Since buying our little place over 6 years ago, we must have cycled past the huge old barrel at the entrance to the Chateau de Mille, hundreds of times and have always wondered what it is like, promising ourselves that one day, we would go and visit this ancient Domaine.
This week, we finally had a chance to drive down the road to find out more about the chateau, which has been producing wines for almost 800 years and has recently seen a new winery being built, alongside the old cellars that have now been converted into an elegant tasting area and shop.
We were welcomed by Guillaume, who proved to be an exceptional guide, happy to explain both the fascinating history of this stunning building as well as the wine-making process, before we were introduced to the wines by the owner, Constance Slaughter, who spoke passionately about the work they have done to develop the vineyards and to gain organic accreditation, which will come with this year’s harvest.
There are 10 different types of grape grown on the Domaine, with the majority of the vines, which thrive on the cooler north-facing slopes, being between 50 and 70 years old. They have recently fenced the vineyards, to protect them from the Wild Boars that roam the area enjoying a perfectly-placed feast of grapes. In fact, over recent years, they have managed to munch their way through almost 20% of the crop, so hopefully the fencing will make a huge difference to the yield, although I can imagine the persistent boars will do their best to breach the defences, as they won’t take kindly to being deprived of such a tasty treat.
Guillaume showed us around the new winery, which opened 12 months ago, that is home to the different vats used in the wine-making process. To one side of the entrance are concrete vats, currently filled to the brim with red grapes, at the start of the production of the chateau’s red wines. and as the lid was lifted, the room filled with the heady, rich scent of fruit….
And in the neighbouring room were other vats, made of stainless steel for production of the whites and rosés, with the unusual, egg-shaped vessels designed to facilitate the fermentation of the different wines ….
Below this was a further room filled with oak barrels, where the reds are left to age for 18 months (or longer) and terracotta vessels that looked as if they had been left by the Romans themselves, where the wine was left to age and mature, before being bottled at the perfect moment in the future….
Although this building is new, the design of the terracotta jars create a wonderful link with the historic wine-making that has taken place on the site for so many centuries….
And what a life this Chateau has had. To be honest, I never cease to be astounded by the history of this unique corner of Provence and once again listened with fascination to the origins of this beautiful place. We learned that the Chateau was originally one of a ring of eleven, built around Apt to protect the ancient city Apta Julia, its cathedral and Bishop, with it being first mentioned, in the Papal records of Avignon in 1238, when it was used as a summer retreat for the Pope, away from the heat of the city.
This direct link with the Popes, including Clement VI, whose portrait hangs in the shop, allows the chateau to use the crossed-keys and crown mark on their bottles, a symbol normally associated with the other Papal wine area of Chateauneuf-Du-Pape….
Built for protection, rather than as a defensive fortress this is very different to many other chateaux around the Luberon and has not only survived both the religious wars that ravaged the area, but also the Revolution. It is now a wonderful example of a building that has changed over the centuries, with every filled in arrow-slit and each Renaissance window, paying testament to the changes in ownership and use over the years.
It appears though, that the Chateau is a relative new-build, having itself been built on the site of an Oppidum, an ancient fortified, Celtic settlement, the remains of which are still evident around the more recent buildings. To one side of the newly-constructed winery, in the white, stone bedrock, is what is suggested to have been a Celtic ‘fouloir’, used to press grapes, indicating that wine may have been produced here, even before the Romans established the nearby Via Domitia and built the Amphitheatre in Apt….
On the other side of the chateau is a beautiful Troglodytic dwelling. A domed room, chiseled into the rock, with the tool marks still clearly visible on the ceiling, left by the builders, who must have spent weeks, if not months, chipping away the stone to form the room, which has its own fireplace and store.
Next to this is a vast ‘Aiguier’, a cistern, carved into the bedrock to collect water, from natural springs and rainfall, which would have supported the community and was also used to feed irrigation channels, taking water to the nearby terraces…..
…which are still evident beyond the newly established rose garden, with bushes still in bloom in late September and a pretty, traditional french garden, with its low box hedges and traditional planting, that will undoubtedly grow into an elegant, flower-filled space….
The chateau itself is beautiful and the oldest parts, dating back to the the 13th century were built directly onto a rock outcrop, which has dominant views across to Gargas and beyond. Over the centuries, the original parts have been altered and extended and are now accessed through a stone gateway, topped by a ‘Mâchicoulis’, which was added for effect in the 17th century, to create an imposing entrance, rather than it being used for its original use of dropping boiling oil etc. on attackers.
The original tower seems to grow organically from the outcrop and is accessed by the most beautiful set of steps carved into the bedrock itself. These steps are just so wonderfully worn, each one hollowed out over hundreds of years, by thousands of footsteps of the people who have lived there, so evocative that you feel you can still almost hear the sound of them dashing up and down….
At the top of the steps is another Troglodytic dwelling and above that the old stone tower, which was converted into a Chapel, dedicated to Saint Lucide and Sainte Celestine, whose relics sit in statues, placed on either side of the magnificent, gilded altar…..
The beautiful stained glass window, to the front of the chapel, frames the view across the valley and gives a sense of why the chateau was built here, as it would have had open views of anyone approaching Apt, who needed to be intercepted or perhaps encouraged to go elsewhere…..
Dropping back down into the courtyard, we made our way back to the shop through a large courtyard and rooms that have been used to host music events over the summer and we took a moment to look at a display of some of the ancient parchments that relate to the Chateau, (one dating back to 1472), before we headed downstairs again to taste the wines….
It was a delightful and fascinating evening, learning about the history of this incredible building & wines and of course a few bottles found their way home with us too
If you would like to explore the Chateau, or would be interested in attending one of their events more information can be found here https://www.chateau-de-mille.com/decouvrir-chateau/
You won’t be disappointed….. and at least we now know what is down the drive, beyond that barrel