The landscape of Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence is as enchanting and beguiling as the town itself – Aix-en-Provence is always on every visitor’s to-do list. With over 30,000 students and a famous university, Aix is full with a surfeit of attractions – both hedonistic and cultural. It is a chic and elegant destination that also serves as the perfect springboard for exploring the sizable Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence appellation.
Today, the appellation remains the second biggest in Provence, situated in the western section of the wider region. Vineyards spread out in a north, south and westerly direction from the town; the largest swathe is to the north-west of Aix-en-Provence, with the town of Senas marking the end of the designation’s boundaries. Vineyards are located along the Durance River, which winds its way towards the Mediterranean and on the lower slopes of the Sainte-Victoire mountain range; they also surround the lagoon ‘Etang de Berre.’ Like many of Provence’s winemaking villages and communes, the contemporary industry owes its origins to ancient explorers – the Greeks (who arrived in 600 BC), then the Romans, and subsequently a whole host of Mediterranean powers who wished to claim Provence as their own. Established as common practice by the Greeks, viticulture thrived for centuries across the region. However, the phylloxera louse did not spare Provence’s vineyards when it reached Europe in the late 19th century. Replanting vines on (disease resistant) American rootstocks saved France’s wine industry from annihilation, and Provence subsequently began to recover in the early 1900s.
Indeed, 21st century Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence has a burgeoning self-confidence that is infectious. Experimentation with different varieties/blends is actively encouraged in the region; to a far greater extent than in Bordeaux and Champagne for example, where the grape varieties used in blends are tightly regulated and considered sacrosanct. There are approximately 4,000 hectares under vine, which enables growers to make about 27 million bottles per annum. The appellation contains a healthy mix of family concerns and cooperatives, with relatively few poor or lazy producers. It is also a fairly young designation, having being created in 1985.
Yet it would be all too easy to produce mediocre wine in this corner of France. Basking in the benign Mediterranean climate, vines in Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence are very cosseted. The vines enjoy, on average, over 3,000 sunshine hours per year and long, dry, leisurely summer days, growers in the appellation are rarely concerned with rain during harvest. Grapevine diseases that often provide major headaches in Champagne and the Loire are largely absent. However, the challenge not just for Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence but the entire region is to avoid overripeness and making blowsy wines. With little effort, growers can make drinkable but utterly anonymous bottles of alcoholic plonk. A small percentage of the region’s output does fall into this category – thankfully, there is a far greater number of wines that are eliciting excitement from critics and consumers. Drawing on a diverse palette of grape varieties, producers now market an eclectic range of wines, from aromatic rose to potent and fiery Grenache-dominant blends. Rose constitutes over 80% of the region’s total production, while reds increasingly account for over 12%.
The best wines understandably come from the superior vineyard sites. In Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, vineyards qualify for ‘grand cru’ status if they’re found in the Var department, which enjoys a cooler micro-climate. The Saint-Victoire mountain range helps to moderate the summer heat, aided by the all-important Mistral wind, which crops up frequently in discussions about local terroir. The winds emanating from the north, are an essential aspect of the quality factor in the appellation, helping to smooth out the harshest edges of growing-season temperatures, which can reach over 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, rainfall is typically sparse, occurring in the spring and fall months.
This brings us nicely on to the subject of soil variation. When rainfall is not freely distributed, vines rely on the water retention capabilities of the soil, ideally served by the abundance of clay/limestone across the appellation. Offering both a porous and permeable subsoil, calcareous terroir is ideal for both red and white varieties in a Mediterranean climate. In other parts of the zone, growers cultivate on more sandy soils, while loamy soils containing a mix of clay, sand, and silt particles are typically found on the elevated terraces of the Arc and the Durance River.
In that sense, the grape varieties used in the final blend are arguably less important than the vineyard site. Red and rose wines are made from a combination of varieties, which may include Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, Mourvedre, and the local Counoise. White wines tend to be multi-grape blends, which can utilize Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Semillion. But a Grenache/Syrah blend produced from grapes grown on sandy soils will be a world apart from a similar wine that utilizes vineyards on higher ground, planted on calcareous soils. In any case, there is a minefield of quality for the wine enthusiast to explore. The most exciting wines tend to be made by passionate individuals, often first- or second-generation wine producers who would, in another age, have pursued easier professions. But Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence is continuing to draw-in raw talent from across Europe, justifying its reputation as one of the most dynamic and exciting appellations in Provence.