Our two Provence tours in 2018 took place under largely blue skies, with the exception of a couple of days in June of unseasonable rain. On both tours we gained agreat insight into the wines and cuisine of this beautiful area, the quality of whose wines seems to be a well kept secret outside of the region, possibly because so many people come to Provence and drink them here!
Côteaux d’Aix en Provence
At Chateau Beaulieu Emanuel took us on a short tour of part of the ‘boutique hotel’, with its perfect combinations of traditional and modern furniture and artwork, and lovely garden. In the winery we met Michel, the winemaker. He explained that 90% of the grapes are for rosé, these are mechanically harvested and vinified off the estate. The small winery is reserved for making two reds and two whites by hand (ie hand picked, hand sorted, individually selected).
Lunch was in what would have been an orangery if one needed to grow oranges indoors – asparagus and bacon soup, followed by lamb, three cheese and a chocolate pudding with the estate’s vin cuit – vinified from the must from the free press rosé grapes, which is warmed to about 70-80 degrees to concentrate the sugars. This was a superb visit, not just because of the beauty of the surroundings and the quality of the wine but for the niceness of the people!
At Domaine Richeaume we met Henning Hoesch who created the estate in 1972, and his daughter Wanda. Tasting wine on a beautiful terrace covered in wisteria overlooking the Saint Victoire mountains (as painted by Cézanne), conveyed the passion of the family for making wine as naturally as possible, and the tasting in cellar demonstrated the exceptional quality Henning has achieved with Syrah, Cabernet and Carignan grapes.
Côtes de Provence – our Rosé day
An hour or so’s coach ride towards the coast between Cannes and St Tropez brought us to Chateau d’Esclans. Sacha Lichine, a scion of the family who owned Chateau Prieure Lichine in Bordeaux, identified in 2006 that there was a role for Provence in the growing interest in the USA in rosé wine. Not quite single-handedly he has put Provence rosé firmly on the international wine map with the Whispering Angel brand, now the US’s best selling AOC wine. We viewed some of the most advanced technology we’ve seen in a winery, including an optical grape sorter, which after hand sorting of the bunches, and destalking, ensures that any individual berries that are unripe or otherwise faulty are spat out.
We learnt here not to focus too much on the proportions of grapes in any wine. Like a champagne house, they are dedicated to producing high quality wine with a consistent style, and need the scale to do so – blending the grape varieties in different combinations depending on the outcome of the growing season. Several of us were already fans of Whispering Angel, though few of us felt we were in the league to pay €99 for a bottle of Garrus, a price point possibly linked to their proximity to glamorous harbours full of big yachts….
If D’Esclans had been an education in branding, our visit to Mirabeau en Provence was a masterclass.
Stephen and Jeanny Cronk took their family from Teddington to Cotignac at about the same time Sacha Lichine was setting up d’Esclans. Their three children went to the local school, Jeanny set about renovating the house and Stephen started his campaign to become a winemaker. Stephen had been given some great advice when starting out – focus on which of the “v’s” of wine you are good at – la viticulture (grape growing), la vinification (wine making) or la vente (sales). Stephen is without doubt a salesman. He has built his business with Waitrose without a vineyard or a winery. Instead, he has charmed the best producers to supply him their best wines (at the best prices), and employs a great winemaker (Nathalie) who, like the winemakers at d’Esclans, understands what people like in rosé wine, and how to blend wines from each year’s harvest to come up with very high quality consistent styles. We loved their rosés, which win prizes at all the best wine awards, and were very impressed with their whites and reds.
Bandol is regarded as being one of the best red wine producing areas in the whole of Provence, characterised by the use of the Mourvèdre grape which thrives on the particular terrain of both rich red soils and paler stonier limestone.
We visited Domaine Terrebrune, situated at the eastern end of the Bandol appellation and surrounded by this amazing, mineral rich red soil. The owner is somewhat reclusive so we were hosted by his charming wife. Utterly fabulous wines, a mineral laden white followed by 2014, 2012 and 2003 vintages of the red. This showed brilliantly how the Mourvèdre grape evolves into a rich, sinewy and leathery mix of fruit and spice.
Lunch followed a short stroll around the 14th Century village of La Cadière-sur-Azur with its stunning views before taking a delightful two course lunch at Le Bistrot de Jef which is part of the acclaimed Hostellerie Bérard.
Domaines Bunan combines the wines of two brothers. Our visit was to Moulin des Costes, the winery of Paul Bunan, whose vineyards are on chalky east facing slopes, while brother Pierre’s Château de la Rouvière’s vineyards could be viewed across the valley, on south facing clay. This gave us a fantastic opportunity to experience the impact of contrasting terroirs. We toured the winery, which is built on a slope to ensure gravity does some of the work of moving grapes and wine around, finishing in the barrel cellar with the huge oak casks, holding thousands of litres of wine, above our heads. The contrast between the two brother’s wines, driven by their aspect and underlying soil was fascinating, and another education in how approachable Bandol wines are even when young.
At Domaine de l’Estagnol, a long established family winery, Sandrine Ferraud, the sixth generation to run the estate, introduced us to their newest arrivals – Mourvèdre vines that had been planted the day before. Sandrine elegantly but graphically described the work to get these bare-rooted plants into the ground and watered, and the care she would be giving them over the coming weeks. The winery is in their Côte de Provence vineyard, they also have an AOC Bandol vineyard 30 minutes up the road by tractor. We squeezed into the tiny winery, negotiating a maze of stainless steel, cement and ceramic tanks and oak barrels, before tasting their range of wines in the shop, with locals popping in to buy the odd bottle or case, we tasted several wines including an older vintage of her Bandol Red.
Aix-en-Provence was a lovely place to stay, and we dined out in several lovely restaurants, our final night dinners being taken at Pointe Noir in the centre of town, and at Le Pigonnet, a very grand country house hotel now well inside the city.
What my clients said about this tour
“You gave us all a truly memorable trip to Provence…loved every moment….Thank you so much for all your superb organisation…looking forward to the next one.” – Mandi, Putney
“Thank you very much for another really wonderful tour to Provence. I thoroughly enjoyed the stunning locations, really delicious food and for me a complete revelation in rosé! I thought the visit to Caves D’Esclans was quite amazing.”– Paula Fox, Henley