Szabo’s Free Run – The Provençal AdvantageDecember 17, 2015
Text and photographs by John Szabo, MS with Bill Zacharkiw
Even in November, tender sunlight casts a warm, honeyed-pastel glow on the limestone-hewn houses liberally sprinkled on the craggy hills that tumble from Haute Provence down to the Côte d’Azur. The magic hour for painters and photographers stretches well past sunrise and sunset; the clarity and angle of light is nearly always perfect. Temperatures hover in the comforting early 20s, while soft breezes dance down from Alpine highlands or waft inland from the Mediterranean, floating scents of wild mint, lavender, pine needles and mimosas. It’s not hard to imagine what has attracted everyone from early Greeks and Romans to Renoir, Monet, Matisse, Brigitte Bardot and Brangelina. Only sporadic torrential downpours dampen Provence’s perfect year-round climate, channeled by the region’s success – measured in concrete and asphalt – into occasionally deadly flows.
From the beginning of recorded history, the southeast corner of France nestled between the Alps, the Mediterranean and the Rhône River, know to the Romans as Provincia Romana, has produced wine, which is among the only crops, along with olives and aromatic plants for perfumes, which thrive in these arid, rocky soils. And rosé wine in particular, it is argued, was a staple from the beginning, although the same is likely true of most of the ancient world’s wines, made from field blends of grapes of all hues. But that Provence today has staked its reputation on pale, shimmering, ethereal pink wine is beyond question; nearly 90% of regional output, and 95% of exports, is labeled rosé. There is no other region in the world so devoted to it.
The modern Provençal obsession with rosé is traced, perhaps apocryphally, to film star Brigitte Bardot, who put Saint Tropez on the map in the 1960s. The Hollywood bombshell and party girl apparently had a distaste for astringent wines, and local vignerons vying for her attention made every effort to craft the lightest, most delicate wines possible. White wine would have been most logical, but considering there was only a tiny percentage of white grapes planted in the region (and still today less than 10%), the only option was to use red grapes. They had to be treated very gently, without maceration (which extracts both colour and tannins that lead to astringency). And voilà, light-bodied, very pale rosé was born. Bardot was pleased; her glamorous star power made success immediate.
From the 1960s on, the production of rosé de Provence steadily increased. Bardot’s personal preferences aside, it makes sense to be sipping light, dry, chilled rosé in a warm climate with classic dishes from the Mediterranean repertoire, heavily axed on seafood and fresh vegetables. Tourism also increased exponentially – just try to find a parking spot on the banks of the vast river of cars and people streaming into Saint Tropez on a July or August day – and the majority of wineries enjoyed a near-inexhaustible local market. There was little incentive to push the boundaries of quality or seek export markets. Rosé de Provence soon became synonymous with seaside summer holidays, frivolous and easy-drinking, more fun than serious, released for Valentine’s Day and best drunk before the autumn equinox.
The message couldn’t have been more simple, and more effective – there was nothing to “get” with rosé, no reason to apologize for not understanding nuances of terroir or technique.
It was just a wine to drink and enjoy, and a great deal of profit was made from this image. There is nearly twice as much rosé consumed in France today as white wine, 30% vs. 17% of total wine consumption.
But advantages can quickly turn into challenges, and the easy marketing dream of Provençal rosé would eventually also clip its wings, limiting its potential to be taken seriously. Prejudices in the wine world die hard.
And at the same time it wouldn’t take long for other regions, within France and beyond, to muscle in on Provence’s success, offering less expensive alternatives to consumers hoping to relive those seaside memories in the south of France.
According to the latest statistics provided by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence (CIVP), worldwide consumption of rosé is up 11% in the last 8 years. Only 5.6% of world rosé production comes from Provence, which is still significant, but competition is increasing. More than half of worldwide rosé production is now modeled after the Provençal style: pale and dry (technically with less than 4 grams of residual sugar). It’s a direct attack.
So with the specter of declining overall consumption in France, and ever-more competitive export markets, action was required. It was time to start making more serious rosé. And to the region’s credit, they’ve done just that. “Quality has risen significantly in the last decade”, Chef de Projet Natalie Pouzalgues of the Centre du Rosé tells me. And the technical improvements have much to do with Pouzalgues and the Centre du Rosé, a research institute created in 1999, conceived and supported by the CIVP, as well as the Chamber of Agriculture and L’Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV), with the express goal of improving the general quality and typicity of Provence’s rosés.
Ongoing research has been aimed at providing winegrowers with the means to produce top quality, age-worthy rosé, which can comfortably sit at the table at any time of year and accompany a broad range of cuisines. The impact has been seen at all levels, with most of the bottom end now at the very least respectable, and the top end highly admirable.
But ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to quality production remains the market perception of rosé, especially that it must be drunk as young as possible. On this recent visit, many wineries related their woes regarding their importers, who want the wines to arrive by February after harvest. That means bottling in early January at the very latest, more often in December. “It’s impossible to make stable wine that quickly”, Laurence Berlemont, a top consultant for several wineries with the Cabinet d’Agromnomie Provençal, tells me, “without stripping the heart out of it”. Heavy fining, cold stabilization and sterile filtration are regular practices to drive wine into bottle before its due time. All quality wine, rosé included, requires patience to naturally stabilize and develop.
Most winegrowers in the quality game insist that their wines don’t begin to reach peak until at least June or July, or later. An illuminating vertical rosé tasting at Saint André de Figuière, reaching back to 2003 (out of magnum, to be fair), revealed that carefully made rosé can not only survive, but even improve after several years of bottle age.
But it will take a massive cultural shift to convince consumers that drinking a 2014 rosé on Valentine’s Day 2016 is the smarter thing to do.
Do I believe that all rosé producers should concentrate on making only expensive, age-worthy wines? Of course not. There’s something infinitely attractive about a breezy glass of rosé on a summer terrace. But just as there are both frivolous and serious whites and reds, rosé shouldn’t be relegated exclusively to the frivolous category. And I’d be very wary about any wine that reaches the market before it is six months old.
The Provençal Advantage
When it comes to quality rosé production, Provence retains one significant advantage over the rest of the world.
The entire region, and all its tangle of appellation regulations in the bureaucratic Gallic style, has one principal focus: making rosé. Very good red and white are of course produced, but the vast majority of vineyards are conceived, planted and managed, harvest dates are timed, and production methods are tuned exclusively to making a singular style of rosé. This stands in sharp contrast to the vast majority of rosés produced elsewhere, which are, by and large, an afterthought of red wine production, made using a method called saignée.
Saignée-style rosé is made from grapes grown and harvested with the aim of making red wine. Grapes are crushed and put into tanks, and a short while later, a small percentage of the juice is siphoned off (or bled off, hence saignée, meaning “bleeding”). Short skin contact gives this juice a light red or rosé colour, and fermentation continues on as for white wine. The rest of the tank continues on the red wine production track, with the added advantage that the increased skin-to-juice ratio results in greater concentration and structure. The downside is that the bled off rosé is often out of balance, soupy, overripe, alcoholic (or sweet). The ideal ripeness for reds and rosés is never the same, especially if your aim is to make a delicate, elegant pink. To make great rosé is technically demanding. As one winegrower put it, “making good rosé is like watching a Chinese acrobat: it looks very easy to do, but in reality it’s very tough.”
The Classic Style
Provence rosés are blends, based for the most part on grenache for body and fruit, and cinsault for freshness, delicacy and low alcohol, which together usually represent at least half the mix. Syrah (perfume, colour), and carignan, mourvèdre and cabernet sauvignon (acid, structure) complement in varying proportions, depending on vineyard location and house style, and up to 20% of white rolle (aka vermentino) can be co-fermented.
By definition, under the AOPs Côtes de Provence, Coteaux d’Aix en Provence and Coteaux Varois, wines are dry (any rosés with more than 4 grams of sugar fall under generic regional designations), and are invariably pale, delicate and perfumed, with fresh but gentle acids. Alcohol rarely exceeds 13%. And while technical advancements may have been adopted too enthusiastically in the early days (carbon filtering to strip colour, obsessive exclusion of oxygen and use of aromatic yeasts to produce candied bonbon Anglais or grapefruity, sauvignon-like aromas), the best Provençal rosés are transparent expressions of place and grapes, produced carefully, but without artifice.
The Regional Nuances
With their distinctive regional character, rosés from all over Provence stand out from those made outside the region. But investigate a little more deeply within the AOPs of Provence itself, and nuanced differences between them begin to emerge. Vineyards in Haute Provence, for example, experience much sharper temperature swings compared to those near the coast, effectively cut off from the moderating effects of the sea by a series of mountain ridges like the Montagne Sainte-Victoire and the Massif des Maures. The climate is far more continental and harvest begins up to three weeks later. Mourvèdre struggles to ripen inland, while syrah bakes on the coast.
Provence also straddles Europe and Africa, tectonically speaking, with a clear fault line separating limestone-based France, on the Eurasian tectonic plate, from the metamorphic-igneous-volcanic geologies of the African plate. Mimosas and cork oaks proliferate in the coastal area based on schist and volcanic soils, but do not grow at all in the calcareous interior. The Centre du Rosé has undertaken to understand the real impact of such dramatic terroir differences on wine style, with much more to do. The point is that even within the seemingly homogenous family of rosé de Provence, there are measurable differences, whose nuances a growing number of sub-appellations attempt to reflect. Will wine writers and sommeliers one day be enthusiastically speaking about rosés de terroir, the way they dissect Burgundy and Bordeaux?
Purpose-grown rosé from a great site, rendered authentically, is great wine. It’s amazingly versatile at the table (try it with your roasted turkey), can be enjoyed relatively young and can develop intriguing character with a few years in the cellar. It should be taken seriously. And if it happens to conjure up happy holiday memories, images of azur seas and honey-coloured houses in the fading light of a summer’s eve, then so much the better.
Buyers’ Guide: Rosé de Provence
Château La Lieue 2014 Rosé Tradition, Coteaux Varois en Provence
La Lieue is a reliable, fine value name in the region, with Julien, the 5th generation in place at the chateau. Vineyards are in one of the coolest areas in the Var départment, where harvest can stretch into November. The top parcels are extraordinarily stony, pure limestone. The Tradition rosé, composed of cinsault and grenache, is relatively pale in colour, gentle, and brightly fruity, ready for drinking on release.
Château Léoube 2014 Rosé, Côtes de Provence
Château Léoube is one of the most spectacular properties in Provence, with 65 certified organic hectares of vines set on 560 hectares of protected Mediterranean scrubland and olive groves virtually right on the coast, in the La Londe sub-appellation. Wines are made by Romain Ott, originally of the widely admired Domaine Ott, before it was bought from his family. This is the mid-tier rosé of the winery made with grenache and cinsault with a complement of syrah and mourvèdre. Uniquely, this is not designed for maximum aromatics: it’s fermented at “normal” temperatures (not ultra cold like many), with some oxygen contact, and put through full malolactic. The result is a rosé with uncommon succulence and depth, fully dry but focused on abundant and pure fruit. It’s the sort of wine that invites sip after sip with its saline edge and crisp acids – a genuine hit of umami. Available in Ontario from The Living Vine.
Domaine du Deffends Rosé d’une Nuit 2014, Coteaux Varois en Provence
A fine property first planted in 1967, originally a hunting reserve, with slightly warmer climate than is typical in the Coteaux Varois in an area referred to locally as “Le petit Nice”. 15 hectares of vines are certified organic. This equal parts grenache and cinsault rosé is fine and succulent, firm and fresh, notably salty, stylish and pure.
Château La Tour de l’Evêque Pétale de Rose 2014, Côtes de Provence
Régine Soumeire is one of Provence’s Grandes Dames, from the 3rd generation to run this property acquired in the 1930s (she also owns the excellent Château Barbeyrolles). 64 hectares are farmed organically in the Pierrefeu sub-appellation in haute Provence, with an average vine age of 25 years. Pétale de rosé is the top cuvée of the estate, from schist and clay-limestone soils, hand harvested, and whole bunch pressed in a champagne press. It’s composed of eight grapes, driven by grenache and cinsault, and crafted in the typical very pale Provençal style, but with uncommon depth and intensity, as well as length, with great palate presence. A classic, classy rosé, with very good to excellent length.
Other Highly Recommended Producers:
Owner-winemaker Peter Fischer is one of Provence’s great, iconoclastic winemakers, farming 24 hectares in the upper Coteaux d’Aix en Provence organically (and with biodynamic principles) since 1990. The climate is as extreme as the approach, and yields are very low. An exceptional range in white, pink and red includes unsulphured, natural “PUR” (Produit Uniquement de Raisins – “made exclusively from grapes”, that is, with no additions) grenache and carignan; whites are fermented in concrete egg. Le Grand Rouge is one of the region’s finest reds.
40 hectares of organic, isolated vineyards in the Coteaux d’Aix appellation yield a tidy range of white, red and rosé. Entry-level Les Béatines rosé fits the Provençal model, while the estate rosé, an unusual pure syrah, is deeper, almost like a pale red, well-structured, designed for enjoying after a year or two in bottle at least.
Very fine and elegant wines from the La Londe sub-appellation, certified organic. Estate rosé is arch-classic; Cuvée #8 rosé offers an additional dimension and terrific complexity. Reds are also a house specialty, based on finesse and freshness, including excellent Bagnard cuvée, equal measures of syrah, cabernet and mourvèdre.
A family estate led by Francois Combard, whose father worked with Michel Laroche in Chablis until 1992 when he purchased this property in La Londe, already certified organic since 1978. The terroir is very poor, almost pure high acid schists, and the house style is unsurprisingly very Chablisienne, which is to say focused on freshness in a reductive style, with impressively ageworthy rosé, well-structured and dense.
Domaines Ott (Château de Selle and Clos Mireille)
Domaines Ott consists of three separate and exceptional estates, Château de Selle for reds and rosés in Haute Provence, Clos Mireille for whites in La Londe, and Château Romassan for reds and rosés in Bandol, now owned by Champagne Roederer. Rosés are in the very top echelon of quality.
Domaine du Clos de La Procure (Négociant Dupéré-Barrera)
A quality-focused micro-négociant operation with a small property in Côtes de Provence, the Clos de La Procure. The large range is highly competent across the board, made in a minimalist style, with low sulphur, vibrant acids and fresh fruit flavours, more textural than aromatic. Intriguing “Nowat” cuvée is produced without the use of electricity.
Esclans is Bordelais Sasha Lichine’s extreme property in the Fréjus sub-appellation of Côtes de Provence, employing the most impressive technology in southern France including optical sorting machine and individual temperature control for every barrel. Barrel-fermented Garrus is Provence’s most expensive rosé, concentrated, very ripe (14% alcohol is normal), with a high percentage of rolle blended with grenache, designed to impress. Whispering Angel is the highly successful “entry-level” rosé.
A 60 hectare domaine near Pignans in the Var, making dynamic wines of great vibrancy in the tight and reductive style.
Wines from an exceptional terroir in the Esclans Valley and its volcanic soils, near Fréjus. Certified organic.
An elegant château by the sea in Bormes-Les-Mimosas, in the La Londe sub-appellation, with wines to match.
Fine wines from La Londe with the extra dimension of the top level.
That’s all for this Free Run. See you over the next (old) bottle.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
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