Provence Unveiled

By Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by Vins de Provence.

Lavender fields, sunflowers, omnipresent sunshine, limestone hills and a Mediterranean lifestyle make Provence one of the world’s most sought after vacation destinations. It is also an undeniable global leader in rosé wine production and yet the complexity and diversity of wines on offer in Provence is still under-appreciated by many of us in North America. Thankfully our perceptions are beginning to change, and this appreciation has led to greater export sales of rosé across the globe. We clamour for these dry and perfectly pale rosés in the summer but are beginning to enjoy them into the fall and even winter. This is nothing new to the French who often devote as much attention to rosé as they do white and red wines. The demand for Vins de Provence Rosé is so strong among consumers that wine regions across the globe mimic the style of these rosés for assured success.

Photo courtesy of francoismillo.com.

How much do we love Wines of Provence Rosé? According to the tracking data of CIVP (the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins de Provence), rosé consumption has seen a global growth of 40% since 2002. Two of the most indisputable characteristics of Vins de Provence rosé are: pale and dry. Wouldn’t you know that between 2013 and 2018, the same tracking data also shows that rosé shade of barely-there-pink, produced around the globe, has increased by 20%. As for sugar levels, demand for drier styles of rosé (dry being between 0 and 4 g/L of residual sugar), akin to those of Provence, have caused an increase of 6% in similar styles produced around the world.

I have had the great fortune of having parents who landed in Provence when I was quite young. They didn’t look back and made the region our second family home. Keeping the tradition alive, I now escape with my family every summer just in time for the lavender harvest, to soak up the sunshine, listen to the gentle hum of the cigales, to get our fill of Bouillabaisse, visit with good friends, and of course, to lie on the Mediterranean beach and drink Wines of Provence rosé. COVID prevented this summer’s escapade but as luck would have it, Provence came to us at WineAlign in the form of the complete selection of wines in market to taste and review. I have included a link below to our complete notes so you can join us for a visceral escape to Provence from a virtual platform on October 3rd(See below for more details.)

You’ll find hereafter an essential guide to the wines of Provence, highlighting the region’s rich history as well as an exploration its diverse landscape and wine styles.

Photo courtesy of francoismillo.com.

A Time Traveller’s Guide to Provence

French wine culture begins in Provence. Home to a vibrant wine scene for over 2,600 years, it is the oldest wine producing region in the country. Notable examples of both red and white are produced in the region but the balance is currently in favour of rosé as it was two millennia ago. Provence’s wine story began in Massalia, the region’s most important port, known today as Marseille. This gateway city was established by the Phocaeans in the 6th century BC and was populated by eastern traders who brought with them vines that proliferated throughout the South of France. Wine was made differently at this time, more swiftly and with less maceration time than is used for the big reds of today. As a result, these quickly pressed wines were pink or a very light shade of red. Provence’s reputation was well known by the time the Romans moved in during the 2nd century BC and continued to expand throughout the vast empire. It was during this period that the name Provence became fixed by the contented Romans who called it “nostra provincial” meaning “our province”.

As the Roman Empire weakened, Provence once again became a prize conquest for many ambitious southern European states, leaving in their wake a mix of cultural influences. The local dialect, Provençal (or Prouvençau) has Spanish and Italian inflections, a musical cornucopia of historic influences. The later organization of the vineyards in Provence is largely a result of the Catholic monks who settled in the region and were instrumental in the advancement of winemaking techniques.

Location, Location, Location

What is defined as Provence’s viticultural region is far more restrictive than both the cultural expanse and administrative region of Provence. The wine region of Provence covers about 200 km from the Côte d’Azur to the east to the just past Marseille in the west. Yet, if you were a fan of Peter Mayle’s book, ‘A Year in Provence’ you would be outside the zone in the administrative region of Provence extends north of Aix-en-Provence to the Luberon. In fact, both administratively and culturally, Provence encompasses the whole of the southern Rhône as well. From the musical cadence of the speech to the aromatic underbrush and arid landscape, Provence extends beyond the delimited viticultural boundaries that reach 55 kilometers north of the Mediterranean. Thus, to avoid any confusion, we will be speaking solely about the tightly defined delimitations of Provence’s official viticultural boundaries.

Photo courtesy of francoismillo.com.

Welcome to France’s sunniest continental region, second only to Corsica with over 2,800 hours (250 days) of sunshine a year. The viticulturally-defined region of Provence is made up of two main soil types: that of limestone to the west (the remnants of an ancient, shallow seabed) and crystalline schist, a.k.a. granite, to the east, alongside a very small pocket of volcanic and iron-rich soils. Local underbrush called “garrigue” grows rampantly here and is made up of rosemary, thyme, lavender and juniper can be an aromatic sensory overload for first time visitors. Between the Mistral (the name given to the wind that barrels down the Rhône) to the northwest and coastal breezes, this is France’s driest climate and is thus highly suitable for organic wine production with little disease pressure.

The defined viticultural region of Provence is a wonderland of rosé. The rosé produced here makes up 38% of all French AOP rosé. Provence is comprised of 9 main appellations but the three largest are that of Côtes de Provence, Côteaux Varois en Provence and Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence

Photo courtesy of Cédric Skrzypczak.

Côtes de Provence

The largest appellation of them all, Côtes de Provence produces 72% of the wine in Provence. The vast majority of that wine (91%) is rosé, yet it is also one of the most diverse regions in terms of topography, soil types and climate. From sun-soaked coastal vineyards to higher elevation sites further in-land, it is not uncommon to have a two-month gap between the first and last days of harvest in Côtes de Provence. The region is anything but one-dimensional despite the perception that it only produces one type of wine. You can expect your rosés and reds to be primarily made from carignan, grenache, cinsault and the local rarity, tibouren. The white produced in Côtes de Provence are largely based on rolle, also known as vermentino. As the region is so big and diverse, it is subdivided into five smaller terroir designations: Sainte Victoire, Fréjus, La Londe, Pierrefeu and Notre-Dame des Anges whose names may appear on the bottle.

Sainte-Victoire has been famously represented by the works of Matisse, Cezanne and Van Gogh. Its vineyards are located inland on a windswept area of limestone at the foot of the imposing Mont Sainte-Victoire on the far western edge of the Côtes de Provence appellation.

Fréjus is located on the eastern edge of the region and is home to a small pocket of volcanic vineyards at the base of the Massif de L’Esterel. It is here that you find the local speciality of tibouren grown, originally a Greek variety that has now been almost fully appropriated by Provence.

La Londe – another very dry region that is subject to perpetual coastal breezes, the vineyards here are planted on quartz-heavy soils that help retain heat. Cinsault and grenache are most widely grown in this rosé-focused sub-region with a touch of white as well.

Pierrefeu – extends northeast of the city of Toulon on the Mediterranean coast and is home to grenache, syrah and cinsault grown on shist, limestone and sandy, iron-rich clays where it produces both reds and rosés.

Notre-Dame des Anges – the newest of the terroir designates was recognized just last year in 2019. It is most similar to Pierrefeu although more inland and thus without as much direct coastal influence.

Photo courtesy of Cédric Skrzypczak

Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence

On the western edge of Provence, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence’s proximity to the Rhône valley makes it one of the windiest as it is first to take the brunt of the forceful Mistral wind. Sunshine and heat intensify the arid conditions and result in exceptionally concentrated flavours. As the land slopes towards the seashore, it becomes more temperate. The vineyards here have a long history given its proximity to Marseille and many can be dated back to 600 BC. Although rosé rules in Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, a substantial amount of cabernet sauvignon is grown here, largely as a result of the importation of this grape from Bordeaux by Georges Brunet in the late 1940s. Grenache, mourvèdre, cinsault, syrah and counoise make up the remainder of the red grapes grown that more often than not, are transformed into rosé.

Coteaux Varois en Provence

The smallest of the big three, Coteaux Varois en Provence is sandwiched between Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence to the west and Côtes de Provence to the east. This cooler, higher altitude region aptly known as the “heart of Provence” is named after the large administrative department of the “Var”. Limestone mountain ranges dot the landscape where grapes take advantage of a break in the surrounding heat to mature slowly and are often some of the last to be harvested in Provence. The wines tend to be heady and complex with notable structure. Rosés dominate here and are made from cinsault, mourvèdre, grenache and syrah. Cabernet sauvignon is also produced here along with rolle that is used for white wine production.

The vast majority of the wine of Provence is made by three aforementioned regions but several distinctive wines come from the smaller regions of Provence that include the hot rocky appellation of Les Baux de Provence, the sunbaked terraces of red wine focused Bandol and the white driven appeallation of Cassis among others. The small adjacent regions of Bellet, Palette and Côteaux Pierrevert also add to the complex tapestry of the region.

Photo courtesy of francoismillo.com.

Research and Development

The French love their rosé and consume an astounding 34% of global rosé production, followed by the US and then the Germans on the rosé consumption leaderboard. As the significant global demand for rosé continues to grow, the industry has been supported by the first and only research institution dedicated to the production of rosé known as the Centre de Recherche et d’Expérimentation sur le Vin Rosé. Located in the commune of Vidauban, the center was created in 1999 with the aim to provide academic research to Provencal producers as well as to assist in the development of other global rosé wine regions. Fans of pink will undoubtedly be intrigued by the official colour chart for the identification of rosé shades created by the research center to be used in academic settings, competitions and tastings. For a closer look, visit: https://centredurose.fr

Top Rosé Picks

(At the time of publishing, there was inventory of each of these wines at the LCBO.)

Villa Aix-en-Provence Rosé 2019, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence $19.95

Sara d’Amato – From the western edge of Provence, this uber pale rosé is lean, pure and undeniably chic. There may be a couple of grams of residual sugar on the palate but it comes across only as roundness as the wine is terrifically fresh.
David Lawrason – This is a textbook, very pale, refreshing and lively Provence rose with a touch more sweetness than some but still very well balanced. Expect typical aromas of red currant, grapefruit, saffron and white pepper.

Estandon Terres de Saint-Louis 2019, Coteaux Varois en Provence

Sara d’Amato – Estandon’s Terres de Saint-Louis is made up of a collective of vignerons established in the Côteaux Varois en Provence, one of the three main appellations of Provence. This blend of cinsault, grenache and syrah grown at relatively high altitude has an underlying degree of freshness and poise.

Château Léoube Rosé de Léoube 2019, Côtes de Provence La Londe

Sara d’Amato – One of Provence’s most celebrated figures, Romain Ott (of the famille Ott of which the celebrated Domaine Ott is named) oversees Château Léoube, producers of premium, organically grown wines of all three colours. You’ll be able to distinctly taste the salty Mediterranean in this sophisticated rosé of exceptional length.

Château de Berne Terres de Berne Rosé 2019, Côtes de Provence

Sara d’Amato – Its distinctive bottle shape may be a challenge to fit into your cellar but that shouldn’t prove problematic as this effortlessly pleasurable rosé needs no ageing. Infused with local garrigue, this representative style also mouth-wateringly refreshing.
David Lawrason – This is a very elegant, lighter and nicely perfumed but not confected. The nose shows finely tuned rosewater florals, strawberry/red currant, licorice and herbs. It is medium bodied, dry and zesty with just a hint of rounding sweetness. The balance, focus and length are excellent.

Chateau d’Esclans Whispering Angel Rosé 2019, Côtes de Provence (1500ml) $62.95

Sara d’Amato – An icon in the premium rosé category, Château d’Esclans’ Whispering Angel does not compromise on quality. Sacha Lichine’s tech-focused winery near Fréjus has been responsible for increasing the demand for high-priced rosé. The large format is a great medium for rosé which is not meant to be drunk alone.
David Lawrason – Everything here is subtle and understated. It has a fairly generous nose of red currant jam, vague mandarin, licorice and herbs – very pretty, if difficult to pin down. It is light to medium bodied, very well balanced, firm and dry.

If you didn’t realize there was so much variability in Provence, you are not alone. Thirty-six grape varieties are permitted for use in Provence. When you shop for your next “skittle” of rosé (the traditional hourglass bottle shape used in the region), be sure to pay attention to the appellation so that you can note some of these manifest differences in grape varieties and elevations and landscape in the wine. Despite largely arid conditions, the richness of flora is quite remarkable and its formidable perfume permeates the harvest and the wine. Hunt for those more elusive reds and whites to provide an even broader perspective on the diversity of Provence.

Join us at aperitif time on October 3rd for a virtual Provencal rosé tasting with Sara d’Amato and John Szabo. You’ll have the opportunity to ask questions and we’ll give you tips for extending rosé season into the fall and winter months. There is no cost for the webinar and the list of wines available at LCBO that will be highlighted in the webinar will be sent to you upon registration. Click here for more details and to register: [insert link]

Santé!

Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by Vins de Provence. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.