Val Joanis
The green hills of Luberon form a backdrop for the vineyards of Val Joanis.
Provence: Luberon and Bandol (Sunday and Monday, June 16-17)

After five nights based in Avignon with daily short trips to cover the Southern Rhone, on Sunday early we hit the road for the last full day of the tour, a quick run down through Provence to Bandol. A longish bus ride to the east through Aix-en-Provence brought us to the hilly, scenic vistas of the Luberon (which you may recall as the locale Peter Mayle describes in his Provence books) and our first winery stop of the day, Val Joanis.

Chateau Val Joanis

This property was in disarray, and little or no wine was grown in the region when winemaker-owner Jean-Louis Chancel purchased it in 1977. But the land was historic - on the site of an ancient Roman villa and once owned by Jean de Joanis, secretary to King Louis III of Naples, it is one of the few French estates that survived revolutions with no change in its boundaries since the 16th century.

Jean-Louis Chancel
Jean-Louis Chancel at Val Joanis
Nurturing the soil and the vines, Chancel has turned it into a showplace producing exceptional wines. The attractive winery building is also surrounded by spectacular gardens.

Chancel, a man whose passion shows through in his words as well as his wine, told us, "We strongly believe in the terroir." The Val Joanis vineyards, he said, grow on one of the highest points in the region, an elevation shared only by Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Condrieu. He said the microclimate effects of altitude - warm days but cool nights - ensure full maturity in the grapes.

The sprawling 500-hectare estate grows Syrah, Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay and Roussanne, grown with little inorganic intervention. "We've changed completely the way we grow wine," Chancel said. "No fertilizer, and little by little we stopped using herbicides. We go back to the old technology, using only protection for insects ... and that reduced."

Lavender
The famed lavender of Provence, growing in profusion in the Val Joanis gardens.
We tasted the current Val Joanis releases in the winery's shady courtyard, which also made a lovely setting for an alfresco lunch after our tour and tasting.

Chateau Val Joanis 2001 Réserve les Aubépines Côtes de Luberon Blanc - Clear, bright straw color. Aromatic apples and spice, fresh and clean. Crisp, ripe apple flavor structured with fresh-fruit acidity. A blend of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne.

Chateau Val Joanis 1999 Réserve les Griottes Côtes de Luberon - Dark reddish-purple, with forward scents of perfumed fruit and fragrant black pepper, juicy and ripe. Almost entirely (96%) Syrah, with a dash of Grenache.

Chateau Val Joanis 2001 Côtes de Luberon Rosé - Clear, pale rosy pink with pleasant herbal aromas backed by crisp, snappy fruit.

Chateau Val Joanis's Website is at http://www.val-joanis.com/, with an English-language presentation at http://www.val-joanis.com/index2.htm. Its products are represented in the U.S. by Pasternak Wine Imports, Greenwich, Conn.

Chateau La Rouvière

Another longish drive took us down to the Mediterranean seacoast at the village of Bandol, then back up the steep coastal mountainside to Chateau La Rouvière, where the tasting room manager took us on a quick tour of the modern facilities, followed by an extensive tasting of the wines it produces under two labels. The family-owned winery has been in business for 42 years, and grows vines on 70 hectares in Bandol, another 10 in the surrounding Côtes de Provence.

In a quick overview of Bandol, he pointed out that regulations require the local red wine to be at least 50 percent Mourvèdre. The region receives 300 days of sunlight per year, and with the moderating influence of the nearby Mediterranean, produces powerful and complex wines redolent of red and black fruits, game and spice, with ample tannins ... wines to keep in the cellar. "The best way to drink a red Bandol is after 10 to 15 years, but five at least," he said. "It will easily last to 20."

The winery produces wines under both the Chateau La Rouvière and Domaines Bunan labels. Its Website in English is online at http://www.bunan.com/anglais.html; it's also available in French and Swedish, and it is imported to the U.S. by several regional importers including House of Fine Wines in NYC, Riservati in Seattle; Wine Wise in Berkeley and New France Co. in St. Louis.

We tasted through most of the wines in current release:

Domaines Bunan 2001 Moulin des Costes Bandol Blanc (€10) - Clear bright straw color. Delicious aromas, floral and tropical, white flowers, figs and dates. Crisp and tart, clean fruit flavors, acidic and long.

Chateau La Rouvière 2001 Bandol Blanc de Blancs (€11.50) - Clear light brass color, with a distinct scent of green olives; full-bodied and balanced on the palate. It's 100 percent Clairette.

Domaines Bunan 2001 Moulin des Costes Bandol Rosé (€10) - Clear light copper color, a good example of the shade that the French call Peillure d'oignon or "onion skin." Distinct herbal scent of rosemary over red-berry fruit. Mouth-filling and tart, herbs and fruit flavors, more forward and ripe than you'll find in many rosés.

Chateau La Rouvière 2001 Bandol Rosé (€11.50) - Very pale copper color. Herbaceous, olives and herbes de Provence. Full and ripe, berries and herbal notes, crisp and tart. Excellent rosé.

Domaines Bunan 2000 Moulin des Costes Bandol (€11.50) - Inky dark reddish-purple, with an immense aroma, mincemeat and black fruit, "sweet" and ripe. Hulking and fiercely tannic. Abundant fruit carries through the tannins, but as Bunan noted, it needs time. A blend of 70 percent Mourvèdre, 25 percent Grenache and 5 percent Syrah.

Chateau La Rouvière 1999 Bandol (€15.50) - Very dark ruby, black at the core. Raw meat, game and ripe black fruit aromas; mouth-filling flavor, loads of tannin but so much fruit that it's easy to drink it now. Almost entirely Mourvèdre with just 2 percent Grenache.

Bandol
Water, sea and sky in this photo of the port of Bandol, where the mountains meet the sea, demonstrate why this region is called the Cote d'Azur.

Dinner at Les Salons de L'Hostellerie Berard

We wrapped up the last full day of our trip with a short walking tour of Bandol (pictured), followed by a short trip up to the hilltop village of La Cadière d'Azur, where we stayed at the excellent Hostellierie Berard and enjoyed our last dinner as a group in its fine restaurant, Les Salons de L'Hostellerie Berard.

With soupe de melon glacée, menthe fraiche, a delicious, mint-scented cold melon soup:

Domaine de la Tour de Bon 2000 Bandol Blanc - Floral and tart, seems rather simple with a hint of bitterness at first, but opens up to greater complexity and roundness as it warms in the glass. Moral of the story: Even on a steamy summer evening, don't serve whites too cold.

With sandre poêlé sauce raïto, a mild, white freshwater fish on a rich, sweet red-wine sauce and risotto aux courgettes, a first-rate risotto studded with fine-diced zucchini:

Château Simone 1998 Palette - We turn to another Provencal wine region for the main-course wine, a Palette (near Aix-en-Provence) where Château Simone is the primary producer. The wine is clear gold, honeyed and unctious with hints of nuts, showing a bit of oxidation, not over-the-hill but evolved.

Cheese course: Caillé de Brebis, a very mild, creamy white cheese. Then, with a dessert of gratin des pommes et citron vert:

Maison Deutz non-vintage Brut Classic - Pale gold. Apples and rising bread dough. Pleasant enough, although a quick mousse that falls back fast and leaves minimal bubbles leaves us wondering what's up.

Heading for home

In the morning, a tired, full and happy group boarded the bus for the hour-long ride to Marseilles and a quick TGV train ride back to Paris. We would spend one more day there to decompress before flying home on Tuesday, although a rare heat wave drove us (and most Parisians) to the air-conditioned comfort of our hotel room for the better part of the day.

For lunch, a slice of pizza. For dinner, we enjoyed a pleasant, relaxing get-together with our friends Randy and Evelyne at a delightful little neighborhood restaurant near our hotel, Ferme Saint Hubert (21 rue Vignon), a casual eatery within a retail cheese shop, where everything on the menu is based on French artisanal cheeses. A hearty dish of andouilletes in a creamy Roquefort sauce was my choice ... and such fare, on a steaming evening, prompted only one beverage choice: Cold beer.

About next year

As noted in the introduction, we're going to do this again next year! We have already made arrangements for French Wine Explorers and WineLoversPage.com to join in another French wine tour in the spring. Save the date: May 11-17, 2003. This time our destination will be Bordeaux, and I'm excited about the preliminary plans, which include tastings at a number of the region's most renowned producers. We'll be announcing more details soon, but if you would like a preview, click to Best of Bordeaux Wine Tours on the French Wine Explorers Website, http://www.wine-tours-france.com/Bordeaux03.htm.

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