Provence: a tale of two territories

Despite the fact that pink predominates in this part of France, the land is as varied as they come, with a vast difference between inland and coastal Provence.

I know one part of Provence really quite well. This is the bit that lies below the mighty Mont Ventoux, the so-called 'Géant de Provence' that cyclists talk about with reverence and awe. The wines are pretty awe-inspiring too with Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas probably the best known amongst them.

Provence - the Giant of Provence. Credit: JP Stock Provence - the Giant of Provence. Credit: JP Stock

But there is another part of Provence where wine is also made. It too is significant as it is the world's most important wine region specialising in dry pink wine.

As is often the case in France, you can learn a lot by taking a look at the political geography of a region. The Vaucluse département with Avignon as its capital is as Provençal as they come, but the wines here are decidedly Rhône. But as you head south and the département changes to Bouches-du-Rhône and Var, you enter a very different world with a raft of different appellations.

Here, there is as much diversity as anywhere else in the Midi, but in truth pink wine dominates. Provence rosé accounts for about a third of all French rosé and about 10% of the world's production of pink wine. And that has always been the case: even in antiquity, Provence was known for its pink wines. And sales of Provence pink are on the up as consumers move away from sweeter pink styles, typically blush zinfandel from California.

The tourist season starts early here in the spring, but not early enough for me, sadly - I was going to taste very young wines before bottling, so that meant going in January. So rather than the usual tourist attire of cool linens and sun-hats generally required in this neck of the woods, cords, woollens and tweeds were the order of the day, at least most of the time.

The mighty Mont Ventoux with vines in springtime The mighty Mont Ventoux with vines in springtime

Inland Provence – Cézanne country

Day one was very much inland, starting outside Aix-en-Provence and going east to Puyloubier, a charming village that nestles beneath the iconic Mont Sainte-Victoire. This is a paradise for landscape artists with local lad Paul Cézanne at the vanguard of the post-Impressionists.

The vineyards are extensive and often have windbreaks to protect the plants from the sometimes fierce Mistral winds. Altitude here plays an important role; the vines are mostly planted at 1,000 ft or above to off-set the summer heat. There can even be frosts here and, contrary to what you might expect, harvesting is rarely early. The wines, as a consequence, have freshness and vibrant fruity flavours. The countryside is green and lush, at least in winter.

South face of Mont Sainte-Victoire Another iconic mountain – the south face of Mont Sainte-Victoire, which featured in so many of Cézanne's paintings, visible as it was from his home in Aix-en-Provence

Two estates stand out here, though not especially for rosé. Domaine Richeaume is Swiss-German owned and pioneered organic farming in Provence. Sylvain Hoesch and his father don't like rosé much but feel forced to make it, which is just as well as it is so good. Their best wines are red, however, and include a very fine syrah. Château Vignelaure is another exceptional estate. The rosé is brilliant, but again it is the red that really stands out.

A not so rosie past…

Time to digress a little. One of the problems in this part of the world is the choice of grape varieties. At one time, Provence was planted with much the same varieties as the Rhône and Languedoc and no doubt some varieties disappeared altogether. There was vine disease in the second part of the 19th century here, culminating in the phylloxera epidemic. War then killed off so much of the labour force and depression almost ruined the country.

As destructive in 1956 was the great frost that all but wiped out the olive trees and many vines too. And then political turmoil in North Africa created a mass of refugees among Algerian grape farmers. To cut a long story short, French viticulture had to change.

Vineyards had to be replanted or even recreated. Grape varieties needed to be chosen. Cabernet sauvignon was the grape 'du jour' and was favoured; other grapes were chosen because of their generous yields – a short-sighted strategy that is never good in the long run. The end result? Provence is a hotchpotch of grape varieties.

The problem with cabernet is that it ripens with real difficulty in Provence. There are exceptions of course, such as at Vignelaure. This exceptional estate was bought and replanted by Georges Brunet who had previously owned Château La Lagune in the Médoc. He brought cuttings of cabernet from Bordeaux but then also planted syrah alongside, a grape much more suited to this part of the world. Vignelaure is a true cabernet-shiraz blend from the South of France and one of the very first; its inaugural vintage was 1970.

Château Vignelaure Château Vignelaure, home to one of France's original cab-shiraz blends

The first day ended after the visit to a magical small estate called Clos de l'Ours. The rosé has been bought for the Summer List and is one of the best I tasted this year – do look out for it.

Bed for the night was in a small town that had presumably grown out of the Paris to Nice railway - from the bedroom, I had a full view of the busy level crossing. It's the sort of place there to remind one that Provence is not all about bling and the stars. This was small, friendly and charming. The hotel room was ideal, small, inexpensive and friendly, even if the bed frame and indeed the whole building rattled with the passing of every train. The food was excellent and the wine slightly corky (just how it so often is, I find, when in a 50cl bottle).

Another digression and a minor rant!

Restaurants in France love the 50cl bottle and it's a tempting size, particularly if you do not wish to polish off a whole bottle and be a bit more responsible. But sadly, the wines are often disappointing. It's a known fact that wines in small bottles have a short life, so growers are often tempted into using lower grade corks. This 50cl bottle of red Provence was quite beastly with the result that I became an even more responsible drinker and left my bottle barely touched.

Day two: to the coast

I do love a picturesque vineyard and that being so I was in for a treat. The coastal vineyards of Provence are able to exist because of their exceptional climate. If it wasn't for the hills in the background, the sea with its humid onshore breezes and a string of islands that act as a natural windbreak, grape growing here wouldn't be viable. The largest of the islands is called Porquerolles and I would love to go there one day; it even has its own vineyards, allegedly the first to be classified as vin des Côtes de Provence. Another island, the Levant, is shared by a nudist colony and military base with a missile firing range; not quite such an attractive prospect.

View across to Porquerolles from Hyères, France's original Riviera View across to Porquerolles from Hyères, France's original Riviera. Not on the itinerary, sadly!

Where to go next?

In the pink - pale, but not-so-interesting >

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