Wine writers and buyers often only see two or three vineyards briefly when visiting a specific producer, maybe a local restaurant. Invariably we get small snapshots of a region out of context of its history, people and dynamics.
For 30 years I have toured the vineyards of the Var. In the beginning, there was a greater sense of adventure as they were often reached down windy country lanes, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The roads have slowly been straightened and widened, and now bypass many of those remote villages we would drive through that tempted us with cafés and bistros. Provence has sped up.
In August, at short notice, I planned a weekend in the central Var. Everywhere was booked, but I managed to find a cancellation in the small village of St Antonin du Var. This was symbolic: the very first vineyard I had visited in Provence was here, Château Mentone, in 1987.
St Antonin du Var is rather sprawling, with no central square (the bar of Hotel Lou Cigaloun, pictured below, serving as a village focal point), no outstanding architectural beauty nor quaint laneways to explore. But I soon discovered that this village, just shy of 700 inhabitants, and its six wine domaines encapsulate the rich and varied history of Provence.
The name of the Château de Sarrins comes from the “Saracens”, who are said to have occupied many villages around the Massif des Maures between the 8th to 11th centuries. According to folklore, a local Saracen chief was killed and buried in his golden armour and surrounded by his treasure in the area, which became known as Les Sarrins. The hills around the vineyard are dotted with hollows where locals have prospected for treasure over the years.
Château Mentone reflects the growing industrialisation of the region. Thirty years ago when I first met the charming elderly owner, Madame la Comtesse Gabrielle Marie-Renée Perrot de Gasquet, she happily chatted about her childhood, how her family would take the train from château to château, to visit friends and relatives, and how, during harvest time, whether of olives, fruit or grapes, the train was also used to move the harvest back to the château.
The Comtesse’s father made his money through a local brick factory. Eleven kilometres to the north of Mentone is the small town of Salernes, where bricks, tiles, pipes and pottery were first produced in large numbers in the early 19th century from the local iron-rich clay. The soil at Salernes contains so much lead that it is forbidden to have vegetable plots or vineyards along the river Bresque.
By 1850, the hexagonal terracotta floor tile called tomette had become the town’s principal product and was exported around the world. From the 1950s, new ceramic tiles in a wide range of colours started to be produced, and are now a fashionable product. Today there are some 15 tile producers situated along the main road south of Salernes.
During the 19th century, Château Mentone, like many other Provençal estates, also had mulberry orchards for the leaves to feed silkworms. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Provence experienced a boom in sericulture (silk production) that would last until the First World War, with much of the silk shipped north to Lyon. The large magnanerie at Château Mentone, where the silkworms were housed, is made of distinct patterned bricks with a high vaulted ceiling. Disease started to decimate the silkworms during the second half of the 19th century, and silk production declined.
St Antonin du Var is a village with long family traditions, as reflected in the third domaine, the family-run Bastide des Près, founded in 1891 by Franck Heraud’s great-grandfather. Franck remembers how his father and grandfather sold their wine in bulk to wine merchants in the Alpes-Maritimes, who would then bottle it for their clients on the Côte d’Azur. He is the first generation to bottle the domaine’s wine.
The rise in popularity of rosé wine over the past twenty years has provided the necessary funds to allow many vineyards in Provence to survive and move forward.
Les Treilles d’Antonin
The fourth domaine is in fact the local co-operative, Les Treilles d’Antonin (pictured below) founded in 1923. From the end of the 19th century, when viticulture was in a crisis with over-production, the phylloxera crisis, mildew and oidium, followed by the First World War, co-operatives came into their own. Les Treilles d’Antonin is the smallest co-operative in the Var with only 8 members and 50 hectares, yet makes amazing value-for-money wines.
The modern world of wine in Provence is also represented in St Antonin du Var. In the latter half of the 1990s, three vineyards came under new ownership.
In 1995, the Château des Sarrins was purchased by the Champagne house Bruno Paillard, one of the first Champagne houses to form a link with Provence. Today, rosé wine and Champagne both play on the image of leisure and luxury in their marketing. Champagne ownership and an Alsatian winemaker result in wines, which are slightly atypical of Provence.
Domaine de Gavaisson, was laid out in the early 1990s with 6 hectares planted with olives and a landscaped garden. A bijou vineyard of 4 hectares was planted in 1996. Today, the owner is Emmanuel Gaujal, one of the stars in the world of Provence wine, who has created and set up many famous estates. Today, he produces only white wine for a small quality-conscious market.
In 1998, the Vancoillie family established the Clos d’Alari domaine with 8 hectares of vines, olive trees and oaks (for truffles) and a chambres d’hôtes. A lovely classic range of wines are produced and the early autumn rains in 2010 resulted in an experimental and delicious, sweet wine.
With the passing of the previous generation, many old family domaines moved into new ownership, often leading to sudden modernisation. In 2003, Château Mentone was bought by Marie-Pierre Caille, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, again reflecting a growing trend in the region of outside investment. Mentone is now an oenotourism venue with a spa, accommodation and restaurant as well. Winemaking has continued to honour the traditional styles. The old vines were kept and modernisation used to improve not change the wines.
These days, the one hotel-restaurant of St Antonin du Var, Lou Cigaloun, the social heart of the village, has the wines of all six village domaines on its wine list. The hotel and restaurant have been modernised to be bright and fresh. The small railway used by the Comtesse de Gasquet is no longer used, but the old railway track has been turned into a wonderful path for ramblers, linking Salernes, Lorgues and St Antonin.
Safely tucked away off the main road, St Antonin du Var remains quiet and self-contained, typical of much of modern Provence with its high number of foreign second-home owners, and villas for rental.
A charming region to visit in autumn when the weather is cooler to walk along the old railway line, enjoy the mushroom menus on offer, and try some of the wonderful old red vintages available at Les Treilles d’Antonin and Château Mentone.
For more on Riviera resident Elizabeth Gabay, Master of Wine, see www.elizabethgabay.com or www.belletwine.com