Some details about the date in question remain more in question than others. For instance: the day of the week.
Could it have been a Friday? Definitely possible. It wasn’t a Monday because Restaurant Nino is closed on that day, and so I wouldn’t have observed the German couple who arrived for dinner carrying their bewildered cat in a traveling box. This stands out because it struck me then that people who’d bring a cat into a place known for platters of moules à la provençale and steaming tureens of bourride (the garlicky fish-stew cousin to bouillabaisse) are either uncommonly kind pet-lovers or ingenious sadists. Nino overlooks the pretty port of Cassis; the fish is fresh and simply prepared; and, once you’ve met and fallen under the spell of its dapper, unstoppably convivial proprietor, Bruno Brezzo, it’s hard to eat anywhere else in town.
And the season? The baking heat of midsummer had passed. But the days were long and warm still and occasionally one of the pink bodies on the pebbly beach would rise up and slip, peacefully as a sleepwalker, into the surf. It wasn’t November yet. That’s the month the little tables appear at the port, set up by fishermen bearing local oursin (sea urchin), freshly plucked from cooling waters. “Oh my God, yes!” Brezzo had exclaimed. (Brezzo tends to exclaim things rather than just say them, the colorful pronouncements popping up like the collar of his pink polo shirt from his lavender cashmere sweater.)
“We have the best oursin here.” Brezzo said. “I have a guy. He dives with helium. He brings them back this big.” He stretched his fingers as far apart as credibility would allow. But I would have to wait until November for that.
Brezzo shrugged and sat down at my table. He lit a smoke for himself and poured more rosé for me. All was not lost. “Every season is perfect,” he said. “The rest of France sees how we live and they are jealous.”
The point about the day in question is that the details are unimportant. What happened that day always happens here. The sun came up and turned the limestone cliffs shades of purplish green, blinding white, and ocherous red. The late-season flock, mostly French, arrived and fought for parking spaces. Old men swore and played pétanque on a public square marked Boulodrome Municipal. Pointus, the painted-wood fishing boats with their notably phallic bow posts, swayed at the docks.
The sun started to turn back for the day. The beach-sitters sat up, shook off their drowsiness, paced back to their cars in towels. The portside bars filled up. Under striped awnings, men with pastel sweaters around their shoulders held milky glasses of infrequently exported brands of pastis: Janot; Casanis; Berger Blanc.
I chose a bar next door to Restaurant Nino and settled into a red canvas-backed chair outside. Every table on the promenade now had on it a glass or a bottle of rosé. A little more sun seeped out of the day, like air slowly let out of a balloon. The postcard view of the port is dominated on the left by Cap Canaille, a monumental rock that runs like a rampart high above the village then falls sharply into the sea. Finally, as if in deference to the hour and the wine of choice, the last of the light fell off the cliff and the sky above the sea settled into an uncannily familiar shade of perfect pale pink.
I’d come to Provence for exactly this—for rosé and its context. Rosé is not a Deep Thoughts wine. Which is not to say it’s a frivolous drink. Happiness is serious business—ask your doctor. Some wines invite you to reflect on their expression of goût de terroir, to burrow deep into the crunchy mineral earth from whence they were squeezed and ponder what message is delivered to the palate by this alignment of place and soil and vines. Another wine might ask special consideration for the refining artistry of its vintner or the noble lineage of its grand château. Rosé makes no such demands.
Summer in a bottle, it beckons. Rosé says: Follow me to the south of France. A table by the sea. A simple lunch. Tapenade. Grilled sardines. Sweet tomato salad. Ripe green figs and goat cheese for dessert. Wine chilling in a plastic bucket of slushy ice.…
Wait, a small, neurotic voice in my brain complains. We are sophisticated wine consumers! Are we really still rhapsodizing over the sunburned beauty of another Provençal landscape? A wiser voice within answers: Oh shut up.
Rosé is kryptonite to clichés. Rosé is all, like, whatèvre. Tell it that’s not even a real word, and rosé just shrugs and pours another glass for its hot girlfriend. Let the wine nerds wrestle with one another. Rosé rolls its eyes and says: Relax, pass the aioli, take a swim, have another glass and maybe another.
About half of the Rosé made in France comes from Provence. Much of this is vacuous stuff, produced in quantity to be drunk too cold to notice by masses of French holidaymakers seduced equally by summer visions of blue sky, white sand, and pretty pink plonk. The good stuff, though, is something altogether different: natural, elegant, and encouraging of a summery sense of slowed time. Some of the best rosés come out of the Mourvèdre-dense terraced hills above Bandol.
Just a hundred miles separate the proudly still-gritty port of Marseilles from St.-Tropez and the beginnings of the French Riviera, with its glitz and gridlock and manifold ooh-la-la enchantments. Just a hundred miles but, man, is it a rich and varied terrain, this in-between place: twisty coastal roads, empty islands, and wild, craggy calanques to hike and climb and rest atop. This is not the soft-focus, landlocked Provence of quaint market towns and sweet fields of lavender and thyme. (Or gift shops selling soaps made to smell like sweet fields of lavender and thyme.) It is ragged, rocky, less-traveled country, more Pagnol than Peter Mayle.
If I had a mission when I started my rosé road trip it was to ask why: Why does the texture, color, and taste of rosé complement and transport us to this season? What’s so special about the stuff?
After lunch one day in Cassis, I set out on foot from the port. The narrow lanes are laid with buttercream paving stones, polished by wear to the point of being shiny in the shade and slippery when dry. After a short walk, I came to the gate of Clos Sainte Magdeleine. I knocked, then explained to someone who did not exude an excessive eagerness to believe me that I indeed had an appointment with François Sack, the owner of the domaine. The entrance to Clos Sainte Magdeleine may look like a normal door, but it acts as a portal to a hidden, better planet. Stepping through it, you gain access to a privileged compound: 30 lushly planted acres of high peninsula running down to the sparkly sea.
“It’s a good job, eh?” François Sack said, leading me on a wandering tour around the grounds. We passed stately, colorful mansions and cute grandkids and a gigantic cat named Pushkin. The prismatic light coming through the trees and the green shoulder of the cliff and radiant blueness of the Mediterranean all left me in a kind of dizzy state. I wanted to stretch out in the hammock and never go back out that gate.
I was forgetting my plan. What had I come for? Ah—my rosé inquiry! Talk to me about these vines—Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre—planted so close to the sea. What was the secret of great rosé?
“Because, well, I don’t know,” Sack said. “The earth. The sun. It’s enough. It’s a very good reason.” He laughed. We followed one of his big, slobbering, golden dogs out under the high pine branches to the end of the property where you could see sailboats ahead and sunbathers on the rocks below. His sunglasses were big, his hair wispy and white in the breeze. He reminded me a little of Woody Allen if Woody Allen were French and immensely suave. Therapy would be unnecessary here in the salt air.
“It’s true. There’s something about rosé in the south, under the sun, on the beach,” Sack said. “They go together. It’s a habit, a pleasure. There is this pink color and you just want to…taste this.”
“Let me ask you something,” Kermit Lynch said.
Ask me anything, I meant to respond. What I actually did instead was just look around at the vines and vegetable garden threatening to envelop the terrace of his lovely house in the high hills above Bandol and giggle. Lynch, who splits his time between Provence and Berkeley, California, is a wine merchant and importer, folk hero of the funky and unfiltered, defender of honestly crafted, family-run vineyards that are sometimes called “natural” but are more importantly just kind of inspiring and delicious. He is also the author of Adventures on the Wine Route, one of the most readable, likable books about wine you will ever find. And at age 69, he sings in a band; his latest CD is named for his cat.
I am fawning—I’m aware.
The wines he curates and the arguments he makes for them amount to a coherent, never pedantic worldview. One that elevates pleasure and mystery in wine over numerical scores and brute power. It’s an outlook to which, like his newsletter, I am a satisfied subscriber.
Lynch’s pressing question now: Did I prefer a fromage de tête or a cold leg of lamb with mustard for our lunch? “Both” seemed the obvious but impolitic answer. I told him about the Bath chaps I’d recently made at home—a British variant of deboned, brined, rolled, poached, and seared pig’s head.
“He’s a pig’s head kind of guy,” Lynch called to his wife, Gail Skoff, who was preparing lunch inside.
“That’s our kind of guy,” she called back. Skoff is an accomplished photographer whose images of French vignerons and their vineyards have illustrated Lynch’s books as well as Lulu’s Provençal Table, by their late friend Richard Olney.
Consider the many garrigue-scented paths leading back to Olney, that native of Marathon, Iowa, who spent more than three decades in Provence, entertaining, cooking for, and mentoring (and often drinking with and bedding) an unceasing stream of visiting American chefs and restaurateurs and food world notables at his tiny home in nearby Solliès-Toucas. He was a pioneer of local and seasonal before those terms became common menu parlance. By his example and friendships and the stern, precise guidance of his books, Olney helped define a certain dominant Berkeley-American idea of Provençal French cooking. Olney introduced Lynch and Alice Waters to his friends Lulu and Lucien Peyraud of Domaine Tempier, and they in turn introduced the rest of us to the great and justifiably famous Tempier rosé and the egregiously underrated Tempier reds.
Skoff set down a salad of ripe tomatoes from the garden. Then eggs, contributed by the family’s chickens, yolks just set and deeply orange, topped with a bit of salty anchovy. Lynch unsealed the jar of fromage de tête and turned out the heady, jellied lump on a plate. The terrine was made by Lynch’s old friend Marcel Lapierre, the great Beaujolais winemaker from Villié Morgon. “He kills the hog and every year we do a little trade,” Lynch said. “I send him a lot of bottles so he’ll stay happy. I love his saucisson, and I can’t go out and buy anything like it.”
Here we came to an unfortunate but unavoidable subject that might be dubbed The Other French Paradox. Which is: the apparent disappearance of good Provençal food from the very place we most associate it with. Restaurants in pretty coastal towns tend to be seasonal. The customers and staff turn over frequently; the owners head north in winter to run cafés in ski towns. Another explanation is cultural: Young worldly French people don’t want to eat the cuisine bourgeoise their grandmothers made; they would prefer, apparently, such insipid novelties as the Thai-spiced steak tartare presented to me in a popular (and utterly depressing) restaurant down by the sea in Bandol.
On his early wine-buying trips, Lynch said, he could count on classic, well-prepared meals in France and was disappointed by the restaurants back in Berkeley. Now the situation had reversed itself. “It’s strange, isn’t it?” he said. “I don’t consider myself picky but everything’s gotten so industrial and tasteless. I used to love radishes. How often do you run into a good radish anymore?”
But here we were, eating like enlightened Californians in Provence. The food, from the garden and from friends, was perfect. We cut into the wobbly pork, its long-cooked meaty bits suspended in dark jelly, and toasted its maker, Lapierre, with a bottle of old Morgon. (A few weeks later, the sad news came that Lynch’s close friend and trading partner Lapierre had died unexpectedly.)
That afternoon Lynch indulged me with talk of rosé and its connection to summer. He remembered his early visits with Olney and his neighbors the Peyrauds, whose vines now grew in the garden below. Lulu is 94 now, still social and cooking and enjoying her wine. “A couple of years ago she was up here to say hello one summer day,” Lynch said. “It was hotter than hell, and I said, ‘Lulu, let me offer you some lemonade.’ ‘Non non, je ne bois que du vin rouge.’ And she just downs it in one go like a glass of water. Really, I’ve never seen that before. You could probably get arrested for that in America.”
Driving around the Rosé Coast (a name I just made up), I had time to ponder Lynch’s dilemma about the so-so food. It was a bummer, but did it matter? Watching the sparkle of the sea, I decided to take a rosé outlook on things.
The truth is that anyone visiting the south of France hoping to find a perfectly unspoiled sun-drenched culinary nirvana was engaging in a bit of harmless, hopeful fantasy. I’d dreamed of Bandol since that first glass of Tempier, but hadn’t bothered to look up an actual picture of the resort town. It’s kind of a cheesy place. And there are other nearby, tacky spots where the restaurants don’t cook. They just defrost. But that’s okay because you could avoid all that. In the hills above those resorts they are making beautiful wines in pretty, still-wild hills where the sun-seeking tourists never bother to venture.
One day, I followed traffic circles off the Bandol exit toward the little hamlet of Le Plan-du-Castellet. Carefully, I passed tractors puttering along, pulling their crates of grapes. It’s easy to get turned around and I circled for a while before finding Domaine Tempier. The affable young winemaker Daniel Ravier led me down to the storied cellar for a tasting. Afterward, Ravier suggested I poke my head in the main house and ask someone to find Lulu and ask if she felt like greeting a visitor.
Lulu appeared, wearing a white sweater with pockets, silver earrings, reading glasses around her neck, and a sweet, curious smile.
Taking my hand she asked, “Could we have a glass of wine, the two of us?” Yes, I thought, we could.
“2007 or 2008?” she asked.
Your choice, Lulu.
“I am very old, so I like the young ones.” She laughed, took a generous sip, and suggested: bois-le tranquillement, drink it at your leisure. We talked for a while about her wines and cooking. I told her how much I liked the book she’d made with Olney. “Ah, you’re a great connoisseur,” she said, teasingly. Though I wouldn’t get a chance to taste her famous home cooking, I did have the true Lulu experience: she’d welcomed me, like so many visitors before me, and charmed me with her wry, warm, slightly mischievous attentions.
After a little while, Lulu apologized and said it was time for her to take her leave. “I am so tall that I am tired of standing. Good luck!”
I was delighted with my audience with a legend but there was one more place that I had to see. Back in my Fiat 500, from Bandol I headed past Toulon, turning toward Hyères and south past flat salt marshes and increasingly scrubby seaside roads. Finally the dinky D97 terminates at a small port with little more than a convenience store (stocking a half-dozen bottles of halfway decent rosé, naturally) and a ferry dock.
Île de Porquerolles is the nicest place you’ve never heard of. Or, if you have: thank you for keeping quiet about it. The island is small—about five square miles, much of it protected nature reserve—very green, mostly carless and untrammeled by the kind of buildup and crowds that worldly attention would bring. You can almost hear the champagne corks popping in St.-Tropez, less than 40 miles to the east, but this is a serene island redolent of pine forests and olive trees. To be honest I don’t know how this mini Nantucket on the Med has not been ruined. It is almost too perfect to believe. You step off the ferry and feel immediately calmed by the place. There is one square with a church and a group of rosé-nursing locals playing an endless game of pétanque. There are bicycle-rental shops and ice cream stands and soft white-sand beaches. There are a few small inns in the village and one clubby resort at the western end of the island, with fluffy pink bathrobes and red tennis courts and a slightly shabby old-world charm. The hotel, Le Mas du Langoustier, is reached by the Porquerolles’s lone bus over mostly dirt roads. Gentlemen wear jackets to dinner.
The next day I rode my rented bike over knobby, sandy paths to visit Domaine de la Courtade, one of the isle’s three small wineries. Laurent Vidal, the ruddy life force behind the place, explained that many tourists come by boat for an afternoon. “We call them hemoglobins because they arrive white and go back red,” Vidal said of the sun-soaking day-trippers.
Vidal is an engineer by training and a Parisian by birth. When his father passed away he moved here to look after the business. “We are building something new every time—it’s the alchemy of the salty air and the soil.” Courtade makes an excellent, crisp, citrusy rosé. I asked him about the blue-and-white buggy parked nearby. “Plastique est fantastique!” he said. No metal, no rust. The car is a 1970’s Citroën Méhari, a funky utility vehicle made for the desert. Pedaling away, I had the feeling I’d stumbled onto a kind of fantasy island of rosé, pristine and beautiful and just a little odd.
It did not surprise me that evening when at sunset the sky turned a most perfect pink. After dinner I bicycled under moonlight over a path of pine needles, dropped the bike in the sand, took off my clothes on the empty beach, and ran into the warm water. It seemed like the thing to do. Like the only thing to do. Maybe it was the full moon or the bottle of Courtade I’d drunk with dinner. Or maybe, just maybe, the unfortunate image of your wine-seeking correspondent frolicking naked in the sea will turn enough people off to keep this perfect place a secret. Then, I will have done my job.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.
Air France and Alitalia fly to Marseilles via Paris. Most of your time will be spent on the scenic D559 that follows the coast.
La Maison de Nino Three crisply designed, yacht-inspired suites, right on the water. 1 Quai Jean-Jacques Barthélemy, Cassis; 33-4/42-01-74-32; nino-cassis.com; doubles from $295 (including breakfast).
Le Mas du Langoustier Île de Porquerolles; 33-4/94-58-30-09; langoustier.com; doubles from $638.
La Villa Madie Mediterranean cuisine with seaside vistas. Ave. de Revestel, Cassis; 33-4/96-18-00-00; dinner for two $297.
Le Monte Cristo Michelin-starred restaurant with a wine list that reflects the glories of neighboring vineyards. 3001 Rte. des Hauts du Camp, Le Castellet; 33-4/94-98-37-77; dinner for two $475.
Restaurant Le Château A perfect place for Sunday lunch: big platters of bouillabaisse, crowded plastic tables, endless sea views, and lots of rosé. 220 Calanque de Sormiou, Marseilles; 33-4/91-25-08-69; lunch for two $111.
Restaurant Nino 1 Quai Jean-Jacques Barthélemy, Cassis; 33-4/42-01-74-32; dinner for two $134.
Château Pradeaux Producer of inky Bandol reds and great rosés. 676 Chemin des Pradeaux, St.-Cyr Sur Mer; 33-4/94-32-10-21; chateau-pradeaux.com.
Clos Sainte Magdeleine Ave. de Revestel, Cassis; 33-4/42-01-70-28; clossaintemagdeleine.fr.
Domaine de la Courtade Île de Porquerolles; 33-4/94-58-31-44; lacourtade.com.
Domaine du Bagnol Excellent white and a rosé made by the Genovesi family. 12 Ave. de Provence, Cassis; 33-4/42-01-78-05.
Domaine du Gros ’Noré Alain Pascal’s winery near Bandol, revered for its soulful reds and fragrant rosés. 675 Chemin de l’Argile, La Cadière-d’Azur; 33-4/94-90-08-50; gros-nore.com.
Domaine Tempier 1082 Chemin des Fanges, Le Plan-du-Castellet; 33-4/94-98-70-21; domainetempier.com.