Provence is suffused with history, especially Carolingian, with the Knights Templar, secret societies, the quest for the Holy Grail, Crusaders, pirates and invasions all thrown in. If you are taking a break there then "The holy blood and the Holy Grail" (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln. Arrow) would be eminently appropriate. Or try Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum", which is great if you like that kind of thing (I do).

The landscape is straight out of Poussin, but the Impressionists are probably most associated with Provence. The Michelin Green Guide has a wsealth of information about them. The Ardeche Gorge is impressive, and Avignon, Arles, Nîmes and Les Baux (see below) are well worth visiting. Should you happen to pass through Eygalières there is (was?) a little farmhouse restaurant just out of town, where you eat Granny's cooking outdoors with ducks and chickens pecking around, and served by her grand-daughter. (We arrived late for lunch, the menu was finished, but "would we care for an omelette and a glass of wine ?" - bliss: "An omelette and a glass of wine", Elizabeth David. Jill Norman, got its title from a similar incident). Nearby is the Church of Sainte-Sixte, infamous in our family for a rural handbag snatching incident. (No, not my handbag.)

Wine has been made here for some 2,300 years, and for centuries the thirst-quenching rosés have complemented the regional cuisine. The wines of Provence have, however, undergone something of a transformation over the past years, producing excellent reds and some promising whites. There are seven viticultural regions:

Scenic area overlooking the Med. Wines tend to be dearer because of myriads of tourists buying it up. Most famous for rosé and long-lived, intense, tannic reds made from at least 50% of the Mourvèdre grape. Best producers are Domaine Pradeaux, Domaine Tempier, Domaine de Pibarnon, Ott's Château Romassan, Château Vannières, and two properties called Moulin des Coste and Mas de Rouvière. Most hit their peak after 6-10 years in bottle.

Tiny appelation (~100 acres) in the hills above Nice. (If going to Nice try to go early and vist the fruit and flower market, not far from the seafront and somewhat east of the centre of the bay; fantastic colours and smells.) Red, white and rosé wines. Originally cultivated by the Phoenician Greeks about 500 BC. Best is Château de Crèmat, owned by the Bagnis family, producing only 6,000 cases per year. Expensive. Best recent vintages 1994, 90, 89, 88.

Tiny,charming village at western end of Côte d'Azur. Most of the wine made here is consumed locally, with the ubiquitous mouth-watering soupe de poisson. Makes red and rosé but most famous for white, often a blend of Ugni Blanc (used in Cognac and Armagnac to make brandy), Clairette and Bourbelenc. Best are Clos Ste.-Magdelaine (more shades of the Caroloingians!), La Ferme Blanche, and Domaine du Bagnol.

Coteaux d'aix-en-Provence
Gigantic viticultural area, N & W of Aix-en-Provence, acceptable but generally overpriced wines requiring drinking with 7-8 years. But two of the best wines in Provence are produced here; Domaine de Trevallon and Château Vignelaure. Both are red, capable of ageing 15-20 years, made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (=Shiraz elsewhere). Domaine de Trevallon is carved out of the rugged landscape near the medieval ghost town of Les Baux (from which the word bauxite - see also the Green Guide for history and blood and gore stuff). Note for lady visitors: the owner, Eloi Durrbach, is described as "ruggedly handsome". The 1990 vintage was fabulous. I also rate Mas de la Dame, also from Les Baux, very highly: it's not in the same category as Domaine de Trevallon but it's a damn' sight cheaper, and lately has been seen at house-wine prices in Dublin restaurants. It's a much more complex soul than the typical (good) Chilean or Oz to be found at the cheaper end of the carte.

Côtes du Luberon
Virtually all made by the regions co-operative. Located in N. Provence near Apt and Pertuis. Best estate is Château Mille, also promising is Château Val-Joanis. Excellent value.

Côtes de Provence
Best known and largest viticultural area, ~50,000 acres planted. Most famous for dry, flavoursome rosés. Best include Domaine Ott, Domaine Gavoty, Domaine Richeaume, and Domaine Saint-Andrè de Figuière.

Tiny appelation just east of Aix-en Provence with only one serious estate, Château Simone. Not expensive, ages well.


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