The Clandestine Winemakers of Vaucluse

Provence writer Bradley Kuett takes a hike through the Vaucluse to discover a wine borie from the 16th century — and an ancient intriguing tale of tax “mitigation”.

Gordes -- where wine was once produced in ancient stone bories (Credit: Stefan Kraft Flickr)

Gordes — where wine was once produced in ancient stone bories (Credit: Stefan Kraft Flickr)

Gordes: Relics of Ancient Winemaking; Stone Cabins Called Bories Outfitted with Wine Vats Hollowed out of Rock

by Bradley B Kuett of the Provence Ventoux Blog

It began with a walk on a hot bright afternoon, before seeking shade to share a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape.


On a high wooded mountain top, which before it stretches across a valley the village of Gordes, stands a small colony of bories: ancient huts and cabins fashioned out of dry stones (pierres sèches), carefully stacked without any adhesive or binding, a practice dating back to the Bronze Age and enduring until the 18th Century.

Now, among the cluster of bories and fences scattered amidst a 35-acre plot of oak trees, the artist-owner of this property leads PVB(*) to a borie designed uniquely for winemaking, the colony being of sufficient number to merit a dedicated unit for vinification.

Wine tanks hollowed out of rock are one of the original structures for making wine. The most numerous vestiges of this winemaking method are found in the Vaucluse in the appellations of the Ventoux and the Luberon where about 80 rock-carved wine tanks were identified in research carried out by Regional Service of Archeology in Aix-en-Provence between 1983 and 1993. The owner dated this particular wine borie from the 16th century.



Harvested grapes were brought to the mouth of the borie and placed in a hollowed out rectangular basin (photos above), which served as a wine press (un fouloir). Crushed by feet or by the use of planks, the grapes released their juices and skins which flowed through a hole into a hollowed out vat for fermentation.

Research revealed that the rock vats had a standard size: 5 feet deep, a volume of 110 cubic feet, holding about 88 gallons of wine must.


Once primary fermentation was complete, the juice was released through a hole at the bottom of the vat where from narrow trench on the outside the wine was collected in containers and bottles, and carried off to homes (bories). A head stone make for a roof covering the collection area (photos below).



The clandestine location of this winemaking borie – tucked away on a mountain top far from any village or vineyard – was a common tactic to avoid paying the tax on wine (les droits de souquet) or other taxes levied on wine. (See photo below of Gordes from the edge of a cliff near the borie.)


The wine tanks hollowed out of rock were identified in the following communes in the Vaucluse: Venasque, Le Beaucet, Saint-Didier, Saumane, Fontaine de Vaucluse, Cabrières d’Avignon, Lagnes, Ménerbes, Murs, Gordes, Saint-Pantaléon, Goult and Bonnieux.

Standing in the stocky sturdy borie makes you a little dreamy, as there is some retrograde part of your brain that imagines perfectly how tidy and unalloyed the process of making wine naturally was way back when.

Story: Bradley Kuett

Author: Bradley Kuett is a writer / consultant based in the Vaucluse. This piece, written by Bradley B Kuett of the Provence Ventoux Blog is reprinted here by kind permission of the author who retains all rights to text and images (except the top Gordes image).

Provence Ventoux Le Blog (PVB)(*) offers annals of life in the Vaucluse, the soi-disant French California, experienced by people living there. The blog is structured in four columns: food, wine, culture and reportage.  PVB is an exercise in entourage reportage: observations, impressions and points of view (POV) offered by a cadre of individuals who are at times at the same table or event. PBV does not aspire to the role of critic for food, wine or culture. An appropriate label would read bystander, observer or raconteur. PVB is published in English and edited by Bradley Kuett, who has frequented Aix-en-Provence since 1996.

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