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Red Wines of Provence and Notable Rosés
By Michael Apstein
Aug 10, 2022
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Rosé naturally comes to mind when thinking of the wines from Provence.  But I’m here to tell you that at least one appellation in the region, Les Baux de Provence, makes terrific reds.  They also make excellent rosés.  Yes, you read that correctly.  As someone who has not been swept away by the tsunami of pink wine, I actually find that many of the rosés from Les Baux de Provence are distinctive.  Anne Poniatowski, who with her sister, Caroline Missoffe, are in charge of the venerable Mas de la Dame estate, puts the rosés of the region into perspective, “We (the producers within the appellation) wanted a rosé that was a wine, not just an aperitif.”

With only about a dozen producers and covering less than 600 acres, Les Baux de Provence is a small appellation dominated by the spectacular limestone rich Alpilles (literally, “little alps”).  The appellation sits about halfway between Avignon and Marseille, surrounding the charming village of St.  Rémy de Provence.  It takes its name from Les Baux, the 12th century castle and village, considered one of the most beautiful villages in France, that sits on a dramatic plateau overlooking the Plain of Crau, its vines, and its olive groves.  On a clear day, Marseille and the Mediterranean are visible.  (The Vallée de la Baux also holds an AOP for its famous olive oil—don’t miss the ones from Moulin Cornille, the fine co-operative in Mausanne les Alpilles.)

Although the Romans produced wines here, the area gained appellation status only in 1995 and, at that time, only for the reds and rosés.  Formerly, the wines were included as part of the Côteaux d’Aix en Provence appellation.  The allowed grapes for the reds and rosés are the usual Mediterranean suspects, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, primarily, with lesser amounts of Carignan, Cinsault and Counoise.  In addition, regulators allow Cabernet Sauvignon, though it cannot exceed 20 percent of a blend.  The white wines gained AOC recognition only a decade ago, in 2011.  The allowed varieties are Clairette, Granache Blanc and Vermentino, with lesser amounts of Roussanne, Bourboulanc, Marsanne, and Ugni Blanc.

Some of the reds of Les Baux de Provence are light and chillable, and, I might add, are a great alternative to the ocean of insipid rosés from around the world that flood the market.  Others combine red or black fruit notes with herbal ones that sit on a base of a firm minerality, giving them a serious complexity and presence.  Unsurprisingly in light of the appellation’s proximity to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, only about 20 miles to the west, some of the reds can transmit considerable power.  They are splendid with grilled meats and the hearty preparations of Provençal vegetables, such as ratatouille.   Consumers should always remember to look outside of established appellation origine controllée (AOC), now updated to appellation origine protégé (AOP), to neighboring IGPs (Indicatif Geographic Protégé), IGP Les Alpilles in this case, where winegrowers have more flexibility and fewer regulations.  Ironically, Eloi Dürrbach, one of the founding fathers of the Les Baux de Provence AOC and with his wife, Floriane, owners of Domaine de Trévallon, one of the region’s most prominent producers whose wines often carry three-digit price tags, never used the AOC labeling he helped create.  The reds of Domaine de Trévallon have always contained more Cabernet Sauvignon than regulations allowed (50 percent), so Dürrbach sold them under various regional appellations, currently IGP Les Alpilles.  Regardless of the labeling, they are consistently stunning and develop beautifully with a decade-plus of bottle age.  Domaine d’Éole, another notable producer whose vineyards lie within the boundaries of appellation, still opts to bottle their wines under the Coteaux d’Aix en Provence appellation.

Elizabeth Gabay and Ben Bernheim write persuasively (in their splendid book, Rosés of Southern France, $27, Zalabim Conseil, 2022) regarding the influence of site on the rosés from Les Baux de Provence, and their observations also hold true for the reds and whites in my experience.  The northern side of the Alpilles is cooler than the more sun-drenched southern side, which, in general, makes the wines with northerly exposures fresher and livelier.  Wines from the southern side tend to be bolder.  The soil on both sides—limestone mixed with clay and perfect for fine wine—is similar.  The ever-present Mistral wind helps reduce disease burden, which helps to explain why, by some estimates, 85 percent of producers in Les Baux de Provence farm organically.  Producers told me they’ve proposed to the INAO, the French authorities that regulate wine production, to make organic farming mandatory.  Many producers practice biodynamic viticulture and winemaking as well.  

Tasting the wines from this magical part of France over the years has taught me several important things.  First, though inconsistency remains, the wines from Les Baux de Provence are getting better and more sophisticated.  Second, as the public has taken notice of these wines, especially the reds, prices for some of them have reached triple digits in the U.S. market.  However, importantly, many bargains remain.  Third, the reds are more successful overall than the whites, though whites from Château Romanin and Domaine Hauvette, both located on the northern side of the Alpilles, are stunningly impressive.  

Mas de la Dame, one of the top producers of the appellation and still family-owned, has about 130-acres under vine, all farmed organically on the south side of Les Alpilles.  They produce about 20,000 12-bottle cases annually and make a wide range of excellent wines that are exemplary among wines coming from this area.  “La Gourmande” red, a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Syrah, falls at the light-and-fruity end of the spectrum (88 pts).  Bottled under the IGP designation (because of a mistake in replanting that resulted in insufficient density to conform to AOC regulations about 30 years ago), it is refreshing and vibrant, perfectly suited for chilling and drinking in place of a rosé.  A step up in complexity is their “Réserve de Mas” red, a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The suave 2018, perfect now for current consumption, delivers a lush combination of dark cherry-like fruitiness and herbal notes atop a firm stony base.  It has good weight, yet isn’t heavy (92 pts).  Poniatowski feels it is typical of the appellation.  Moving up the seriousness ladder of reds at Mas de la Dame, we come to “La Stèle,” a Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, made from 55 to 60-year-old vines.  The very impressive 2018, also fruity, herbal, and stony, is bolder than “Réserve de Mas,” and more youthful.  The tannins are firm, but not intrusive.  It needs time.  Be patient and cellar this winter-weight wine for a few more years (93 pts).  At the pinnacle of the red range is the captivating “Coin Caché,” a blend of Grenache (85 percent) and Syrah.  Explosively flavorful but not heavy, the wild strawberry and 14.5 percent stated alcohol signature of Grenache comes through.  Best saved for winter, “Coin Caché” is actually softer than Le Stèle since it spends no time in new barrels.  It has the appeal of Château Rayas with Provencal herbs thrown in (95 pts).

Mas de la Dame’s “Coin Caché” white, an IGP Les Alpilles blend of barrel-fermented Semillon and concrete egg-fermented Roussanne, shows how producers are innovating in ways that heighten expectations of the quality that can be achieved with whites in the area.  The vibrant 2020, power-packed and stone fruit filled (Poniatowski describes it as a “winter white”) will deceive anyone in a blind tasting (92 pts).  But perhaps the most surprising wine to me in Mas de la Dame’s lineup is their “Bois de Rose” (French for rosewood).  Though it is a gorgeous pink, it is labeled Rose (without the accent).  A portion of the wine ages for six to nine months in oak.  Long and refined, it’s a serious wine, displaying a subtle hint of creaminess (93 pts).  I have no U.S. prices for the wines from Mas de la Dame because, Poniatowski tells me, they are in the process of changing importers.  Wise consumers will keep an eye out for them.

Most people to whom I spoke consider Domaine Hauvette to be one of the two top producers (along with Domaine Trévallon) in the area.  It is certainly my favorite.  Their whites, rosés, and reds are all stunning.  Dominique Hauvette farms her 43-acres and vinifies the wines biodynamically.  Her finesse-filled red cuvée, “Cornaline,” wows with elegance, not power.  To me it has the Burgundian character of flavor without weight.  The 2016 is spellbinding (95 pts, $53 for the 2015, imported byKermit Lynch).

The luscious 2016 “Cuvée Lea” (IGP Alpilles) from Domaine d’Eole, whose vineyards are also located on the southern side of Les Alpilles in Eygalières, delivers a marvelous combination of dark fresh fruit flavors, herbs, and alluring spice.  It has surprising elegance for its size and carries its 15 percent stated alcohol seamlessly (93 pts).  

The wines from Mas de Gourgonnier, a fabulously consistent producer located south of Les Alpilles, are well-known and widely available in the U.S. thanks to their importer, North Berkeley Imports.  They’ve practiced organic viticulture for decades, before it became commonplace.  The engaging 2018 Les Baux de Provence red, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, has uncommon elegance, finesse, and freshness.  It’s a delight to drink now (90 pts, $20).

Mas Sainte Berthe, with its 100 acres of vines, lies on the southern side of Les Alpilles, a stone’s throw from Les Baux itself.  In transition to working fully organically, they should be certified as such next year.  Consistent with their site, the 2016 red Les Baux de Provence, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, conveys power and substance.  It was more seamless after being opened overnight, which suggests it needs even more bottle age (88 pts).  

Other producers whose red wines I’d recommend include Château Romanin, Domaine Guilbert, Domaine de la Vallongue, and Domaine des Terres Blanches.  Look for changes in the wines from Château d’Estoublon, another venerable producer in the Les Baux de Provence appellation.  The famed Bordeaux Prats family—former owners of Château d’Estournel—have acquired an interest in the estate and will be responsible for the winemaking.  Also holding an interest in this estate are former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni.

The character-filled 2021 rosé, “Equinoxe,” from the Domaine de Lauzières is just one example of the unique and appealing character of rosés from Les Baux de Provence appellation.  Made entirely from Grenache Noir, it’s crisp and invigorating with alluring hints of wild strawberries.  It fits Poniatowski’s description of a rose that’s real wine, not just an aperitif (92 pts).

Though not widely available in the U.S. market yet, the red wines from Les Baux de Provence offer an intriguing combination of Rhône-like fullness combined with Provencal herbs and spice.  The rosés deliver considerably more complexity and interest compared to many others from Côtes de Provence.  So, my advice is to branch out and try the wines when you run across them.

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August 10, 2022

E-mail me your thoughts about the red wines from Provence or rosés in general at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein