Friday, May 21, 2010

An Underground Cathedral Dedicated to Bacchus

South of Avignon, in France, there’s this wonderful little town called St Remy de Provence, where Nostradamus was born, and where there’s a great restaurant, well more than one, but our favorite was the Bistro des Alpilles, but that story is for another time. The thing is, if you head east out of town on the D99, and look very carefully on the right you’ll see a tiny little sign for the one lane road called Chemin de Romanin and a place called Château Romanin. Take a right on this little road.
It looks just like this:

Down a ways on the left will be a glider field. It’s like an airport, but for gliders. No tower, and the runway is made of grass. Kind of quiet and beautiful when the gliders come in. Keep going, through all the vineyards and Provençal garigue, following those tiny little signs that say Château Romanin. Eventually you will run into the base of the mountains known as Les Alpilles.
As you approach, going through the vineyards it will looks a lot like this:

On your right, sitting at the top of an out-thrust of the mountain are the ruins of a 1000-year-old castle, the original Château Romanin. To your left will be the slightly disconcerting and just a wee bit mythical site of huge doors built into the side of a mountain. This is the new Château Romanin. Underground.
The entrance looks like this:

The new Château Romanin was built about 20 years ago into the side of a mountain. The idea was to take advantage of the naturally cooling properties of being under a mountain to make and store wine. And it works. Quite well actually.

Château Romanin is a biodynamic winery. That means they are not only organic, but work to be in harmony with the Earth, harvest by phases of the moon, pick by hand, and a host of other somewhat esoteric practices. It’s a bit complicated, but quite romantic and somehow very appropriate to wine. Especially good wine. Château Romanin is so good at making biodynamic wine that not that long ago they won the gold medal for best biodynamic wine in France. That is saying a lot. They’ve also been on a number of “best of” lists, including best small wineries of France, best rosé and best reds of Provence, and the like.

The real treat is to tour the winery and visit La Cathedral, the underground storage area filled with giant wood barrels and built deep into the mountain.  Imagine if a bunch of Dwarves from Lord of the Rings had decided to build a majestic winery under a mountain. It looks a bit like that, except this was designed by a renowned Parisian architect.  It is frankly awe-inspiring. Jelly legs inducing beautiful. On one of my visits, yes I’ve been more than once, anyway on one of my visits one of my companions almost broke into tears at the sheer beauty and majesty of La Cathedral.

Hold your breath… These pictures don't do it justice, but it looks a lot like this:

What makes it all better is that much of the wine is really good. Their rosé is a giant step above the norm. Delightfully complex for a rosé, crisp and clean and it somehow raises the spirit at each sip. So good we picked up a case. And their other selections are worth tasting, knowing the odds are you will find at least one or two "must haves."

The last time we were there we picked up a magnum of their gold winning "Cœur" wine and had it with Christmas dinner. It was heavenly. The big bird in the picture, I think it was a free range organic goose, which only looks small because of the size of the massive magnum of wine, was prepared by Chef Tiaré Ferrari and was drool inducing in its both its scent and taste:

Here is the thing: Part of the joy of wine, at least in my view, is having the sense of place that goes with the wine. Wine is more than taste; it is place, and memories, and art.

Château Romanin does not disappoint in helping establish a unique sense of place, inspired memories and a wonderful injection of art into life. I still have a few dust covered bottles that I just look at and remember. One of them is the gold winner. Someday, I will actually open them up and drink them, but it will have to be a very special occasion.

Château Romanin also makes its own small production of biodynamic olive oil from olive trees on the estate. I’m told it’s really good. It must be, they have been sold out every time I go.  Apparently as soon as the word goes out that they are pressing and bottling the oil people from all over come and buy a bottle, or a case, or two, and within a month of the pressing it is gone, until the next year.

They also make their own  honey. They keep several hives on the estate so as to keep the biodynamics of pollination working, or something like that. They harvest and sell a limited supply of two types of biodynamic honey: wildflower and forest honey. The wildflower is good. The forest honey is sensational. When’s the last time you had honey you thought was sensational? I bring some back every time I go and guard it carefully.

So, the next time you are traveling along the D99 just east of St Remy de Provence, look for the little sign on the side of the road, and follow it to Bacchus’ magical underground cathedral. You won’t regret it.  Oh, and raise a glass and give a toast to Bacchus for me, would you?

Le Capitaine


  1. We also love the Bistrot des Alpilles. When we were last in St Remy in 2006 the whole center of town was torn up... Mary and I love ST Remy but we are less enamored with the countryside approaches on the main drags with their industrial development. Which is why we love the Luberon Valley - a nationally protected area - Bonnieux, etc. No Home Depots! Anyway, I wish I coul include a couple of snaps from the bisro in St Remy.

  2. When I went there the architecture made me cry, as it was so much more than a winery, but, a step in to a world only comparable to that of a 'Riven' or a 'Myst' world.

  3. Copywriter1 - Well when you go back, after lunch at Bistrot des Alpilles, you'll have to follow these directions to Château Romanin for a tour you shall not forget.

    d- Yes, totally.

  4. Damn-- must see.

  5. Enjoyed reading your blog....if you like Chateau Romanin, I think you would also enjoy visiting Font du Broc in the Var district....Les Arcs s/Argens.

  6. Mary I will have visit next time we are in Provence. And thanks!