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.
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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.
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