Provence – Lilac fields and red vines galore, but rosé holds the greatest charm
Provence – Lilac fields and red vines galore, but rosé holds the greatest charm
Beyond sunshine and good cuisine, Provence is all about beauty and easy-going enjoyment. Rosé always seems to be the perfect accompaniment, even if it’s sometimes produced with a rather lax attitude. For a long time Provençal rosé was a rather simple pleasure, but with the worldwide rosé boom, the salmon-coloured wine came back into the limelight. And many winemakers are only too happy to oblige with what their customers expect.
Grapes grow in temperate latitudes, and vines are often surrounded by palm, fig or cypress trees. Therefore almost all wine landscapes are beautiful, sunny places. Provence however is more, an almost heavenly paradise. Vineyards and lavender fields bathed in sunlight provide a picture-postcard motif at almost every corner. Cuisine majors on the classic Mediterranean repertoire. Cities such as Avignon and Aix-en-Provence are among Europe's most valuable cultural heritages. The light of Provence inspired Vincent van Gogh to give the world a new artistic expression with pink clouds, red vines and green fairies, giving a decisive boost to modern painting.
The first wines were produced here over 2,600 years ago, earlier than anywhere else in France. In addition, the Provençales invented rosé – if perhaps accidentally, with hindsight. In ancient times, red grapes were generally always pressed without skin maceration.
Nevertheless, the pink liquid is almost synonymous with the developing area and its casual lifestyle. 89 percent of the region is dedicated to producing rosé. With an output of 156 million bottles, Provence produces 42 percent of all French rosé and six percent of the global production. A rather pale style with very short skin contact is still the norm, although in recent years another method has become more popular. For ‘saignée’ unpressed red wine must is used as a basis.
For feedstock, the winemakers can choose from 13 grape varieties. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault are all red varieties with potential. Classically, the most grown Grenache is responsible for fruity body, while Cinsault, planted especially in the east, adds floral and spicy characteristics.
The weakly pigmented Tibouren can contribute its own finesse with refined floral notes. Syrah, number three on the hit list (especially near the mouth of the Rhône), with its tannins or Mourvèdre with its spicy notes provide additional possibilities. The indigenous varieties Barbaroux and Calitor are by law no longer being replanted.
With 2,800 hours of sunshine and 700 milliliters of rain, growing conditions are ideal. Most of the rain falls in spring and autumn, and sometimes the Mistral whistles over the hills. The day-long cold, dry north wind can attack the vines, especially in the lower Rhône valley, but also scares away some pests. Many winegrowers use this to their advantage to farm organically. Protected south-facing locations are therefore also popular in the sunny regions. The picturesque man-made terraces or "restanques" are iconic, but only allow manual vineyard work.
Low-pruned, individually trained vines were therefore the rule in the past. Today, many winemakers have switched to modern, but often low training systems, and align the rows of vines with the direction of the wind. The growing area is spread over four départements and over 200 kilometers from the Rhône delta in the west to the hills of Nice in the east. The départements are Var, Bouches du Rhône, Alpes de Haute Provence and Alpes Maritimes. The terroirs vary from the cold foothills of the Alps to the (warmer) Côte d'Azur.
Red is catching up
A number of specific subregions are noteworthy. Bandol is particularly famous for its Mourvèdre, which develops dense, silky tannins and wild berry flavours on limestone subsoil. A little further west along the coast you come to the port town of Cassis, after which the oldest appellation of Provence is named. Its whites from Sémillon, Marsanne, Ugni Blanc and Clairette make complex, bone-dry wines that oscillate between floral and iodine.
Most soils are either eroded limestone with typical garrigue, or crystalline. The rock has formed many kilometers below the surface of the earth and is often overgrown with maquis. Both garrigue and maquis are lean vegetations producing no humus. In short, the Provence is dry and the soil is well drained - the best conditions for viticulture. The soils, however, tend to erosion, hence the terraces.
The pale pink rosé with its unobtrusive style will probably remain the trademark of Provence for an indefinite period. Many ambitious winegrowers prefer to stay away from the hype. Well-heeled Provence fans from all over the world have settled in the region, preferably with a winery. Land and property prices were the first to be pushed up as a result. But investments in new technology also opened the door for improved quality.
Newcomers to the market are aiming for the upper quality segments with major investment and skilled consultants. They concentrate on red wine, which holds great potential due to the conditions of the terroir. In addition to Grenache and Syrah, the varietal canon also includes Cabernet Sauvignon, which delivers good results. With low yields and prudent oak ageing, varieties such as Mourvèdre, Tibouren or the remaining stocks of Barbaroux can also deliver impressive wines. Coteaux d'Aix and Côtes de Provence have made a name for themselves. The producers' association estimates the proportion of red wine production from these pioneering newcomers at around 15%. White wines also only play a supporting role here.
A total art work and a monstrous traffic jam
At least three quarters of Provence’s wine is rosé, not least because it fits irresistibly with the core conditions. The Mediterranean take on French cuisine, with pastis, herbs of Provence, tapenade and bouillabaisse is one of the most popular. And the ever-charming rosé goes as well with the eel terrine as the dry-aged steak from the wood grill. Tourists never forget the warm evenings on the restaurant terrace with the cicada concert in the background.
In combination with history, art, food and wine, Provence has one of the most important wine cultures in the world, perhaps only comparable to Tuscany. This work of art, however, did not come about by accident. The history of the area dates back 2,600 years, when the great power of Greece landed here with the first ships and founded today's Marseille. The colonists brought vines and viticultural technique. It’s possible that the Etruscans made wine in Provence as long as 4,000 years ago, according to the most recent discoveries.
In any case, viticulture spread from here across France. From 154 BC, the Romans established the Provincia Romana and donated disused legionnaires country estates, which were used by many veterans to cultivate wine. In the Middle Ages, the rule changed from Charlemagne to the Catalans, from Sardinia to Savoy, mostly by force. Nevertheless, monks developed strong, good-yielding viticulture during this time.
At the end of the 19th century, Provence was hit by the Phylloxera catastrophe, like all its neighbours in Europe. Plant material for replanting was obtained in the north, in Italy and especially in Sardinia, which is still evident today in the planted varieties. However, the wine industry remained weakened and found itself reorganised into cooperatives.
When the Popular Front government introduced paid holidays for all in 1936, palms and lavender fields were no longer just motifs on oil paintings. After the Second World War, the "Autoroute du Soleil" was extended from Paris to the Côte resulting in an explosion of visitor numbers. On February 16, 1980 a traffic jam of 176 kilometers made it into the Guinness Book of Records. Fellow countrymen from the north could not get enough of sun, sea and wine. Names like Côte d'Azur and St. Tropez have become synonymous with sophisticated leisure time activities [ever since].
430 open cellars for wine tourists
The world was kind to the Provencal winemakers: comfortable growing conditions, high crop reliability, low production costs, the Rosé de Provence as a relative USP, a very popular cuisine as an accompaniment. A region bursting with cultural success from the ancient amphitheater to the modern painters - and the endless streams of tourists who glugged down their wine and wanted nothing more than another drink at home. Many winemakers became too comfortable in this niche, producing too many uninspired bottles at often ambitious prices.
To wine lovers the origins didn’t matter for a long time#, even if wine and lifestyle magazines enticed their readers on a journey to the land of the sun every spring, with a photo of a purple lavender field on the front page. The glory of the light pink liquid faded. The winemakers were first to wise up. Today, one hardly sees the conical bottles, which were once the hallmark of rosé de Provence. They became too burdened down with the old-fashioned cheap image.
It couldn’t continue like this. At the turn of the millennium, the association put rosé de provence back into perspective with modern remedies such as market analysis, development of marketing tools and targeted communication – and it worked. Between the Camargue and Nice, a massive 430 wineries now open their cellar doors to guests who might be travelling on one of the many signposted wine routes. In the chic Maison des Vins Côtes de Provence, over 800 wines are aesthetically arranged and sold for the same price as at the cellar.
World stars against competition from all over the world
It was about time. The worldwide rosé boom, which began in the first decade of the century, naturally gave Provence renewed attention but also new competition. At their heydays, eight percent of all rosé bottles in the world once carried a label from Provence, but today it has slipped to six percent.
From Catalonia to California winemakers discovered the benefits of the uncomplicated pink liquid for themselves. With the boom, the style took off far and wide. The spectrum ranges from fine fruity saignées to long macerated Tempranillos and Syrahs. Their tannins and luscious red wine aromas represent a very different approach than the using up of leftovers, which used to be the definition of rosé in some regions.
The Provençales necessarily took a closer look at vineyard management, varietal selection and cellar technology, without losing sight of the core competency: salmon pink, playful and light as a beach walk in Fréjus. The driving forces were once again individual winemakers who fermented low yields with temperature-control, and additional tweaks such as bâtonage or used barriques.
But the biggest boost came from some amateurs. When dream celebrity couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt bought Miraval, the rosé de Provence abruptly made it from the wine magazines to the millionaire gossip galleries. Unlike countless other celebrities, where wineries, breweries or distilleries are more impulse purchases and repelled just as quickly, Brangelina stood for consistency.
At least so it was for a couple of years, even though now Miraval has become a child of divorced parents. The wines are made by Marc Perrin, owner of Château Beaucastel, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate of no little repute, especially in the United States.
The budget wines still exist. But the new generation excels with pale pink and easy-to-drink rosé with concentrated aromas. Peach, honeydew melon, lychee, mango, pink grapefruit, tangerine and redcurrant, the colors of the new rosé, were researched at the Centre de Recherche et d'Expérimentation sur le Vin Rosé. "But it must always be bright and radiant," warns director Gilles Masson. If possible, these fruit flavours should also be found in the wines.
In search of new buyers, the Provençales have plunged into the competition. In addition to the classic bottles there are containers ranging from the squat gin bottle to the amphora. Garishly coloured labels boasting names like "Emotion", "Fleur de Mer" and "Whispering Angel" vie for attention. Let's hope that customers will still recognize the true colours of Provence.