Leaving Bordeaux takes us South towards the Mediterranean, to break up the drive we stop for a night on the outskirts of Toulouse in the South-West before continuing through to the Provençal charms of the South. Even from the high speed Autoroutes we can see the dramatic change in countryside. The vines and woods of Bordeaux evolve through wide open fields of wheat, sunflowers, olives and lavender to the dramatic but spartan hillsides of Provence covered in oak, pines, wild herbs and scrub that can endure the dry heat and thin rocky soils. The roads a Wellington street planner would be proud of, barely 1.5 cars wide and windy with no centre lines and plenty of blind corners.
The towns here are like most of France - small, charming, oozing with character and history, and also seemingly largely empty. Especially in the mid-day heat, windows are shuttered and entire towns virtually close until the afternoon. We are staying in the hills surrounding the town of Barjols, some 1.5 hours East of Aix-en-Provence, and 1.5 hours Northwest of Saint-Tropez.
We are here of course for wine - Rumour has it that Rosé wine consumption continues to outpace other wine styles, and that it may already have eclipsed white wine volumes in France. In no other region is it more prominent than Provence where it makes up over 80% of production. Unlike most Kiwi Rosé though, it is pale in colour, dry, and crisp. Not just for enjoying in summer sunshine but all year round and pairs nicely with a wide range of seafood, salads, cheeses, and other kinds of foods. To us falls the onerous task of tasting dozens of them, assessing typicity, quality, and value for money.
Of particular interest to us are the wines of Bandol - a small but cherished appellation on the hills close to the Med, rocky dry soils that suit the king grape of this micro-region: Mourvedre. This late ripening and tricky grape variety grows with short sturdy trunks that can withstand the Mistral winds, the low rainfall and heat helping to produce small amounts of very intensely flavoured and tannic grapes. The vines share landscape with old olive trees to create a beautiful but rugged landscape.
The rosé in these parts has a unique length and concentration while coupled with a delicate floral aromatic elegance and a long minerality. The reds are made in smaller volume, but form bold, spicy, full bodied wines with excellent longevity. (Cédric Gravier from Domaine Suffrene showing us his outstanding wines including old vintages of his flagship red).
A visit to Chateau Escarelle is an interesting contrast, where 100 hectares of vines are nestled amongst 1,000 hectares of forest and regenerating nature. The estate was bought a few years ago by a wealthy technology businessman who set about building a brand new gravity fed high-tech winery, replanting woodlands, and converting the viticulture to organic practices. We enjoy a personal Jurassic-park style tour through the grounds in a hybrid-Prius (eco friendly of course), past their new butterfly garden and livestock areas designed to restore natural bio-diversity back to the vineyards.
No trip to Provence is complete without a trip to the beach, where the sea breeze moderates the heat slightly. Festooned with overpriced seaside bistros, artificial sandy beaches, with equal numbers of youngsters in skimpy bikinis and older sunworshippers bronzed by the long summer days.
We next depart for Paris on the famous high-speed TGV train that will take just 3 hours to whisk us from Marseille to the centre of Paris where our journey concludes. To read my previous blog about the Vinexpo wine fair click here.