Ah, Provence…mention it to a friend and they’ll likely picture postcard-perfect cobalt skies, cicadas and fields of lavender.
Ask that same person about wines from the region, and there is a good chance you may get a lightly chilled response.
To be in the region of Provence in France is to indulge all of your senses. The serrated limestone cliffs that plunge into turquoise Mediterranean waters leave you breathless. This is a place where aromas of mimosa, jasmine, and Spanish broom are crafted into perfume. In the same region, foodies are apt to swoon helplessly at bites of hot socca in Nice and bouillabaisse in Marseille.
Provence stretches for 31,400 km in southeastern France. With sheltered harbours, plenty of defensive hilltops and abundant fertile land, it’s no surprise that this vast landscape held much appeal to the ancient populations of Greeks, Celtic Ligurians, and finally, the Romans.
The wines of Provence have an almost mythical attraction, aided by the fact that the first non-indigenous vines were brought to Massalia (Marseille) by the Greeks in about 600 BC. These would have been the earliest intentionally cultivated grapes, and certainly the first rosés in France. The Romans arrived in Nostra Provincia (“our province”) in approximately 125 BC, and began the work of expanding their commodity trade routes.
Evidence of Roman grape cultivation has been uncovered throughout the region, including fragments of pottery, and tributes to Bacchus and Ariane on steles, sarcophaguses and statues. The Rhone River provided a convenient transportation link with the port of Marseille for shipping wine (and local goods) to other destinations. The Romans recognized that the craggy sides of Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail provided decent shelter and drainage for grapes, once the backbreaking work of terracing was completed.
During the Middle Ages, the Provençal wine trade declined into the hands of few (mostly monks) who had access to land and financial resources. It was Pope John XXII, the second of the seven popes to reside in Avignon, who ordered the construction of a summer residence in 1317, which became known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
This sparked the emergence of grape growing in the mix of sandy, well-drained soil and land covered in red rocks or galets roulés that blanket a more stable clay mix. The Pope’s 14th-century construction project was fortuitous as Châteauneuf-duPape, and many of the surrounding Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) vineyards are now globally renowned for excellent wine production.
Present Day Provence
Fast forward to present day, there are nine AOPs in Provence, and 12 in the Southern Rhone. In Provence, more than 80 per cent of the wine produced is rosé, whereas in the Southern Rhone, spicy red blends make up the majority. Major red grape varietals in the region include grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, carignan and cinsault, while the white grapes include bourboulenc, clairette, white grenache, picpoul, picardan, roussanne and viognier.
The wines of Provence and the Southern Rhone are typically created using assemblage techniques where varietals are fermented separately and only then blended under the scrutiny of master winemakers. This winemaking methodology allows the vintner more flexibility in years where the growth and sugar production of one grape type might be better (or worse) than another varietal.
The pink wine consumer was almost crushed during the terrible era of blush wines. Now that same wine drinker is fuelling the wave of Provence’s newfound rosé popularity. This movement continues to grow internationally helped by clever star-studded marketing for easy drinking light rosés such as Chateau d’Esclans’ Whispering Angel and Mirabeau en Provence’s Pure.
With the production from the AOPs of Provence and the Southern Rhone, the wine choices are somewhat endless. There is something for everyone, and every occasion from cooperative wines to well-established gastro rosés, from thought-provoking reds to surprisingly sophisticated whites.