In the Pink: drinking your way round Provence

by Anthony.Peregrine

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).

Aix-en-Provence district

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.

Marseille district

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.

Nice

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.

 

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.