paradise. The thing is that these wines, notably the Domaine de Piegros range, no longer need the setting (though naturally it helps). They’re good anywhere, believe me.
Beside the seaside
Thus to the sea. Château Maravenne is behind La-Londe-les-Maures, 10 minutes from the beach but with wines that are distinctly not beach wines. La Londe village, in fact, has a stack of good wines, but Jean-Louis Gourjon’s Collection Privée range are among the finest. The 1998 red, particularly, is an item of pedigree and standing which only a lunatic would put in the beach bag. Meanwhile, Gourjon’s mother runs on-site chambres d’hôtes (£40 per night) and gîtes (from £380 per week) which I couldn’t see as they were colonised by French rock star Pascal Obispo and his entourage. But if they’re good enough for rock stars, they’ll certainly do for you and I. A final flip west along the coast brings us to Cadière d’Azur and, below the village, Château Vannières. With 17th-century elements built into a little hillside, and topped by a 19th-century mansion built by a Scot to remind him of home, Vannières might give us the impression that we have saved one of the best till last. Correct. Taking in both Bandol and CdP appellations, Vannière’s terroir provides cellar-master Emmanuel Sala with the wherewithal to create wines of an elegance and concentration that would raise eyebrows on the Côtes de Nuit. His reds really are that good. Pinks and, especially, whites are also pretty remarkable but, if you only have £11 to spend on wine in the vicinity, spend it on the 1998 Bandol red. It’s drinking well now and will still be doing so in a dozen years. ‘I’d back it against any wine from any appellation anywhere in the world,’ says Sala.
Anthony Peregrine is a freelance wine and travel writer, based in France
Château de Pourcieux, 83470 Pourcieux. +33 4 94 59 78 90
Domaine de Jale, Chemin Fenouils, 83550 Vidauban. +33 4 94 73 51 50
Château Ste Roseline, 83460 Les-Arcs-sur-Argens. +33 4 94 99 50 30
Château du Rouët, RD47, 83490 Le Muy. +33 4 94 99 21 10
Château de Berne, 83510 Lorgues. +33 4 94 60 43 60
Château Roubine, RD562, 83510 Lorgues. +33 4 94 85 94 94
Domaine Rabiega, Clos Dière, 83300 Draguignan. +33 4 94 68 44 22
Château de l’Aumerade, 83390 Pierrefeu. +33 4 94 28 20 31
Château Maravenne, Route du Golf Valcros, 83250
La-Londe-les-Maures. +33 4 94 66 80 20
Château Vannières, 83740 La Cadière d’Azur. +33 4 94 90 08 08
La Bastide des Magnans, 32 ave Mar Galliéni, Vidauban. Simple Provençal class. +33 4 94 99 43 91
Le Logis du Guetteur, pl Château, Les-Arcs-sur-Argens. Medieval setting for great regional fare. +33 4 94 99 51 10
Chez Bruno, rte des Arcs, Lorgues. Idiosyncratic inspiration. +33 4 94 85 93 93
L’Auberge, Château de Berne, Lorgues. Top class food and tranquillity. +33 4 94 60 48 88
Le Lingousto, rte de Pierrefeu, Cuers. Country class. +33 4 94 28 69 10