Provence is the second most popular French destination after Paris. Its warm climate with lots of sunshine, formidable views of the Mediterranean Sea, numerous historical sites and cities, and many other attractions bring hordes of tourists every year. It also has an image of the easy life, of far niente, a place where people take the time to enjoy life and relax while sipping a glass of rosé. Is this why this pink wine is increasingly trendy almost everywhere? Probably. Don’t we all need to take a pause every once in a while, and what better to drink during those moments than a glass of light and fresh, fruity, uncomplicated rosé?
Provence currently produces about half of the French pink wine and it’s all made from red grapes, mostly Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah. The colour is controlled by the amount of time the juice spends in contact with the skins, a matter of a few hours. This is why rosé doesn’t have the tannic structure of red wine made from the same grapes and is best drunk within two years or so.
Mixing red and white wines is forbidden, this was re-affirmed by the European Union authorities last year, after talks of allowing it for non-AOC wines. This helped them better compete with New World countries where the practice is accepted. Producers from Provence and other regions had strongly protested, calling the resulting wine “artificial”. Rosé from Provence also differs from its New World counterparts in that it is almost always dry.
Its production is rapidly rising. Less than 20 years ago, about half of Provence’s wine was pink. Today it represents 88 per cent of its total output of close to 170 million bottles in 2009. Similar trends can be observed in other regions, both in France and elsewhere.
The vineyard of Provence extends over 200 km from Les Baux de Provence near the Rhône valley in the west end, to Bellet around Nice on the Côte d’Azur at the opposite end. As they all share the sunny Mediterranean climate influence, the wide variety of local conditions explains the mosaic of styles. In the northern and western areas, hills made of limestone dominate the landscape. Moving east, the soil is more granitic with softer contours, and further east, between Saint-Tropez and Cannes, traces of volcanic eruptions can be found. These types of soil are all poor in nutrients. Winds also play a large role, whether warm and coming from the sea, or the mistral, a dry, cold wind coming from the north that quickly dries the grapes after the sometimes violent rainfalls.
The three main Provençal appellations, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Coteaux Varois and Côtes de Provence, occupy the geographical centre and account for 95 per cent of total production. Three smaller appellations are enclosed within them: Palette, around the town of Aix-en-Provence, and Cassis and Bandol, which are near the sea and surround the villages of the same name. Finally, on the outside are Les Baux de Provence in the west end, the small Coteaux de Pierrevert to the north and Bellet far to the east.
But Provence is not only about rosé: its reds, made from the same cépages as rosé with the notable addition of Mourvèdre, amount to nine per cent of total production.
There is more red made in Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence and Les Baux de Provence, even if rosÈ still dominates. This is where you’ll find some of the best, age-worthy reds. Names like Hauvette, Terres blanches, Revelette and Vignelaure are worth checking out. Strangely, Domaine de Trévallon, arguably the best of all, is sold as vin de pays (des Bouches du Rhône) even though it is located well within Les Baux de Provence area. This is because it uses more than 20 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon in its blend, the maximum allowed in the appellation. Given the choice between making a different wine and losing the appellation when it was modified some fifteen years ago, the owner chose the latter. Les Baux de Provence further distinguishes itself by using organic or biodynamic methods over most of its vineyards. In fact, their association requested that this be made part of the appellation requirements in 2007. Discussions are still ongoing.
An equally interesting appellation for red is Bandol, in a very different style, mainly because the dominant grape is Mourvèdre, which must account for at least 50 per cent of the blend, although many producers use a lot more. Bandol is the only French AOC with such a requirement. Traditionally made red Bandol (Pradeaux, Tempier) should spend a number of years in the cellar. At its peak, after six to eight years, it is a savoury mix of voluptuously ripe, savage flavours of dark fruits, herbs and leather. Others can be appreciated a little sooner (Vannières, Pibarnon).
**1/2 Roseline Prestige 2009, Côtes de Provence ($15.70)
Pale pink tint, fresh perfume of ripe pear and strawberry. Simple but very clean fruity taste, good persistence and yet more fruit in the aftertaste. Uncomplicated and enjoyable.
*** Domaine Gavoty Cuvée Clarendon 2008, Côtes de Provence ($23.15)
Salmon pink, its fruity nose is quite ripe. Tender and soft, acidity is lower but remains balanced. Overall it has a nice round mouthfeel and a ripe fruity flavour.
***1/2 Château du Galoupet 2007, Côtes de Provence ($18.55)
Purplish, discreet nose of red fruits. Soft attack, velvety mouthfeel with good concentration and firm finish. Beautiful wine.