Provence, the oldest winemaking area in France, has been pumping out quality juice for over 2000 years. Originally settled by ancient Greeks, hordes of Roman, Spanish, Gallic, and Catalan invaders have swept through the area. While the area is most famous for its rose, there is lots to discover in terms of red and white too.
Provence: A Brief History
Tracing winemaking in the area back over 2000 years, this puts us during the time of the ancient Greeks. When they founded the city of Marseille, they had vines in hand, ready to plant. This of course started a long and storied history of wine in France.
Back then, winemaking technology wasn’t quite what it is today – you can guess it was rustic at best. Because of this, most of the “red” wines at the time were made quickly, and without a lot of thought beforehand. The grapes were crushed, pressed, fermented, and tossed in big ceramic jugs called amphorae.
With very little skin contact on the juice, these red wines were very pale, and made like modern day roses. This was common at the time, but something was different about the wines of Provence, as they caught the attention of people all over the Mediterranean basin. Pretty soon they were being shipped out from Marseille in every direction.
Even after the Greeks had left, sailors from all over the Mediterranean came and went to Provence. They left their mark on the culture of Provence, especially their wines. Nearby Italy has especially left a mark, and these coastal wines certainly have an Italian twist to them – a lot of areas even use some Italian grapes.
Bringing things into the modern era, the wines of Provence gained a second wind during the 20th century as well heeled travelers sailed through Southern France and sampled the local wines. Being a warm area, the crisp and refreshing roses were just what was needed to quench thirst on a hot day.
This brought some much needed exposure to the area, which wasn’t as popular then as other Southern French wine regions. Today, Provencal wines, red, white, and rose, are well known and have the respect of serious wine drinkers along with casual sippers alike. Their long history, abundance of grape varietals, quality, and versatility in food pairing make them popular with a wide range of people. Of the coastal region, here are the three most important areas to help you get a handle on the wine styles available.
Cassis AOP Wines
Provence’s first AOP or legally defined appellation, Cassis gets by on its white wine production. Not to be confused with the French word for blackcurrant or even the blackcurrant liqueur, this tiny little seaside appellation is right beside Bandol.
Here, the vineyards are located on little hills and cliffs facing the sea. Mountains on all three sides form barriers against cold winds from the north, but enjoy a nice breeze from the Mediterranean. Also a common sight around these parts: garrigue. These scrubby little bushes made up of resinous herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme, and oregano dot the landscape, and most of Southern France for that matter.
Based off of Clairette and Marsanne, these wines have plenty of sugar ripeness from the warm climate. High sugar levels turn into high alcohols and fuller body, but with great acidity. This is helped by the higher elevations the grapes are planted at, making them natural matches for anything plucked out of the water.
With a full body and high acidity, you can expect crisp stone fruit flavours like peach, apricot, white flowers, herbs, and a nice Muscadet like salt spray note to round out these wines. Once again, you can’t go wrong drinking these wines with anything caught in the nearby ocean.
Bandol AOP Wines
Right beside Cassis is the famed area of Bandol. Producing roses as well, their bread and butter are their red wines. With a similar landscape, Bandol vineyards are carved into the steep cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.
Higher elevations keep things nice and even, without over ripening the grapes, and locking in acidity. As it’s right beside Cassis, the amphitheater like effect from the surrounding mountains help to keep cold and strong northern winds at bay.
This feature is more predominant in Bandol, as the area is particularly famous for its wrap around and coliseum like appearance.
In any case, the mainstay grape is Mourvedre, one of the secondary blending grapes of the Rhone Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon. Here, it makes up minimum 50% of the blend, with Grenache and Cinsaut rounding things out. This makes Bandol so interesting in that it puts the Mourvedre grape, usually playing second fiddle, the breakout grape of the blend.
The resulting wines are deep, rich, spicy, and very earthy, some very typical notes of Mourvedre wines. They can last for decades in a cellar if stored right, thanks to their minimum 18 months in oak beforehand.
Unlike your typical Provencal fare, seafood is not the way to go with wines like Bandol. Look to the Rhone Valley or even Spain for inspiration, such as lamb stew, braised beef, or thick cuts of steak to match the tannic and savoury Bandol red wines.
Cotes de Provence AOP Wines
On the far eastern side is the catch all appellation for Provence. The Cotes encompasses a way bigger area than the previous two, and offers a mix of red, white, and rose wines for purchase. In fact, this particular AOP is flirting with 75% of total production coming out of the entire Provence area.
Because the area is so large, the landscape varies quite a bit: stretching from coastal vineyards to rocky, inland and mountainous ones, the Cotes has quite a bit of diversity. Because of this, a wide range of grape varietals are used including Carignan, Cinsaut, Syrah, Rolle, and even some Cabernet Sauvignon.
With rose making up the bulk of this areas production, chances are any Cotes de Provence wines you see will be just that, and probably held in one of the quirky bottles used in the area.
The scrubby garrigue brushes follow the wine route along the coast, and are plentiful here too, and of course their flavours find their way into the wine. Known for their delicate and light flavours, Provence roses differ from others, especially in France, from this light body. For a quick refresher on how rose is made, check this article out.
These dry roses and pressed very gently, making their colour even paler than usual. Compared to the nearby Rhone Valley, whose famous Tavel appellation is so dark it is almost full on red. While this does effect intensity of flavour, there is no shortage in Provence rose.
Preferring to go the light and crisp route, these wines are all about being refreshing. High acid and light red fruit like cherry and rhubarb mix with aromatic herbs and are the perfect answer to a warm lazy day. Their light body and good acidity also makes them such great matches to the huge array of foods in the area like cured meats, seafood, garlic based dishes or sauce like aioli, or even to just sip on its own instead of a beer.
With a great mix of wine styles, Provence has so much more than just rose. But, if that’s all you drank from the area you couldn’t go wrong either way. Check out the value priced selection from France’s oldest vineyards today, and see what all the fuss is about.