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Grape expectations: the vineyard that’s also a gallery

They don’t just grow grapes in wineries: some are exhibiting art, too, as we discover on a trip to Provence’s Château La Coste

Words Billie Muraben
Photography Andrew Pattman

Something strange is happening to a vineyard in the Provence countryside.

At Château La Coste, odd-looking barrels, a gargantuan spider, totems and huge bowls unsettle the landscape. But this isn’t the result of some bizarre planning application.

In fact, these are works by Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Guggi and Franz West, commissioned or placed by the artists after speaking with the château’s Irish owners Paddy and Mara McKillen, and their curator Daniel Kennedy.

Each work relates to the rolling landscape: ‘We insist that artists and architects visit La Coste, take time to discover every corner and absorb the spirit of the whole project,’ says Daniel. ‘The works offer a moment to slow down and absorb the silence.’

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Château La Coste is home to both Andy Goldsworthy’s Oak Room and Tom Shannon’s reflective masterpiece called Drop

The making of wine at La Coste exhibits a similarly considered approach, with a focus on biodynamic farming. ‘Mr McKillen always reminds us that the most important artists on the site are those tending the vines through freezing winters and scorching hot summers,’ says Daniel.

He continues. ‘Wine has been grown here for centuries and remains the underlying foundation for what we do. It was the vines and the task of making wine that led the McKillen family to the property; and developing the highest quality organic wines from this land is paramount. Artists, architects, chefs and other visitors are touched by the views of the vineyards on the property – their varying colours throughout the seasons and their undulating, precise geometry provide an incredible environment for the art projects.’

The idea of bringing art to the vineyard came from the McKillens, whose devotion to the area is the spur for what they do.

‘At the heart of the project there’s always been a love of Provence and a fascination with the vines and the winemaking process,’ says Daniel. ‘Central to La Coste is the desire to share the space and its elements. Projects with artists and architects evolve over or into friendships – for Mr McKillen, who’s involved in hotels elsewhere, hospitality is a passion as much as a business. There’s an excitement to present not only our wine, the art or architecture, but dining options, literature and accommodation, too.’

‘ The works offer a moment to slow down and absorb the silence ’

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Works by architect Frank O. Gehry and artist Franz West decorate the landscape surrounding the château

At La Coste, the engagement with knowledge and education is more than just a nod to the exhibits. It’s an ongoing mission to bring art to the people.

‘Education is very important for any cultural project,’ says Daniel. ‘We welcome thousands of school groups every year, as well as organising workshops and conferences. In some ways such work arrives naturally, but we’re very happy to develop this element of La Coste.

‘We also continue to evolve. Our exhibition programme has long been an ambition, and offers a different, turning dimension to the property. The Jean-Michel Wilmotte gallery and the new Renzo Piano space are fantastic venues to show exhibitions; and we have projects in the works by the great Oscar Niemeyer, and Richard Rogers. The new spaces will extend our project further, offering different types of spaces throughout the property to discover contemporary art.’

Special it may be but La Coste isn’t an anomaly. In Napa Valley, The Donum Estate and The Hess Collection have long maintained art collections. In Europe, the Castello di Ama in Siena, Italy, has worked with the likes of Michelangelo Pistoletto, Anish Kapoor and Hiroshi Sugimoto; and Château Peyrassol in Provence has specially commissioned work by Gavin Turk, and pieces by Antony Gormley and Lee Ufan, as well as works by French twentieth-century sculptors.

In a time when, either through expectation or choice, we are often splitting ourselves – at least mentally – between multiple locations via our digital devices, it’s rare to be encouraged to connect so profoundly with our immediate surroundings. Château La Coste and its contemporaries engage their visitor’s every sense, balancing the acts of distracting and captivating with a shared, characteristic, generosity of spirit.

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