I didn’t know Provence too well before embarking on a road trip there recently with a good friend of mine. We – well, she (I still don’t have a license) – drove from Montpellier to Avignon to Château Sainte Roseline winery, then to the coastal city of Sainte Martine and back to our rural stay near Marseille, all in one day. The next day the plan was to drive out of the way again to Domaine Ott winery and from there 5 hours the way back to Narbonne. But after the tour of Sainte Roseline turned out to be a spectacular waste of time (“Does anyone know how red wine is made?” “These are barrels, they’re made of French oak.“) we decided to revise the plan and swap Ott for Château La Coste on the way back. As much as I would’ve loved to prance around Château de Selle, surrounded by my favorite rosés and learning from the very best, faulty planning on my part had resulted in far too much time spent in the car. On retrospect, we made the right choice. Why? Because, Aix-en-Provence…
Known as the city of fountains and outdoor markets, Aix-en-Provence is honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. If I ever plan a trip to Provence again, I won’t be bopping around aimlessly, sleeping in farmhouses in towns atop random hills or driving hours to participate in overrated château tours. I’ll be staying either here or just a quick drive outside. Just five minutes spent standing in the City Hall Plaza is worth the trip. A line of houses draped in tired oranges, pinks and yellows, the colors bleached out further by rays of morning sunshine filtering in among the canopies of tall sycamores, whose bark peel off and dangle languidly in the breeze…. And below all this, a bustling flower market. Everyone is smiling. It’s something out of a dream, the cliched French town in every Disney Princess movie.
And just a short drive from all that, through a beautiful and sunny countryside, sits Château La Coste, an art-architecture-winery complex with enough to keep you there all day. The estate practices biodynamic vineyard management and boasts a state of the art cuverie, which was designed by architect Jean Nouvel, who also created the brand new, blood red Château la Dominique in Pomerol. The reception area, sorting and pressing happens in one of two 10 meter high spherical buildings of aluminum, reminiscent of a giant greenhouses. Winemaking and bottling happens in the other such chai, with the vats located 17 meters below ground with everything gravity-driven. The tour and tasting lasted around 2 hours, the level of information perfectly tailored to the level of wine knowledge of guests (unlike the experience at Sainte Roseline). Also unlike Sainte Roseline, the tasting was generous and convivial with a friendly woman who really took the time to chat with each guest about the seven wines (a sparkling, a white, two roses and three reds) tasted.
The property also includes an art center housing the works of famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando (same guy who designed my beloved Morimoto in NYC), a reflection pool with a large metallic spider croutching over (by Louise Bourgeois), several exhibitions and a self-led walking tour through spectacular works set in nature by dozens of well known artists… And a luxury hotel for those who want to stay and experience it all. And where there’s art, architecture, accommodation and good wine, there has to be good food too right?
Yes. The property has not one but three restaurants and a cafe. And that’s kind of what drew us there to begin with, because one of them is by Francis Mallmann (among my and my Argentine friend’s favorite chefs). And he’s doing all that Argentine stuff – the dome, the plancha, rescoldo and all that burning – but with Mediterranean fish and Charolais beef. Mallmann’s wasn’t open for lunch that day, though, so we opted for Tadao Ando Restaurant, set in a gorgeous space with the Provencal sun shining through floor-to-ceiling glass and a terrific view of both the vines in the distance and the Mathematica Model 012 Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature 2010 by Hiroshi Sugimoto emerging, so life-like, from the surface of a reflection pool. The seasonal ingredients making up their in-house menu are sourced directly from the organic vegetable garden (designed by Louis Benech), which is also located on the property. We sat, ordered a glass of rosé and two set lunch menus (only 32 euros each).
As a main, my friend chose the beetroot ravioli with endive salad, while I went for the velouté of Jerusalem artichoke (grown in the estate’s garden) with silky smooth clumps of jiggly foie gras nestled in. The sauce was served warm and coated my tongue with its thick, smooth, grainy texture and wonderfully nutty, earthy flavor. This humble, sensible and lean puree was beautifully complemented by the decadence of the foie, each piece of which floated over the top, surrounded by a golden pool of its own cooking fat. The foie was seared to a very delicate, very rare point to where it melted, like goose-infused butter, on the palate. Fresh chive was sprinkled on to add a touch of color to this wonderful ying-yang melange of innocence and sin.
Next, a langue de chat of Charolais beef with braised heart of romaine and roasted baby potatoes. This supple and lean little “tongue” of beef, taken from the rump steak, was beautifully cooked, browned on the outside but with a juicy and rare interior. My knife glided through the thing with very little effort, allowing for the slicing of perfectly sized bites. A deeply flavorful jus was ladled over the top, tiny bits of pan-sticking delivered back onto the surface of the meat by the flood of sauce. Alongside the meat was an equally sized heart of romaine, filled with some bright orange cubes of carrot and roasted until soft and smooth. Through roasting the latter achieved a caramelized sweetness, which complimented the savory meat nicely.
We had enjoyed a hearty breakfast earlier that day and so were both stuffed by the time dessert was brought up, but my friend opted for a cheese plate and I tried some of it. Next to a perfectly dressed little bundle of arugula were a few nutty slices of Comte, half a round of sheep cheese and some fromage blanc with oil and chives. All three were wonderful, though I believe the sheep cheese was served a bit too cold, since it was a bit un-expressive and the flavors locked in.
We ended up staying over three hours and speeding to Narbonne to reach my 7pm train. I recommend a visit to Château la Coste to anyone visiting Provence with enough time to spend at least half of a day there learning, relaxing and enjoying the fresh and pretty cuisine with the estate’s wonderful wines.