John Brunton, The Guardian, April 17, 2014
Provence spans several very different winemaking regions, and this wine route starts in Toulon, heads down to Saint-Tropez across the vineyards that cling to the edge of the Mediterranean, then turns inland, through classic Provençal landscapes of lavender fields and olive groves into the wild countryside of the Massif des Maures. Historically known for light, drinkable rosé, this are now also makes some exciting red wines, with many young vignerons moving towards organic production, so don't be surprised to see horses ploughing through the vineyards or a herd of grazing sheep replacing weed killers. Village bistros serve hearty portions of traditional Provençal cuisine, and although the grand châteaux tempt travellers with luxury accommodation, many winemakers are also beginning to offer more affordable B&Bs.
WINEMAKERS TO VISIT
Domaine de l'Estagnol
Bandol is one of the oldest and most prestigious appellations in Provence, and prices at renowned wineries can be €20-€30 a bottle. The picture is very different at down-to-earth Domaine de l'Estagnol, where Sandrine Feraud is a sixth-generation viticultrice with probably the smallest vineyard in Bandol, just 1.5 hectares, plus another six hectares outside the appellation. A former rugby player, Sandrine has a tiny cellar where she uses a mix of traditional cement vats with innovative tronconic wooden barrels (in the shape of a truncated cone). The Bandol vineyard lies up in the hills, "and each vine can see the sea", says Sandrine, "as the mourvèdre grape used in Bandol should traditionally enjoy a sea breeze." Her 2011 Bandol Rouge is a bargain at €13.50, while even the vin de pays is worth tasting: a five-litre bag-in-box costs €16, perfect for a picnic or barbecue.
• 1426, route de la Cadière, Saint-Cyr-sur-mer, +33 6 13 07 69 35, domainedelestagnol.com
Just across from the Bandol appellation lie a series of idyllic islands, the Iles d'Or, a protected national park of secluded beaches, dense woods – and three vineyards on the main island of Porquerolles. A swift ferry from the Presqu' île de Giens, south of Hyères arrives at Porquerolles, and a 10-minute stroll brings you to the domaine of Cyrille Perzinsky and his New Zealander wife, Stephanie. She is great at explaining the unique background of their wines during a lazy tasting under the pine trees outside their rather chaotic garage cellar. After the second world war, the park authorities decided to uproot a small part of the island's forests and replant with vines as a fire barrier. The oldest vineyard, Domaine de l'Isle, dates back to the 1950s, and Cyrille and Stephanie, who used to be the island's postie, began a 10-hectare vineyard in 1989. It's difficult to resist their fruity, fresh €8.50 rosé on a hot afternoon.
• Chemin de la Pépinière, Ile de Porquerolles, +33 4 94 58 34 32, perzinsky.com
Domaine de Tourraque
Ramatuelle is just down the coast from glitzy Saint-Tropez, but past the jet-set beaches of Tahiti and Pampelonne, the scenery gets wilder as you enter the protected headlands Les Trois Caps, and right at the end of the road (more of a deeply rutted endurance-test track) lies one of the most spectacular vineyards in Provence. Domaine de Tourraque stretches over 38 hectares, with two exceptional parcelles, one running right to a precipitous edge looking down on waves crashing into a rocky bay, the other almost at the edge of a sandy beach. While tastings are free of charge – and their organic wines are high quality and well-priced – the catch comes if you want to see the vineyards. They are only accessible on an organised two-and-a-half hour excursion in a four-wheel jeep with the winemaker himself, costing €28pp – pricey, but an unforgettable experience.
• Chemin de la Bastide Blanche, Ramatuelle, +33 4 94 79 25 95, latourraque.fr
Domaine des Trois Chênes
You have to go off the beaten track to discover the small estate of artisan vigneron Régis Scarone, hidden away in the wild Vallée des Borrels, a 20-minute drive inland from the Côte d'Azur. Cultivating vines that are over 50 years old, he has firm ideas about his wine. The grapes are picked by hand, with the white and rosé aged in old-fashioned cement vats, and a mix of old and new barrels used for the red. Although he has virtually eliminated chemical treatments in the vineyards, Regis steers clear of the official organic certification, because 'there is just too much bureaucracy'. You'll be hard put to find better value than his crisp Trois Chênes rosé at €6.40, or €9.50 for the Jules Scarone red, a complex blend of cinsault, grenache and mourvèdre grapes, barrel-aged for 14 months.
• 45-19 3emes Borrels, +33 4 94 65 68 72
Christophe Durdilly's winery is an under-the-radar address in this part of Provence. The place is difficult to find, at the end of a dusty track, and you have call first to arrange a dégustation – and get directions. His wines are mostly classified outside the official appellation, sold as win de pays, though prices are higher than most Côtes de Provence winemakers, roughly €15-€25. But once you taste the stellar wines of this maverick sommelier-turned-vigneron, you realise it is well-worth the detour. He has been working this small seven-hectare estate – with no plans to enlarge – since 2005, maintaining ancient 70-year-old bush vines of carignan and mourvèdre that most other winemakers would have dug up and replanted. Not only are the wines organic, but he keeps sulphites to a minumum, so there is an explosive fruitiness, especially in his Suve du Vent Rouge.
• Le Suve du Vent, Puget-Ville, +33 6 11 86 93 80, domainecroixrousse.com
Domaine de la Fouquette
Two generations of the Daziano-Aquadro family run this brilliant B&B that combines honest organic wines with gargantuan meals, and comfortable rooms in a rustic chalet. Down on the plain, in the shadow of the looming Massif des Maures mountains, Jean-Pierre Daziano cultivates 14 hectares of vines, with an award-winning rosé sold for €6.70. Take a drive up the hillside and you are soon lost in a thick wood of chestnut trees, pines and cork oaks, eventually coming out at a stone auberge where his wife, Isabelle, runs a weekend restaurant using products direct from their farm. Isabelle's parents the jovial Michèle and Yves, run the B&B: they started the whole domaine 25 years ago. The rooms are very reasonably priced and it is worth joining the table d'hôte to eat and drink with the family in the evening. Michèle is a wonderful cook, preparing local specialities such as daube de boeuf and rabbit roasted with summer savory, and vegetarian dishes if requested in advance.
• Les Mayons, +33 4 94 73 08 45, domainedelafouquette.com. Doubles from €65 including breakfast; table d'hôte dinner including aperitif, wine and digestif €25
Château de Saint-Martin
Although this is a bit more expensive than a B&B, a night in this fairytale 18th-century chateau surrounded by 40 hectares of vines is worth splashing out for. The charming octogenarian owner, the Comtesse de Gasquet, lives in the castle and her daughter, Adeline, runs the vineyard – Saint-Martin is a rare property whose ownership has always been passed on from mother to daughter. The bedrooms have ornate antique furniture, vintage wallpaper and grand four-poster beds. Guests can relax in the chateau's library and enjoy an evening aperitif on the terrace looking out over the vines. Wine tastings take place in the medieval cellars, and guests can also have a tour of the modern winery and vineyards.
• Route des Arcs, Taradeau, +33 4 94 99 76 76, chateaudesaintmartin.com. Double from €100 including breakfast
Paul Bernard's big modern winery Paul Bernard sits on a busy road, and if you look up the hill, past the symmetrical lines of vines, you can glimpse the family chateau, where he has just opened two B&B rooms. Don't expect anything too palatial: Paul and his father are just at the start of renovating this rambling, tumbledown mansion, though the two new guestrooms could not be more comfortable. There is a stunning panorama from the terrace – the perfect place to taste the outstanding and excellent-value wines produced on the estate. Paul is one of Provence's up-and-coming vignerons, and be sure to try both his signature €7 Tradition Rosé, perfect for a hot summer's day, and the intense €12 Prestige Rouge.
• 400 Chemin de Matheron, Vidauban, +33 4 94 73 01 64, chateau-matheron.com. Doubles from €65 including breakfast
BISTROS AND WINE BARS
La Table de Pol
This lively bistro dominates the buzzing town square of picturesque Lorgues, and includes a wine bar and foodie boutique stocking local specialities such as truffles, saffron, saucisson, cheeses and honey. At lunchtime the terrace is packed with locals tucking into either the hearty €16 set menu, or the €15 provençale dish of the day, which ranges from a huge plate of petits farcis (stuffed courgette, aubergine and tomatoes), a bourride seafood stew, or the classic aïoli of cod, locally farmed vegetables and a wicked garlicky mayonnaise, always served on Fridays. In the bar à vin at the back you can just have a plate of freshly sliced jambon, homemade pâté and creamy goat's cheeses, choosing from their wide selection of wines from all over Provence, many of them organic.
• 18 Place Georges Clémenceau, Lorgues, +33 4 94 47 08 41, latabledepol.com
The sleepy Provençal village of Trans is marked by a spectacular series of waterfalls that cascade through the historic centre. At the bottom, looking out over a maze of ancient rocky caves, is a lively bar à vins, Miss Jaja. Opened last year by Laetitia Guerrero, it's already a favourite rendezvous of vignerons and wine-lovers. The decor is fun and chaotic, a mix of kitsch 1960s sofas, formica tables and antique mirrors, and the menu features simple tasting plates of local charcuterie and cheeses, at €16 for two people. But as the name implies – Jaja is slang for wine – the bar is all about wines, and Laetitia is serious about keeping prices affordable. A glass of Côtes de Provence starts at €2.80, while the most expensive is €4, with over a dozen different local producers showcased each month. And for those who don't have time to visit wine estates, bottles to take away start at €9.
• Place des Moulins, Trans-en-Provence, +33 9 53 55 05 04, facebook.com/pages/Miss-Jaja
John Brunton blogs on thewinetattoo.com
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk