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October 13, 2014

Chateau La Coste: Wine, Art and Tranquility

Text by Kalpana Sunder

Amongst the perfect light and gentle landscape of Provence and all the gems that Southern France offers, Verve discovers the Chateau La Coste, in the depths of the verdant countryside, seamlessly blending vineyards with masterful pieces of art

  • Chateau La Coste, Southern France
    Shiny, industrial corrugated sheds of the winery
  • Chateau La Coste, Southern France
    Alexander Calder’s Small Crinkly
  • Chateau La Coste, Southern France
    Louise Bourgeois’s Crouching Spider
  • Chateau La Coste, Southern France
    Frank Gehry’s Music Pavilion
  • Chateau La Coste, Southern France
    Two pre-fabricated houses designed by Jean Prouve

I have explored small Provencal hill-side towns, walked through flea markets filled with exquisite artists’ creations and colourful Provencal pottery, contemplated on the papal history of Avignon from where the Popes ruled for almost a century, followed the trail of the genius artist Van Gogh through Arles and even watched a multimedia show projecting famous works of art on the walls of a disused quarry in the Les Baux area. But the pinnacle of all my experiences comes towards the end of my trip when I drive with my local guide Melody Raynaud, on winding country roads, into Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, a small Provencal village, under intense blue skies, past groves of green oaks and gnarled almond trees.

At first glance the curved shed of large, shiny, industrial corrugated half tubes that form the winery reminds me of something extraterrestrial that may have mistakenly landed in the vineyards. Chateau La Coste is situated just north of Aix en Provence and is the creation of Dublin property magnate and hotelier Patrick Mc Killen and his sister Mara, who with the help of international artists and architects like Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano have created ‘a thing of beauty’, a project that encompasses art, architecture and wine and uses a vast area of 500 acres as a canvas….

The task of restructuring the vineyard was given to talented winemaker, Matthieu Cosse, who converted it to a purely organic production. A tour reveals the state-of-the-art winery with three levels of steel vats and an efficient computer regulated fermentation system. The building designed by French architect, Jean Nouvel, is split across two curved structures that are connected underground and house the latest technology in wine-making. The winery works on gravity flow rather than by mechanical pumps and has three underground chambers of gleaming steel vats. In the background offering an interesting counterpoint is the original 17th century villa and farm buildings in pink stone. “Our grapes are organic, harvested and sorted by hand and we produce bio-dynamic wines,” says our guide.

Chateau La Coste’s land has been inhabited since Roman times and workers have found shards of Roman jars and cups while digging between the vines. The centrepiece of the property is the elegant low-slung reception centre which is ‘signature Tadao’ and stretches between the vineyards connecting to a V-shaped building that houses a restaurant, bookshop and a small gallery…. Pools reflect the verdant hillside and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Infinity – a silver cone tapering to a tiny point – and Louise Bourgeois’ Crouching spider (supposed to signify feminity and motherhood) hovering over a clear pond. The whole effect is Zen, promoting introspection and tranquility. American artist Alexander Calder’s Small crinkly – geometric cut-outs in different bright colours – seems to resemble a giant bird.

I take a two-hour self-guided art trail following a map around 180 hectares of the grounds covered with woods, hills and olive trees. Dotting the oak-tree-lined vineyards and dry stone walls, are eclectic art installations ranging from Frank Gehry’s Music pavilion with steel columns, wooden beams and glass panes built in 2008 for the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, London (it was carefully removed and transported here) to Tadao Ando’s Chapel – a 16th century chapel where pilgrims took rest now encased in a glass structure. I love the small quadrangle that has two prefabricated houses designed by Jean Prouve that were used to house World War II refugees. Today they feature art libraries and are connected to a Vietnamese tea house.

You can enjoy the art feast on display around the property at your own pace. Drop, by New York artist Tom Shannon is a shiny kinetic globule of gleaming metals which is located in a clover meadow and symbolises dewdrops; it even has a mechanism that allows it to rotate and rock on its thin pedestal. At the edge of a field of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes is Irish sculptor Sean Scully’s Wall of light cubed that is crafted out of huge blocks of granite from a quarry in Portugal. Ando’s Four Cubes to Contemplate Our Environment pavilion contains sculptures including those made of plastic bottles and aluminum cans. There is an element of playfulness and even whimsy in some of the installations: musician-turned-artist Michael Stipe’s Foxes is a pack of bronze statues installed in a bend along the sculpture walk trail, and Liam Gillick’s open-air installation Multiplied Resistance Screened is a structure made up of different-coloured, blind-like screens on rollers.

“The way the property has developed is that McKillen invites an artist to first breathe in the landscape and then choose any place on the estate that inspires his creative juices the most; then he works onsite to create a unique artwork,” says Iris Isnard, the PR manager. That’s why most of the art installations merge seamlessly into the surrounding landscapes. “In winter, with the snow, it’s particularly beautiful,” she adds. An outdoor art and architecture gallery, Château La Coste is ever evolving, as new works arrive…. On the anvil are future art projects, a cookery school, a luxury hotel…. A series of organic gardens is being developed by French landscape designer Louis Benech. I spend a perfect afternoon at Chateau La Coste, with my friend Melody Raynaud – lingering at their café over homemade pastries and tarts, browsing their bookshop and tasting a glass of Bellugue rose wine at
their cellar.

Far and Away
Get there: Fly Air France to Paris and connect to Marseille. Drive to Avignon or take the TGV train. Chateau La Coste is a short drive from there.
Stay: Hotel La Mirande, an old palace now a tasteful boutique hotel with a great location.
Eat: Marinated olives, Languedoc cheeses, beef stew and local duck.
Drink: Local Pastis – an anise liqueur.
Buy: Table linen, pottery and prints, art books and memorabilia.
Entrance: 15 Euros for an adult, 12 Euros for students. Wine tour and architectural walk, 25 Euros.

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