Wine Country Travel: Cotes de Provence

Special to The Washington Post

My first venture into the Cotes de Provence wine country was not one of those perfect afternoons spent tasting local specialties and sipping the local nectar under the shade of plane trees.

No, our excursion into the region of some of France's oldest vineyards began around 10 p.m. on a cold night in the wooded marshes near the town of Les Mayons, where the local population is known as Mayonaise. We wore rubber boots and headlamps and listened for the calls of frogs, which we then tracked down and observed courting and coupling in the mud.

The frogs must have gotten a good laugh out of this group of voyeurs organized by a frog habitat-protecting environmental association observing the beginning of mating season.

Up to that point, my most intimate experience with frogs had involved a fork and knife. There were no frog legs on the menu that evening, however, just the sandwiches we carried in a backpack. This trip had not been my idea, but that of my wife and then 8-year-old son.

We learned from our guides that evening that commercial frog hunting and ranching have been prohibited in France for more than 25 years, since the French realized their passion for frog thighs with white wine had contributed to a critical spike in mosquitoes. So now frog legs served in French restaurants are invariably shipped in frozen from Asia. By the time this outing, called Operation Frequence Grenouille, wound down after midnight, I'd added one more species to my very short "don't eat" list.

On Day 2, things began looking up from a degustation point of view.

A poster in a nearby village led us to Chateau Sainte Roseline, a wine-producing chateau in a 10th-century abbey outside the village of Les Arcs. The chateau was in the midst of an olive oil festival, and we bought tickets for the event lunch prepared by a skilled chef from Saint-Raphael.

We were seated at round communal tables in the great hall and were served four courses that began with whipped brandade (a traditional Provencal puree resembling mashed potatoes) of red mullet, followed by lamb seasoned with olives and then fresh goat cheese and violet artichokes drizzled in local oil. The meal was topped off by a delicious dessert involving something I'd never imagined: olive oil cream. My taste buds, which had been asleep for a good 48 hours, felt alive again. Our good cheer only improved as we shared several bottles of Sainte-Roseline's white and red wines.

After lunch we ascended to the chateau's chapel. Here, the remains of Roseline, a sister at the abbey in the 14th century, rest preserved under glass, draped in full habit and as blackened as a dried fig. St. Rosey's most famous miracle is depicted in the chapel's Chagall mosaic, "Le Repas des Anges" ("The Angel's Meal"). According to legend, Roseline was charged with producing a large meal at the chateau but became so enraptured in prayer she completely forgot her duties. Badly in need of a caterer, she prayed for help from the angels, who came down from the heavens to set out a sumptuous feast.

Vineyard-Covered Valleys

Ever since that trip last spring, I will use any excuse to head to the Cotes de Provence, which lies mostly in the region of Provence known as the Var and includes some of the most wild and storied corners of the South of France.

The heart of this region remains a kind of backwoods of the Cote d'Azur. It is the other Provence -- a region that so far has resisted being overrun by the precious good-taste boutiques that have colonized chicer Provence and the development that has destroyed other parts.

It is Mediterranean pine and cork oak forests, vineyard-covered valleys, small winding roads and perched villages off the main tourist routes. It is beaded curtains in butcher doorways, lively public markets and a landscape dotted with both new and ancient monasteries.

A trip here is easily attached to a journey in the more predictable and crowded areas of southern France. And the detour is worth it, because the area embodies a piece of Provence's soul. It's no wonder miracles happened here.

The Var begins just west of Cannes (less than a half-hour by car), and in spite of excessive development of the coastal Mediterranean, it still has some of the most varied and magnificent coastlines in France. The Var coast stretches west from St. Raphael and the red-rock shoreline of the Esterel to the sandy beaches of St. Tropez to the vine-covered slopes of Bandol to the mercifully underdeveloped islands off the coast of Hyeres. Just past the Var's western border, a short drive from Aix-en-Provence, stands Mount Sainte-Victoire, Cezanne's most painted landscape. And just above its northern border is the spectacular Gorges du Verdon, the "Grand Canyon of France."

Some of the first vineyards here were planted by the Phoenicians in 600 B.C. That's not to say the drinking has always been great. Until recently, the region was known for producing tourist rosés and barely drinkable peasant reds. In the past 15 years that image has changed as vineyards and wineries have been renovated and a new generation of winemakers has begun to emphasize quality.

Wine touring in an area as dynamic as this -- with hundreds of producers, from small independents to large conglomerates -- is an adventure of the senses. Some wineries use thoroughly modern computer-controlled methods, while others make wines in centuries-old chambers built into stone walls.

In short, $5 to $15 will buy anything from industrial swill to .75 liter of pure delight.

A few minutes from Sainte-Roseline, in the piney forests near the village of the Thoronet, is the 12th-century Abbaye du Thoronet, a national historic monument and a wonder of perfect stonework. Next door, at the Monastery of Bethlehem, a group of female monks emerge from their solitude every evening to sing vespers in their simple church. Just down the road, an independent winemaker who moved down from Paris in the late '70s produces wine in the cellar built by Thoronet's monks more than 800 years ago.

One day last summer, we drove the desolate winding road to the highest peak in the Maures and to the Notre-Dame-des-Anges chapel. Outside the church is a superb panorama of the mountains stretching to the sea. The chapel, built in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 1800s, is not particularly pretty. But inside, the element of surprise comes in several centuries' worth of votive offerings: pilgrims' crutches, primitive religious paintings and the most bizarre thing I've ever seen in a house of worship -- a crocodile suspended from the vaulted ceiling.

I'm French, Therefore I Am Correct

From a wine lover's point of view, a good starting point is the Maison des Vins Cotes de Provence, the cooperative distribution and tasting house for almost all of the region's wineries, with a restaurant that serves those wines.

I visited recently with my friend Benoit, a wine fanatic from Bordeaux. Of course, true to his roots, he is a Bordeaux chauvinist -- meaning he is dubious about the comparative value of wines in much of the rest of France (the farther from Bordeaux, the more problematic).

Benoit also has an abundance of two very French traits: the need to complain about the shortcomings of his countrymen's character and to argue relentlessly on the subject of food and wine.

I knew our day was getting off to a fine start when, just a couple miles from our destination, traffic stopped in the middle of a vineyard. Traffic meant four cars, and what held us up was a beer truck going in one direction and a gray-headed couple in a minivan heading in the other direction on a country road too narrow to accommodate both vehicles. Neither driver would budge. The truck driver stepped out into the road, as did the woman from the minivan. Words and gestures were exchanged.

"Will you look at that!" roared Benoit in the passenger seat. "That is so French! I am ashamed! Ashamed!" A few minutes later the truck driver relented, and we were on our way.

At the Maison des Vins, Benoit looked over the tasting list and made a face. The wines he wanted to taste were not on the daily program. He mumbled something. The young woman behind the serving bar showed him some attitude. He showed her some back.

After that, we had a friction-free tasting and talked in both French and English with the helpful staff about the local wine scene.

Then came lunch at the house restaurant, where we were seated at a table on the terrace overlooking the River Argens. We were served a light, delicious appetizer of ratatouille and sardines, and all was good until the main course arrived -- roasted beef on a bed of vegetables.

The beef was a fine cut, cooked rare and covered in a brown sauce. When the waitress asked our opinion, Benoit said he found the dish "unfortunate." Why? Because it was covered in sauce.

Yes, the waitress said, the dish came with sauce.

In fact, Benoit noted, the meat was bathing in it.

When the waitress responded that she preferred roast beef in sauce, Benoit smiled and asked if she liked ketchup as well. At this point I was prepared to crawl under the table until the fighting subsided.

The waitress then coolly challenged Benoit, asking just how he liked his beef.

"I prefer the taste of the grill . . . " he began.

"Ah, the grill!" she shot back. "That is different! This is roasted beef -- not grilled!"

Several minutes later, she had left without surrendering.

"That's so French," Benoit said, "to always have to be right."

Jet-Set Trail

Another day, another fabulous lunch. Chez Bruno, a restaurant named after the large man who is the Var's truffle king, is set in an old stone farmhouse among the vines outside the city of Lorgues, its entryway framed by large pillars bearing boulder-size bronze truffles. The overall effect resembles what might be giant alien droppings. Everything about Bruno's is over the top -- from the portraiture in the dark wood-paneled dining room, to the playful bronze sculptures on the terrace, to the jet-set helicopter pad, to the fixed menu of the day, which is always a truffle orgy.

My wife and I smacked our lips in delight as the first of two appetizers arrived: roasted asparagus with truffles that paired well with a tannic red wine from the nearby Domaine Rabiega. With the second appetizer, a potato in truffle cream, we were sated. Then came the lamb dish, and Bruno, dressed in black silk and cowboy boots, made a ceremonial tour of the dining room. Before the chocolate mousse arrived, we were begging for mercy.

On another spring day, before the onslaught of the summer hedonists, we spent part of the morning and lunch at St. Tropez's legendary Club 55 on the beach of Pampelonne. Now in its 48th year, the restaurant-beach club still serves good, but pricey, fish and salads to clients in various stages of beach attire. The service -- from valet parking to dessert -- is uncommonly attentive.

But for me, the true appeal of Club 55 is its serving of mental fondue. This mind melt occurs on those afternoons by the sea with good company and a bottle of chilled rosé. After the first few sips, serious thought becomes taxing. Somewhere during the second glass it becomes impossible. We ordered a bottle of the local Chateau Barbeyrolles, which produces a rosé called Petale de Rose. It is so pale, serious wine lovers should protest at its insignificance. But the stuff is delightful.

We took out the road map on another morning and headed to nearby Gassin to visit Chateau Barbeyrolles. On the bumpy road up to the old farmhouse on the vine-covered bluff, we were nearly run into a ditch by a Rolls-Royce headed the other way.

At Barbeyrolles, a woman in the wine cellar was busy helping a couple load up their Land Rover. She set some bottles and glasses on the bar for us to help ourselves. There were no spittoons, she told us, saying that we should use the lawn.

"It's okay," the woman who belonged to the Land Rover assured us in French, "it's French grass."

Garage Wine

We felt called to return to Les Mayons, the site of our frog encounters, but this time our goal was the vineyard of a garage wine producer I'd heard about. When we arrived at the small farmhouse in the middle of a bird sanctuary, owner Claude Martin explained that a water line had just burst, but he calmly directed us to a small wood table and chairs in his yard next to a makeshift sheep pen and, of course, his vines. He then went to root around in his cellar, a climate-controlled garage crammed with palettes of bottles from floor to ceiling.

Martin, who has a short gray ponytail and a face that appears free of stress, is a former journalist who gave up writing less than a decade ago to work the vines on this property that has been in his family 250 years. What he and his brother operate is not so much a winery as a wine laboratory. Because Martin doesn't want to work within the constraints of the Cotes de Provence appellation, he classifies his wine vin de pays, mere table wine.

After an hour and a half of sipping, spitting and chatting with Martin, I stated my order. Oh no, Martin complained, he couldn't possibly sell us wine on such short notice. He stores the bottles without labels and capsules, which would have to be put on. Then the wine would have to be boxed. Besides, it was now lunchtime. Could we come back another day?

Yes, we would return. At that moment we had pressing business: In the nearby town of Vidauban, a table was waiting on a terrace under the shade of the plane trees.

Robert V. Camuto last wrote for Travel about Corsica.

Details: Cotes de Provence

The July forest fires that destroyed thousands of acres in the Var region of France did not affect the wine-growing area, according to Fabrice Marion of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur Tourism Board. If you intend to camp in outlying areas, however, check with the tourism office (see below) before setting out.

GETTING THERE: Cotes de Provence is primarily in the French department of the Var, which is easily accessed from Nice, Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. Air France offers daily flights from Paris to Nice for about $105 round trip. From D.C., round-trip flights to Nice start at around $650 for fall travel.

GETTING AROUND: You will need a car and a very good map. Allow extra time, as you will get lost. A week's car rental starts at about $262.

WHERE TO STAY: On the gulf of St. Tropez in Cogolin, La Maison du Monde (63 Rue Carnot, 011-33-4-94-54-77-54, www.lamaisondumonde.com) is a 19th-century bourgeois home-turned-hotel with 12 rooms. The hotel organizes trips to offshore islands and the mountain interior, and it has a restaurant with menus starting at about $35. Rooms start about $115.

In the hilly interior of the Maures, the Chateau Real D'Or (Gonfaron, 011-33-4-94-60-00-56) offers five well-renovated rooms in the vines for about $100 to $120. La Bastide de Tourtour (Route de Flayosc, Tourtour, 011-33-4-98-10-54-20, www.verdon.net/tourtour) was built in the 1960s in the manner of a centuries-old Provencal farmhouse. It offers refined atmosphere and cuisine; rooms are about $135 to $290.

Those who like their vacations managed with Disney-like planning should investigate Chateau de Berne (Route D10, Lorgues, 011-33-4-94-60-43-60, www.chateauberne.com), a wine-themed vacation center that offers a cooking school, tasting seminars, golf and other organized activities, as well as English-speaking help. Doubles run $260 to $380, depending on the season, and include breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT: Chez Bruno (Route de Vidauban, Lorgues) is the Var's king of excess and truffles. Daily menus are about $65 and $120. There are also guest rooms starting at about $100. At the casual end of the dining spectrum, La Fouquette (between Les Mayons and Gonfaron on Route D75) is a family-run wine producer and farm that serves home-cooked meals every Saturday night and Sunday lunch (by reservation only). Menus are about $25.

In the town of Vidauban, La Bastide de Magnans (20 Avenue de la Resistance) offers good local cuisine. Weekday lunch menus start about $16 and climb to about $50. In the pretty village of Cotignac, if the cafes in the central place won't do, head out to Le Clos des Vignes (Route de Montfort) for tablecloth dining among the grapes. Menus about $35.

In St. Tropez, Club 55 (43 Blvd. Patch, Ramatuelle) is the classic beach venue Bardot helped make famous, with simple dishes and attentive service. Lunch only, about $50-$70 per person plus wine.

ON THE WINE TRAIL: The Maison des Vins Cotes de Provence (RN7, Les Arcs, 011-33-4-94-99-50-10, www.cotes-de-provence.fr) has a tasting room and restaurant and offers wine appreciation courses and events. Among the wine producers in the region (for the best reception, call before visiting):

Chateau Sainte Roseline (Route D555, Les Arcs, 011-33-4-94-99-50-30, www.sainte-roseline.com ), a classic property built onto an old abbey with a chapel holding Roseline's remains.

Chateau Font du Broc (Route D555, Les Arcs, 011-33-4-94-47-48-20), next door to Sainte Roseline, has vaulted subterranean cellars and elaborate arenas for show horses.

Chateau Du Rouet (Route de Bagnols en Forêt, Le Muy, 011-33-4-94-99-25-60, www.chateau-du-rouet.com), a peaceful 18th-century wine domain with a chapel that holds the cabin doors to La Belle Poule, the ship that repatriated Napoleon's remains after his death in exile.

Chateau Saint-Julien D'Aille (Route D48, Vidauban, 011-33-4-94-73-02-89, www.saintjuliendaille.com), a magnificent property recently renovated at great expense.

Domaine Rabiega (Route N557, Draguignan, 011-33-4-94-68-44-22, www.rabiega.com), now owned by a Swedish company that produces prestige wines for export.

Commanderie de Peyrassol (Route RN 7, Flassans, 011-33-4-94-69-71-02), which offers tastings out of what may be the oldest wine cellar in Provence -- built by Templiers knights.

Domaine Borrely-Martin (Les Mayons. 011-33-4-94-60-09-39), home of garage wine producer Claude Martin.

Château Barbeyrolles (Route D61, Gassin, 011-33-4-94-56-33-58, www.barbeyrolles.com), by St. Tropez, makes the wonderfully pale and refreshing Petale de Rose.

OTHER ACTIVITIES: The region offers abundant opportunities for outdoor sports including hiking and horseback riding. For guided day trips and nature outings, including nighttime frog observations, contact Espaces Natural de Provence (011-33-4-42-20-03-83, www.espaces-naturels-provence.com). The Village des Tortues (D75, Gonfaron, 011-33-4-94-78-26-41, www.tortues.com; about $10) is a preserve with thousands of turtles and informative exhibits. The spectacular Gorges du Verdon (starts near the village of Castellane and ends near Moustiers-Sainte-Marie), situated mostly in the Alps de Haute Provence, is a haven for hikers, climbers and rafters. Pedal boat and kayak rentals are available.

The Var abounds with churches and monuments from the the early Middle Ages. The Abbaye du Thoronet (Route D4, Le Thoronet; about $7) is a 12th-century abbey turned national historic monument. Notre Dame des Anges (off D39, south of Gonfaron) is a small chapel that sits atop the highest peak in the Maures and has a sometimes odd collection of votive offerings.

The region also has two active monasteries with churches open to the public. The sisters of the Monastery of Bethlehem (D4, Le Thoronet) specialize in faience pottery. At the Orthodox monastery of Saint Michel du Var (off route D10, north of Lorgues), tours of the church and common areas, decorated with Byzantine-style frescoes, are about $2.50. Sister Anne makes and sells a wine-based aperitif.

INFORMATION: Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur Tourism Board, 011-33-4-91-56-47-00, www.crt-paca.fr/eng/accueil_flash.jsp?LNGID=eng. French Government Tourist Office, 410-286-8310, www.franceguide.com.

-- Robert V. Camuto