The wine of the braves
The Sainte Victoire, Puyloubier (Provence).
Cézanne's spirit hovers overs above this untouched region, the Sainte Victoire mountain range where the painter came regularly from his Aix-en-Provence base. Cézanne loved the Sainte-Victoire area for its particular light and painted there some of its most impressive paintings.
A coachman named Fernand Bajole used to transport him a few kilometers from Aix-en-Provence with all his painting materials to the desired spots with view over the Sainte Victoire where he would set up his easel.
Summers in the area are particularly hot, with the rock mountain reverberating the sun's heat, and the village of Puyloubier is a typical village of Provence (pictured on right), sitting quietly away from the major road and with a striking view on the Sainte Victoire, and the village happens to also host one of the oddest winery in France : the vineyards of the French Foreign Legion, under the name of the "Institution des Invalides de la Légion Etrangère", a 200-hectare property managed by the Legion and from which the Legion wine is produced. Since last year, the AOC-Côtes-de-Provence Legion wines with the famed military insignia stamped on the bottles (picture blow) can be purchased by the public.
The Legion is an atypical military corps. The Légion Etrangère was created in 1831 and based in Algeria for France's difficult conflicts in foreign theaters of operations. It is composed quite exclusively of foreign nationals and has been sent by France since its creation to the most difficult theaters of operation.
Anyone who walks through the gate of its coumpounds or at one of its information booth (in the Marseilles train station for example) can candidate to become a légionnaire, and for reasons going from the search for adventure, the challenge, money or geopolitical upheaval, men from all over the World join the elite corps.
While you often meet today Eastern Europeans, Ukrainians, Russians (the иностранный легион is a dream for a spetsnaz), South Americans and Africans, there is always a small but steady flow of enlistments by Westerners and Anglos , maybe for the prestige and the challenge, like you can see on this video (lots of bravado but still interesting). You may not speak French and not have the proper visa, the Legion welcomes you just the same. It used to be that you could be on the run from the law and enlist in the Légion, but rules have changed and the corps looks in the first place for reliable men (I sound like an enlistment recruiter, I could be paid for that...), and those who wish are given a new identity and are whitewashed. A much sought-after benefit of joining the Legion is the French citizenship that can be obtained after several years of service (5 if I remember) and good behaviour. While the selection (both psychological and physical) is rigorous, you don't need to have particularly big features to join, and I know personnally a guy from a certain East-Asia country who isn't impressively tall or thick and yet served several years abroad in the Légion (Djibouti, Tchad, former Yugoslavia, République Centrafricaine). He now works in a Japanese restaurant in Paris and he obtained the French citizenship. There are many stories like this one about would-be- légionaires who come from the other side of the world to enlist. This army of enlisted foreigners seems to have succeeded to blend together people from very different cultures, all of them speaking broken French to communicate between themselves.
In spite of several of them growing a long beard (the only French corps where growing a beard is allowed), the legionnaires are not particularly the sort of troops that the Taliban like to see come their way. Being particularly trained for urban warfare and difficult terrain, they have been present in Afghanistan
for years to help make sure that islamic supremacists don't build
a base there again to launch attacks on the free world. A légionnaire was among the 10 French soldiers who where killed there recently.
Back to the Legion vineyards and the Sainte Victoire in Provence : At the time of the first Indochina war (1945-1954), the Legion which had 11 000 killed there had to care of scores of wounded and disabled and it decided to buy this property in Provence to house them and take care of the disabled veterans. The Institution des Invalides de la Legion Etrangère was thus created in 1953 in this mansion sitting in the middle of 200 hectares of garrigue, olive trees and vineyards, and named Domaine Capitaine Danjou, from the officer leading the heroic battle of Camaron that an isolated group of légionnaires fought in Mexico in 1863. Now that the number of casualties and wounded has receded, the institution takes care of older légionnaires with disabilities, or retired légionnaires who have nowhere to go and wish to get back to the "family". Each abled resident has to work in the community and respect the rules. The work includes helping at one of the workshops or... work in the vineyard and do the many important tasks every grower makes. When veterans are not many enough, active duty légionnaires come to the rescue and give a hand.
One of the activities for the residents at the Domaine Capitaine Danjou has been indeed to grow the grapes and tend the vineyards from which the wine of troops will be produced, the wine of the French Foreign Legion. Since a few months, this Foreign-Legion wine is sold and marketted for the general public, helping in the way the charitable institution to make ends meet.
I arrived at the Foreign Legion estate in Puyloubier under a scorching sun. Backed to the massive Sainte-Victoire which culminates at an altitude of 1011 meters, the property gets lots of sun, directly and indirectly with the heat reflection from the famed mountain range. Puyloubier is a quiet provencal village which can be a starting point for trekkings through the 6000 hectares of the Sainte-Victoire protected land, or through the larger 34000-hectare "Grand Site Sainte Victoire", an authentic backcountry gem of Provence.
As I still had time ahead of the scheduled appointment with the Foreign Legion officer intended to guide me on the compound, I stopped on the narrow road leading to the estate near an enclosed statue of the Virgin Mary with the beautiful natural setting in the background. there was a scorched vineyard on the other side of the road where three former legionnaires were busy watering selected young vines.
I wasn't sure actually that they were from the Domaine Capitaine d'Anjou but a glimpse on the tattoos worn by the tractor's driver dissipitated my doubts. We exchanged a few words and I watch as they looked for imperiled vines, stopping the tractor and dropping a few liters of water each time they saw one. This was my first contact with the former légionnaires and residents of Puyloubier institution. The water tank at the back of the tractor was incidently in its former life a metal container designed to bring the wine to the troops, with an inscription on it reading "Transport de vin" and "subsistances militaires"... The driver kept joking at his two fellow workers who he said also longed to quench their thirst, but not with water. There was a light breeze in the otherwise heated atmosphere and it seemed that the higher altitude of the Sainte Victoire generated this welcome ventilation.
Once parked on the visitors' parking lot outside the mansion, I walk through the gates where I quench my thirst at the institution's bar, which is runned of course by former legionnaires like everything here. I notice the affordability of the drinks, my glass of mint water costing a mere 0,4 Euro. Too hot to try wine, I'll do it later. The bar, which is open to visitors as well as to the legionnaires, has also a shaded terrace with view on the surroundings, benefiting of the same welcome breeze. My assigned press officer has arrived from the Foreign-Legion headquarters in Aubagne, near Marseilles, and we first visit Colonel Jouannic who is in charge of the Institution. He explains the origin of the institution and its new role to offer a new life to both the disabled and the abled retirees of the Legion.
The institution has about 100 residents who are accommodated in individual appartments in a semi-circular building overlooking the valley. Some of them help with their work either on
the 40-hectare vineyard, in the binding
workshop, at the ceramic workshop or at the visitors' store where the Legion wines are sold along with the souvenirs and paraphernalia. The lplace is open to visitors who can buy wine and other items made by the veterans. Colonel Jouannic leads us through a rapid tour of the workshops which are located near the main building. The aged residents whom we met in the workshops and at the store often had a strong foreign accent, and the two I asked about where they initially came from were Germans. The revenues from the sales are used to help the institution keep taking care of its disabled, and the abled residents contribute with their retirement pay for their food and lodging, either. 65 % of the residents of the institution do some kind of work in proportion of their health condition. All a légionnaire needs, to be admitted here, is to have served in the corps and have been noted for good behavious (certificat de bonne conduite), there is no need to have spend one's entire life in the Legion and if some residents have served 30 years, some spent only 5 years as legionnaires.
After walking along the semi-circular living quarters and saying hello to the oldest resident here (87), I continue my visit, this time with the press officer and Mr Lonjarret, who is both a subordinate officer in the army and the vineyard manager here. He has a civilian experience with grape growing and may return to the civilian life full time for that purpose. He drives us on dirt roads to the different vineyards of the estate. The soil is mainly composed of clay and limestone. The Puyloubier institution may be sitting on gold : its natural environment and biodiversity makes it a desirable terroir for a grower. Mr Lonjarret aknowledges that there's a natural ventilation here with the breeze that cleans the air and is healthy for the grapes. this year though was a difficult year like elsewhere in France and even in this dry region there has been mildew occurences here and there earlier in the season. He says that Syrah and Grenache are more sensitive than the other varieties regarding mildew. The 40 hectares of vineyards intermingled with garrigue and olive trees are planted with Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre and Rolle. There is a big one-block Grenache vineyard right in front of the mansion, with Mourvèdre further on the side. 3000 young vines have been planted recently to replace dead ones.
Active-duty troops are occasionnally taking part to the hard work in the vineyard and that's the case today. After a stop in the Mourvèdre where Alex, the bearded veteran is digging under the vines, we drive further and fall upon a group of 10 legionnaires doing the same thing on a complanted vineyard with Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. As I ask for a picture, the press officer asks to those unwilling to be pictured to walk out of the frame, especially those who entered the Legion under anonymous identity ("sous anonymat"), another specificity of this corps. Several legionnaires walk on the side, some of them being from North Africa it seemed. Those who accepted to be pictured were respectively from Kenya, Brasil, Romania and Ukraine. This guy from Brasil kept joking and didn't seemed bothered by the heat under the mid day sun. Active-duty soldiers aren't permanent workers here, they come as occasionnal help when an urgent task can't be done by the other workers and veterans.
The wines : The institution hadn't been growing grapes in the early days, in the fifties. If the legionnaires stationned all over the world always had had wine in their daily allotment, it only came from the Legion grapes after the institution entered the grape growing business 15 or 20 years ago. The wines of the Legion are vinified at the local coop and from what I read, if just a few years ago they were often (especially the reds) quite rustic, they have improved recently and I can testify that the rosé and the white wines that I had at the bar's terrace with the friendly press officer who spent a few hours with me were a fresh relief and a pleasure to drink. We chatted together a few minutes under the shade while sipping the refeshing wine, with the other tables full of young légionnaires having just finished their work in the vineyards. I haven't tasted the reds yet (it was too hot that day for that) but I bought a few bottles of the three colors at the store including their high-end cuvée and I will add a comment one of these days. The Legion Institution bar is a bargain, by the way, I paid 1,4 Euro a glass to the Russian former legionnaire who was behind the counter for our second round of drinks (there are a lot of Russians in the Legion, it seems to me). The bar also serves among other drinks a handful of beers from France (1,5 Euro), two from Belgium and one from Russia (Baltika) at 2 Euro a bottle.
The annual output of wine made from the Institution's vineyards is 300 000 bottles a year overall, including since 2007, a special cuvée called "Esprit de Corps", referring to the spirit of the Legion and to its well-known Code of Honour, and which is made with the best plots of the estate. Emeric Sauty de Chalon, from the online wine trade website 1855, said that this red was "frank, pleasurable and smelled the garrigue, thymus, the sun and the sea"...
In any case, you can see purchases made from the Puyloubier Legion estate as a gesture of solidarity with the legionnaires in need, and it is also a nice moment shared with friends as well.
The lower range of whites, rosés and reds [pic on left] costs 3,3 Euro a bottle, the "Terroir" range costs 4,8 Euro. The "Esprit de corps" red costs 6 Euro and the EdC rosé 7 euro.
the Intitution has also a museum about the Legion with many uniforms and outfits worn by the legionnaires since the beginning of the corps.
The wines can be purchased online as well as at the store. The institution is open to vistors everyday, with access to the Foreign Legion Museum, the wine & souvenir shop and the bar.
These songs are dowloadable for free and some are among the most beautiful march songs if you are into military chorus. Check this one named "En Algérie", it pays tribute to a fallen comrade who was killed by a rebel's bullet and was buried in the Djebel :