Provence. It’s a region that always puts stars in guests’ eyes. When they realise that’s where I’m from they always want me to tell them what it’s like to grow up there.
Provence is a place where the scents of the garrigue and the singing of the cicadas lull your mind, where sun tans your skin. And yes, swimming pools and sea do make you dream of something cool and pink. It’s never long before the conversation turns to rosé.
From the Med to the Mistrale
We’ll come back to rosé in a minute, but first some basics.
Provence was the first French region where the Romans established vineyards. Today the French sub-region runs from the Camargue in the west to Saint-Tropez in the east, and from Mont Ventoux in the north down to Cassis. Cannes and Nice, incidentally, are not in Provence – they’re part of the French Riviera.
The region enjoys a pure Mediterranean climate: hot, sunny and dry, with 300 days of sun, high temperatures in summer and a cold winter.
The famous Mistral wind is part of the landscape; so strong that it may interrupt the flowering or fruit set and after a few hours of being exposed to it we feel tired and light-headed. On the plus side it helps to reduce diseases in the vines.
Provence’s soils are composed of limestone and quartz, sometimes with sand gravel and flint. It’s a region that’s full of small valleys, the limestone bed is sculpted by erosion with the garrigues growing on the limestone between the curves.
Pinks are a mixed blessing
“Garrigue” is the degradation of what was the Provencal forest. Because of the frequent fires, forest disappeared and garrigue is the result: a mix of trees, plants and shrubs such as oak tree, juniper tree, olive tree, lavender, rosemary, sage, buxus…
What you have, in other words, is poor soil that is well-drained with very low humidity.
It is a great environment for making excellent wines of all styles. But today rosé dominates. The AOC production is over 1.2m hectolitres per year, and just 7% is red and 4% is white wines, with rosé making up the rest. Rosé consumption and production has tripled in the last 25 years.
There are, of course, outstanding examples of small-scale volume rosé wines. Château Pibarnon in Bandol (Caves de Pyrene) with the cuvée “Nuance” aged in amphora is a food-friendly wine of great complexity.
And Mas de Cadenet (ABS Wines), the oldest family estate from the Sainte-Victoire appellation near Aix-en-Provence produces stunning rosés with different ageing styles.
But let’s be honest, those complex, expressive saignée-method rosé wines are rare. Provence’s rosé wines are too often made with direct pressing, standardised and not very interesting.
The case for reds and whites
On one hand, this is understandable. After all, it’s true that this taste is popular all over the world as well as with the locals.
But equally, from my perspective, I find the red and white wines generally more expressive of the Provence terroir. The region can now offer great quality for the price and a long ageing potential too.
Provence’s red wine industry might not be enormous as I mentioned earlier. But equally it’s not insignificant. Its 80,000hl a year is roughly the same as the total production of English wine. And with multiple grape varieties and diverse soils, there’s plenty worth exploring for both reds and whites.
Just look at this palette of flavours that you don’t find in the region’s famous pinks: garrigues, thyme, rosemary, green and black olives, cedar, poplar, smoky earth, bruised apples, fresh pear, hay, lavender, chamomile, persimmon, cherry, blackcurrant, gooseberry and so on.
Blends, power and herbs
White and red wines are always blended wines. I find the whites interesting for their roundness and fruity style; an attractive balance between the refreshing herbal notes and a medium to full body. Based on Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne and Roussanne, the whites are perfect to pair with goats cheese or fish in sauce.
The reds tend to be powerful, aromatic and deep red-coloured; a concentration of black fruits balanced by the freshness of the garrigue notes. Based on Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, the reds are perfect to pair with “Tapenade” or a Beef Daube.
Still today, wine production in Provence is dominated by cooperatives. But every year when I go back to Provence, I can see more domaines’ signs along the road that weren’t there a few years before. Newcomers are popping up, the multiple “Bastides” transformed into potential châteaux. These small producers are shaking things up, making wines that are genuinely exciting.
It’s still quite rare to see Provence wines on restaurant lists, beyond a few big names that it seems to be compulsory to list (!). But I feel as though the journey from cooperatives to small scale producers is just at its start, which means that this is a good time for restaurants to take them on.
The wines are affordable and diverse; both the whites and reds have their own styles and can take you and your customers on a journey of flavours.
Explore, and you will find that Provence can offer excitement to wine lovers all year round, not just in the summer!
Three favourite producers
Château La Sable
A hidden domain, historically one of the first independent wineries in the Luberon area. The estate was acquired in 2017 by Virginie and Jean-Marc Mercier who spent their career in London but their dream was to make wine in Southern France; 2018 was their first vintage.
The estate is situated at the entrance of one of the most beautiful Southern France villages: Lourmarin. The whites are based on Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and they recently replanted some Rolle (Vermentino). They are powerful and structured with thyme, peach and lemon notes.
The red is mostly Carignan with Grenache and Syrah. It has serious ageing potential – I’d say 50 years!
The vines are planted between 250 and 350m altitude, and the vineyard enjoys a continental microclimate with high diurnal range. It should be Organically certified from 2022.
Domaine Les Perpetus
Christine and her husband Robert Michel run this 300+ year old estate in the heart of the Luberon with the advice of the almost-90 Henri Queirel, and their three children. They produce Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Vermentino, Grenache Noir and Syrah plus excellent olive oil and truffles.
The white Luberon AOC is a blend of Vermentino, Grenache Blanc and Clairette. It is aromatic and rich – a combination of citrus fruit, green apple and tropical fruit with sage and rosemary giving freshness. An intense wine, it’s really delicious to pair with goat cheese spread with honey or stuffed courgettes.
Their “Sans sulphite” red wine is powerful yet delicate with notes of liquorice, wild blackcurrant, red and black cherry and green olive. The wine is vivace and “electric”, great for big occasions or a family get-together alike. Perfect with a lamb stew and ratatouille.
Both of these first two estates offer B&B – a great way of getting to grips with the whole agriculture and authenticity of flavours that you find in the region.
Mas de la Dame
This 15th century estate is in Les Baux-de-Provence, an appellation with only 11 producers, that is famous for its red wine. The founder’s great granddaughters, Caroline Missoffe and Anne Poniatowski farm 57ha of old vines (the oldest are 80 years old), and keep 4ha fallow.
The “Réserve du Mas” cuvée is dominated by Grenache with some Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. I like this wine for its tenacity. Even though it’s a full-bodied wine, the lavender, thyme and rosemary notes give great balance to the black and red berries notes. Caroline Missoffe calls them “des vins chaleureux” and they’re great with cured meat and game.
The white, “Coin Caché”, is a subtle combination of flavours. Sémillon and Roussanne dominate, plus Grenache Blanc and Clairette. They ferment on lees and give beautiful aromas of stone fruits, white melon and white flowers such as hyacinth. Great to pair with poultry and morels or creamy fish.
All three estates mentioned above are free of chemicals and fertilizers, using low-intervention and organic or biodynamic winemaking. All have stories and authenticity. The wines have a long ageing potential and a great quality/price ratio. For me, the best are between €9-40 ex-cellar.
Imported by Vin&Saveur, Philippe Tartier
Provence in a Nutshell
Provence is a delimited French sub-region including the wine appellations from Southern France, plus two appellations belonging to the Southern Rhône area that are Ventoux AOC and Luberon AOC.
They allow the following grapes: Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino, Ugni Blanc, Viognier and Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan, Marselan.
The Southern France appellation (Provence) includes:
- Côtes de Provence (Sainte-Victoire, La Londe, Fréjus, Pierrefeu, Notre-Dame des Anges designations)
- Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence
- Coteaux Varois
- Les Baux-de-Provence
IGPs, such as IGP Mediterranée, permit a large number of grape varieties.
The AOCs allow Rolle, Ugni Blanc, Bouboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Sémillon and Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tibouren.
Note: Counoise, which is a red grape variety found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is being considered as a way of mitigating climate change.