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Provence: Rising on a Pink Wave
By Michael Franz
May 15, 2007
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I recently found myself driving behind a guy with one of those license plate holders reading, "I'd Rather be Sailing."  I thought, me too, but since we're just fantasizing here, can't we do better than that?  Much better would be: "I'd rather be sailing on the French Riviera with one hand on the tiller and the other holding a cold glass of Provençal rosé."

Not that I blame the guy.  I grant that my preferred daydream is too wordy for a license plate holder, and odds are that he's never tasted a glass of rosé from Provence to know what he's missing.  However, those odds are changing, as the whole range of relatively little-known wines of Provence are now gaining a level of prominence they've never enjoyed before.

The formerly low profile of Provençal wines probably resulted from the exceptionally high profile of Provence and the Riviera as vacation destinations.  The region stretching from Marseille to Nice along the Mediterranean is one of the world's most famously beautiful places, and it really isn't surprising that the local wine industry has been overshadowed.

Another factor keeping Provence's wines out of the limelight has been a lack of appreciation in world markets for the marvelous properties of high-class dry rosé.  Although the French, Italians and Spanish relish rosés for their freshness and ability to accentuate all sorts of foods, many consumers in other countries have tended to dismiss them as "unserious."  Whereas rosés account for fully 20% of sales in the French supermarket/hypermarket circuit, pink wines have often been written off elsewhere, and North Americans frequently confused them with sweet, low quality 'White Zinfandel.'

However, dry rosé has enjoyed a remarkable rebound in the past few years, with Provence leading the way on the production side and the United States turning from a laggard to a leader in consumption.  Exports of Provençal wines to the U.S. grew by nearly 40% in volume between 2004 and 2006.  Rosés represent about 80% of wine production in Provence, but American consumers are also developing a taste for red table wines from the region, and sales figures for reds are rising nearly as fast as for all Provençal wines.

This rise in red sales suggests that a world suddenly focused on rosé is likely to be increasingly attentive to Provence wines in general.  Wine lovers taking a first look at the region may be surprised to discover that, far from being an upstart, Provence is generally regarded as the oldest wine producing region in France.  The Phoenicians or Greeks are thought to have introduced the vine around the sixth century B.C.  The area subsequently became an important outpost of Roman viticulture, and remains very productive to this day, with over 400 producers making wine from 80,000 acres of vineyards. 

Some of this acreage produces wines of very modest quality designated Vin de Table (or, "table wine") and made by cooperatives.  On an intermediate level are Vin de Pays du Var (or 'country wine') bottlings, which may carry one of four more precise geographical designations (Vin de Pays du Mont Caumme, du Verdon, des Maures, or d'Argens).  Many of these are produced by single estates, but few are exported to North America (Chateau Routas is an important exception).

More than 95% the wines of the highest pedigree are produced with four controlled appellations:  Côtes de Provence, Coteaux Varois, Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence and Bandol.  Other appellations include Bellet, Les Baux-de-Provence and Palette, as well as two AOCs that were established in 2005 as sub-regions of the Côtes de Provence:  Côtes de Provence Sainte-Victoire and Côtes de Provence Fréjus.

This is a lot to remember, and since wines from the smaller appellations are often difficult to locate, newcomers to Provençal wines would be well advised to start with the Côtes de Provence and Coteaux Varois for strong quality combined with relatively broad availability and then turn to Bandol for its exceptional quality and extraordinary reds.

The Côtes de Provence and Coteaux Varois are unusually far-flung and discontinuous, and color-coded vineyard maps of the area look as though they have fallen prey to the wild splatterings of a child left unattended in a paint store.  Coteaux Varois sites are scattered in the midst of those designated as Côtes de Provence, and since the grapes and formal regulations of the two appellations are very similar, the distinctions between them are difficult to discern (aside from the higher elevations of most Coteaux Varois sites).

The percentages of whites, reds and rosés produced in the two appellations are quite comparable.  White wine comprises only about 5% of production, and is typically based on either Rolle (known elsewhere as Vermentino) or Ugni Blanc, with supporting roles played by Semillon, Clairette and Grenache Blanc.  Rolle is gaining favor rapidly, as it makes relatively rich, soft wines that are nevertheless quite refreshing in their youth.

The bulk of production (70 to 80%) in both the Côtes de Provence and Coteaux Varois is devoted to pale, dry rose.  These wines blend seamlessly with the area's art de vivre as well as with the local cuisine (which is largely based on olive oil and garlic).  Some of these wines are a bit bland and unremarkable, no doubt due to the ease with which they can be sold to thirsty tourists, but an ever increasing percentage are truly delicious and exceptionally versatile with food.  Exemplary producers include Saint Andre de Figuiere, Houchart, Chateau Minuty from Domaines Farnet, Routas and Sorin.

Red wine accounts for only about 20 to 25% of production in an average year, but it seems that this category has the strongest potential in terms of sheer quality as well as attractiveness in export markets.  Vintners in the region have a broad selection of grapes at their disposal, including Grenache, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre, and Tibouren.  Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are now on the rise, often replacing the less promising Carignan.  Standout producers include the following Côte de Provence Domaines: du Dragon, Houchart, Ott, Richeaume, Saint Andre de Figuiere, and Sorin; from Coteaux Varois, Chateau de la Bessonne and Chateau Routas.

Although the Bandol appellation produces marvelous wines that are prized by connoisseurs, they remain among the least well-known of France's best bottlings.  The wines are made from sloping, sun-drenched vineyards in the 8 villages ringing the seaside town of Bandol, which has almost no vineyards of its own.  Yet Bandol's name has long been used for the wines from the immediate vicinity on account of being a Mediterranean port of some historical renown, and this practice was formalized when the appellation was granted legal status in 1941.

The climatic key to Bandol's greatness is intense sunlight that burns for an extraordinary 3,000 hours each year.  This makes it possible to plant Mourvèdre, a grape of modest fame but truly great potential.  Mourvèdre remains rather obscure relative to its few qualitative equals, partly because it can be ripened reliably only in the warmest and sunniest sites in France, and also because it travels under other names elsewhere in the world (Mataro in California and Australia, and Monastrell in Spain, where it is planted on nearly 250,000 acres).

Although Mourvèdre is Bandol's star, it is supported by a cast of red grapes including Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Carignan.  These grapes are grown largely as constituents for Bandol rosé (which totals about half of the appellation's output), though they are also added in small amounts to bottlings of Bandol's reds.  Appellation laws stipulate that red Bandol must be a blended wine rather than a true, varietal Mourvèdre, though the greatness of this grape is recognized by a requirement that it must comprise at least 50% of the blend.  In practice, many top producers acknowledge that they add only ceremonial dashes of anything other than Mourvèdre.

White grapes are also grown in minor quantities, and though local blends of Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette and Sauvignon Blanc can be very pleasant in their youth, they comprise only 7% of production and rarely escape the seafood eateries that dot the local coastline.  Most of Bandol's rosé is likewise consumed locally, but a few top wines are sold in export markets.  Pale and dry but amply flavored and very refreshing, these are delicious sippers and peerless partners for grilled fish and vegetables, and the renditions made by Domaines Tempier and Ott are arguably the two best rosés made anywhere in the world.

Regardless of the charms of the whites and rosés, international recognition of Bandol's greatness will depend largely on the reception of its reds.  Classic renditions feature deep color and lovely blackberry fruit, with alluring aromas of tobacco, roasted meat and fresh herbs.  Although these reds are generously flavored and capable of improving for 15 years in the bottle, they are almost always enjoyable within three years of the vintage.  Domaine Tempier is almost universally regarded as Bandol's red standard bearer based on the superb quality of its Cuvée Classique and the single vineyard bottlings from Cabassou, Migoua and La Tourtine.  Other excellent wines are made by La Bastide Blanche, Jean-Pierre Gaussen, Moulin des Costes, Pradeux, Roche Redonne, Sainte Anne, Sorin and de Terrebrune.

Questions or comments?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com