The rosé wines of Provence are routinely rubbished by experts. That's because experts know nothing. In truth, the pinks heighten the sensuality of the sunlit south. We should get among them
Everyone knows about the unfairness of Provençal food. With all those fruit and veg, herbs, fish and olive oil, the diet is not only the most voluptuous in France but also, dammit, the healthiest. It’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest person (oldest with verifiable dates, that is) was a Provençal. Born in Arles in 1875, Jeanne Calment lived there for 122 years – giving up smoking, incidentally, at 117.
The sunshine stuff, in short, keeps you going. So, to give mortality a chance, let us turn to the region's wines. They are vital to the sensuous Provençal dining experience. And, if they don’t keep you fit, they’ll certainly keep you happy.
Provence being the world capital of rosé wines, most (some 85%) are pink. As such, they are dismissed by wine buffs as unfit for serious drinking. Take no notice. Wine buffs are among the most dementedly self-important people on earth. The truth is that frivolous wine drinking is often - usually - the most rewarding sort.
The further truth is the Provençal pinks have moved on considerably since they were the preserve of the pic-nicking classes. They are now better made, more aromatic and less likely to give you a stunning headache next morning. And they go splendidly with the region’s fare. There is no more seductive lunchtime prospect than a table bearing salads and a bottle of grey-pink wine beaded with condensation. The appeal of red and white wine may, if you insist, be mildly intellectual. The appeal of rosé is entirely lascivious. You don’t want to talk about it. You want to get your hands on it.
Possibly as a result, Provençal rosé is one of the few French wines prospering at the moment. Producers are buoyant, so now is a good time to call in. But where, exactly? Below, Provence is sliced up into sections, with vineyard visits suggested for each. That way, there should be at least one near where you’re staying. And if you’re still insisting, they have some ace reds and whites, too.
(* Prices are per 75cl bottle. Vineyard phone numbers are from within France)
North and Central Vaucluse (Orange, Carpentras, Mt Ventoux)
Domaine de l’Ameillaud, Cairanne (0492 308202, www.domaine-ameillaud.com). This is categorised as Côtes-du-Rhône, but it’s Provence to you and me. In the lee of the ragged Dentelles-de-Montmirail hills, Cairanne is a star wine village. Briton Nick Thompson’s produce shows why. His rosé is so good that he’s out of stock until spring 2010, when the 2009 vintage comes through. Cairanne reds from €7.50 are excellent value. Thompson looks like an insubordinate infantry officer. No-one explains wine-making better.
Clos du Caillou, Courthézon (0490 707305, www.closducaillou.com). This district also covers Châteauneuf-du-Pape territory. Caillou makes some of the finest, though you’ll not be getting much for under €20 a bottle.
Terrasses d’Eole, Mazan (0490 698482, www.terrasses-eole.fr). There are lunatics who like to cycle up the Mont Ventoux. Others prefer to potter round the edges of Provence’s bald-headed mountain, taking nature in a glass. The appellation here is Côtes-du-Ventoux, and Eole has some of the best. Try the Ventoureso rosé or Auro Rosso red, both under €7.
To stay: The Marquis de Sade used to own the Château de Mazan (Mazan, Nr Carpentras; doubles from €98). This may distress the loved one, so don’t mention it to her. She’ll never guess otherwise from the mix of 18th-century style, of light, arty décor – and excellent food. A painless experience, then.
Avignon / Arles district
Mas des Tourelles, Beaucaire (0466 591972, www.tourelles.com). The Romans had weird wine-producing habits – bunging in sea-water, fenugreek, lime, herbs or anything else that came to hand. Here, in a magnificent Provençal farmstead outside Beaucaire, owner Hervé Durand has recreated a proper Roman winery reproducing genuine Roman wines. Wonderful visit (€4.90; ring ahead) and intriguing brews like Mulsum: wine with honey, loads of spices – and excellent with curries, €11.80. Durand also has appreciable, mainstream Costières-de-Nîmes wines, from €5.20.
Domaine de la Citadelle, Ménerbes (0490 724158, www.domaine-citadelle.com). Yves Rousset-Rouard went from producing the Emmanuelle soft porn films to producing splendid Côtes-du-Luberon wines right here (by way of a stint as a French MP). The fact that the domain also boasts a Corkscrew Museum should surprise no-one.
To stay: For four-star Provençal standards in the turbulent landscape of Les Baux-de-Provence, book at LaCabro-d'Or (doubles from €150).
Château Vignelaure, Rians (0494 372110, www.vignelaure.com). Horse-racing trainer David O’Brien sold this place to a Swede in 2007. No wonder wealthy foreigners covet it. Some 1300-feet up, it’s a classic Provençal spread – sun-roasted stone buildings round a courtyard, itself surrounded by trees and vines. And the wines are leaders in the Côteaux-d’Aix appellation. Start with Le Page rosé (€8.70) and work up.
Mas de Cadenet, Trets (0442 292159, www.masdecadenet.fr). There’s outside, big-money investment in Provence (see above) and then there are families like the Negrels, who’ve been at Cadenet for seven generations. The wines get better and better. Cadenet pioneered an oak-vinified rosé for ageing (€15.55) which works wonderfully. It’s flanked by an excellent range of Côtes-de-Provence wines.
To stay: Ten miles from Aix, the Mercure Aix en Provence Ste Victoire (Châteauneuf-le-Rouge; doubles from €80) may be a chain hotel, but it’s a good one. Slotted into old-stone Provençal buildings, it’s all warm modern design within. Decent restaurant, too.
Clos Sainte Magdeleine, Cassis (0442 017028, www.clossaintemagdeleine.fr). Nestling under France’s highest coastal cliffs, Cassis is the loveliest spot on this stretch of seaside. It also provides the flinty white wines to tackle bouillabaisse, the fishiest fish dish in the world born across the headland in Marseille. From a cracking site – facing the sea, backing up the cliff – Le Clos produces some of the best from around €13.
Château de Pibarnon, La Cadière-d’Azur (0494 901273, www.pibarnon.com). If Cassis are the headline whites in Provence, then Bandol – further east along the coast - are the classic reds. None more so than Pibarnon’s, from a dramatic setting terraced high above the village of La Cadière-d’Azur. Brilliant rosés, too – though this quality doesn’t come cheap. Think €21.90, though the views are free.
To stay: Scattered through a cluster of buildings in the hilltopping village of La Cadière-d’Azur, the Hostellerie Bérard and Spa (doubles from €94) has deep Provençal roots, a swish of airy comfort, a spa and excellent eating.
Centre Var (Draguignan, Lorgues)
Château de Berne, Lorgues (0494 604360, www.chateauberne.com). Here we’re at the centre of the Côtes-de-Provence appellation. More a mini-kingdom than a vineyard, British-owned Berne lays on a raft of visitor possibilities (four-star country hotel, bistro, cookery courses, quad biking, concerts, you name it) alongside a well thought-out wine range, including fine rosés, from around €7.
Château Sainte Roseline, Les Arcs-sur-Argens (0494 995030, www.sainte-roseline.com). Ste Roseline was a 14th-century mother superior so esteemed by God that He decided to leave her intact. Her preserved, if blackened, body lies in a glass casket in the château’s chapel, overseen by a Chagall mosaic. Ponder this, before tackling, say, the Cuvée Prieuré rosé which, at €15.60, should settle you down.
Château Saint Martin, Taradeau (0494 997676, www.chateausaintmartin.com). Another noble pile – overseen by countesses of the same family since 1740. So the ladies have wine-making taped. And it comes with it an elegant feminine accent, notably in the Eternelle Favorite rosé at €13.70.
To Stay: Just outside Lorgues, the British-run La Sarrazine (375 Chemin de Pendedi; doubles from €85) is as welcoming as any chambres-d’hôtes in the region. Splendid gardens, too.
Var Coast (Toulon, Hyères, St Tropez)
St André-de-Figuière, La Londe-les-Maures (0494 004470, www.figuiere-provence.com). Head for the exotic bird sanctuary, then take the entry next door to a glorious vineyard run by more members of the Combard family than I can count. The landscape is arresting, the wines overlaid with rigour from dad Alain’s days in Chablis. If offered a bottle of Vieilles Vignes rosé (around €12), grab it and don’t give it back.
Château de Léoube, Bormes-les-Mimosas (0494 648003, www.chateauleoube.com). Just along from the French president’s seaside retreat at Bregançon, Léoube is the sort of spread – vines and olives, rocky hills, forest, huge sky and sea – which makes the rest of the world damned jealous. The wines, notably the Sécrets de Léoube pink at €14.50, are a further credit to owner Sir Anthony Bamford (the ‘B’ in JCB).
To stay: Perched up in the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, the Hostellerie Du Cigalou Chateaux & Hotels de France (Place Gambetta; doubles from €108) is a cracking renewal job on a fine old Provençal house.
Clos Saint Vincent, St Romain-de-Bellet (0492 151269, www.clos-st-vincent.fr). A hop, skip and a jump – but also a sinuous drive straight up – from the Promenade-des-Anglais, the tiny Bellet appellation produces Nice’s house wines. The setting is dramatic and Le Clos a leader among the 15 Bellet vineyards. Its rosé is a delight at around €20. Pricey? You’re in Nice. Get used to it.
To stay: Value-for-money isn’t a Niçois obsession, but the Hotel Windsor (doubles from €90) is a reasonable stab at some. The tone is arty, the welcome warm and the gardens lovely. The cheaper rooms are small, though.