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Profile of Les Baux de Provence

text and photographs ©2002 Tom Cannavan

I was delighted to receive an invitation recently, to visit the tiny French Appellation of Les Baux de Provence, a rugged, windswept area that nestles to the west of the Alpilles mountain range in the Mediterranean south. The occasion was the annual "Fête Les Vignerons", a wonderful celebration of local food and wine.

Les Baux sits in a beautiful little corner of Provence at the mouth of the Rhône. This is an area instantly familiar from the paintings of Cézanne and Van Gogh, where chalky white limestone outcrops on bauxite hills rise from a scrub-land of wild thyme and lavender, scattered with neat parcels of ancient vines and groves of olive trees (the mineral Bauxite, used in the production of aluminium, takes its name from the village). Visiting the area is easy for the UK wine lover, with low-cost airline Ryanair flying directly from London Stanstead to Nîmes, a pleasant one-hour drive away.

Les Baux itself is a fascinating hilltop village, most of it dating from before the 16th century, some from the 10th century. The narrow village road climbs steeply from the car parking area, as you wander through labyrinthine streets, heading ever upward towards the ruined Citadel of Les Baux. On my visit the Mistral was blowing the proverbial gale, but Les Baux thankfully has several cafés and restaurants within its ancient walls, offering some respite. Les Baux is an area of polyculture, with almost all farms growing olives and bottling fine estate olive oils (also an AOC product), as well as producing other fruits and nuts. The unspoilt beauty of the area is quite uplifting, and the wine estates extend a warm welcome to visitors.

The Appellation Contrôlée area of Les Baux de Provence was created less than a decade ago. It separates this enclave from the larger Côteax-d'Aix-en-Provence AOC for reds and rosés, whilst for the moment whites remain under the larger AOC. Vines planted here are mostly typical of the southern Rhône, including Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Counois for reds, with Rolle, Clairette and Ugni Blanc for whites. There are also plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sémillon.

left: Mas de la Dame as painted by Van Gogh in 1889

Because this is a tiny appellation of only a dozen estates, it would be easy to think of it as a winemaking backwater. Indeed, the wines tend to display an element of rusticity, with a deal of grippy tannin and little truck with flattering, sweet new oak. For palates schooled on the reds of the New World, or modern Vins de Pays from the nearby region of the Languedoc, these wines might be accused of having a slightly old-fashioned character. But this style should not be confused with poor winemaking or lack of quality: over my few days of drinking these wines I began to appreciate these wines more and more for what they are: wines made to be drunk with food, where that suggestion of rusticity was transformed into a wonderfully supple, savoury appealing wines, including some of profound quality.

But there are changes afoot too, which depending on your point of view, might worry or delight you. The producers of Les Baux have kept a watchful eye on their neighbours in the south, where plantings of "international" varieties are increasing rapidly, especially Syrah. In some of the estates - Château d'Estoublon and Mas Sainte Berthe for example - the cellars have acquired new oak barrels. The traditional foudres - large, old-wood vats - are still employed almost universally, but barrique fermentation, lees-stirring, and all the techniques of modern fine-wine making are gradually gaining ground. Special cuvées, both red and white, are being produced which are much more international in character, to sit alongside more traditional styles. The barrel-fermented Coin-Caché white and red of Mas de la Dame (with help from consultant oenologist Jean-Luc Columbo), or the Cuvée Louis David from Mas Sainte-Berthe, are examples of deluxe bottlings that are aiming for a premium position and more international market.

Visiting the dozen estates of the region can easily be done in a couple of days by car. Making appointments is recommended, as not all estates have official visitor centres, and invariably it will be the winemaker who will greet you, or some other important member of the workforce. One estate that is well set-up to receive visitors is also one of the most stunning: the biodynamic estate of Château Romanin. Romanin's cellars are carved deep into the rock face, a wonderfully atmospheric cave, where the story of bio-dynamic winemaking is told via displays around the walls and vats of maturing wine. There is a large, modern visitor's centre, shop and tasting bar. Drop-in visitors are welcomed.

Much work is going on in nearby Château d'Estoublon, where new owners the Schneider family are restoring both the 14th century house, and vineyard holdings. Estoublon is renowned for its olive oil, but now under the direction of Rèmy Reboul there is equal emphasis on regaining a once considerable reputation for wine. Eloi Dürbach of Domaine de Trévallon is a consultant. It is interesting that Trévallon, though without doubt the biggest name of this tiny enclave, produces his wines under the humble Vin de Pays appellation. The reason? He has refused to plant Grenache Noir in favour of the Cabernet and Syrah that make up his famous red blend, so does not qualify for AOC status.

Les Baux is fascinating little microcosm of the world of winemaking into the 21st century, where age-old traditions and methods are being forced to rub-shoulders with new thinking and technology. Whilst some areas - great swathes of the Languedoc for example - seem to have gone hell for leather after modernisation, it is, and will be, fascinating to observe the development of the wines from this tiny, relatively isolated region. All the signs from my visit show that there is wonderful quality in the vineyards here, and a group of like-minded and dedicated winemakers who are trying, perhaps even struggling, to accept the need for change, whilst preserving the very real qualities of their traditions.

They are doing a fine job so far of balancing tradition and modern wine tastes. As I said, I grew to appreciate these wines more and more, especially when drunk with good food: they offer a huge amount of character and quality for modest prices, and represent a fine balance between the old and the new. The wines of Les Baux are worth keeping an eye on - and well worth trying if you have the chance.

Left: the producers of Les Baux, with guest of honour, chef superstar Pierre Troisgros

Tasting the wines

click here for tasting notes on the wines of Les Baux

visiting

The Fête is held each year in November, with a tasting of all the wines of the area at the old Citadel, and a programme of visits and special dinners and lunches. Contact any of the Châteaux for information. Restaurant and hotel options are plentiful in nearby St-Rémy, a lovely old Provence town with plenty of dining possibilities and affordable accommodation from two- to four-star. I was lucky enough to stay in Les Baux itself, at the wonderful and opulent Oustau de Baumanière (13520 Les Baux de Provence, Tel. (33) 490 54 33 07). Chef/proprietor Jean-André Charial runs this famous Small Luxury Hotels of the World establishment, with its two-Michelin-starred kitchen and luxurious rooms. I ate there three times, and the food is truly fabulous, accompanied by an outstanding list of Provence wines. Rooms are large and beautifully furnished with delightful gardens on all sides.

address file

Domaine de Terres-Blanches
13210 St Rémy-de-Provence
Tel: (33) 490 95 91 66; Fax: (33) 490 95 99 04

Château d'Estoublon-Mogador
13990 Fontvieille
Tel: (33) 490 54 64 00; Fax: (33) 490 54 64 01

Château Dalmeran
13103 Saint-Etienne-du-Grés
Tel: (33) 490 49 04 04; Fax: (33) 490 49 15 39

Domaine Hauvette
chemin du Trou-des-Boeufs, la haute Galine
13210 St Rémy-de-Provence
Tel: (33) 490 92 03 90; Fax: (33) 490 92 08 91

Domaine De Lauzieres
13890 Mouries
Tel: (33) 490 47 62 88; Fax: (33) 490 47 62 89

Mas de la Dame
13520 Les Baux-de-Provence
Tel: (33) 490 54 32 24;
Fax: (33) 490 54 40 67

Mas de Gourgonnier
Le Destet, 13890 Mouries
Tel: (33) 490 47 50 45; Fax: (33) 490 47 51 36

Mas Sainte Berthe
13520 Les Baux-de-Provence
Tel: (33) 490 54 39 01; Fax: (33) 490 54 46 17

Domaine Olivier d'Auge
13990 Fontvieille
Tel: (33) 490 54 62 95; Fax: (33) 490 54 67 63

Château de Romanin
13210 St Rémy-de-Provence
Tel: (33) 490 92 45 87; Fax: (33) 490 92 24 36

Domaine de la Vallongue
Quartier de la Vallongue, 13810 Eyguières
Tel: (33) 490 95 91 70; Fax: (33) 490 95 97 76