Friday, May 24th, 2013
ChÃ¢teau de Pibarnon
Perched on a hill with glimpses of the Mediterranean beyond an amphitheatre of vines, ChÃ¢teau de Pibarnon is magnificently located for an understanding Bandolâ€™s topography and terroir. Add into the equation a fine neoclassical building plus elegant, long-living wines and you have a property that should be close to the top of any wine enthusiastâ€™s must-visit list.
Pibarnonâ€™s story is engaging, too. Eric de Saint-Victor (above) describes how his Paris-based parents, Comte Henri de Saint-Victor and his wife Catherine, dropped into the estate on a trip south in 1975, having enjoyed its red wine. â€˜They simply fell in love with it – and as the man who had succeeded Pibarnonâ€™s founder was finding life difficult on this rocky, dry land, they decided to buy it on the spot. It was a huge decision. My father didnâ€™t have independent means so it was a question of giving up his job, raising the finance and leaving Paris behind. My mother also hurled herself into the project with huge enthusiasm.â€™
Of the 16 hectares they purchased, only three-and-a-half were planted with vines – compared with 50 hectares today: one measure of Pibarnonâ€™s progress. More important, perhaps, is the evolution in approach which has seen the wines become more appealing than ever. â€˜Itâ€™s more about terroir than power,â€™ Eric de Saint-Victor explains, mentioning the combination of Trias limestone and clay which delivers layered complexity. â€˜We also pay more attention to detail – for example, deciding each year exactly how much we need to de-stem to achieve smoother tannins.â€™
While both the white and the rosÃ© are among the appellationâ€™s finest matching depth with rippling vibrancy, the enduring showstopper is the estate red, based almost entirely on MourvÃ¨dre. The last thing I did before leaving Bandol was to dash into the OenothÃ¨que and buy a few bottles of various vintages. With luck I should be able to tell you how they taste in ten yearsâ€™ time.
PS If you want to combine a visit to Pibarnon with an exceptional dinner, Hostellerie BÃ©rard is only a five-minute drive away…
Monday, May 20th, 2013
LA CADIÃˆRE Dâ€™AZUR
7 Rue Gabriel PÃ©ri
8374o La CadiÃ¨re d’Azur
04 94 90 01 94
PRICE RANGE – EXPENSIVE
The hotel which the BÃ©rard family have run since 1969 seems solid, comfortable, traditional, occupying a series of old houses and a convent in the flower-filled village of La CadiÃ¨re dâ€™Azur. Pushing open heavy shutters to look out across a valley of olive trees and vines, you feel lulled by the sense of timelessness that permeates the heart of provincial Provence.
But all this is misleading, because the Michelin-starred restaurant which lures most guests to Hostellerie BÃ©rard epitomises ProvenÃ§al cooking of the best modern kind. â€˜Our dishes have always been based on the same fresh, local produce but I brought lightness to the approach,â€™ explains Jean-Francois BÃ©rard (left) who joined his chef father RenÃ© in the kitchen in 2006, the year the first Michelin macaron was earned.
Actually, â€˜lightnessâ€™ doesnâ€™t remotely convey the deftness and precision underpinning BÃ©rardâ€™s food. Nor its deliciousness, with flavours so clean, lively and harmonious that you wish you could bottle them for all the fancy-pants chefs who think indiscriminate squirts of balsamic veloutÃ©Â add up to 21st-century sophistication.
The set menus beat the carte for value, ranging from â‚¬169 for eight courses (steep but read onâ€¦) to â‚¬49 for three (decidedly reasonable for cooking executed with so much flair).Â On the evening of our stay, the full tasting menu delivered so many exquisite dishes that it is impossible to nominate the winners.
Morilles with fresh local asparagus and very good Parmesan in a creamy sauce? Or sea urchin served unctuously soft and warm, with celeriac foam, on a bed of coarse salt and seaweed? Or tender milk-fed lamb – cutlets roast; shoulder confite and encased in an endive? Or a refreshing dessert of Plougastel strawberries with acidulated green apple and a hint of vanilla?
Freshness: thatâ€™s the secret here. Not just produce bursting with freshness, but the skill to keep the final flavours on each plate so fresh that the overall effect is uplifting – not overwhelming.
An exceptional wine list focusing particularly on top estates in Bandol (about 40 Tempier references!), Provence and the RhÃ´ne easily provides the perfect bottle or two for a very special meal. Breakfast lives up to expectations, too. As for the cookery classes, the sooner I manage to sign up, the better.
Thursday, May 16th, 2013
Best value wines – where?
ALL OVER PROVENCE
The other day a North American reader who will soon holiday in the south of France emailed a question which may well preoccupy others.Â â€˜Our party of four is looking forward to experiencing the food and wine of Provence and we want to enjoy tastings at several vineyards.Â My concern is this:Â we are not accustomed to spending a lot of money on wine – and Iâ€™m not sure how we can identify the high-end wineries.Â It would be a waste of everyoneâ€™s time if we were to pop into one, only to discover that the wines are extremely expensive. Any suggestions?â€™
Yes, certainly. Even the most prestigious wineries usually make one or two entry-level wines which are reasonably priced. Some will be straightforward CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne. Others may be IGP wines (Indication GÃ©ographique ProtÃ©gÃ©e, previously known as vins de pays) – not to be despised, by the way; many talented winemakers appreciate the freedom this category allows for experimentation.
However, the keenest value tends to be most thickly spread across lesser known appellations. So instead of gravitating to famous wine villages like ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Rasteau, it may be more productive to focus on less familiar (but still seriously worthwhile) villages such as Cairanne, SÃ©guret or Sablet. Better still perhaps, explore up-and-coming regions like the Ventoux (my top tip for everyday value); the CostiÃ¨res de NÃ®mes or the ArdÃ¨che.
As always with wine, itâ€™s wiser to buy an inexpensive bottle from a well regarded source than one from somebody with zero reputation. All the producers recommended on this site fall into the latter category, obviously. Among them, here are just a few whose wines represent lipsmacking quality at a modest price:
Domaine Alary (Cairanne); Domaine de lâ€™Amauve (SÃ©guret); VindÃ©mio (Ventoux); Domaine de Marotte (Ventoux – visitor-friendly); ChÃ¢teau Mourgues du GrÃ¨s (CostiÃ¨res de NÃ®mes – very well geared to visitors); Mas de Libian (ArdÃ¨che). Dip into some of these and you should manage to quench holiday thirsts even on a recession-squeezed budget.
Sunday, May 12th, 2013
7 Avenue Victor Hugo
04 42 01 89 27
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
Sundrenched and stylish, the small port of Cassis is such a summer beauty spot that the restaurants along its quayside attract customers without having to try. Iâ€™ve had too many dull dinners in Cassis – meals of admirably fresh fish marred by sloppy preparation or lazy, tasteless accompaniments. Tourist food, in other words. All the more vexing given the pristine deliciousness of Cassis white and rosÃ© wines.
So welcome to Angelina, a restaurant on the main street which has recently been overhauled under young chef Jean Marchal. What you lose in seafront views you gain on your plate. Modern ProvenÃ§al cooking, carefully executed, is the order of the day in this cheerful place which Iâ€™d describe as a bistro gastronomique except that itâ€™s less pretentious.
On a recent visit, the starter (see photo) was unctuous salmon mi-cuit served on a pea veloutÃ©, with finely shredded fennel, radish and horseradish cream adding a nice dash of piquancy. For main course, the Mediterranean fish known as maigre arrived not just in perfect shape (soft flesh, crisp skin, good flavour) but elegantly served on a long white plate with young artichokes and a fashionable blob of foam. Only a strange apple â€˜crumbleâ€™ (with crumbled biscuits) failed to impress.
Youâ€™ll find bottles from some of the best producers in Cassis on the wine list, besides top names from elsewhere in Provence. One other thing: to make the most of summer weather, thereâ€™s a patio out the back.
Wednesday, May 8th, 2013
Domaine de Piaugier
3 Route de Gigondas
04 90 46 96 49
With less than a dozen producers, Sablet isnâ€™t a high-profile wine village despite its prime location bang at the heart of the CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne. Even dedicated wine sleuths are inclined to zip straight through, heading for more famous neighbours – Gigondas, Cairanne, Rasteau. Instead they should stop at Domaine de Piaugier, an estate which has been a Sablet torchbearer for three decades.
Fourth-generation vigneron Jean-Marc Autran and his wife Sophie have about 30 hectares of vines. With just a small amount of land in Gigondas, most of the estate is made up of countless small parcels around Sablet, on terroirs more varied than the sandy soil which has given this appellation its name.
Unusually for the overwhelmingly red Southern RhÃ´ne, white wine is important here – and impressive. The Autrans were among the first in Sablet to vinify their white in oak barriques and the result is a fine advertisement for the process: rich yet elegant, marrying peachy fruit with a lick of honey and an edge of freshness.
Still more intriguing is the red TÃ©nÃ©bi made almost entirely from the old grape variety Counoise. â€˜I was interested to taste Counoise at ChÃ¢teau de Beaucastel because we have a small parcel of it remaining from my grandfatherâ€™s day,â€™ explains Jean-Marc. â€˜Immediately we decided to vinify it separately. â€™
Although, according to the Autrans,Â TÃ©nÃ©bi is not to everybodyâ€™s taste, I love this lively, peppery, strawberry-scented speciality; compared to sometimes over-lavish, over-alcoholic Grenache it embodies elegant restraint. And apparently it ages well. For value, availability and down-the-middle appeal, however, the unoaked red Sablet is the one to try.
Sunday, May 5th, 2013
Les Terres d’Estelle
17 Chemin du Mas de Boule
06 25 05 08 45
Always a keen gardener, Estelle Royat plunged headlong into cultivation in 2004 when she decided to take over her grandfatherâ€™s farm. â€˜I just couldnâ€™t bear to see his land going to pieces.â€™ A few years later she had the bright idea of selling her produce and that of a few friends in this cheerful little shop created in an auntâ€™s cellar.
Estelleâ€™s stock, all certified organic, is surprisingly wide-ranging. Glossy vegetables and fruits, attractively displayed on old cartwheels, include flavoursome heirloom varieties. Seeds of old varieties are also on offer alongside an array of seedlings diverse enough to make any potager owner salivate. (15 varieties of tomato plants the day I dropped by.)
Also worth hunting out are Estelleâ€™s homemade jams (melon with mint is a speciality); some tempting juices and a range of ArdÃ¨che chestnut products including a syrup to be drunk with sparkling wine. You might even risk a packet of gruau de blÃ© – an intriguing, nutty, grain a bit like petit Ã©peautre but coarser. Heavens, even just browsing here should make anybody feel healthy.
Wednesday, May 1st, 2013
ISABELLE GUICHARD – DOMAINE DE LA GUICHARDE
Taken from Isabelle Guichardâ€™s book Recettes des Vendangeurs (Recipes for Grape-pickers), this serves a horde of hungry people. Be sure to reduce the quantities for a smaller group!
36 sponge fingers
2kg strawberries (at least)
1 Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks with the sugar until the mixture is pale. Whip the whites until they stiffen well.
2 Mix the stiffened egg whites with the mascarpone, then incorporate the egg yolk and sugar mixture.
3 Wash and hull the strawberries and cut them into pieces. Set one half of the strawberries aside and blend the others in the mixer to make a coulis. Dip the sponge fingers into the coulis for a few seconds.
4 In a dish, make the tiramisu by alternating layers of the mascarpone mixture, the cut strawberries and the sponge fingers until you have created a lovely cake.
5 Chill for at least 3 hours before serving.
Recettes des Vendangeurs is published by Rouergue, www.lerouergue.com
Saturday, April 27th, 2013
WINE ESTATE WITH GÃŽTES
Domaine de Marotte
04 90 63 43 27
APPOINTMENT NOT ESSENTIAL
Vineyard audio tours with an iPod; picnics among the vines with a basketful ofÂ local specialities; apÃ©ritif sessions with winemaker and wines; cheese and wine tastings with Claudine Vigier of the fabulous Fromagerie du Comtatâ€¦ these are just some of the things that may lure you to Domaine de Marotte, a 16-hectare organic estate on the fringe of Carpentras with views to the Dentelles and Mont Ventoux. Apart from the wines, about which more in a minute.
Such enterprise! But owner Daan van Dyckman and his wife Elvira (in the photo, demonstrating the DIY tours) are entrepreneurial people. The son of a wine importer in Utrecht, Daan began an unofficial apprenticeship in Bordeaux at the age of 14 during school holidays; then worked in a South African brewery and a Dutch distillery before taking over what had been his parentsâ€™ dream project here in 1997. Elvira, a horticulturalist, plunged into her new Ventoux life with equal zeal.
Working since 2004 with Philippe Cambie, the Southern RhÃ´neâ€™s most prominent oenologist, the van Dyckmans have built up a solid portfolio of appealing wines at reasonable prices. A lightfooted Viognier (for which the grapes are picked at night) underscores Daanâ€™s enthusiasm for white wines: an area targeted for expansion. The red Vieilles Vignes is also well worth seeking out for its silky texture, pure damson fruit and fine tannins, spun together with typical Ventoux freshness.
Still more lures: three gÃ®tes and a pool.
Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013
Lamb from Sault
MONT VENTOUX & BEYOND
The abundance of fruits and vegetables grown in Provence, the heaps of tasty goatâ€™s cheeses, the mountains of olives and the wild flower honeys obscure one other local product which no visitor should miss. Lamb from Sault near Mont Ventoux, traditionally reared, is so highly regarded that it carries a red label with the inscription Agneau Ventoux Pays de Sault.
Marc Giardini, a farmer who gave up lavender production at Monieux to become a lamb specialist, suggests a simple test to prove the superior flavour of Sault lamb. â€˜Just compare the fat,â€™ he says. â€˜That of intensively reared lamb tastes horrible, especially when itâ€™s cold, whereas the fat of our lamb tastes almost sweet. Even the cooking smells of intensively reared lamb are nasty.â€™
Whatever about fat comparisons, thereâ€™s not a shred of doubt that the flesh of lambs reared only on meadow grass, organically grown fodder and their motherâ€™s milk tastes twenty times more succulent and flavoursome than the mass production equivalent.
About 30 producers around Mont Ventoux raise lambs in the traditional way, following the ritual of transhumance to move them to higher pastures of juicy grass in the summer. Look out for Sault red label lamb in the kind of restaurants that care about sourcing the best produce. The Hostellerie du Val de Sault is, of course, a handy starting point.
Saturday, April 20th, 2013
GOAT’S CHEESE PRODUCER
Le Biquet des Meaulnes
Ferme Les Meaulnes
3000 Route de Marseille
04 94 90 89 61
The address, Route de Marseille, sounds like a main road. Let me tell you itâ€™s anything but. Only the most intrepid gastro-explorers should contemplate a trip to the goat farm of the Bruno family in the hinterland of Signes, a small Var town in the foothills of the Massif de la Sainte-Baume. (One of Signesâ€™ most illustrious mayors, by the way, was pastis magnate Paul Ricard, after whom the nearby racing circuit is named.)
Climbing through patches of forest, you progress along increasingly narrow, bumpy tracks, saved from total bewilderment only by the occasional sign â€˜Le Biquetâ€™. Suddenly, a meadowful of goats rushing to greet you means youâ€™ve pretty much arrived.
Why bother at all? Because the Brunosâ€™ 120 white Saneens and brown Alpines are among the glossiest, cleanest, healthiest, happiest goats you could ever hope to see. And the cheeses made from their milk are exemplary. As is usual, they are sold at different stages of maturity, from a few days to two weeks old depending on purchasersâ€™ pungency preferences. My favourites are the fresh ones which come lightly sprinkled with wild savoury.
Le Biquet cheeses are also to be found in local cheese shops, restaurants and Ollioules market. Easier ways to get hold of them, certainlyâ€¦ but youâ€™ll miss a petting session with the friendliest creatures for miles around.
Tuesday, April 16th, 2013
3 Rue Alexandre Rossat
04 42 98 83 68
The harbourside bars of Cassis offer pretty views of bobbing boats and a passing show as stylish as any resort-town passeggiata - but rarely anything in the glass to tempt serious wine buffs. Which is no doubt why former sommelier Philippe Bellac opened Divino in 2011.
Only a few steps from the port, this congenial, unpretentious little wine bar is the perfect place to discover and compare some of the best wines of Cassis (or elsewhere, if you prefer), from a decent selection by the glass, chalked up on a blackboard, and a much wider assortment by the bottle. They are served with a few slices of excellent charcuterie and black olives – and more substantial cold plates are available if you feel hungry and inclined to linger.
Bottles from Bellacâ€™s handpicked selection may be bought to take home, as the wine bar doubles as a wine shop. The other point to bear in mind is that this spot hums all through the off-season, on evenings when more summery bars feel bleak.