In the far South East of France is the stunningly beautiful region of Provence. Known around the world for its evocative patchwork of colours - rolling green hills, vivid purple blankets of lavender, and deep blue vistas of the Mediterranean - this once ignored wine region is gradually earning a reputation for high quality wines.
Extending nearly 200km between the Mediterranean and the Alps, the mixed topography of Provence is well suited to wine making. Between rocky, volcanic mountain ranges and flat sandy beaches is a plethora of valleys and hillsides perfect for the cultivation of more than a dozen grape varieties.
Like most Mediterranean wine regions, summers are long and hot, but tempered by sea breezes, while winters are typically cool and mild. Local climatic conditions provide specific challenges however. Rain, for example, is quite rare, but when it does occur it can often arrive with heavy storms and impart substantial damage to vineyards.
Provence boasts almost double the national average of organically farmed vineyards. The cold Mistral wind (mistrau in the local dialect) provides plenty of aeration, driving away storm clouds and generally warding off fungal disease. These are excellent conditions for sustainable viticulture. Domaine Richeaume is long standing ambassador of this approach. In 2016, Provence had 7,199 hectares (17,789 acres) of certified organic grapevines, accounting for 19% of its total area, up 65% in the last six years. The average in France for organic is just 9%.
In the last couple of decades Provence has become synonymous with pale pink rosé, produced typically, with Grenache, Cinsualt, and Mourvèdre. The vast majority of AOC production here is rosé, as much as 90% in fact, and the category has become hugely popular thanks to the work of small producers pursuing a dry, fruity and elegant style. Such has been the commercial success of Provençal rose, that a wave of imitation wines are now being produced all over the world.
With almost 20,000 hectares under vine, Côtes de Provence AOC is by far the largest appellation in the region. The area extends from calcareous Provence, to the west and north (Sainte-Victoire Mountain), to crystalline Provence to the south and east (Maures and Estérel Massifs). Again, 90% of the wine released under this appellation is light and pink.
In 2005 an area of around 3000 hectares between Mount Sainte-Victoire to the north and the Sainte-Baume massif to the south was deemed to merit its own and appellation and the Sainte-Victoire AOC was founded for red and rosé wines. Conditions here are particularly suited to the production of quality fruit as these natural barriers create a corridor which protects the valley but offers plenty of winding to ward off fungal diseases.
Located just north and west of the town of Aix-en-Provence is the Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence appellation. It was given official AOC status in 1985 and today covers around 4000 hectares of vineyard making it the region’s second largest. While much of the wine production here is still rosé, good quality red and white wines are also made, often complex blends involving Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvèdre and even the little known Counoise.
Like in most areas of France, there is a growing interest in old grape varieties. Tibouren, known as Rossese di Dolceacqua across the border in Liguria, is quietly growing in popularity. A black skinned variety, it is appreciated for its capacity to give full bodied, structured rose with distinctive, but not unattractive earthy aromas. Château Peyrassol produce one of the more prestigious versions through their Le Clos Peyrassol, although this is blended with Rolle and Grenache. Clos Cibonne and Château Roubine make versions worth looking at.
Counoise is another black-skinned grape grown in Provence, appreciated, like Mourvèdre, for its spicy character and plush fruit. Although still mainly used a blending grape there are a handful of producers open to its charms, and we may well see increased plantings in the coming years.
The most important region when it comes to quality and reputation is Bandol, a small growing area just to the north west of Marseilles. These vineyards are planted on steep terraces where hand harvesting is necessary. White wines and rosé are made under the Bandol label, but it is the red wines that have helped build the appellation’s cult status among wine lovers. Made primarily with Mourvèdre, it often claimed that Bandol provides the grape’s finest expression, partnering rich brambly fruit with a characteristic spiciness.
Although 96% of all the wine made in Provence comes from just three appellations, it is the region’s smaller appellations that can make Provence exciting. Ventoux and Luberon would be prime examples, producing interesting red blends. For wine administration purposes however, they are considered part of the Southern Rhône, due predominantly to the synergy in styles. The relatively cooler Coteaux de Pierrevert AOC to the north produces red, white and rosé from the region’s typical varieties, although, for now, is made only by a handful of wineries.
Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence is a flexible appellation in the South of France producing red and rose wines from Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and sometimes Counoise. Whites are made from Bourboulenc, Vermentino, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Sauvignon and Sémillon.
Côtes de Provence is the largest appellation in Provence, covering more than 20,000 hectares of vineyard. This sprawling area is the rosé capital of France with 90% of the production light, pink and made from the region’s typical varieties - Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Tibouren.