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 >

Return to trip overview >

More from this trip

Trip homepage >

Other recent buyer trips

Revisiting the Rhône

Rhône 2016

Revisiting the Rhône

Buyer Marcel Williams reminisces about witnessing and helping to bring in the 2016 harvest.

View full trip
Blending Three Choirs

England 2016

Blending Three Choirs

English wines are increasingly valued by members and we are lucky enough to have exclusive blends from long-time producers, Three Choirs. So what better place to start learning about blending wines than on our own shores with some master blenders?

View full trip
Salon des vins de Loire

Loire 2017

Salon des Vins de Loire

The annual Loire trade fair was an exciting opportunity for buyer Jo Locke and News & Content Editor Joanna Goodman to catch up with some of our producers - and discover a few new ones too.

View full trip
South America 2016

South America 2016

Stories from South America

Buyer Toby Morrhall shares his experiences from visits to Chile and Argentina, finding the best Chilean carmenère, spending a weekend on the coast with Cristóbal Undurraga, the art of the asado, and the romantic tale behind a new chenin blanc from Roberto de la Mota

View full trip
Adventures in Oz

Australia 2016

Adventures in Oz

Buyer Sarah Knowles MW embarked on a whirlwind tour of Australia, discovering the jewels of the 2016 vintage and scoping out exciting additions to the Exhibition range, overcoming floods, blackouts and hunting down wild orchids along the way.

View full trip
Discovering Washington

Washington, USA 2016

Discovering Washington

Buyer Freddy Bulmer visits one of the USA’s most up-and-coming wine regions to discover its potential and meet the producers shaping the future of the region.

View full trip
Browse all >

Members' Comments (0)

There are no comments for this article.

Want more inspiration?

Sign up for a carefully-curated selection of recipes, guides, in-depth expertise and much more.

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.

Close

4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies:

4.4.4.1. Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended.

4.4.4.2. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit.

4.4.4.3. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic.

4.4.4.4. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.