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Provence: More than just rosé
Provence: More than just rosé
The wine region of Provence begins south of Avignon, on the southern banks of
the Durance, and ends up in the hills overlooking Nice. Flanked by the
Mediterranean, the entire region basks in the balmy climate of the same name,
whose defining characteristic is hot, dry summers. Its size and rugged terrain,
however, (due to the nearby Alps) have shaped its diversity. Provence boasts no
fewer than 9 appellations, the largest being AC Côtes de Provence spanning three
departments: Bouches-du-Rhône, Var and Alpes-Maritimes.
T ravelling east, the environment undergoes a series of changes: limestone
hillsides around Baux-de-Provence with its distinct
Mediter-ranean climate - Montagne-Sainte-Victoire with its more continental
climate and sandstone, clay soils yielding robust, idiosyncratic wines - the
Beausset basin, between Cassis and Bandol, where the limestone terrain, swept
over by sea breezes, produces warm, typically Provençal blends - the
sea-influenced coastline where extremely ancient soils formed of shale and
granite yield wines with character - the inland valley, north of the Maures
mountain range which supplies a large chunk of the region’s AC output,
producing full-bodied, powerful reds drawn from clay-sand Cambrian soils - and
finally, the rolling hills of the highland region, limestone remnants of the Alpine
folds, which accounts for a quarter of output. The climate, which is harsh in
winter and often extremely hot in summer, produces robust, well-structured yet
delicate wines. They can take longer to mature and are more secret wines.
The climate and landscapes of Provence have for a long time attracted
holidaymakers and investors from around the globe. The growing tide of
pleasure-seeking consumers and a plentiful source of money obviousl y provide
the stimulus for advances in quality by giving free rein to initiative. Sleepy wine
farms have been given a new lease of life by enterprising, wealthy investors who
leave no stone unturned in their quest to fully realise the ‘terroir’s’ potential.
Local initiatives also abound, however, and the resultant drive behind Provence is
GRAPE VARIETALS: Reds and rosés: Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre,
Carignan, Cabernet, Tibouren and Cabernet-Sauvignon (Coteaux d’Aix); Whites:
Rolle, Semillon, Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Sauvignon and Marsanne (the last three are
specific to white Cassis).
WINE STYLES: Provence is the world’s leading producer of rosé wines. Light, fresh,
pleasant wines when young, their quality has improved in leaps and bounds over
the past few years. Although some are still enjoyable ‘thirst-quenching’ wines,
others have earned a place on well-set tables, partnering with grilled fish,
shellfish, salads or white meat. Their success if reflected in the price tags of the
top-flight wines, which can command up to 15 euros. Provence though also produces
red wines which are worth seeking out. Although they are made from the same varietal
range, they run the gamut in terms of winestyles. A varietal like Carignan can yield
superlative wines when the whole grape fermentation process is used. It imparts
a host of aromas and freshness though requires early-drinking. Conversely, longer
vatting periods for the reds extract more tannins, which are then often perfected by o
ak ageing; they have greater structure and need to spend a year or two in the bottle to mellow.
The better vintages of these deep, complex wines can be laid down. Provence’s greatest
reds come from Bandol where the dominant varietal is Mourvedre (which is said
only to realise its full potential when planted in sight of the sea). Bandol reds are
powerful, though well-balanced. They are aged for a minimum of eighteen
months (often in oak tuns) before being released, which imparts structure, depth
and fullness. In the early years they display fruity, floral (violet) and spicy aromas
(pepper, liquorice). As they age, their aromas span an even broader range and
their mellow bouquet is occasionally reminiscent of leather, mushroom and
The white wines are produced on a more boutique scale (roughly 5%). They cover
a broad aromatic spectrum, ranging from floral, fruity and acidulous to mineral.
White wines from Provence flourish around Cassis, within the boundaries of the
town which lent its name to the appellation (1936). Their unusual varietal
combination imparts a genuine aromatic personality (thyme, sage, wild mint…),
and they invariably display a delicious contrast between fat and vigour…
Review of recent vintages:
2010: Volumes are generally up on 2009 probably due to rainfall in winter and
spring and fairly low temperatures. The mistral wind dried out the vineyards and
kept the crop disease-free. A good vintage!
2011: a rainy winter, a hot, dry spring and intermittent storms over the
summer: Provence experienced the same weather patterns as other parts of
France. No serious damage occurred but the stormy weather led to the region’s
hallmark disparities from one area to another. Juice yields were often lower than
in 2010, particularly in inland areas. Although output was still dominated by
rosés, the vintage produced some superlative reds.
2012: The 2012 vintage is quite good, although it varies considerably from one
appellation to another, and even more so from one estate to another. Following a
mild and very dry winter (just 53 mm of precipitation during the season), the
spring was hot, especially from May onwards. During the summer, the drought
was detrimental to the development and ripening of the grapes; only after
several rains in September did ripening restart.
THE PROVENCE APPELLATIONS
Overview: AC Bandol embraces eight villages in the foothills of the Sainte Baume
mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean, where soil make-up is formed of
calcareous silica, sandstone and sandy marl. This particular site enjoys 3,000
hours of sunshine annually, elevating both the fruitiness and the quality of the
wines. Mild winters, early springs and hot summers also factor into this matrix.
The reds are vinted traditionally and spend at least 18 months in oak tuns. Drawn
from the same varietal range as the reds – namely Mourvedre (at least 50%),
Grenache, Cinsault and a tiny proportion of Carignan and Syrah - the rosés are
made using the direct to press method. The less common whites come from
Bourboulenc, Clairette and Ugni blanc, with a balance of Sauvignon (no more
Wine styles: Bandol is renowned above all for its reds and rosés. The red wines
(which account for 30% of output) exhibit a deep colour, are well-structured,
powerful and aromatic (morello cherry, raspberry, violet, blackcurrant, iris, dill); 4
to 5 years down the line, they exude aromas of truffle, undergrowth, liquorice,
cinnamon or musk. They boast an outstanding lifespan. Enjoy with Sisteron lamb,
goat meat with garlic or Provençal Banon goat’s cheese. The rosés (60% of
output) with their extremely pale salmon-pink hue, are well-balanced and conjure
up aromas of ripe grapes and morello cherries layered over spices. Enjoy with a
courgette tart doused with olive oil, fish or grilled white meat. The straw-yellow
colour whites are dry, vigorous and fragrant (citrus fruits, pear, linden and
broom). Try them with shellfish, fish and goat’s cheeses.
Overview: Bellet is a minute appellation set in the hills overlooking Nice. Very few
wines are actually produced here but their reputation is well-established. Virtually
all of them are sold in the hotels along the French Riviera, making them difficult
to come by. Vineyard soils are formed of pebbles intermingled with very pale
sand and the occasional seam of clay. The site also enjoys an outstanding
micro-climate with 2,700 hours of sunshine annually and just the right amount of
rainfall. The varietal range is quite unusual: Braquet, Folle noire, Cinsault and
Grenache noir for the reds. Rolle, Roussanne, Spagnol as well as Clairette,
Bourboulenc, Chardonnay, Pignerol and small-berry Muscat for the whites.
Wine styles: Bellet produces equal amounts of white, red and rosé wines. The
whites, with their deep, bright hue, are full and suave. They develop aromas of
hawthorn, honeysuckle and ripe pear and sit nicely alongside fish in a cream
sauce, veal cutlets with mushrooms and Comté cheese. The rosés are soft, lively
but not too sharp, with a delicate bouquet (wild rose, pepper). Served with lamb
and sweet pepper kebabs, they form an unrivalled match. The reds are rich,
elegant and vigorous. They exhibit pleasant aromas of peony, pepper and pine
forests. Try them with a grilled leg of lamb with herbs or pork roast with prunes.
Overview: the Cassis appellation shares the same boundaries as the town of the
same name in the Bouches-du-Rhône department, a few kilometres from
Marseilles. Cretaceous limestone and limestone or marl scree are the constituent
soil types of this site. The surrounding hillsides deflect the Mistral wind and
gentle sea breezes comb through the vines which bask in 3,000 hours of
sunshine and receive 670 mm of annual rainfall.
Wine styles: AC Cassis produces primarily white wines (70%) blended from a
varietal range predominantly formed by Clairette, Marsanne, Sauvignon and Ugni
blanc. The wines are dry and heady with a discrete nose (grapefruit, pear, quince,
pine resin). They are fat and long on the palate. Pair with Bouillabaisse fish stew
with garlic mayonnaise, bass with fennel, anchoïade or anchovy dip, sea urchins
and fish served in a cream sauce. The rosés are blended from Barbaroux,
Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvedre; they are fruity, supple and delicate
with a pleasant raspberry-pink colour. The red wines boast a cherry-red hue and
display good balance, nice structure and powerful aromas (ripe fruit, havana,
liquorice…). Enjoy with wild boar casserole or small game (thrush or lark).
A.C. Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence
Overview: the Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence appellation area embraces 49 towns
and villages in two departments: Var and Bouches-du-Rhône. The best known of
these is, of course, Aix-en-Provence, though also Salon de Provence, Les
Baux-de-Provence, (which has also been an appellation in its own
right since 1995), Berre-L’Etang, Martigues, Ventabren, Fontvieille, Istres… A
variety of soil types can be found here: stony calcareous clay, sand and gravel.
The climate is Mediterranean with low rainfall and the vines bask for the most
part in generous sunshine.
Wine styles: the vast majority of the wines are rosés, blended from Grenache,
Cabernet-Sauvignon and Carignan, sometimes augmented with Cinsault, Syrah
and Mourvedre. Made using the ‘bleeding’ technique, they display a pink hue
with orangy tints. They are lively, fresh and fruity with good acidity. Try them with
olive paste or Mediterranean fish and shellfish. The white wines, made from Ugni
Blanc (no more than 40%), Sauvignon and Semillon (30%), Bourboulenc,
Clairette, Grenache and Vermentino, are made by the direct to press method.
They are light, fresh and delicate (white fruit, floral fragrances) and are a perfect
match for grilled fish with herbs (fennel). The red wines, with their delicate
tannins, are fruity and well-balanced. They exude aromas of leather, liquorice,
black fruit (blackcurrant, prunes) and spicy notes. Enjoy with grilled meat.
A.C. Coteaux Varois
Overview: entirely surrounded by the Côtes de Provence appellation, Coteaux
Varois embraces 28 towns and villages located in the heart of the Var
department. The appellation stretches from the Sainte-Baume mountain range to
the Bessillons hills around the small town of Brignoles. The vast majority of the
vines are planted on calcareous clay soils, for which the Argens river and its
tributaries provide drainage. The prevailing climate is, of course, Mediterranean,
though semi-continental influences exercise a moderating effect. These climatic
conditions promote gradual ripening of the grapes depending on site elevation
across the appellation area.
Wine styles: the lion’s share of Coteaux Varois are rosés (70%) and reds (25%)
with interesting potential. They are blended primarily from Grenache noir, Syrah,
Mourvedre (at least 70%) though also Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and
Cinsault. White wines are also made, on a boutique scale (from Rolle, Semillon,
Ugni blanc, Clairette and Grenache). The rosés are fresh and fruity and exhibit
pleasant aromas of red fruit. The reds, with their vermilion hue, are rustic wines.
They are well-structured though often display average concentration. They exude
fragrances of violet, liquorice, leather, green pepper and black pepper, and they
pair well with lamb kebabs, barbecued meat or an informal buffet lunch. The
whites are dry and vigorous and conjure up aromas of citrus fruit (grapefruit).
They are equally delicious as appetisers or with fish grilled on a bed of bay
Overview: Coteaux de Pierrevert, which is set in the upper reaches of Provence,
gained AC status in 1998. The wines hail from villages nestled amongst the hills
which run from Villeneuve and Manosque to Pierrevert and Corbières along the
right bank of the Durance river and the southern slopes of the Valensole plateau.
Coteaux de Pierrevert are the most northerly of the Provençal wines and are often
subsumed into the Rhone Valley appellation system. The soils are predominantly
limestone interspersed with patches of sand, loam, stones and sandstone. The
area enjoys hot, sunny summers though the frequently high day/night
temperature differentials can cause dramatic thunderstorms.
Wine styles: Rosés are the predominant wine style here. They are blended from
Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache noir, Mourvedre and a balance of Oillade, Petite
Syrah and Terret. Deep salmon-pink in colour, they are pleasant, floral, fruity
wines (rose, lilac, pear drop). The red wines display a beautiful brilliant crimson
hue. On the palate, they combine suppleness with vigour and exhibit aromas of
ripe fruit (prune, bilberry), a touch of liquorice and a hint of vanilla. The white
wines, blended from Grenache blanc, Marsanne, Picpoul, Ugni blanc and
Vermentino exude fragrances of hawthorn, dried flowers and citrus fruit. The
wines are made by two co-operative wineries and a dozen independent growers.
A.C. Côtes de Provence
Overview: The winegrowing area of Côtes-de-Provence is extensive. It stretches
from Marseille to the department of Alpes-Maritimes, covering 84 districts (68 in
the Var, 15 in the Bouches-du-Rhône, and one, Villars-sur-Var, in Alpes-Maritimes).
Over such a vast surface area, the terroirs are diverse. The Massif des Maures
and the coast form an area composed mainly of granite and schist. From Toulon
to Saint-Raphaël, the soils are of sandy clay. The plateaux and hills of Provence
consist of limestone. As a whole, the winegrowing region is fragmented, made up
of isolated units. Most often, the vines grow up stepped terraces. The region has
a Mediterranean climate with long, hot, dry summers, with rain in the spring and
autumn. Recently, three new appellations were created: Côtes-de-Provence
Sainte-Victoire, to the east of Aix-en-Provence; Côtes-de-Provence La Londe, near
Hyères and Bormes-les-Mimosa; and Côtes-de-Provence Fréjus, on the other side
of the region, between Saint-Raphaël and Trans-en-Provence. The Côtes de
Provence La Londe appellation, near Hyères, was created in 2008.
Wine styles: Rosé wines are the predominant style (80%) though red wines (15%)
are on the increase. The varietal range comprises Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvedre,
Syrah and Tibouren, augmented with Cabernet-Sauvignon and Carignan. The
rosés are made primarily using the ‘bleeding’ process. The initial stages of
fermentation lift the pomace and when the right colour has been achieved after
12 to 24 hours of skin contact, part of the juice is run off and then continues to
ferment off the pomace. The wines vary in hue from pale pink to very light red.
Their defining characteristic is a clean, vigorous attack, a relatively steady body
combined with mineral, exotic (mango, passion fruit, pomegranate) and floral
fragrances. Pairings include grilled lamb chops. The reds are vinted traditionally
and exhibit fine tannic structure. They are often matured in wooden tuns. On the
palate, they display complex aromas of ripe fruit, bay, thyme, tobacco, cinnamon
and venison. They are becoming increasingly popular. Try with local specialities or
grilled ribsteak. The whites are vinted using the direct to press method. They are
delicate, gracious, dry and vigorous and depending on the style can display floral,
fruity or balsamic fragrances. The ideal partner for grilled red mullet or
Bouillabaisse fish stew.
A.C. Les Baux de Provence
Overview: initially subsumed into the Coteaux d’Aix en Provence AC area, the tiny
region of Baux de Provence became an appellation in its own right in 1995. Its
hot, dry climate, predominantly limestone soils and rugged terrain provide an
ideal growing environment for the local grape varieties (Grenache, Syrah,
Mourvedre, augmented with Counoise, Carignan and Cabernet-Sauvignon). Only
red and rosé wines are made here.
Overview: the minute area of Palette is located in close proximity to
Aix-en-Provence (Meyreuil, Le Tholonet and Aix-en-Provence) in
Bouches-du-Rhône. It is currently one of France’s smallest appellations, covering a diminutive thirty hectares or so. The lion’s share of the wines are made by two
independent growers, including the celebrated Château Simone, whilst the
remaining grapes are delivered to the local co-operative. The soil is formed of
Langesse lacustrine limestone and the climate is Mediterranean with low rainfall
and plenty of sunshine.
Wine styles: Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault form the backbone of the red and
rosé varietal range. The red wines are usually sourced from old vines then
matured in oak (rarely new) for at least 18 months. They are dense wines with
good cellaring capacity, boasting aromas of raspberry, blackcurrant, old leather
and spices. The perfect match for a leg of mutton or game. The rosés are vinted
using the ‘bleeding’ or direct to press method. They are fleshy and well-balanced,
fruity and balsamic. The whites undergo classic vinification methods, and are
subsequently matured on the lees in oak for at least 8 months. Delicate, elegant,
suave wines, they are well-balanced and develop fragrances of spices, quince
jelly, fig and hazelnut. Enjoy with foie gras terrine or lamb stew.