May 2023 - Provence, France

May 2023 - Provence, France

May 2023

Provence, France


La Bastide des Oliviers

Château Sainte Anne


Provence may seem like a one-trick pony when it comes to wine… I say Provence, you think Provençal Rosé. Well, you aren’t totally off base but it definitely isn’t the only thing coming out of the sunny Côte d'Azur. As a region, Provence is the #1 producer in France and practically synonymous with the salmon-hued, strawberry-noted wine that we’ve all known to love and enjoy. And yes, you can guess my next words are ‘but there’s so much more!!’. And they are. However, I’m not just going to launch in to alternatives because 1) history lessons are fun and 2) Provençal Rosé is absolutely delicious and we’re not just going to gloss over it this month in lieu of some hip alternatives. That would be absurd.

So, first, a history lesson on Rosé.

Rosé as a notable style, is a relatively new phenomenon when you look at the 8000 year history of wine. It’s hard to pinpoint who exactly made the first pink wine and likened it to a rose petal, but some estimates are that the first commercial production came about in the early 1900s. Some say it was Tavel being granted AOC status in 1936 that marked the first stamp of approval being given to the style. Others say it was Domaine Ott in 1938 who exported wine to the US that ignited the sparks of the trend. Either way, rosé definitely sat on the backburner of the American (and global) mindset for several decades while people enjoyed sancerre, cream sherry, port, and even wine coolers. And even before rosé became cool, it had a big period of being seriously un-cool.

Fast forward to the early 1970’s and enter Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home in Amador County, California. As the story goes, ol’ Bobby was trying to make one of his Zinfandel more concentrated so he bled off the free-run juice (the stuff winemakers usually prize) and let that ferment on its own. This pale-pink concoction became ‘stuck’ (aka stopped fermenting) and a decent amount of residual sugar was left in the wine. Bob sold it anyway, labeled as Sutter Home White Zinfandel. Part of the American populace slurped it up, fueled by their love for Coca Cola and other sweet drinks, while the other part scoffed and refused to drink any rosé on the grounds that it would be sweet. (This is also why many people still think that all dark rosé’s are inherently sweet - they’re not). 

Fast forward another thirty odd-years and we have the true explosion of rosé. Fueled by social media, the light pink drink quickly became a symbol of la belle vie, and rocketed to popularity, especially in beach towns and warm-weather climates across the US. Unfortunate things like frosé and the phrase ‘rosé all day’ started to exist, and people began to associate warm weather with rosé season. Wineries around the world jumped on the trend and started producing pink wines from their regional grapes - Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, countless Italian varieties, and so many more. 

Ok, so what does this all have to do with Provence? Well, Provence is the de-facto leader in rosé production by dedication and association. The region puts 91% of its vine area towards rosé production and produces 150 million bottles (exporting 60 million of them, 40% of which to the US). It’s safe to say that, yes, you were right, Provence is synonymous with rosé.

Onto the deeper history lesson now - While I mentioned that rosé is young in terms of it being a notable, marketable style, it’s actually one of the oldest ways to drink wine. Rewind to the ancient ages and imagine the winemaking methods. There weren’t pumps to pump the wine over the cap and maximize extraction. Nor were there fancy presses to squeeze every last bit of juice out. Nor climate controlled wineries to do long slow fermentation. For the better part of human history, winemaking has been quick, dirty, and relatively gentle. The extraction of red wines was minimal compared to today’s creations. Even the natural, low-manipulation winemakers of today’s world make reds far more dense and extracted than history has seen, purely by merit of the techniques and equipment they have at their disposal. All that is to say, most ‘red’ wines of the past several thousand years looked something more akin to today’s darker rosés.

(Also of note here, most consumers of wine in the past thousands of years did so as a measure to protect themselves. Water used to be quite dangerous to drink but was still a necessity. By diluting water with wine, or vice versa, the alcohol would help kill off some harmful chemicals and protect the body from things like dysentery, cholera, etc. So, even if the wines made it to a darker red, they were diluted to a point of light pink)

So, I guess there you have it… our ancestors did truly drink rosé all day.

Climate and Geography

Provence lies on the south-east part of France, bordered by the Mediterranean to the south, the foothills of the Alps to the east and north, and the Rhône River basin to the west. Like other Mediterranean areas, it is warm and dry, with scrubland and garrigue in terms of flora. In summer, temperatures reach the 80’s - 100’s consistently, while winter sees the piercing cold/fast winds of le Mistral blow through the region south to north. 

Geologically, the region is mostly limestone and granite. The soils tend to be rather poor with low-water holding capacity. This region is definitely not the breadbasket of France. However, they do grow a lot of lavender.

Geographically, there’s wide swatches of the region that are relegated to larger AOC’s and a few smaller towns that have been given special designations with their own appellations. You will not find the granularity of Burgundy, Bordeaux or the Loire here and, in fact, most notable producers, especially of rose, exist within the bounds of the larger AOC’s rather than just the small ones.

Grapes & Wines

By now you’re wondering what the ‘so much more’ I alluded to at the beginning… or wondering if I’ve totally forgotten about them. Not the case. While Provence is mostly home to purpose-grown grapes for rosé (grenache, syrah, cinsault, counoise, mourvèdre for the most part), a large number of these grapes are made as red wines too. The best reds generally come from the area around Bandol, with producers like Domaine Tempier, Château Pradeaux, and Peyrassol being the most recognizable. These are big, savory Mourvèdre-based wines that carry plenty of weight alongside notes of Plum, Cacao, and Licorice. The average, non-single bottle of these should be around $50, but are well worth it when compared to prices on many domestic wines.

The town of Cassis - just east of Marseille, nestled in the Calanques - is home to Clos Sainte Magdeleine, which produces some of the finest whites in Provence. The Cassis Blanc from them is a weighty, floral composition of Marsanne, Ugni blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulenc. Their Cassis Rosé is also exceptional and remarkably rare. If you ever see it, buy it without question.

Lastly, Clos Cibonne makes amazing reds and rosé out of the native tibouren grape, which is a lighter red grape that makes a refreshing, borderline chillable red. The rosé ‘Cuvee Tradition’ from Cibonne is one of my favorite rosé’s of all time and, when available, is a fixture on our shelves. (At the time of this writing, it is sadly out of stock with our distributor.)

La Bastide des Oliviers, Rosé, Coteaux Varois 2021

Patrick Mourlan is the winemaker/proprietor of this estate, located in Garéoult, Var. The estate is roughly in the center of Provence when looking from east to west and 20-30 miles north of the Mediterranean. Patrick and his family manages 10 hectares (24 acres) of vineyards and have been organic certified for multiple generations - long before it was a trend. Patrick has updated the family cellar to be modern and clean, which enables him to reduce his dependence on sulfur and produce more transparent wines. 

The estate makes some red wines, however rosé is the star of their production. This wine is a rather classic blend of 50% Cinsault, 20% Carignan, 20% Syrah, and 10% Grenache. Given a light maceration before direct-pressing, this wine is an immediate hit and even better with about a year of age. The nose is wildly aromatic, with notes of grapefruit, white pepper and ginger, while the palate is rich and round, super textured and savory. In my opinion, it exhibits some of the best qualities of Provençal rose - ageability, structure, expressiveness - without any of the undesirables like emptiness and vapidity. 

Château Sainte Anne, Rouge, Côtes de Provence 2019

This 36 acre estate is one of the pioneering properties of the Bandol appellation, running 5 generations strong in the region and maintaining a quality level matched by few. Ste Anne has been focused on organic farming and natural wine production since the 1970’s, helping found the Associations Vins Naturels (AVN) in France. Like many of the original natural winemakers, these wines transcend the ‘funky/natty’ style that so much of today’s new-school natural wine embraces and rather showcases the transparency and minimalism of grapes.

Today, the estate is managed by the mother-son duo of Françoise and Jean-Baptiste Dutheil. They produce Bandol Rouge and Rosé, and a tiny amount of Blanc, under their classic label, and then a ‘declassified’ Provence Rosé and Rouge (this wine) that source fruit from beyond the small appellation of Bandol.

This is a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Cinsault from lesser fruit out of their Bandol vineyards. Like all of their wines, the sourcing is from old, organically farmed vines (30-55yrs in this case) and sees ample time in neutral oak barrels (18-24 months in foudres) after a gentle fermentation in stainless steel. The wine is ample in weight and acidity, but not overpowering. Compared to beefier wines like their Bandol Rouge, this Côtes de Provence red is lighter on its feet, with blackberry, plum, garrigue, and just a touch of baking spice. This can be aged a few years longer or enjoyed now with some grilled or braised meats, or Mediterranean pasta dishes.

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