Over half a century ago, Elizabeth David, the doyenne of British food writers, wrote somewhat disparagingly about the wine of Provence.
“It was”, she wrote, “the kind of wine which it was wisest to drink out of a tumbler so that there was room for a large proportion of water”!
She was talking specifically about the wines of the Luberon, but her opinion of Provençal wines in general was not much higher.
“Most of them,” she wrote, “are made by the co-operative societies nowadays, and what they have lost in character they appear to have gained in fieriness.”
Well, what a surprise Ms David would have today!
It’s probably true to say that over the course of the last two or three decades the wines of Provence have increased in range, quality and popularity more than those of any other French wine area.
This has been due to a number of things: the harnessing of modern wine-making techniques, the introduction of new, hardier, more reliable grape varieties, and, of course, the arrival of a new breed of young, intelligent, dedicated winemakers.
Today the wines of Provence are amongst the most appreciated and sought-after in France.
And, best of all, they continue to improve!
It is convenient to divide the wines of Provence into two main areas.
Firstly, there are the wines of the Southern Côtes du Rhone, beginning just above Avignon and running practically the whole length of the Rhone valley.
Although some excellent white wines are produced, the region is best known for its fine, heady, powerful reds, which are particularly suited to the rich, spicy, full-flavoured food of Provence.
The most famous, of course, is Chateauneuf-du-Pape – and no visit to the region would be complete without a trip to that charming and totally wine-dominated little town. But there are other, equally illustrious, although not quite so well-known, labels, such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Hermitage, etc.
Further south, one starts to encounter the less-famous but steadily improving wines designated simply as Wines of Provence. There are eight appellations d’origine controlées wines, as follows:
AOC Cotes de Provence: Best known until now for its fresh, light rosés, this appellation also produces wonderful, herb-flavoured reds and an increasing range of aromatic whites, many of which will continue to improve with age.
AOC Coteaux d’Aix en Provence: Reds, whites and rosés, continually improving, mostly made to be drunk young and fresh.
AOC Les Baux de Provence: The appellation refers only to the reds and rosés. These are strong, elegant wines developing faint but distinct truffle flavours with age.
AOC Palette: An appellation since 1948, these are outstanding red, white and rosé wines which can be laid down for many years.
AOC Coteaux Varois: Fresh, young wines of all categories, quite similar to Cotes de Provence, but made to be drunk younger and sooner.
AOC Cassis: Believe it or not, the oldest appellation in the whole of France! Full-bodied, fragrant white wines, perfectly suited to the wonderful fish and seafood of the region. Some reds and rosés also produced.
AOC Bandol: The whites and rosés are certainly worth trying, but this appellation produces really exceptional full-bodied reds which can be lain down for up to 30 years with no problem.
AOC Bellet: From the area above Nice, this apellation produces red, white and rosé wines, although the whites predominate. These are fresh, elegant wines with both almond and citrus flavours. The rosés have hints of honey aromas, and the reds a hint of cherry.
More and more wine merchants and supermarkets are starting to stock Provençal wines – but you may have to search for them. Compared to other wine regions of France, such as Bordeaux, Beaujolais, the Languedoc, etc. Provence produces a relatively small harvest – and the Provencal wine-lovers like to keep it for themselves! Certainly, the more well-known Cotes-du-Rhone wines are readily available. If you’re interested in trying some of the more obscure wines, have a word with a specialist wine dealer and see if he can order some for you.
Better still – visit Provence and buy them on site.
This article has been adapted from the author’s web site dedicated to the food, wine, restaurants and recipes of Provence.
There are, quite literally, thousands of restaurants in Provence!
Over the past couple of decades we’ve tried to sample as many as humanly possible – but we are beginning to realize that we’ve hardly scraped the surface!
Here are some brief notes on just a selection of the restaurants we have eaten in (and enjoyed!) over the last few years.
Most of them are in the Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhone regions of Provence (our favorite stamping grounds), with just the occasional foray into the Var and the Alpes Maritimes.
Some (not all) of the restaurants have their own websites. These include photos, sample menus, wine lists, etc. One or two even have virtual tours and online reservation facilities.
Please be advised these are not casual, informal places. While gentlemen may not be expected to wear a jacket and tie (except at the Louis XV in Monaco) you may be looked at somewhat askance if you turn up in jeans and trainers. Aim for a smart casual look and you should be OK. And it’s always a good idea to telephone ahead to reserve a table.
The arrangement is alphabetical by location.
Le Clos de la Violette Avenue de la Violette 13090 Aix-en-Provence Bouches-du-Rhone Tel: 04 42 23 30 71 URL: http://www.closdelaviolette.fr
One of the best (and best-loved) restaurants in Provence, Le Clos has one Michelin star and serves exquisite cuisine prepared with skill and panache by the proprietor, Jean-Marc Banzo. Set in a quiet, residential corner of Aix, with an elegant terrace for summer dining, the food, wine and service are beyond reproach.
Brunel Rue de la Balance 84000 Avignon Vaucluse Tel: 04 90 85 24 83
In his air-conditioned, contemporary restaurant in an arcade of shops not far from the palais des Papes, self-taught local chef Robert Brunel serves up a light, modern cuisine based around fresh local produce. Fish and vegetables predominate. Good value menus for both lunch and dinner.
Christian Etienne Rue de Mons 84000 Avignon Vaucluse Tel: 04 90 86 16 50 URL: http://www.christian-etienne.fr/
Beautifully sited alongside the palais des Papes, this elegant restaurant has one Michelin star and an enviable local reputation. The a la carte menu and several set-price options offer a wide choice of specialities, including lobster, truffles and the famous “all-tomato” menu in summer. Charming and professional service. Great food. Great local wines. Highly recommended.
Hiély-Lucullus Rue de la Republique 84000 Avignon Vaucluse Tel: 04 90 86 17 07
A well-loved Avignon institution that has been serving businessmen and local families for over 60 years (although now under new management and with a new chef). It’s rather inconguously sited above a shop on Avignon’s main street, but don’t let that put you off. Prices are extremely reasonable, and the food is delicious and plentiful. A good place for Sunday lunch.
L’Oustau de Baumanière Val d’Enfer 13520 Les-Baux-de-Provence
One of the jewels in the Provençal gastronomic crown, this is a truly world-class restaurant and hotel – with prices to match! It has two Michelin stars and an international clientele, and lunching or dining here, preferably on the beautiful terrace with the dramatic contours of Les Baux looming overhead, is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime (if rather extravagant) experience.
La Cabro d’Or Val d’Enfer 13520 Les-Baux-de-Provence Bouches-du-Rhone Tel: 04 90 54 33 21 URL: http://www.lacabrodor.com/
This charming hotel/restaurant is the younger and (slightly) cheaper sibling of the renowned L’Oustau de Baumaniere (see above), just along the road. The beautiful setting, superb food and attentive service all come highly recommended.
Bastide de Capelongue Lieu dit Croupatiere 84480 Bonnieux Vaucluse Tel: 04 90 75 89 78 URL: http://www.capelongue.com
After having made a name and enviable reputation for himself at the Moulin de Lourmarin, handsome super-chef Edouard Loubet has now moved a few kilometres along the road to this sumptuous hotel/restaurant in Bonnieux. Loubet’s cooking is as innovative and inventive as ever – and his two Michelin stars have swiftly followed him! Early reports are ecstatic.
There are plenty of fish and seafood restaurants along the colorful, bustling harbor of this delightful little town. This one is a little more sophisticated and up-market than most, with its bright Italianate decor, friendly staff, lovely food and superb local wines, all presided over by the charming, eagle-eyed, unflappable Bruno. You will find most of the classic fish and seafood dishes of Provence here: bouillabaisse, bourride, sea bass, sea bream, red mullet, gambas, etc. Definitely one of our personal favourites. Highly recommended. (Stop press: three superb state-of-the-art rooms with breathtaking views of the harbor and the sea cliffs beyond have just been added. Check out the web site for photos and details.)
In his sumptuous restaurant in a rather anonymous town, Jean-Jacques Prévot serves up a range of elegant, inventive dishes. The town is famous for its melons, and these feature widely (and imaginatively) on the menu.
Le Bistrot d’Eygalières Rue de la Republique 13810 Eygalières Tel: 04 90 90 60 34 URL: http://www.chezbru.com/
A bit of a misnomer, this is hardly a bistro, but a decidedly upmarket restaurant serving superb food. Prices are quite reasonable for the range and quality of the food on offer, and the wine list is a veritable treasure-trove of local wines. (Stop Press: This restaurant has just been awarded its second Michelin star!)
L’ISLE SUR LA SORGUE:
Le Jardin du Quai 91 avenue Julien Guige 84800 L’Isle sur la Sorgue Vaucluse Tel: 04 90 20 14 98 http://www.danielhebet.com
Young super-chef Daniel Hebet – who made such a name for himself at the luxurious Hotel de la Mirande in Avignon some years ago – has now set up shop in this delightful, antique-laden town. This is a much simpler, more informal place, but with the occasional haute cuisine flourish. Lovely, imaginative, market-fresh dishes with little (if any) choice. Four courses for about 40 euros. Don’t miss it!
(Look out for Part 2 of this article very shortly)
About the Author
This article has been adapted from the author’s web site dedicated to the food, wine, restaurants and recipes of Provence. You can check it out here: http://www.cafe-de-provence.com