Provence Wine Regions Guide
More than Rosé, It's a Symphony of Sights, Aromas, and Timeless Wines
Last updated: November 24, 2023
It’s a heady experience to stand in Provence and savor the sights and smells of one of the world’s most beautiful parts. The region’s wines invoke everything the south of France is famous for – a lust for life and endless warmth. Yet no vineyard has been pigeonholed and misrepresented quite like Provence. Indeed, for many wine lovers, its sole contribution to the world is gallons (and we mean gallons!) of rosé: quaffable and instantly forgotten.
How little they know. Provence has reinvented itself in the last 15 years and continues to do so, producing age-worthy red and white wines in addition to the commercially important rosé. In addition, once underperforming appellations have been revitalized in recent years as the emerging generation continues to innovate, the number of exciting, high-quality small producers has quadrupled since the early 2000s. Meanwhile, Provence’s vivid landscapes and historic villages are as captivating as ever. Most famously, painters such as Van Gogh and Picasso were inspired by Provence’s luminous light and brilliant colors. We guarantee you will be, too.
Winemaking and regional classifications
Provence has long been associated with large volumes of easy-drinking rosé produced to appease sun-seeking visitors. Yet a tangible cynicism was apparent in the 20th century: the assumption was that tourists were easy to please, so producers churned out vast quantities of over-strong and coarse rosé that lacked finesse. Happily, many small properties are now vinifying smaller quantities of rosé wines with real flair and style, and the quality has never been higher. Today, Provencal rosé is carefully made, intriguing, aromatic, and dry enough to be the perfect foil to the garlic-based dishes that typify local cuisine. However, while rosé remains Provence’s mainstay of wine production, exciting reds, and some very well-made whites have emerged in recent years. They are made with skill and panache – whites are often subject to protective handling and fermented in stainless steel, yielding a fresh and fruity expression of the terroir. But experimentation with terracotta and other vessels grows yearly, while top Provencal reds smell of garrigue, pine, and ripe summer fruits.
Nevertheless, there is some confusion about how rosé is made: is it based on a specific type of grape? Rosé is generally produced from red grape varieties, with a brief maceration used to extract the minimum color from the skins before the wine is fermented. We can think of rosé as a hybrid, borrowing vinification techniques commonly employed in red-and-white production. As a rule, Provencal rosés are blends, most commonly a concoction of Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvedre. Historically, many wineries relied on the cheap (but effective) saignée method: red grapes are fermented in the standard way before a percentage of wine, light in color and tannin, is drained off the tank. Winemakers refer to this process as ‘bleeding .’This mixture of must and wine will then undergo a quick fermentation before it is filtered, chilled, and bottled. It yields a deeply colored style of rosé with greater phenolic extraction. In the wrong hands, though, it can produce very clumsy wine.
For that reason, many leading brands favor the press wine method. This involves a very limited period of skin contact as the berries are pressed in a (normally) cylindrical device, releasing a very pure and pale juice that is chilled, runoff, and then fermented in stainless steel – or possibly concrete. Different rosé wines are then blended to produce the final product before it is filtered and bottled. The most prestigious cuvées are often matured in barrique, adding structure, texture, and depth to the wine. Château d’Esclans’ Garrus is one of the most famous examples. Expensive, but worth every penny.
Geography and terroir
Without question, Provence is a remarkably diverse and expansive vineyard. The area under vine begins just east of Arles and ends in the commune of Seillans – over 230 km between them! Yet there is also a small region found to the north of Nice, bordered by St-Romans-de-Bellet. Indeed, you’ll discover vineyards planted on the limestone flanks of the Montagne Ste-Victoire and along the coastline; much of the acreage is situated inland, and vines bask in a very warm Mediterranean climate with scant rainfall during the summer. However, many of the most coveted terroirs are found at higher altitudes, where diurnal temperature variation is significant. This considerable difference between day and night temperatures enables growers to craft fresh, modern-style whites that rival the best of neighboring Languedoc.
In the 20th century, rosé was considered a fun and frivolous drink that could never be taken seriously. The world of fine wine, dominated by Bordeaux and Burgundy, would never countenance paying lavish sums for a category that was easy to produce and sell. Yet there is no objective metric with which we can exclude rosé from this expanding club. The best examples are complex and structured wines – a far cry from the quaffable stereotype that persists in some quarters today.
Fortunately, many wineries in Provence are challenging this ‘pink prejudice.’ Sacha Lichine started the ball rolling, unveiling the inaugural vintage of Garrus (2006) to critical acclaim in 2007. However, some trade members were blindsided by this super-expensive (by traditional standards) cuvée – would consumers pay over $100 for a bottle of rosé? As it turns out, they would: Garrus is now one of Provence’s most loved and famous brands, with allocations to different markets selling out quickly upon release. Moreover, Garrus is not simply a case of slick marketing done with panache. Like all fine wines, it owes its complexity to the terroir: old Grenache bush vines grown in the most favored sites in Provence, cultivated on mineral-rich calcareous soils. The result is a rosé of unprecedented depth and elegance, redolent with the smells of Provencal garrigue, lavender, and red fruits. The time spent in new French oak adds welcome structure and texture to the wine, imbuing it with great length and weight. In every sense of the word, Garrus is a fine wine.
Of course, Sacha Lichine is not the only mover and shaker in Provence wine circles. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie partnered with Château Miraval, they kick-started a revolution in how rosé is perceived. Indeed, the inaugural vintage of Miraval Rosé sold out almost immediately, as celebrity merged with shrewd marketing to create an astonishingly powerful brand. But most important, the wine is excellent: all soft red fruits and mango/passion fruit on the palate.
Meanwhile, Provencal white (and red) wines are winning countless awards as investment continues to flow into the region. Once upon a time, Provence was considered a ‘tourist vineyard,’ driven by commercial cynicism and a distinct lack of ambition. Yet we have witnessed a dramatic change over the past decade, with many quality-conscious winemakers bringing a new focus to meticulous grape growing and expressing their terroirs’ potential. This generation wants Provence to be taken seriously as a major source of fine wine. We wish them bon chance.
The best way to experience Provence’s rich food culture is to visit one of the many food markets. Nice and Marseille would be our two favorites, where stallholders sell fresh lavender, braided pink garlic, peppers, eggplants, zucchini, and wild mushrooms. Meanwhile, coastal Provence offers a never-ending supply of mussels, oysters, langoustines and clams. But for many visitors, bouillabaisse is the region’s greatest gastronomic achievement. It is a fish soup consisting of an assortment of local seafood, but almost always mullet, snapper, and monkfish cooked in a tomato, saffron, and olive oil broth. The intensity of flavor has to be experienced to be believed.
Settled over the centuries by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Moors, and Ligurians, Provence is no stranger to invited – and uninvited – guests. Historians believe the Greeks and Phoenicians were the region’s first winegrowers, made possible after Greek mariners established a trading port in Massilia (modern-day Marseille). Yet they could not offer sufficient resistance against the Romans, who conquered Gaul in the last century BC. This vast territory, called Provincia Romana, encompassed the southern reaches of the Alps, the Mediterranean, and the Rhone River to the north. It was a glorious province, rich in natural resources, and strategically important.
The Romans held onto this enviable prize for over four centuries. But, as the Western Empire weakened, the vultures closed in. Rome’s power collapsed in AD 476, as the Visigoths, Vandals, and Ostrogoths from northern Europe lay claim to its territories in western Europe. Provence was invaded several times in the so-called Dark Ages (the period following Rome’s disintegration), and it appeared that the Visigoths would seize power for a time. However, the Visigoths weren’t the only rising power in the west. In the 5th century, Clovis I was crowned king of the Franks – his armies pushed the Visigoths into Spain, claiming Provence as a sovereign Frankish territory. The Franks remained dominant in European politics for over six centuries until their rivals, the Carolingians, took control.
However, the true masters of Provence had yet to reveal themselves. During the 14th century, the Catholic Church moved its headquarters from Rome to Avignon, thus beginning the most important period in the region’s history. A succession of French-born popes took great interest in reviving local viticulture, albeit their love for the wines of Burgundy is legendary. Meanwhile, Provence’s contribution to art and culture grew constantly; Provencal became France’s literary language in the 1100s. This complex dialect, which remains in use today, also spread to northern Spain and Italy. Nevertheless, papal supremacy weakened in the 14th century, and Provence became part of a unified French state in 1481. Only Avignon and Carpentras managed to keep their independence – this ended after the French Revolution.
In the 19th century, Provence’s reputation as a major rosé producer became cemented across Europe. The industry was thriving until the phylloxera louse (inadvertently imported from the US) devastated vineyards across the region. The only solution was to regraft European vines into American rootstock, as US-based vines had developed a resistance. Thus, a massive replanting program occurred in the early 20th century, with high-yielding varieties and clones prioritized over quality. Such is the reality of the economic misery inflicted upon growers in the early part of the last century. Yet when Côtes de Provence was recognized as a Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) in 1951, Provence was getting its mojo back and was promoted to full appellation status in 1977; the area benefited enormously from rising tourism and investment. However, too much rosé was (aggressively) alcoholic and poorly made until pioneers like Sacha Lichine decided to shake Provence out of its inertia. Arriving in Provence full of passion and drive (Lichine sold his father’s property in Margaux), he created one of France’s most successful brands: Whispering Angel. But more importantly, Lichine encouraged higher standards, replacing rustic winemaking with fruit-forward rosés that offer enticing aromatics and freshness. Provence has not looked back.
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