First, to basics…
A remarkable 88% of wine production in Provence is rosé, with 9% red and 3% white. Pink wine from Provence accounts for nearly 10% of world rosé production with France being by far and away its largest market.
So in short, pink is important: Provence is the one wine region of the world where pink is the main wine.
At this point it may be useful to describe how rosé is made. For one thing it is never a blend of red and white wine, though white grape varieties can be used in the mix to provide added aromatics.
There are in essence two ways to make rosé:
1. Traditional, or direct pressing
Here red grapes are pressed on arrival at the cellars as if for making white wine. The wine must is then left with the skins, which contain all the colouring matter, for a few hours or longer depending on the style of wine desired. The longer the must is left in contact with the skins the darker the wine will be. These days, grapes are brought in very cool and temperature is controlled throughout the pressing to prevent oxidation. The must is then separated from the skins and fermentation starts, again at cool temperatures in order to preserve fruit flavours. The better wines will be made using natural yeasts where possible. But many wines are made using cultured yeasts which are sometimes chosen for the added flavour they may bring to the wine. The wine then normally ferments to dryness; there is no tradition in Provence for making sweet styles as they still do in Anjou, for example.
2. The 'bleed method', or saignée
Here grapes are brought in, crushed and usually destemmed, but at this stage not pressed – in other words like for making red wine. The must is then transferred to tanks and the fermentation is then usually allowed to begin. A few hours later or more, depending on what is desired, wine is drawn off from the bottom of the tank. This is the saignée, which will have had minimal contact with the skins and will make a rosé wine. The rest, still in the original tank with all the skins will make a more concentrated red. It's all about killing two birds with one stone, but this technique rarely makes a wine of real quality.
Some growers use both methods, adding a saignée to traditionally fermented wine to add colour and body.
Let's start then by defining Provence
Provence, synonymous with beauty, glamour and joie de vivre, seems like such a simple subject to write about. Unfortunately it is fraught with problems.
Firstly there is the tiny question of identity. What is Provence? Ask anyone from Marseille, Avignon or Aix where they come from and the answer is obviously Provence. But there is a problem because Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which some will argue is the greatest wine of Provence, is of course a Rhône wine. So there is a touristic, or historic, Provence which includes a large area from the Rhône to the Italian border.
And then when talking about wine, everything coming from the départements of the Drôme and Vaucluse actually falls within the Rhône. That rule means that Ventoux and Luberon are also excluded from this guide even though the wines of the Luberon have little in common with the Rhône. Curiously enough there is no such distinction for olive oil. Département boundaries apart there is another reason why the Luberon should prefer being part of the Rhône: the Rhône has been spectacularly successful and dynamic. I shall refer back to the appellation system as it affects Provence a little later.
A bit of history
Historic Provence was the first Roman province outside of Italy but before that had been settled by Phoenicians and Greeks, and others. Winemaking goes back over 2,500 years and it seems that from the start, pink wine was the thing, though unlikely by design.
The skill for releasing colour through macerating must on grape skins had not yet been understood so it is likely that many wines at the time where pinkish (a sort of muddy pink!) in colour. The cultures that settled in Provence were numerous and included Greeks, Phoenicians, Gauls and Ligurians among many others. The port of Marseille was founded by the Greeks. Added to that Provence's many owners over the centuries and it is clear that Provence is steeped in traditions of many sorts including food and drink.
But why rosé?
It would seem odd that Provence doesn't just simply mirror what the Rhône does next door. After all, many of the grape varieties are common to both; as is the climate which boasts over 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, twice what the vine actually needs. Conditions for growing grapes should be perfect.
But of course that is not the whole story.
The one thing that is noticeably different between Rhône and Provence is topography. The Rhône, of course, is about a mighty valley separating Massif Central from the Alps and which gradually fans out as it nears the sea. As one turns the corner going east from Avignon, the countryside becomes noticeably hilly, even mountainous.
There is no real coastal plain here. In most cases the land quickly rises. Moreover rivers here, such as the Durance and the Verdon, tend to flow westwards so further diminishing the influence of the sea. These valleys are then divided by mighty ridges that often peak over 1,000m. The Mistral is a dominant feature here and this cold, dry wind from the north which affects all of the Midi, gets suddenly stronger in Provence, intensified no doubt by the landscape. Water is often a problem, a situation that was partly redressed by the building of an extensive 270km-long system of canals, a huge engineering feat, which includes tunnels and impressive aqueducts.
Finally, altitude plays a part. I am always impressed by my visits to Château Barbanau, not just by the beauty of the place, but also by the fact that the vineyards are at more than 300 metres above sea level, even though the sea, at Cassis is just over the hill.
So, ripening red grapes is actually not that easy. The growing cycle is quite long with harvests that extend into October. The combination of intense sunlight and cool breezes make for a wonderfully diverse flora on the other hand. Think of those interminable fields of lavender that are so emblematic of Provence. Hardly surprising therefore that Provence is a centre of the perfume industry!
Provence suffered cruelly from the phylloxera epidemic and from the chronic shortage of manpower due to the Great War. All of France was touched by these terrible events of course, but in Provence, the period of rebuilding was not necessarily done very wisely.
Quantity over quality was often the norm and this had unfortunate consequences in the choice of grape varieties, which was then set in stone by the appellation contrôlée system. Selling Provence wine was never difficult, so for a long time there seemed little reason to make too much of an effort. Rosé was what was wanted on the Riviera, and rosé was infinitely easier and more reliable to make than reds.
The good news is that quality is finally improving and that is the catalyst for creating this short guide and for extending the range of Provence wines at The Society.
There is better technology available today so even if so many of the wines taste of very little (at least among the rosé), at least they are clean and look the part – pale pink and attractive.
Provence too has had to wake up to competition from the Languedoc and further afield. As for the reds and whites, Provence has been blessed by a small number of outstanding estates that have kept the flame alive.
The standard of living in Provence is high, and so too is the cost, fuelled in part by its huge tourism industry. There is a 'bling' side to Provence, associated with Monte Carlo and Cannes obviously, which in wine terms gets translated into some highly optimistic prices for some of the region's rosés. After all, top Michelin Star restaurants cannot sell just anything! So there are a few silly prices around, as there are for Champagne, for instance. Whether the prices are justified or not is of course a personal matter.
Red: grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, carignan, cinsault, tibouren and cabernet sauvignon.
White: clairette, vermentino, ugni blanc, sauvignon blanc, semillon and bourboulenc are among the principal ones; the choice is vast.
Grape varieties were often chosen for ease or fashion. For instance, a major white variety here is ugni blanc which was chosen for its ability to produce high yields though the wines can often be bland. Provence growers planted cabernet sauvignon widely because at the time Bordeaux was at the height of fashion and the Rhône unheard of. (Interestingly neither cabernet franc nor merlot are allowed in Provence; maybe the Bordelais were worried about competition.) At any rate, cabernet is not ideally suited to Provence as it often ripens too late. Used sparingly, however, it can contribute to a blend, especially when grown in the right places and low yielding.
The fashion for very pale rosé has also influenced the kind of grape varieties grown, with the light-skinned cinsault often preferred over others.
Things are slowly improving but many growers find it hard and even impossible to work within the restrictions of the appellations and many have opted to label wines as Vins de Pays (or now IGP) or even Vins de France. Ugni blanc is not the best white variety for whites; vermentino, marsanne, roussanne and clairette are all infinitely more interesting. For reds and rosé, one stand-out variety does exist and it is mourvèdre, which thanks to Bandol can be considered Provence's greatest red grape. More on Bandol later on.
The appellations and top estates
One problem here is that there is not one catch-all AOC like Bordeaux or Côtes-du-Rhône. In fact, there are three. They are at best vague and in no way give any indication as to what is in the bottle.
It is often said of Burgundy that knowing the domaine is more important than the appellation. If anything that is even more true of Provence.
Coteaux d'Aix en Provence
The only thing that just about defines this area is limestone, but otherwise this covers a very wide area from the outskirts of Marseille, by the airport, to the uplands behind the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. Quality varies from the banal to the exquisite. Top estates include Revelette and Vignelaure, and we stock wines from the latter.
There has always been a link between Provence and Bordeaux, Provence historically attracting a number of wealthy Bordelais. As such, Vignelaure has Bordelais ancestry. It was created by Georges Brunet, once owner of Château La Lagune in the Médoc. It was he who brought cabernet sauvignon to Provence.
At Vignelaure where vines are grown at an altitude of nearly 500m, cabernet is very low yielding but combines well with syrah to produce a distinctive and refined red that also keeps extremely well. Red wine is Vignelaure's vocation though it also makes an excellent rosé.
Côtes de Provence
Coteaux d'Aix roughly covers the western part of Provence. Côtes de Provence itself covers the eastern end and is even more disparate with a multiplicity of soil types and microclimates that makes any attempt at unifying description impossible.
Recently a few sub-zones have been identified and appear on labels. The best known of these is Sainte-Victoire, situated below the mountain, made famous by Cézanne and other artists. These are good additions and hopefully will lead to fully fledged AOCs. What sets a good Sainte-Victoire apart is its lower yields and the choice of grape varieties, which often includes a high proportion of mourvèdre.
Côtes de Provence covers a vast area that stretches from the outskirts of Aix and Marseille all the way to near Cannes. As with the Coteaux d'Aix, it covers a multitude of sins as well as some brilliant wines. More Bordelais influence: a classification of a few top estates was made in 1955 which annoyed Bordeaux at the time, coming 100 years after the classification of the Médoc! As classifications go, this one is not especially meaningful with little bearing on quality.
Côtes de Provence covers a truly huge area but here are four localities that are worth exploring:
This is a quintessential Provence village with a buzzing main square with plenty of places to eat and while away the time. The Montagne Sainte-Victoire looms directly behind. This is a paradise for walkers as well as budding Van Goghs. Below the village are hundreds of acres of vineyards.
Château Richeaume is an exceptional estate. It was founded by a German historian Henning Hoesch. The location is stunning and so is the modern architecture of the estate buildings. Hoesch brought in organic farming and was a pioneer in this field. His son Sylvain trained with Paul Draper of Ridge in California and continues to make wines of true excellence and individuality. They have often fallen foul with the appellation over their choice of grape varieties and today the wines are all sold as Vins de Pays. The rosé is brilliant and the whites, which include a wonderfully well-defined sauvignon blanc, are excellent. They keep extremely well too. Reds include an often wonderful pure syrah.
Better known for beaches and the high life maybe but there is some good wine made here in the hinterland towards the Massif des Maures. We currently buy Riotor, which is a relatively new estate created by the Abeille and Fabre families of Château Mont-Redon in Châteauneuf.
La Londe des Maures
This is a little further west towards Hyères and Toulon. Here there is a fine coastal strip with vines and palm trees. Much of the wine made here is drunk within a radius of a few miles. Still, there are some very fine estates including Château Galoupet, which makes gorgeous benchmark rosé year after year and in a style that it is as pale as pale can be.
Roquefort la Bédoule
Near the sea but at an elevation of over 300 metres, this has a fine tradition for making top wines. Château de Roquefort itself is excellent though we buy from the smaller Château de Barbanau, next door. This fine estate is owned by Sophie Cerciello and Didier Simonini, who farm their high estate organically. They make fruity, light, very crisp wines from all colours with the white, mostly vermentino, especially good.
This is the third of the three main areas and covers the hinterland north of Toulon. Altitude is a feature with vines growing higher than 300 metres. Again this is a disparate region without any real identity though altitude tends to make wines taste a little fresher and more fragrant.
There are many interesting estates here though we buy just the one: Château de Fontlade actually sits astride the border with Côtes de Provence and makes both though we just buy the delicious pink Varois. Also astride the border is Château Miraval, owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie with the wines expertly made by the Beaucastel team and whose rosé we listed for the first time in 2016.
This is a relatively new appellation which used to be called Baux de Provence. This is a more compact area centred around a range of mini yet nonetheless impressive mountains called the Alpilles. Les Baux gave its name to bauxite which was mined here to produce aluminium. Otherwise, the region is known for exceptionally fine olive oil and, of course, wine. There is a definite microclimate here: long hours of sunshine and the cleansing influence of the Mistral wind. Vineyards are often scattered and sheltered by extensive wood land and garrigue. Not surprisingly most of the vineyard is farmed organically.
The most famous estate is Domaine Trevallon owned by Eloi Dürrbach. Here vines are grown on north-facing slopes and the grapes are harvested relatively late. The red is better known and is made from equal amounts of cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Eloi belongs to a generation of outstanding figures in the Rhône and Provence that include Chave from the northern Rhône, Perrin from Beaucastel and the Lucien Peyraud from Domaine Tempier. Unquestionably his are among the greatest wines of Provence. The irony is that he now sells all his vines as Vin de Pays, having fallen foul of the appellation's inflexible charter.
Not far away is another extraordinary estate, Château Romanin, which resonates with a long and eventful history. Gauls, Romans, Moors and Templars were here and among the limestone crags are the ruins of a Templar castle. Today, Romanin is owned by the Charmolüe family who once owned Château Montrosé in Saint Estèphe which they sold for a handsome amount, enough to begin serious investment at Romanin. The Society has just begun buying here. One to watch as the investment starts to pay off.
So is that it then? Provence is just this rather beautiful part of France with large, amorphous appellations and a few scattered estates of note among so many more making wines of barely average quality?
Luckily, the story does not end there. Four more appellations exist to complete the picture and though rare make wines that are worth seeking out. Interesting to note is that while most of the appellations of Provence are of recent creation, these four are older:
This is probably the rarest of all and sadly absent from The Wine Society's lists. This is a tiny vineyard planted on the banks of the Var as it swings into the sea just west of Nice. Most is red with the local braquet the main variety and despite the name, unrelated to the Piedmontese brachetto d'acqui. White Bellet is mostly vermentino though chardonnay is also allowed. Wines tend to be aromatic, light and refreshing. And nearly all of it is sold between Monte Carlo and Menton. Château de Crémat is the best-known estate.
The well-named Palette is just as small an appellation also very conveniently situated next to a town and major tourist destination, Aix en Provence. This is lush countryside with woods and the whiteness of the Mont Sainte Victoire in the background. It is largely the story of two estates. Château Simone is the better known of the two, producing magical whites and, in my opinion, slightly less distinguished reds. The principal white grape used here is clairette in conjunction with ugni, bourboulenc and muscat.
The other great estate here is Domaine Henri Bonnaud, which is available from The Society in all three colours. The pink is extremely good and a serious wine to match food. The red is powerful and full-bodied and made from mourvèdre with grenache and carignan in support. The top wine remains the clairette-based white, which is excellent and worthy of bottle age.
This is the oldest appellation in this part of Provence, dating back to the founding year of the creation of the system back in 1936. It's a larger area than either Palette or Bellet but equally hard to track down. Cassis is a fishing port, just a few miles away from its main customer base, Marseille. All three colours are made here but it is the white that is far and away the most important. Ugni blanc tends to be the majority variety which is a shame as it means that most of Cassis lacks interest, certainly in relation to white Bandol which is clairette based. And of course that is not helped by the fact that the wines are easy to sell.
Having said that, there are a few estates making exceptionally fine wine. Clos Sainte Magdeleine is probably the best known with its vines overlooking the sea. Clos Val Bruyère is part of the Barbanau estate and makes a fabulous wine that in its youth always seems austere but then keeps very well to become really quite complex.
What makes Cassis so special?
First is the purity of the limestone, which makes it suitable for growing white grapes, but above all is the location. Cassis is a tiny fishing port dominated by towering limestone cliffs called calanques. At one time, Cassis would have been only accessible by sea or by dangerous, tortuous paths. Today, they're plenty of roads including a fun road to La Ciotat, which passes over the calanques, hundreds of feet above the beautiful blue sea. Swimming off from Cassis is not especially advisable as the waters here are cold, fed by streams running underground beneath the cliffs. The effect on microclimate is marked with temperatures that are just that little bit lower, perfect for white grapes and for fish, though these are not as plentiful as when the fishing port was founded.
Unquestionably this is one of the greatest wines of France and if this article is to be of any use, it has to be to highlight Bandol.
Bandol is a very attractive resort just east of Cassis, between Marseille and Toulon, built around its port, lovely beaches and inlets. Long before Brigitte Bardot made Saint-Tropez, Bandol was a major resort attracting the likes of Thomas Mann and Katherine Mansfield. Toulon has become a major rugby city, thanks to Marseille money; Jonny Wilkinson was married here, hopefully with the local wines at the reception!
Behind Bandol, the land shelves gently inland with hill villages like La Cadière d'Azure dominating spectacularly from above and forming a perfect amphitheater around most of the vineyards. This is a veritable sun trap with the stony soils further reflecting heat and light unto the vines. Geologically, Bandol is a little more complex with limestones and marl.
Domaine Tempier is the story of Bandol. The first vines here were probably planted by Phoenicians. Tempier itself was first mentioned at the time of Louis XV. Tempier is the name of the family which owned the estate during the 19th century and it was a Léonie Tempier who rescued the estate after phylloxera, replanting using root stocks grafted onto local vines.
Hard times befell Bandol during the 1920s when some of the vineyards were replanted with fruit trees. Lucie (or Lulu) Tempier, married a young and energetic lad from Saint Etienne, Lucien Peyraud in 1936. and the couple took over Domaine Tempier after the war. At the time much of the vineyard had been grubbed up in favour of peach trees and the vineyard was in a poor state with hybrids planted instead of noble varieties. There was no running water or electricity. Lucien's first investment was a cow to provide milk and a horse for ploughing.
But young Lucien found himself among a small group of determined growers who shared both passion and belief in Bandol. Appellation recognition came in 1941 but thereafter Lucien continued to fight especially over percentage of mourvèdre in the red. Eventually it was agreed that Bandol had to contain at least 50% of this grape variety and today most Bandols are made from at least 80% mourvèdre, and sometimes even more, and his energy was soon rewarded with a seat on the local growers' syndicate.
Why mourvèdre? This variety actually originated from Eastern Spain and was gradually imported into France. It's a difficult variety to grow, not always showing positive results. Though nowadays a majority variety in the Rhône, it is often at its northernmost limit and ripens late and with difficulty. It needs heat and in Bandol, it gets plenty of that. It also needs humidity and it is often said that it needs to be able to see the sea. In short it is the perfect variety for Bandol, often accounting for 80% in a blend, in conjuncture with grenache, cinsault and maybe a little carignan and syrah.
When The Society first bought from Tempier, Lucien Peyraud was coming to the end of a remarkable and distinguished life; his widow, Lucienne, known affectionately as Lulu, is still alive, approaching her century and surrounded by a large and talented family.
Wisely, the Peyraud family took on a forward-thinking young manager to run the estate. He is Daniel Ravier, ex rugby player and passionate Toulon supporter with a sense of real vision who has given Tempier new life and the rest of us even greater wines to savour. Before Daniel, the family had realised that the terroir of Tempier is not only extraordinary but also diverse and able to make quite different styles of wine. This led to the creation of different cuvées:
The cuvées of Domaine Tempier:
- La Migoua: less mourvèdre, rounder, more forward usually and more Burgundian.
- La Tourtine: 80% mourvèdre from a different terroir. More austere, tighter and backward. Always needing time. Full-bodied and spicy.
- Cabassaou: very old vines, 95% mourvèdre or more from a plot within La Tourtine.
- La Tourtine: monumental, very full, massively rich and long. Sometimes almost Pomerol-like in its sugary-like sweetness.
- White Bandol is rare and based on the clairette grape. Tempier makes a tiny amount. Château Salettes has more whites and makes an outstanding example.
- Rosé Bandol: Lucien Peyraud would be horrified if he knew just how much pink was made in Bandol. Yet of all Provence's rosé, Bandol with its insistence on the mourvèdre grape makes one of the most interesting and best.
- Red Bandol ages extremely well with the top wines needing at least five years. Vintages come in two styles. Lighter wines like 2013 and 2014 make elegant wines that are balanced and fine. Vintages like 2009 and 2011 on the other hand are weightier, on a par with Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Bandol is always a big full-bodied wine, spicy, herb scented and rich with fruit reminiscent of raspberry sometimes but with a spoonful or two of dried herbs added to it. There is spice and sometimes leather or dark chocolate.
Quality in Bandol is better now than ever and not just thanks to Tempier. They're plenty of other fine estates to try such as Pibarnon and Pradeaux to name but two.
Nothing is ever quite perfect however. Production of Bandol is tiny with probably too much produced as rosé, however good these usually are. Mourvèdre is not an easy grape to grow. Picked too early and the wines can taste green and unripe. Yet fully ripe mourvèdre can yield very high alcohol. 15% is not uncommon especially in great vintages.
How to buy Provence: What to look for – a résumé
- Estate is what counts, much more than the appellation.
- There is a lot of rosé made and much of it is very average in quality. It is just too easy to sell. There too is a fashion for ultra-pale rosé, dismissively called vins de piscine by some. Refreshing they can be but then so too is chilled water! Interesting versions have mourvèdre in the blend, or even the more local grape tibouren which is making a comeback. Two different ways of making the wines, by direct pressing like a white wine or by racking off juice from a red wine tank, can both make good wine. Some growers use both methods. Some wines are overpriced, fuelled by the bling market on the Riviera.
- Treat reds with a degree of caution and go by estate. Lots of Provence reds are cabernet based and taste tannic and green, though of course they are exceptions such as Vignelaure and Trevallon. In general the reds are full-bodied and need time.
- White wine only counts for a very small proportion of what is made yet quality is very good and some really interesting wines are certainly worth trying. Vermentino, clairette, marsanne and roussanne are often involved in the best wines. Many growers are taking an interest in whites, as they are in the Rhône valley. Expect to see more whites from Provence, but those that are here already tend to be good.
- Food: contrary to what one may think, the good wines are excellent food wines, even slow-food wines and so to the last section, on wine and food...
Food is an essential part of life in Provence. Not surprisingly, Lulu from Domaine Tempier was in her own right a fabulous cook with a wide repertoire of dishes. Happy was The Society buyer who ate bouillabaisse at her table!
Provence reds with food
Like top Rhônes, these wines are ideal food wines with a particular aptitude for meat and game. The lighter styles may be fine served a little cool with grilled meats or vegetables. The grander wines need more care. Decanting helps them open out.
Cabernet and syrah-based reds from Trevallon, Vignelaure and Richeaume work well with roast lamb or pork.
Mourvèdre-based wines often need more time and work well with lamb, pork and game. Young Provence reds will also go with spicier meat dishes such as a lamb tagine.
The whites are also brilliant with food
Obviously fish is the local mainstay and these wines are perfect with all sorts of fish but better still when there is plenty of garlic and olive oil. Cassis is best known as the first choice to serve with bouillabaisse. But if this Provençal classic seems too difficult to replicate out of context, fish soup is not hard to make and just requires a few added touches such as the aïoli and croutons to make perfect.
One still often thinks that cheese is best served with red wine when in fact cheese goes so much better with whites. Provence whites tend to have just the right amount of richness to marry well with cheese. Soft cheeses go well with young wines that will have the fruit and grip to cut through the fat. Noble hard cheeses like Cheddar will go better with a slightly older white wine, one which might have developed some nuttiness.
I love pink wines with a wide variety of food types. Both grilled meats and fish respond perfectly well to a chilled glass of rosé. Even spicy food works well, better in fact than many reds. Provence rosé is perfect with vegetables from grilled peppers to steaming ratatouille. Rosé is seen as a summer wine and indeed it goes so well with summery foods. Salads are never easy for wine matching. Enter rosé which can cope well with dressings, tomatoes, avocado and even eggs. The fruity simplicity of good rosé can make it a perfect accompaniment for spicier dishes, such as Malay or even Indian. Moreover one shouldn't imagine that these wines are just for summer. The better wines in particular develop well in bottle and are often better after the summer is over! Nothing like a Provence rosé drunk in the middle of winter to remind one that there are warmer times to come!