Friday, May 14, 2021

Ask the Sommelier: 5 Great Vineyards to Visit


So many wineries to visit, so little time! How do you narrow the list?

This week I reached out to Ivan Mandelli, head sommelier at the Michelin one-star Maison Hache in Eygalieres, and asked him to recommend five fantastic wineries to visit in Provence. I suggested he choose based on the warmth of the welcome, the beauty of the domaine, the pricing/value of the vintages offered, the creativity of the winemaker or the way the wines express the attributes of the grapes and terroir. 

Just make sure they produce wonderful wines, I said, and that my readers will be happy they went!

Below you’ll find his selection, in his words. But first, a bit about our sommelier…

Ivan comes from the north of Italy, from a small town between Lake Como and Milan called Merate, where his grandmother had a trattoria and his uncle had a restaurant. He left home at 17 and landed a job in a Swiss hotel. There, he remembers being inspired and impressed by one particular maître d’, who encouraged his career goals and pushed him to get as much experience as possible. “He transferred to me so much knowledge and savoir faire,” Ivan says.

Ivan went on to work in many luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe including the five-star Hotel Palace (Gstaad, Switzerland), Chewton Glen Hotel & Spa (New Milton, England), and the Michelin three-star Restaurant Michel Bras (Laguiole, France).

He met his French wife, Laurence, in 1999 in Bermuda and they married in Italy in 2002.

After many years as a restaurant manager, Ivan's love of wine inspired a change in career direction and he decided to pursue sommelier training. He earned his diploma in Italy in 2009, from the Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS). He later became a member of the Union de la Sommellerie Française (UDSF). 

When friends that Ivan had met at Michel Bras left to open a restaurant in Provence, they encouraged him to join them, to be maître d and sommelier. The restaurant, Meo, opened in Tarascon in 2012 and earned a Michelin star within a year. It closed three years later, when the owners decided to move to Normandy. But Ivan and Laurence were hooked on Provence and they stayed.

In 2019, Christopher Hache left the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, where he was the Michelin-starred executive chef, to open Maison Hache. “Christopher and I met just once but we just knew we had to work together,’’ Ivan remembers. The restaurant launched in May 2019 and earned a star the following year; Ivan now oversees a 300-label cellar. Christopher Hache also co-owns three Hache boulangerie/patisseries, the villages of Eygalieres, Molleges and St. Remy. (Love their pistachio cake!)

Please note that many wineries in Provence will welcome you for a drop-in tasting (sometimes free, sometimes for a fee) but it’s always best to check the hours, then phone ahead to reserve. 

To follow Ivan on Instagram, click here...and read on for his winery picks!

Domaine Milan

Located in St. Rémy since 1956, Domaine Milan is one of the original and more eclectic winemakers of the region, now in the hands of the third generation. Theophile Milan and his American wife, Nathalie, work closely with Theo’s father Henri, experimenting with unique grape varieties in an organic and biodyamic style. The large selection of wines will surprise you and you’ll appreciate their new natural wines without sulfites added. The tasting room is small and rustic (but charming)…and their wines are very precise and balanced. Plus, ask to taste their gin!

Château La Nerthe

One of the oldest wineries in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (dating to 1560), Château La Nerthe is also one of the most beautiful. The domaine has natural springs, which makes everything green and lush, and there’s a lovely park around the castle, with 100-year-old trees. This is a beautiful space of nature, only a few steps away from the famous wine village, and they’ve been organic since 1998. Be sure to try their whites, especially the Clos de Beauvenir, but all three are very interesting; La Nerthe is actually known more for whites than reds. Of the reds, I love the Cuvée des Cadettes. Guided cellar visits with tastings are available by reservation.

Domaine Laurens, Vignoble des Templiers

Domaine Laurens Vignoble des Templiers is a family business in the small village of Roaix in the Vaucluse, between Rasteau and Seguret, near Gigondas.  The current estate was created in 2016 by winemaker Bastien Laurens (along with his parents Françoise and Bruno, and his sister, Julia) but the story of the property began centuries before, in 1138, with the Templars, the Knights of Rhodes and later, the Popes. (Read their rich history on their website.) I find their wines to be the most interesting of the region, under the appellation Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Be sure to try their deep and spicy 100% syrah. To me, the Domaine Laurens looks like a spot of Tuscany in the Vallée du Rhone! (Photo of Bruno and Bastien from the winery's Instagram by Nicolas Bria.)

Château Mourgues du Gres

The winery Château Mourgues du Grès, in a 16th-century convent, sits in the countryside outside Beaucaire, west of the Rhône, in the appellation Costières de Nimes. There you’ll find the warming welcome of Anne and François Collard, who make generous and elegant wines, labeled organic since 1990. One wine definitely not to be missed is their Terre d'Argence (IGP Pont du Gard), with a dominance of viognier grapes and the taste of fresh yellow fruits…nice and crispy. The Collards love to promote local food producers at special events and welcome visitors to stroll among the vines and orchards; order ahead and they’ll prepare a picnic for you (local products) and direct you to the perfect spot to enjoy it. They offer wine tastings in the vineyard, with a sommelier, and have holiday cottages for rent too.

Domaine Viret

Twenty minutes from Vaison-La-Romaine, just over the border between the Vaucluse and the Drome, Philippe and Alain Viret of Domaine Viret are producing natural wines without sulfites, using more than 100 grape varieties, growing on 30 hectares. Philippe coined the term "Cosmoculture" to describe their unique philosophy while the cellar itself was designed using the divine proportions of the Golden Ratio, inspired by Egyptian architecture and Cistercian cathedrals. There are currently 14 wines in the range. One wine I like a lot is called Maréotis (grenache and syrah).  I also enjoy two of their amphorae-aged wines called Dolia: one red and one orange/amber that’s macerated for nine months. This place is really quite amazing! And if you understand what they're trying to do, you’ll understand and appreciate the wines even more.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Take a Hike...or Two


A new Avignon-based company called Hike Provence is offering private guided hikes across the region along with organized group hikes on set days that anyone can join. The hikes, at varying levels of difficulty, are designed to appeal to both tourists and locals alike.

While the project may have been nudged along by Covid, Hike Provence was really 30 years in the making.

Raised in Singapore and Korea, Charli Aron launched the company after returning to Europe from Vietnam, where she was painting, writing, climbing and hiking. “My family is in the UK and my son caught very bad Covid last Easter when I was in Vietnam,” she says. “He’s now fully recovered but I realized I wanted to be closer to home.”

Charli first met her business partner Marushka Delarbre (who grew up in Greece and Denmark) when they were both students in London 30 years ago. “And ever since then we’ve met regularly to walk and talk,” Charli says. “We’re both very keen trekkers and we’ve hiked all over the world, both together and alone.”

Marushka has lived in Provence for 25 years, running an organic apple farm above the village of Tallard in the Hautes-Alpes.

Charli arrived in August 2020.

“Through fortunate happenstance we’re now both based in amazing Provence, with the wonders of Mont Ventoux and the Alpilles Mountains on the horizon,” Charli says. Discovering the stunning hills, gorges and passes has been such a joy. As a passionate climber and trekker, I thank my lucky stars daily that I live in Provence! Here the skies change hourly; over the course of one day we can be blessed with every color under the rainbow. The fauna I trek through in the mountains has all the aromas that season French cuisine. In short, it’s wonderful. And with so many things closed due to Covid this year, lots of other people have been excited to get out into the hills too.”

Private hikes are built around the needs and size of your group. Choose the date, level of difficulty and number of hours... and they’ll design the perfect hike for you. Rough pricing for private hikes is: 30 per person for three- to four-hour walk or 45 per person for a five to eight hours.

The day starts with a cup of Provencal-herb tea and a chat about expectations. “I recently had clients who wanted to hike the Pont du Gard and explained that they had been left weakened by Covid,” Charli recalls. “So of course I wanted to adapt the hike to their needs.” 

Along the route, Charli or Marushka share the history of the region, offering insider knowledge about important historic sites, geography, climate, plants, insects and more. Both women speak French and English while Marushka can also lead hikes in Spanish. A picnic can be added for an extra charge.

Group hikes (ten people max) happen roughly twice a month, in a mix of French and English. Upcoming hikes include Cabrières d'Avignon on Sunday April 25 (4 km) and the Pont du Gard on Sunday May 2 (11 km). Details about both (plus some recent hikes) are on the site here. To help you choose, hikes are rated leisurely, easy, medium or hard.

A Provencal Pass (50) lets you enjoy five group hikes of your choosing at any time.

For now, hiking is mostly in the Luberon, the Alpilles and the Gard but Charli hopes to expand the offerings—possibly even to Corsica--if things go well. In the meantime Marushka is still farming and also does healing massage; Charli works as a writer and a painter. (Learn more about her work here.)

“At the moment, Hike Provence is a pleasure project,” she says. “But hopefully it will develop into something that we both can give plenty of time to. It’s just wonderful to be with people when they’ve pushed beyond their threshold and surprised themselves. A hiker often confronts physical barriers when climbing long, steep hills. And then when we pause, to rest or to have a picnic, there’s such a sense of elation. I also love the intimacy that quickly occurs when we’re walking side by side, sharing the beauty of nature.”

Whether you want to hike alone or with a small convivial group...whether you want hidden mountain passes or meandering river walks, to experience the gentle old goat paths above Avignon or the vertigo-inducing “steeps” of the Dentelles Montmirail...Charli would love to hear from you. 

“Hiking is a wonderful way to explore the secret paths that knit together the most beautiful villages of the region,” she says. “If you want to discover them up close and personal, smell the rosemary and thyme, muddy your boots...come hike with us! We hope your readers will get in touch and are ready to walk the walk!”

HikeProvence.com

hikeprovence@gmail.com

Instagram & Facebook

+33 (0)7 80 42 93 36

 

Photos (1) Charli at the Gorges de Badarel. (2) Charli and Marushka take a break. (3) Hiking from Gordes to the Abbaye de Senanques. (4) Heading down is always more fun than up! (5) In the Dentelles de Montmirail. See the little hiker on the path? (6) The goat looked all friendly and then ate the picnic when backs were turned. (7) Lunch with a view of  the Gorges de Badarel. (8) Happy hikers reach the Rocher des Deux Trous in the Alpilles above St. Remy, overlooking the Greco-Roman ruins of Glanum. (9) Olive trees in the foothills of the Alpilles. (10) Hanging out in the Forêt des Cèdres, during a hike to discover the upper part of Cabrières d'Avignon.  (11) The Gorges du Verdon, often called The Grand Canyon of France. (12) Picnicing at the Pont du Gard, the beautifully preserved 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct built to carry water from Nimes. (13) The ochre cliffs of the Colorado Provençal, in the northern Luberon. (14) At the Gorges de Regalon, a magical trail at the base of a dramatic gorge, both hands and feet are often needed in some of the craggy passes.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Art in the Time of Covid

It's now been a year since the EU closed its borders to much of the outside world. For those of us who rely on tourism to make a living, the impact has been monumental. But of course I don't know anyone anywhere who hasn't been affected by Covid, so much so that I've found myself unable to write much about it at all. And yet, I've marveled at the resilience I've seen, at how people have adjusted both personally and professionally to the losses suffered. Everyone has a Covid story to tell. And when everyone has a story, how do you tell just one? Which one?        

Artist Kamil Vojnar has a gallery in St. Remy where he sells his lushly layered mixed-media photo-based art; he works with his girlfriend Pavlína Šachová, another Czech artist. They've been able to survive this year thanks to a loyal group of regular clients and the ability to sell art online. I've always admired Kamil's work and you'll see some of my favorite pieces below. Sitting in my garden having coffee recently, Kamil told me a bit about what his life has been like this year. He wasn't complaining, just stating facts, and I appreciated his soft-spoken candor. He's like millions of other good people trying to get by, worried about his kids, taking it day by day. And somehow his seemed like a good story to tell. 



The art scene in my village of St. Remy is extremely vibrant, with many art studios, galleries, art fairs, a fine-art museum called 
La Musee Estrine, an arts association called La Cour des Arts, art classes for all ages, a Van Gogh “trail” and more. We have a wonderful shop called Le Savoir-Faire des Alpilles (reopening, hopefully, in late March) where local “creators” of all types sell their work and take turns behind the desk.

And of course we have the Clinique Saint Paul de Mausole (Van Gogh Clinic), where the artist spent a year and painted roughly 150 canvasses including “Starry Night.” It’s a wonderfully serene and historic site, open to the public for visits, with a reproduction of Van Gogh’s actual room and a beautiful cloister. In the shop, you can buy paintings created by past and current clinic residents, your purchase supporting the ongoing art-therapy program.

Surrounded by so much opportunity to enjoy art of all types, it’s easy to take it all a bit for granted. We hurry past galleries on our daily errands and don’t really see them, let alone stop to think about the people who put heart and soul—and maybe life savings—into creating the spaces and all the beautiful work within them. Due to its popularity, commercial rents in St. Remy are “excessively high,” according to one artist friend. Most of the painters, sculptors, photographers and other creatives I talk with tell me, not surprisingly, that it’s a very, very tough time for anyone other than the best-known artists. Winter in Provence, like any other tourist area, can be rough for many businesses to begin with but particularly so for artists, I would think. And then add the specter of the pandemic to the mix--the missing tourists, the missing second-home owners, the cancelled art fairs and exhibits, the people who've lost their jobs, the closed restaurants, the curfews, the lockdowns--and well, you get the picture.

My friend Kamil has a gallery in St. Remy where he sells his dreamy photo montages: mostly large, uniquely layered, mixed-media pieces.  I recently asked him how he was faring and he was candid: “Like everyone, we’re trying to get to the other side of this current headache,” he said. “Covid has made things extremely difficult.” So Kamil has just put a number of pieces on sale, including all the ones you see here.


Born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1962, Kamil studied at the School of Graphic Arts in Prague and began a career as a graphic designer. In 1985 he left the still-Communist country illegally, moved to Vienna and eventually became a US citizen, finishing his studies at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Graphic design led to illustration and to creating photo-based imagery; during this time he worked mostly for book- and music publishers in New York City. Kamil and his wife had two kids (now 15 and 18, living in LA), and spent years travelling back and forth between New York and France because she had a fashion business in Antibes. 

“At that time I was doing mostly images for book and CD covers,” Kamil remembers. “And as long as there was internet and Fed Ex, I realized I could live anywhere. Visiting St. Remy, I got inspired by the idea of having own little shop on the street, where I could create my art in the back and offer it to passers-by in front. I saw artists here working that way and I realized this could be the missing link, meaning the opportunity to do my own thing, art wise, like I always wanted to do.” Kamil decided “now or never” and opened his St. Remy gallery/atelier, Autres Images, in 2005.


A few years later, he expanded, opening a second studio gallery in the Marais in Paris; he travelled back and forth each week. But a fire set by local teenagers caused an explosion, extensively damaging Kamil’s space and a number of adjacent buildings. “All the dealings with police and insurance took away my drive to continue in Paris,” he says. “It took three years to get the building fixed up again and after subletting it for a few years, I decided to let it go in 2017.”

Kamil and his wife split a few years ago and today he shares his life and works alongside Pavlína, who shows a small number of her own pieces in the gallery. She creates her images (and poetry) under the name Pavi Taire. 

“Pavi’s a very good artist on her own,” Kamil says, “and we share responsibilities, both in the gallery and with our clients and collectors online. Over the years, quite a few of these clients have become very good friends, thanks largely to Pavlína’s personality.”  


Kamil’s work consists of images digitally layered with multiple photographs and painted textures. They’re either archival prints on fine art paper or prints on semitransparent Thai or Japanese paper; they’re then mounted on canvas or wooden boards. They’re varnished with a mixture of oil and wax, with details and colors further enhanced by oil paint.

“In a painting, you can paint anything you want,” he says. “In the photographic medium, it must, on some level, exist first. That tension between what exists and what’s made up is what interests me.”

Generally speaking, Kamil says he wouldn’t see many new clients in the gallery from late November to early April anyway. “And in normal years, it’s ok,” he tells me. “It’s a time to recharge, to start in on new work and to participate in outside exhibitions. In winter, we have clients from the summer season who return to us, via e-mail and internet, and ask us to produce new artwork for them or inquire about pieces they’ve seen in the gallery. We’ve been very lucky in that many clients return over and over: in person in summer, online in the winter.”



But nothing is “like normal” now. A large exhibit of Kamil’s work that opened in Prague in mid-September had to close two weeks later due to Covid … and has been closed ever since. Ongoing travel bans and Brexit have meant that regular and new clients haven’t been able to come to France; there’s been very little walk-in traffic for a long time now. “And my regular customers already bought pieces this year, thanks to our successful email promotion during the first lockdown,” Kamil explains.

Which brings us up to today...and the sale. Kamil’s work is regularly priced from a few hundred to a few thousand euros, and he's now reduced prices on many pieces, some by as much as one third. The images above are a small selection; you can see many more in the gallery and on the website. Kamil’s work can be bought framed or unframed, custom sizes of some works are available, commissions are welcome and Kamil ships worldwide via DHL Express.  For more info: kamilvojnar.com.

Autres Images
17 rue Carnot
13210 St. Remy de Provence
+33 (0)6 33 70 43 62
kvojnar@mac.com
*Note: You can also find Kamil’s work in galleries in Siena (Italy) and Ghent (Belgium); details are on the website. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

17 Perfect Provence Vacation Rentals


Three photos above: who wouldn't want to wake up here? This gorgeous eight-bedroom, eight-bath villa was crafted from an 18th-century olive mill, just a short drive from Les Baux.


A super-popular home with a luxurious-but-laid-back French country vibe, perched on a hillside in the Luberon, with sections dating to the 12th century. 



The roof terrace and dining/living room of a designer three-bedroom apartment I love in St. Remy.


This dreamy five-bedroom, five bath "farmhouse" in Eygalieres, restored impeccably and loaded with amenities, is nestled in an olive grove in a walk-to-town location.


A bright, airy three-bedroom on a lush, terraced property in the foothills of the Alpilles, just 1 km from the heart of St. Remy.


When I visited this gracious, old-world-style three-bedroom home (with drop-dead views, pool and tennis) I told the owner "I'd love to buy this!" Her reply? "Everyone says that!"


This magical sun-drenched compound in Eygalieres offers multiple art-filled houses, two pools, gorgeous landscaping, horses grazing next door...and the most-charming owners.



This ten-bedroom, nine-bath beauty, on 10 acres just 2 km from Gordes, has a small vineyard, lavender field, pool and tennis.


Families love this five-bedroom open-plan house in a lovely, laid-back village where you can walk to shops, cafes and restaurants. It has a separate kids wing, large yard and heated saltwater pool. Great hiking, biking and wineries nearby!


This 18th-century, seven-bedroom bastide was fully redone in 2016 and sits just 2 km from L'Isle sur la Sorgue, a postcard-perfect village with 250 or so antique shops and vendors.

If you're one of the lucky ones who can travel to France this year--or think you may be able to, once travel bans from your country are lifted--then you're probably thinking about where to stay. I know all the best hotels in Provence (for all budgets) and would be happy to help you choose. I love hotels!

But for lots of obvious reasons, this is a great year to rent a house. Provence has thousands of cottages, gîtes, apartments, townhomes, houses, villas and châteaux available for vacation rentals...all sizes, all prices. They range in style from cheap-and-cheerful to over-the-top elegant...rustic to highly refined. They're in city, village and countryside settings, with outdoor spaces ranging from tiny balconies overlooking terra cotta rooftops to sprawling terraces giving onto olive groves, lush vineyards and stunning lavender fields. Some have private pools while others have one pool for all guests to share; some have potagers and fruit trees and encourage guests to help themselves. All have kitchens, one of the major advantages of a rental house over hotel. Whether you dream of waking up in a renovated olive mill or a gorgeous family "farmhouse" with original beams or a 15th-century hunting lodge or a romantic tree house or a simple cottage among the vines, you'll want the perfect location, size, decor and amenities. And of course you want it to have that undefinable je ne sais quoi...no matter what your budget is.

But how to find that dreamy house, with so many options online...so many rental agencies...and so many villages to choose from? So glad you asked!

I have close to 400 rentals in my database and there's definitely something for every taste: from cute studios for singles and couples on up to vast multi-home properties sleeping as many as 50 people. You tell us what you want and when you're traveling...and we'll come back quickly with a selection. Then together we'll discuss pros and cons, narrow the list and help you choose. Et voila! 

This year, of course, we're all paying super careful attention to cancellation policies. We'll go over this carefully with you and make sure everyone agrees on a payment schedule and cancellation rules that are fair to both parties. My experience this year has shown that homeowners in Provence are far more flexible and forgiving than online booking sites are. And of course you'll want to buy trip-cancellation insurance, with a careful eye on the policy's specific pandemic-related coverage. Please note that I'm a matchmaker, not a rental agency, and your rental contract and payment arrangements will be handled directly between you and the homeowner.

Finally, one more quick caveat. Many houses are already heavily booked up for summer 2021 thanks to "rollover" guests who weren't able to come in 2020. So if your passport allows you to travel to France this year and you're dreaming of a very very very fine house in Provence, I suggest we start the hunt tout suite

To get the ball rolling, I chose 17 rental properties that I absolutely love and just published them on my trip-planning site ProvencePostTravel.com, arranged loosely by size and price. Click here to see the list. Why such an odd number, you ask? Well I was going for ten but it was so hard to choose that I settled on 15 instead. Then I got a bit nuts and kept going and then finally, at 17, I decided basta la comedia...that's enough! Rest assured my list of "17 Perfect Provence Vacation Rentals for 2021" is just a very-small sampling of our many offerings...an amuse-bouche rather than a full menu! Still, they're all terrific options and I'm pretty sure you'll find one (or more) that make your heart sing. So have a look and reach out to me at WhatToDoinProvence@gmail.com to discuss. Operators are standing by...