My Life in Provence: Visiting Local Wine Domaines
Whenever friends and family visit us, someone usually brings up the idea of following the local Route des Vins, spending an afternoon tasting AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence wines and acquiring a few bottles on the way. But these visits aren’t without complications. One inevitable hurdle is that someone has to be the driver and therefore can’t join in the tasting. Of course you’re supposed to discreetly spit out the wine but we all know that this doesn’t always happen. Another impediment can be that not everyone in the group wants to spend their afternoon tasting, and for children vineyard visits can be a real drag.
The way to keep everyone happy is to find a winery that has more to it than a cellar full of barrels and a tasting room. Two very different estates cum cultura in the Aix area are Château la Coste and Château Bas.
Château la Coste
Château la Coste is only 15 minutes north of Aix, up a gorgeous little country road towards Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, and I go there whenever I need peace, quiet and inspiration. I don’t think there’s another place like it in the world.
Its art-loving Irish owner, Patrick McKillen, acquired the ancient 130-hectare wine estate in 2004 and quietly opened it to the public in 2011. The location is breathtaking and it’s not hard to see why the Romans grew vines at this idyllic spot in Provincia, their home away from home. The prestigious domaine now produces 650,000 bottles of acclaimed organic wines per year and its tasting room and shop are a Mecca.
Mr McKillen’s vision was not restricted to producing excellent organic wines – he wanted to turn the estate into a special place where art, architecture and landscape would integrate harmoniously. So he invited world-renowned contemporary artists, such as Tom Shannon, Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder, to explore the estate and choose their favourite location in its grounds to create unique integrated artworks. In addition, Pritzker Prize-winning architects Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano designed works, including an ultra-modern chai, a music pavilion and an arts centre. There are over 20 monumental art installations and many are interactive. Children will love Foxes by REM singer Michael Stipe and Paul Matisse’s giant Meditation Bell.
The art and architecture of this unique open-air gallery can be experienced during a two-hour walk, but I like coming for shorter visits, stopping to admire the views and afterwards enjoying a light lunch with a friend in the art centre’s café.
For a much quicker visit, Château Bas at Vernègues is ideal. Situated 20 minutes north-west of Aix-en-Provence, it was built on the site of a Gallo-Roman settlement and restored in the 17th century. Wine lovers will enjoy the white, rosé and red produced there and the tasting room is open year-round.
Its beautiful grounds harbour the remains of a first-century BC Roman Temple, first recorded in the 18th century by Abbé Couture and supposedly intended for worshipping Jupiter. Historians suspect that Gauls worshipped here as well, based on the presence of a nearby spring. The temple still has a tall Corinthian column, and the 11th-century Saint-Cézaire chapel remains intact against its east wall. The ruined Roman temple is a surreal vision with the occasional high-speed TGV train silently passing by, seamlessly blending the centuries.
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