Côtes de Provence and Coteaux Varois Wines from the Hillsides
By Elizabeth Gabay MW
This Guide was last updated on 12 February 2010
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Vineyards blend in with Mediterranean pines in the Massif des Maures near Vidauban. © Mick Rock/Cephas.
An east-west corridor makes the central belt of Provence markedly more urban than the surrounding region. Running along the northern limit of the Maures hills, it comprises the main N7 road - the Roman Via Aurelia, once a major route for pilgrims on their way to Santiago di Compostella - with the A8 motorway and the railway line. Along this route lie the old towns of Saint Maximin, Brignoles, Le Luc and Vidauban. All can boast Roman and medieval ruins, as can many of the older wine estates.
The majority of wine estates lie to the north of this corridor, benefiting from the river Argens and its tributaries, and this is the main area for exploration in inland Provence, with Lorgues a good base from which to start. There is no historic wine centre although Les Arcs is home to the Comité des Vins. Vineyards and the remains of mulberry orchards (once an important part of the local silk industry) surround the villages, while further north towards the Alps the landscape is more heavily wooded and less densely populated. The family-owned estates are friendly to visit and most (but not all) are well sign-posted, many with an open door policy of being able to drop in to taste and buy. However, for better attention avoid the hours before lunch and dinner.
The entire vineyard region of Provence extends from Les Baux in the west to Nice in the east and as far north as the Gorges du Verdon. In the north and east and far west the soils are chalk based, to the south and central west granite (crystalline based) with volcanic soils around Fréjus. The Mediterranean climate provides over 3000 hours of sunshine each year and little rain. The mistral wind and, sometimes violent, thunderstorms are the main threats to the vineyards. There are however, subtle differences in climate depending on proximity to the sea, mountain ranges, river valleys and altitude (with the highest vineyards reaching up to 500m). Harvest in the northerly, inland vineyards may be a good month later than along the coast.
The inland Provence region stretches roughly eastwards from the River Var valley north of Nice to Sainte Victoire just west of Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume, umbrella and Aleppo pines, holm oak and gorse on rolling hills and craggy escarpments while river valleys are instantly recognisable by the tall oaks, planes and poplars and greener pastures. There is still some evidence of the pre-second world war agriculture but the wheat fields and the pastures for migrating sheep on their way to and from the northern hills, are slowly being replaced by vines. The sheep and goats were an important part of the landscape, clearing the dry undergrowth and thus reducing the risk of fires.
The fastest route to Provence from Paris is the A6 to Lyon and the Rhône Valley. From here continue south along the A7 and either carry on to Marseille or, take the A8, which will take you straight to Cannes and onto Antibes and Nice. The coast roads are best avoided during the peak holiday periods as it becomes very congested. By train, the TGV runs from Paris to Marseille stopping at Avignon, journey time 3 hours. From Marseille to Nice the train runs at standard speed. It can take up to 2 hours to Cannes and another hour to Nice. The region is also served by several international airports: Marseille, Toulon, and France’s second largest airport, Nice.
Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence
Maison des Vins, RN 7, 83460 Les Arcs sur Argens
Brignoles Tourist Office
Carrefour de l'Europe, 83170 Brignoles
Comité Départmental de Tourisme du Var
1 Boulevard Foch, 83003 Draguignan
St Maximin la Sainte Baume Tourist Office
Hôtel de Ville, 83470 Saint-Maximin
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