Provence – not just pink and not just for summer

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.

It gets cold in Provence in winter… pic Francois Millo

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…

Vines, garrigue, mountains… Provence scenery in a nutshell. Pic, Francois Millo

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.

Mas de Cadenet – one of the region’s best rosés

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.

It’s worth getting to understand the region’s reds. Pic, Francois Millo

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.

Time for the region’s reds and whites to burst forth like the rosés. Pic: Francois Millo

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.

Can we join the two food pix into a pairing?

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.

Food pics copyright Hervé Fabre, CIVP

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.

Old vines in Luberon, pic: Alexia Gallouet

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
  • Cassis
  • Bellet
  • Bandol
  • Pierrevert

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.

Is the gate opening on an exciting future for Provence’s reds and whites? Pic: Francois Millo

Note: Counoise, which is a red grape variety found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is being considered as a way of mitigating climate change.

Rosé shouldn’t just be about Provence

In a wine market that’s generally flat to falling, rosé has been the exception.  From not much more than a niche ten years ago, it’s grown in the UK to the extent that, according to figures I saw in the press earlier this year, we are now the fourth largest consumer of rosé in the world, buying over 100 million bottles a year.

Provence, of course, is the darling and has spawned many imitators of its pale and dry style across the globe. Some of these provide serious alternatives whilst others are just a serious disappointment.  

Certainly it can’t do any harm to look elsewhere. Partly because it’s always good to champion diversity, and partly because of the prices of  Provence pinks, which have risen significantly of late.  Many of them are positioned at ‘serious wine’ level on a list now, rather than something inexpensive, pale and zesty to glug in the sun. 

“Annoyingly quality doesn’t always keep pace with the price.”

I have been disappointed with several popular, larger volume Provence rosés. Too often they fail in fruit ripeness yet excel in tartness and dilution. Frustratingly, a higher priced rosé from these regions does not necessarily indicate better quality either. 

Head elsewhere in France, however, and there are some excellent pale, dry rosés available that mimic Provence styles without the hefty price tag.  Consider other regions near Provence around the Languedoc such as the smaller IGP Cotes de Thau. This benefits from the twin influences of the Mediterranean and Etang du Thau.  The IGP Mediterranée (formerly Vins de Pays) surrounds Provence, and it too is finding success with rosé being made in the Provence style. 

I have tasted a number of wines from these areas – with their Grenache or Grenache-dominant blends rounded with Rolle and Cinsault; their flavour profile is similar to Provence, yet you’ll find them on a merchants list around £6-9 ex VAT as opposed to the £15+ of many Provence pinks.

This is the reason why the rosé we blend for St JOHN’s Beausoleil comes from the Cotes de Thau. It is fresh and linear, can be enjoyed on its own or with many types of food, and is significantly cheaper than an alternative from Provence.

Changing mindset

If these are well-priced Provence lookalikes, could there be a case for going a step further? Perhaps now, while Brits are asking for pink, perhaps this could be the time to expose them to some genuinely different styles of rosé. Wines that might have a similar dryness, structure and palate weight, but are flavoursome and different.  Wines that will set your list apart.  Wines, too, that deliver a bit more for the money.

I’m thinking here of Cabernet Franc from Saumur – I have been impressed with Chateau de Chaintres, and Pinot Noir from Sancerre  or its counterpart from cooler climates of Tasmania and Yarra Valley in Australia. 

Rosé from the Yarra is worth consideration. De Bortoli is always consistent, Dominique Portet, and Giant Steps also offer characterful Pinot-dominant rosé.   

Closer to home Italy provides a wealth of styles with often drier and ‘more serious’ versions coming from the middle of the country down towards Sicily. Keep an eye out for Ramato styles too such as Specogna’s Pinot Grigio Ramato. 

And, there are an increasing number of rosés that are dry and interesting from Spain and Portugal.  No doubt now seen as a classic since it was first made just over 20 years ago and serves as a benchmark is Niepoort’s Redoma Rose. This is often darker, and has been in oak yet offers a dry, thirst quenching rose that also is a joy with food.  

From the point of view of both your wine list and value for money, the case for broadening horizons is pretty strong. But there is a caveat. Bear in mind that there is no small amount of ignorance surrounding pink wine on the part of your average consumer.

Most consumers, I’d say, don’t consider the region, only the colour and the price. And the paler a rosé, they assume that the better (and drier) it is. 

This perhaps isn’t surprising.  Even to the trained eye, trying to establish what that ‘branded’ pale ‘chateau vino pinko’ rosé tastes like is no mean feat.  In most pinks there are no indicators of sweetness, and rarely any grape varietals, just a region or newly unearthed IGP. So we shouldn’t be too critical if customers have latched onto colour as a guarantee of a style or quality.

The fact that there is interest in rosé is a significant step, and to capitalize on this interest, especially with the warm weather, post lockdown, think about tapping into this market and offering several rosés.  If you only have one (or two) by the glass, open another and offer it by the glass.  It is a talking point!  Or use it as a focus for the week.  

If you have a darker rose that is fuller bodied, try pairing it with food, something that will allow the wine to ‘freshen up’ and know the story behind the wine, the varietals and the flavour those grapes give to the wine.  Once people are engaged with the wine it flows from there.

Four Rosés That Are Well Worth A Look

1. Chateau de Chaintres, Saumur

£9.65 from St John Wines

2. Specogna Pinot Grigio Ramato, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

£13.20 from Liberty Wines

3. Avani Amrit Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula (ramato style)

£17.75 from Woodwinters

4. Niepoort Redoma, Douro Valley

£18.99 (RRP) from Raymond Reynolds – contact for nearest trade supplier

Do you have any go-to rosés of your own from outside Provence? Of course you do! So why not tell the other members of the Sommelier Collective which are your favourites and why.

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