A château and vineyards in Provence. Photo by EmDee on Wikipedia. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.
Due to its many beautiful palaces and buildings, amazing green landscapes, impressive rock quarries, and scenic beaches, the Provence region is a major tourist attraction. Provence's history runs concurrently with a long pedigree of fine wines. As a result of Provence's varied history, the wines produced there are diverse. Nowadays most attention is focused on rosés, but there are also plenty of good reds.
Southern French wine is growing in popularity as people begin to look for less expensive but still high-status alternatives to the more conventional, often pricey wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. And Provence is one of the major appellations of France for truly inexpensive wines; they are not $20, but more like $10-$12.
Provence has a long, colorful history, first having been planted by the Greeks back in 600 B.C. Due to its location, Provence was owned by various countries throughout history. As a result of this heritage there exists a potpourri of winemaking traditions in the area, and this explains the diversity of the wines.
The Provence region was hit hard by the phylloxera epidemic, which wiped out many excellent plantings. However, after replanting the region gradually began to thrive again, although it is said that if the phylloxera epidemic had not occurred the wine would be much more prestigious than it is today. In the 1930s and 1940s many of Provence's AOCs were created; the remainder were formed between 1977 and 1995.
Climate and Viticulture
Provence has a Mediterranean climate similar to that of many Italian regions. The weather is warm, with mild winters and balmy summers. There is also very little rainfall. Provence is more similar to Tuscany than to Bordeaux in terms of climate. Within France, it is very similar to the Languedoc and Roussillon regions and somewhat similar to the Rhône.
Another factor in the Provence climate is the mistral, the powerful wind that occurs especially strongly in that region. The mistral often acts as a natural selector, simply blowing away thin and unhealthy vines, but it can also adversely impact production.
Soils in Provence generally vary as much as they do in the rest of France, ranging from sandstone and clay on mainland plains to limestone on river embankments. This explains why there are so many different types of wines that can be produced in the region.
The problem with white wines in the region is that most white grapes simply cannot produce good results in regions this warm. However, a few white grapes do well under the hot sun, such as Italian grapes Trebbiano and Vermentino, as well as Rhône varieties like Roussanne.
There is much more diversity among red grape varieties. The five red grapes commonly seen in the Languedoc are popular here too: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, and Carignan. In fact, Mourvèdre, usually just a blending grape, makes its best varietal wines in this area.
The largest and most wide-ranging producers of this region include La Bastide Blanche, Château Calissanne, Commanderie de Peyrassol, Mas de Gourgonnier, Miraval, Domaines Ott, Château Pradeaux, Revelette, Domaine Richeaume, Domaine Sorin, and Domaine Tempier. Smaller producers sometimes offer higher quality and/or more reliable wines, but their wines can be more difficult to find and also more expensive.
Notably, Provence also has a producer-based classification of 18 winemakers whose quality is estimated to be higher than normal in the region. Created in 1955, this is the only official producer-based classification in France besides those of Bordeaux. The list follows.
- Domaine de l'Aumérade
- Château de Brégançon
- Domaine de Castel Roubine
- Domaine de la Clapière
- Clos Cibonne
- Clos Mireille
- Domaine de la Croix
- Château du Galoupet
- Domaine de Mauvanne
- Château Minuty
- Domaine du Noyer
- Domaine de Rimaurescq
- Château de St-Martin
- Château de St-Maur
- Château Ste-Roseline
- Château de Selle
- Domaine de la Source Ste-Marguerite
There is no Provence AOC, but the appellation has nine official designated subregions, which are listed here below:
- Bandol: Located near the Mediterranean coast, Bandol is possibly Provence's most famous appellation. The wines are made from eight villages, all with high-quality vineyards; the wines can be red or rosé, and are required to be made up of at least 50% Mourvèdre. Flavors of black fruit and game characterize the distinctly dark, alluring red wines. The rosés are less distinctive, but easier to drink, with flavors of strawberry fruit.
- Les Baux de Provence: This region encompasses some of the most hot and inhospitable land in Provence, but due to the efforts of many committed producers, the region has become cutting-edge. Named after the village where many of its wines are made, this appellation was originally part of Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, but was split off as its own AOC in 1995. These wines are blends that may include two or more of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carignan. Biodynamic viticulture is used here.
- Bellet: This small appellation is closer to Italy than France in terms of the styles of the wine made. Made generally from Vermentino, these whites are classy and unique, but very expensive. The eponymous château is one of the best producers. Reds and rosés are also made here.
- Cassis: The oldest appellation in Provence, and the best for white wine. The limestone soils in this appellation's villages, which are near the coast, make Marsanne and Trebbiano serious stars here. These wines derive power from their unique herbal flavors rather than their acidity. Also some good rosés. Domaine du Bagnol is one of the top producers for white and rosé.
- Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence: The second largest Provence wine appellation includes vineyards in over 50 villages, centered around the town of Aix-en-Provence, which is a major hub for finance and tourism in the region. The powerful wines are made from Rhône grapes in combination with Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet, which has been in the region since the 1960s, makes characterful wines with a modern, international flavor. Many grapes are used for the white wines, but they are significantly less common.
- Coteaux de Pierrevert: Made into an AOC in 1998, Pierrevert is an obscure, underrated Provence appellation. Although it encompasses about a dozen villages, the appellation is small, and is a dark horse of Provence because the vineyards are cooler, with unusual marl soils. Together, Grenache and Syrah are required to make up 70% of the reds, while Trebbiano and Vermentino are the major grapes for white wine.
- Coteaux Varois: This mountainous region is cooler than the others in climate; it encompasses much of the interior part of the Provence region, with no vineyards on the coast. Since being made an AOC in 1993, Coteaux Varois has become a major appellation in the region. White wine is unpopular, but red wines from the typical Provence grapes are good, and rosés from the same grapes--GSM with some Cinsaut or Carignan, usually--are even better.
- Côtes de Provence: Côtes de Provence is by far the largest appellation in Provence, with a whopping 85 communes in which the wine can be made. As a result, the region is effectively "Provence AOC", and encompasses both bottom-of-the-barrel offerings and some excellent cuvées. Almost all the wines are rosés.
- Palette: Located slightly to the east of the Aix-en-Provence appellation, this tiny region was made into an AOC in 1948. Limestone-based soils and warm weather in the climate make for Rhône-like red wines, often made from the GSM grapes. They must be at least half Grenache; whites are usually made up of Clairette. Château Simone has a near-monopoly on the region's land, and charges high prices for the wines.