Weekend Away: Provence

Weekend Away: Provence
Driving along a two-lane road towards La Verrière, a spectacular, remote wine estate, I was first convinced by the variety of spring colors around each bend. An entire field of sunny yellow, rows of bright orange and red tulips, a speckling of purple across the landscape became indelible in my mind. My memories of Provence were to be color-based, from the rich red ocre of nearby Rousillon to the smooth salmon-colored rosé from La Verrière's vineyards.

After crossing a Roman bridge at the medieval village of Crestet, we turned off the main road to wind up the hillside on a series of hairpin turns. The smell of spring bloom swept through the open windows as we reached the top, and turned down a narrow lane. As the Land Rover came around a corner, suddenly La Verrière came into view. With all the majesty of a castle, the house is set back from the road, giving arriving guests proper time to stare in awe. My eyes darted from terraces to balconies, from the in-ground pool to tall cypress trees, and finally settled on the angled sharpness of vineyard rows. Our driver Sebastien, seeing the stunned look on our faces, simply said, "Welcome to La Verrière."

The French word for the workshop of a glassblower, La Verrière got its name from a skilled artisan who had settled the area. When Nicole Sierra-Rolet and her husband began restoring the property, a fig tree was growing in the living room and there was no electricity or running water. The 10-year restoration project is finally completed, elegantly decorated and with a winery on-site. Our hostess greeted the car personally, and although multi-lingual and of partly European background, an American accent made me feel immediately at home with Nicole. Our bags were brought inside as we were drawn to the landscape, so varied on all sides of the grounds.

Down a series of cascading terraces, we approached the front door of the house. We strolled past the medieval herb garden, the in-ground pool and outdoor kitchen, all grabbing our immediate attention. Nicole explained the origins of the project, and her intention to always restore the house to be shared with guests. With 17 bedrooms, Nicole envisioned La Verrière as an escape for like-minded people, to do business and have the space and time to be creative, or to relax and rejuvenate in the many comforts she has created. Through the front door, we passed into the medieval entrance way.

Over an aperitif, Nicole described the history of the house and the wines. Ignored by many because of difficulties modernizing the facilities, La Verrière was passed over by potential buyers, including Prince Charles. The estate has inspired many artists, including the Prince, to paint it on one of his frequent trips to the region. Without modern conveniences La Verrière was left for 40 years lacking the right buyer with the tenacity to ensure the renovation was done correctly.

From the beginning, Nicole envisioned the highest international standards of accommodation to La Verrière, and she has succeeded. Our hostess confessed a small amount of naiveté that had enabled her to begin such a massive and time-consuming project. And now, 10 years and countless hours of work later, a haven has been created in the Vaucluse region of Provence. Wired with the latest technology and designed with the utmost comforts, La Verrière has struck the right balance.

Gradually, Nicole's passion extended beyond the building to the vineyards surrounding the home. During 40 years of neglect, 100 acres of vines had been producing grapes that were sold to the local cooperative. When the restoration began, the potential for grapes grown on the land was recognized due to excellent drainage and a unique terroir as a result of high altitude, isolation, and complex geology. After the daunting task of building an on-site winery was completed, the grapes were kept for production of La Verrière's own super-premium wines, called Chêne Bleu. As we sipped rosé from the 2007 vintage, I was impressed by the complex flavors and rich color. Invited to the table, we began our first meal.

The long wooden dining table is complemented by an elegant grand piano and tall windows revealing a terrace. Part of the theory behind the furnishings of La Verrière is to encourage interaction between guests, in an environment ripe to share thoughts, ideas and passions. For this reason, there are no separate tables in the dining room, but one long solid wood table to comfortably pass the evenings with good company. Delightful chef Olivier described each course with a smile, and the conversation continued over seared John Dory, olive oil mashed potatoes and crunchy asparagus.

Accompanied by La Verrière's own wines, we concluded the four-course masterpiece with a cheese course followed by a fresh berry dessert. After a day of travel and a beautiful meal, I was glad there was just one flight of stairs to climb before bed. Our host described their philosophy for mornings: breakfast was casual with no need to arrive during a specified window of time. Arranged in the center of a large island in the professional kitchen, guests can wander in at any time for breakfast or another cappuccino.

We obeyed orders and let the silence of La Verrière encourage us to linger in bed. Opening the shutters, the sounds of birds, frogs down at the pond and wind through the tall cypress trees fluttered into the forest-themed room. 'The Hunting Suite' was soothing with earthy tones and delicate prints. Small touches present in the suite showed the time and attention to detail spent when restoring the house. In the antechamber, a French Bishop's bed (and well-traveled family heirloom) provides accommodation for an additional guest or as a comfortable place to relax with a book. As a couple, separate living space was appreciated as well. The long afternoons of La Verrière encourage napping, and this day bed covered in fluffy pillows invited me back to the suite for a nap while my partner relaxed watching the satellite TV.

My favorite element of our suite was the spectacular bathroom. Small touches like a photograph of vines and dried flowers adorned various nooks of the spacious room. The pressure of the shower was enhanced by jets from the walls, the perfect boost to energize your day. A free-standing bathtub was the centerpiece of the room, and no detail was missed from the fluffiest of towels to a variety of products. This bathroom was symbolic of a hotel owner who had considered her guests every need. Discussing it later, Nicole agreed that these fine details are essentials for a hotel that wants to be considered of luxury quality.

Descending the stairs, we entered the kitchen. Designed to combine an aesthetic appeal with top-quality professional grade appliances, it is a welcoming space. Olivier was beginning the preparation of the evening meal, and lovely Tina brought steaming coffee and tea to our stools. This level of participation and comfort is unique to any property I've visited. Olivier not only revealed a hint of what the evening's meal would be, but gave me cooking tips on how to repeat the experience in my own home. A man with a classic French passion for cuisine, he began cooking at a young age thanks to an uncle who was also a chef. Every morsel throughout the day bore his stamp. From the fresh fig jam in the morning to wine pairings in the evening, his personal touch unified the culinary experiences of La Verrière.

After a breakfast of Olivier's homemade crunchy muesli, a fresh fruit salad and juice, Nicole took us on a tour of the grounds. Similar to the house, the grounds include private nooks in the design. Benches carved from the trunks of dead trees are carefully placed in the garden facing a view of Mont Ventoux. Around each turn, there was another option for private relaxation, from a terrace with a few tables to a covered outdoor daybed stocked with fluffy pillows overlooking the vineyards.

Passing the vines, we made our way down to the fruit and vegetable garden. This especially fertile section of the land has long been used for growing produce. The garden can be a location for a private dinner, where strings of lights in the fig trees and candles set the mood for a romantic evening. Envisioning the outdoor table and solitude of a genuine private meal, I was already developing a list of reasons to return to the property. La Verriere is also family friendly, with a safe playground area for children to interact. Between the slides, pool, tennis court, and acres of land to hike or bike children won't ever exhaust the options for outdoor activities.

While certain elements of the house encourage interaction, it is also clear that Nicole has maintained a respect for privacy. After our walk of the grounds, we returned to the house and a small terrace where a wrought-iron table was set for lunch for two. A rare opportunity to enjoy a meal accompanied by the light wind and sunshine of Provence, we dined al fresco with not another person in sight. Olivier had prepared a ceasar salad: crunchy romaine with a dressing spiced with anchovies. Crostini, sliced hard-boiled eggs and hot grilled herb chicken finished off this afternoon treat. A cold glass of rosé as an afternoon accompaniment was simply indulgent, and we spent the next couple hours reading and enjoying the views, silence and sounds of the mountain.

Revived by an afternoon nap, I accompanied Nicole on a tour of the house. A room set aside especially for wine-tasting had a fresco of the glass blower, depicting the estate's namesake. A variety of rooms can match any accommodation request, from the nautical themed split-level suite by the pool, to the sunflower suite where the original hearth of La Verrière's kitchen is the focal point. Each room displays an understated theme, including the bee room, decorated with an antique beehive. The careful observer will take notice of the honeycomb-tiled floor. In this retreat house, there are accommodations for small families and couples alike. Comfortable chairs are present in every room, spacious bathrooms offer organic products and pieces from the family's private art collection remind visitors that La Verrière is indeed, a home.

The evening arrived quickly, and so did two friends of mine who were staying the weekend. First on our agenda was a tour of the winery, with the winemaker himself as our guide. Jean-Louis explained the intricate process of creating the wine of La Verrière, from the building of the state-of-the-art winery to the first vintage they harvested and bottled in house. During construction of the winery, they dug two stories into the earth to take advantage of gravity during winemaking (to prevent pumping and therefore oxidation) with vats deep below ground. The result of ambition is clear in the impressive building, from the aging room with french oak barrels to the modern tasting room with soothing music. After touring the facility, we sat down to try the 4 varieties ourselves.

Two reds, one white and one rosé make up the label of Chêne Bleu. Translated as blue oak, the name, like the property, has a back story. The name La Verrière was already taken by another vineyard, leaving Nicole looking for a name that somehow symbolized the property. She organized a contest with a substantial prize for submissions. The name needed the right combination of elements, and none of the submissions had precisely the right mix. A tall blue oak is the center of the landscape of La Verrière, rescued after suffering from the drought of 2005 by Marco Nucera, the internationally famed tree sculptor based in Provence. It provided a symbol for the wine and the winemakers, who have sought to protect and preserve the land, while showcasing the exceptional character of its fruit.

Marco Nucera transformed the ancient oak into a piece of natural art by painting it with 'bouillie bordelaise' (the 'Bordeaux mixture' of copper sulphate, the traditional protective treatment used for vines). Showcasing the natural beauty of the tree, the blue-green color of the treatment is striking both on the landscape of La Verriere and as the central image on the sophisticated label of the wine. Showing me the blue oak for the first time, Nicole laughed when saying, 'If you don't like it, don't tell me. It would be like saying you don't like my child.' I reassured her of its dynamic presence in the landscape.

100 acres of 40-year old vineyards grow different Rhône varietals. Syrah and Grenache dominate the vineyards, but the influence of other grape varieties is also present. Proud of their environmentally-friendly practices, La Verriere is chemical free and respectful of the terroir that brings such complexity to the wines. A combination of high-altitude, varying day-to-night temperatures and complex limestone and clay-based soils resulted in the creation of 4 exquisite wines.

The reds are named after the medieval lovers, Abelard and Heloise. The letters of these separated lovers are still available for reading today. The wines are intertwined because of their shared origin, and yet they maintain distinctly unique qualities. Abelard is bolder, the more masculine and assertive of the two. Heloise has a subtle beauty, lasting long in the mouth and with layers of flavor. We tasted the white wine and bright rosé as well before heading into the dining room for a private dinner.

The long-term goal of a retreat home like La Verrière is to bring people together. Nicole was pleased to arrange a private dinner for four, providing an ideal atmosphere for catching up with friends and family. There were no 'reservations' and the meal progressed as we pleased, with Olivier suggesting wines to accompany his masterpieces and cheery Tina anticipating every detail. Not once could any of us think of one thing to ask for. We laughed and told stories over the showcase of Provençal cooking, as comfortable as in our own living room. We enjoyed ratatouille with braised veal, a cheese course, and handmade apple tart throughout the evening.

After the meal, we sat down with Nicole, Olivier and Tina for a night-cap. Beautiful tones from the grand piano filled the medieval room, the acoustics unique and bouncing off the solid walls. This intimate space can be utilized for private dinners, corporate functions or family reunions. Unlike many French properties, where sophisticated comforts and technology are an afterthought, La Verriere offers well thought out hi-tech facilities cleverly concealed so as not to affect the overriding sense of history and nature. A private location for professional off-sites, brainstorming and client entertainment, La Verrière blends a romantic landscape with the technology to be productive. Designed specifically with corporate entertainment in mind, Nicole ensures wifi access throughout the property, both inside and out, and a beautifully designed outdoor meeting area (affectionately called Woodhenge) to keep guests in touch with nature.

The intimate spaces of the wine estate are truly ideal for the ultimate wedding. Nicole and Xavier had their own wedding at La Verrière, and now have extended the privilege to others. Newlyweds have danced under the Provençal night sky after their wedding ceremony at La Verrière, departing for their honeymoon via helicopter. The separate areas of La Verrière suit both an intimate wedding ceremony and exquisite reception afterwards. Nicole and her staff happily provide activities the couple and their guests before and after the wedding.

A course called 'Extreme Wine' is the third element of the project. Nicole described it as 'connected at the hip' to both the grounds and Chêne Bleu. Bringing together her passion about wine and connecting like-minded people, Extreme Wine is 'a luxury bootcamp for wine enthusiasts'. In her own words, Nicole is well aware that the world doesn't need another wine class. And yet, just as she applied the highest international standards to restoring the house, she crafted a wine course a step above the rest.

Taking into consideration the inspirations and shortcomings of established wine classes, Nicole has designed Extreme Wine in conjunction with Clive Barlow, a Master of Wine who is currently director of the Institute of Masters of Wine. This year, taking place from June 14-18, 2009 Extreme Wine brings together 9-12 people for a course that combines, 'serious learning with serious fun and idyllic luxury.' Wine enthusiasts will enjoy 5 days of complete wine immersion, from lectures to tastings of exceptional wines, wine games to hands on activities in the winery and vineyard. The course is completed with the globally recognized Intermediate Certification by the prestigious WSET. Taught, in English, by Masters of Wine, wine lovers of varying levels are encouraged to participate. It deepens real knowledge and confidence for understanding the difference between good and great wines.

The following day, breakfast was arranged when we made our way down to the kitchen. Warm pastries adorned a tiered platter, and begged for the accompaniment of one of Olivier's homemade jams. It was a Sunday, and had that lazy feel as we drank our coffee slowly, and said yes to another. We were setting off from La Verrière to visit Roman ruins in Orange, where a well-preserved Roman amphitheater dominates the center of town. Other areas nearby can be easily explored from La Verrière, if you get ambitious and have a desire to leave the grounds.

The challenge Nicole has overcome to create her magnificent home is a massive one. There is a different kind of currency in the south of France, Nicole was to discover when she began the project. The workers weren't inspired by money, and many preferred to be close enough to home for a nice lunch in the middle of the day. Nicole discovered the one source of motivation in the workers, a sense of pride in their craft. Discovering people who shared this sense of accomplishment is how the vision of La Verrière was realized.

This last morning, I was struck by a longing to remain. Up in the hills above Avignon, I had friends, time for conversation, changing scenery and beautiful food. La Verrière leaves you with little reason to ever go. Two dominating and contrasting views exist at La Verrière. One looking out from the house over the vineyards, towards Mont Ventoux and at the back of the house, a wide view over the entire valley below. A sense of balance was felt between the two scenes, and the home, the magical workshop of the glass blower, was placed centuries ago at the center, the fulcrum of these two worlds.

Driving away, I found myself coming up with excuses to return. During our April visit, the vines were bare. I wanted to see the harvest, to taste the new wine, to spend a summer afternoon lazy by the pool. I thought of what Olivier could do with different seasonal ingredients. I started envisioning a family reunion or girlfriends getaway. However I find my way back to La Verrière, I know I will again find the peace that has permanently settled on the mountain top.

• A helicopter pad is steps from the front door of La Verrière, making arrival simple. From Avignon, the estate is 45 minutes northeast. It is a beautiful drive, and renting a car makes exploration of the area a possibility. By plane, other convenient airports are Marseille and Nimes.

• Let Olivier worry about that. If you do feel the desire to head into Avignon for an evening, La Mirande has a classy dining room in the center of town. Read about my dining experience there on Luxury Travel Magazine's blog, www.luxurytravelinsider.com.

• Hike, bike, swim, play tennis, do yoga.
• The village of Crestet is 15 minutes by car. An ancient Roman bridge still stands.
• Pont du Gard (the largest Roman aqueduct ever built) is easily accessible by car. This UNESCO world heritage site draws many visitors to see its three-tiered roman archways.
• North of the village of Gordes is the Senanque Abbey, founded in 1148 and still an active monastery. It experiences a beautiful lavender bloom.
• The entire village of Rousillon is some variation of the ocre color that dominates the landscape. The 'Ocre Walk' brings visitors down a path where the sheer size and expanse of the ocre quarry is sure to overwhelm.