Rose in their veins

Cezanne loved the rocky landscape of Provence, but it was the wine that held Mary Lou Longworth in awe

Puyloubier isn't chic. It is a quiet Provencal village whose existence has always revolved around the production of wine. One crisp autumn day I was stopped by a traffic jam on Puyloubier's main road composed solely of tractors. A few were state-of-the-art tractors but most were pre-Second World War relics. The smiling farmers were all headed for the same spot, Puyloubier's cave cooperative, with their trailers full of bouncing grapes. The long hot summer had paid off, and the holidays started the next day. Or were they smiling at life itself? For Puyloubier is firmly at the foot of the impressive Mont Ste-Victoire, the mountain that Paul Cezanne could never quite get enough of.

There is a twisting narrow road, the Route Cezanne (D17), which circles around the base of Mont Ste-Victoire, just east of Aix-en-Provence. The trip takes three hours, and the route is sprinkled with villages like Puyloubier and Le Tholonet, where Cezanne would walk daily to paint and have lunch. One can still eat well at Chez Thome in Le Tholonet, while watching locals playing boules. The road passes by olive orchards, farmhouses and larger houses, bastides, built by the 18th-century Aix bourgeoisie.

The route is also blessed with some very good vineyards, so good that the 28 vintners who grow grapes in the mountain's shadow have applied for their own appellation - Cotes de Provence Sainte-Victoire. Make a few stops along the route and you'll come away with a good understanding of the local wines. And by stopping at the cave cooperative in Puyloubier, or the cellar in nearby Pourrieres, you will see how most Provencals buy their wine - poured into a plastic jug with what looks like a petrol nozzle. Real Provencals never buy rose by the bottle.

Since 1975, more than half of the wine made in France has been produced by these co-operatives, and although their numbers have been declining, there are still over 1,000 of them, mostly in the south. For grape-growers, the cave cooperative is a godsend. Farmers can pool their resources, and the government offers generous grants and loans. The caves are up-to- date with modern, often expensive, wine-making equipment, and frequently a qualified oenologist on the staff. Farmers are encouraged to produce healthy grapes and are fined for rot, leaves and soil found in their crop.

Regardless of the region, the overall quality of cooperative wine has increased. Co-operatives now have competition from the supermarkets that have sprung up all over France, which offer good wine at cut-rate prices. The co-ops have had to become savvy, with an increased effort at marketing. Most offer a selection of bulk wines, from the everyday vin de table to the more expensive Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) wine. The better wines are bottled, with designer labels, some in hand-painted jeroboams. Many co-ops sell stylish boxed gift sets, complete with raffia bows. What hasn't changed, however, are the grouchy Provencal farmers' wives who work the cash-registers.

Most wine produced by co-operatives in the villages around Aix-en-Provence is still rose. The reds are made to be drunk early and rarely leave the sunflower fields of Provence. But while we me hope that the farmers and their co-operatives will always be here, a new generation of vintners has come to the area. They share the goal of increasing the quality and respectability of Cotes de Provence and Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence wines. Many are making high-quality red and white wines that can be cellared for up to 10 years.

One such winery is Domaine Mauvan, on Mont Ste-Victoire's south side. The wine-maker is a young woman, Gaelle Maclou, whose family owns the estate. We tasted her wines; they were fruity and fresh, but heavy enough to be able to withstand some time in the cellar. Maclou was complimented and said: "I love these grapes, this terroir. This isn't Bordeaux, and I don't want it to be."

Across the street from Maclou's Domaine Mauvan is Chateau Coussin. While Domaine Mauvan is a charming but faded bastide, where dogs lie in the shade of tall plane trees and winery equipment is scattered around the grounds, at Chateau Coussin, the grounds are landscaped with perfectly clipped olive and cypress trees. Chateau Coussin's owners and wine-makers are a pair of jolly grey-haired brothers, and like their neighbour Maclou, they are only too willing to talk about their wine. While you taste it in the castle's vaulted stone cellars, their enthusiasm will charm you.

On the north side of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the craggy white cliffs that towered above Domaine Mauvan and Chateau Coussin turn into deep-green rolling hills. It was the north face of the mountain that Picasso fell in love with, when he purchased the Chateau in Vauvenargues in 1959. He died there in 1972, and is buried in the estate's park, which is, unfortunately, closed to visitors.

North of Vauvenargues is the lovely village of Jouques, and just outside is Chateau Revelette, where German-born and California-trained Peter Fischer makes award-winning wines from his 17th-century property. His Grand Reserve White (Chardonnay) and Red (Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) are on every good restaurant's wine list in Provence. His Grand Reserve White is the Provencal wine strong enough to stand up to a bowl of bouillabaisse.

Domaine Sainte Ser, at the mountain's foot three miles east of St Antonin, is one of the 28 "Sainte-Victoire" wineries. While tasting Sainte Ser's delicious wines, I watched big black shadows pass over Mont Ste-Victoire. The shadows moved on, and once again the vineyard was bathed in bright, clear light. Whiffs of lavender wafted in through the open door and I thought again of Gaelle Maclou's words: "This isn't Bordeaux, and I don't want it to be."

PROVENCE

GETTING THERE

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) offers return flights to Marseille for pounds 122, plus pounds 15 tax, before 26 March - book by 3 March. Or fly with Ryanair (tel: 0541 569569) to Carcassonne for pounds 82.99 plus pounds 15 tax.

WHERE TO STAY

Mas de la Bertrande, 13100 Beaurecueil (tel: 04 42 66 90 09, fax: 04 42 66 82 01), Ffr300 (pounds 31) double occupancy. You will forgive the smallish rooms when you see the views of Mont Ste-Victoire. It has a pool, parking and restaurant.

WHERE TO EAT

Chez Thome Le Tholonet, 13100 Aix-en-Provence (tel: 04 42 66 90 43), great value with traditional Provencal cooking in the quaint village of Le Tholonet.

WINERIES

Chateau Revelette, 13490 Jouques (tel: 04 42 63 75 43, fax: 04 42 67 62 04), 2pm-6pm, Saturdays 9am-6pm; Domaine Mauvan (tel: 04 42 29 38 33); Chateau Coussin (tel: 04 42 29 22 90); Domaine de Saint Ser (tel: 04 42 66 30 81), open daily until 6pm.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tourist Office, 2 Place du General de Gaulle, Rotunde 13100, Aix-en-Provence (tel: 04 42 16 11 61).

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