The mistral is blowing – that gusty, cold wind from the north – and it carries with it a fragrance unlike any other: a mix of piney shrubs, spicy herbs and sweet flowers.
It's called garrigue (gah-REEG) and it is the signature scent of the south of France, detectable everywhere from Carcassonne to Marseille, and especially the Vaucluse region of the Southern Rhône Valley. Follow garrigue to the source, and it will take you on a tour of the wine it infuses, the food it flavours and the culture and history it embraces.
The first time I encounter the aroma, I am staying in the village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Vincent van Gogh famously recovered from a breakdown by painting olive trees, irises and Starry Night skies. It's late spring when I arrive at Le Mas des Carassins, a rural farmhouse-turned-inn, and everything is green: the endless rows of vines, the fields of flowers, the budding olive trees.
That night, our hosts serve lamb and young asparagus along with a dark, fruity wine from a vineyard only a few kilometres away. It is infused with an alluringly spicy herbal essence of juniper and lavender.
That scent follows me the next day as I explore nearby Château des Baux, a medieval hilltop village with a crumbling 10th-century castle and daily re-enactments involving historic weaponry (some daring souls are demonstrating how a trebuchet works). It lingers up the road in Vaison-la-Romaine, too, where the ruins are Roman rather than medieval, and built for pleasure rather than warfare.
It's when we reach the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that the garrigue manifests not just in the air, but in the wine. This ancient hill town is surrounded by sprawling vines and rocky fields, and is crowned with a gloriously ancient castle. It is famous for its rich, inky reds, a reputation established back in the 14th century after Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon and commissioned the locals to provide a wine worthy of church leaders.
I roam along dusty streets, going from tasting room to tasting room, inhaling deeply of wines made from grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and a handful of other grapes. They are bursting with fruit and spice. As I sip, the aroma becomes flavour, and the taste on my tongue is truly the taste of southern France.
It is also irresistible, and that's why, a year and a half later, I'm back in the Vaucluse, just in time for harvest at a small winery called Domaine Clos de Caveau. It's located in Vacqueyras, which, along with Gigondas and Rasteau, is one of the handful of villages or "crus" in the Southern Rhône famous for producing exceptional grenache-and-syrah-based wines.
The owner, Henri Bungener, and I are walking through the vineyard, which is alive with birds and butterflies and leaves dancing in the endless whirl of the mistral. Behind us loom the thrusting peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail; before us, the Rhône Valley sprawls golden in the late September sunshine, the pale houses of Gigondas just visible beyond the trees.
"You have to subject yourself to what the land produces," Bungener says. After inheriting the vineyard from his father, he went through its 12 hectares and mapped the smells and flavours in every corner. He discovered that he could make 15 distinctly different types of wine, thanks in part to the distinctive vegetation that surrounds the vines and creates the essence of garrigue.
"Visually, the first thing you notice is the trees: not very tall, having to survive to the weather," he says. "Always some chène vert, our evergreen smallish oak, but also sometimes some pine. Then you see the shrubs. Some of these delightfully fragrant shrubs are well known – thyme, rosemary, occasionally wild lavender – others less so, like ciste [rock roses], cade ou genévrier oxycèdre [types of juniper], euphorbe characias [a flowering evergreen]."
Therein lies the source of the garrigue. Because of the hot, dry summers and cold, windy winters, "the vegetation takes a beating and has to be resilient," Bungener says. "In order to survive the intensity of the sun, the garrigue plants produce smells. The smelly molecules form a halo of gas that deflects the sun's rays. It's their very own sunscreen."
The protective oils end up in the water and the soil that feed the grapes, on the grapes themselves, and in the juice that is fermented into wine. Ultimately, it ends up infused with our memories.
Many months later, I am at the Vancouver International Wine Festival when someone opens a bottle from Gigondas and the air fills with the aroma of lavender, rosemary, peppery syrah and fruity grenache.
And just like that, I am transported back to Provence. I can taste the lavender honey served with croissants at Le Mas des Carassins, the fragrant herbs in the crisp green salad at La Mère Germaine, the thyme in the baked fig dessert at Le Grand Pré in Roaix. I can smell the Tuesday market in Vaison-la-Romaine, the earthy cèpes mushrooms, the gamey boar sausages, the yeasty breads and piquant cheeses.
Though I may be surrounded by the dreary, damp of the West Coast, I am once again basking in the sunshine and flavours and irresistible aromas of Provence.
IF YOU GO:
Air Canada flies into Paris daily from Toronto or Montreal; from there the TGV train to Avignon runs several times a day. A rental car will let you explore the Vaucluse at your leisure.
Where to stay:
Cosy up to the Provençal charm of Le Mas des Carassins in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, the village that inspired some of Vincent Van Gogh's most famous works. Rooms from $138 (€100) a night for two persons, breakfast included. masdescarassins.com
Value meets authenticity amid the beauty of the Southern Rhône wine country at a self-catered gîte at Domaine Le Clos de Caveau in Vacqueyras. Rates from $472 for a full week. closdecaveau.com
Where to eat:
In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, everyone stops by La Mère Germaine for fresh, Provençal comfort food and unbeatable views. The two-course dinner is $51.lameregermaine.fr
Pretty, romantic Le Grand Pré, tucked amid beds of herbs in the village of Roaix, is one of the top-rated restaurants in the region. Four to six course dinners range from $86 to $123. legrandpre.com
What to do:
Visit the medieval hilltop village of Château des Baux de Provence, where you can explore the dramatic ruins and take in historic re-enactments. chateau-baux-provence.com
On Tuesdays, swing by the sprawling market in Vaison-la-Romaine to pick up cheese, sausage and mushrooms, then check out the Roman amphitheatre and archeological museum nearby. vaison-la-romaine.com
Sniff, swirl, sip and (if you must) spit your way through the tasting rooms of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a hilltop wine village famous for lush, dark, spicy reds.
The writer was a guest of Clos de Caveau Winery and the French government. Neither approved nor reviewed the story.