A bottle of Provence rosé can evoke similar feelings to a beautiful sunset. Its color and luminous bottle precipitate enjoyment. The pleasure begins before the bottle is even opened.
That pale rosé color, the vibrancy and freshness that shine from the glass: This is Provence. Even in the depths of winter, the wines sing of sun, blue sky and dining on the patio. Stephen Cronk, owner and CEO of Mirabeau Wine in Cotignac, calls the color “paramount. It has to be vibrant.”
Shade is so important, in fact, that wineries test it.
“Since 2018, we have been using analytical measurements on the color of rosé wines (chromametry), allowing us to be more precise on the different colors and their evolution,” says Olivier Ravoire, director general of Famille Ravoire wines, a négociant based in Salon de Provence.
The pale color at the heart of Provence rosé comes from the fact that Grenache, the mainstay of so many wines, has a relatively pale skin. Cinsault, its partner, is equally prone to a light color. It’s only when Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon are added to the blend that color becomes an important element, and something a winery needs to control.
There was a time, in the 2017 and 2018 vintages, when the pale color of Provence rosé became almost white in some wines. If you held a glass up to the light, it was hard to tell. Only the wine’s aromatic fruitiness and texture gave the game away.
That tendency has, happily, gone in the 2019 and 2020 vintages. The 2020 vintage marks a return to color. We look at the past, present and future of this magnificent style.
Setting the Benchmark for Rosé
Provence has become the international standard by which other rosés are judged. The flavors from the blend of Grenache and Cinsault, spiced by Syrah, Mourvèdre and Tibouren, and freshened by white grapes like Vermentino, are what rosé drinkers seek.
A Provence rosé is lightly spicy, with intense red fruits, citrus and sometimes a touch of minerality. There’s always fresh acidity, a crisp touch that makes the wine refreshing and moreish.
Ravoire outlines the steps that go into how to create a rosé with the right color and flavor profile. It’s complicated.
“We harvest at night to prevent any oxidation of the juices and to keep the grapes cool,” he says. “Then we soak them at a low temperature. That allows us to control the color, keeping the wine pale while allowing the flavors to develop.”
The grapes are pressed gently, he says, and only the juice that has just the right color is used.
A Taste of Past and Present
Provence, in the South of France, has a long wine history. Vines were planted from 600 B.C. by the Phoenicians who founded the city of Marseilles, and then cultivated by the Greeks who colonized the region. The Romans ran the region from the second century B.C. and gave it its name: Provincia, the province, their first colony outside the Italian peninsula.
Given this long history, it’s delicious irony that today’s signature Provence wine should be so modern, a wine that relies on technique in the winery as much as it does on those ancient vineyards.
While rosé production is more about technique than romance, remember that the grapes here come from vineyards that increasingly prioritize organic farming and preserving biodiversity. The aim is to be 100% organic by 2030, according to the Provence Wine Board, the industry’s trade body. That creates a dichotomy: vineyards that preserve nature alongside wineries that are seriously high-tech. It’s a world away from the dusty cellar full of barrels.
Not that barrels have been dismissed from the world of Provence rosé. Some rosés become complex and matured in barrels. This has created a series of profiles, from simple, quaffable wines to those that are rich, full-bodied and worth aging. They have prices to match, from less than $20 to $100.
The vineyards and estates of Provence lie in a landscape full of drama and light. Mountains are all around, like Mont Saint-Victoire, Massif de la Sainte-Baume, Massif des Maures and Massif des Alpilles surmounted by the hilltop fortress of Les Baux de Provence.
Lavender fields are everywhere. The town of Grasse supplies many of the major Paris perfume blenders.
Towns, especially away from the coast, are unspoiled, many situated in defensive positions on hilltops, while the must-visit college city of Aix-en-Provence is at the heart of one of the Provençal appellations. Wine estates have created restaurants, luxury hotels, exhibition centers and open-air theaters.
Ready for its Close-Up
It’s little wonder that Provence has attracted entertainment stars to enjoy its lifestyle and beautiful landscapes. It’s created a new category—the celebrity rosé. Names include Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of Château Miraval; Star Wars Director George Lucas at Château Margüi; rapper Post Malone with Maison No 9; and Sarah Jessica Parker with Invivo X.
These celebrity-name bottlings have been followed by those of heavy hitters within the industry. The biggest of all is Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), owner of Champagne houses, Cognac producers and Bordeaux chateaus. Last year, it took control of the most famous name in Provence rosé, Château d’Esclans, which produces Whispering Angel and the $100-a-bottle Garrus.
Americans have fallen in love with Provence and its rosés. The U.S. is the top foreign market for Provence, with a whopping 46% of exports by volume in 2019. Gone are the days when rosé (called blush) was mainly sweet.
Rémy Devictor, owner of Domaine de la Sanglière in Bormes les Mimosas, describes rosé as “having the joie de vivre, the enjoyment of life, that we have in Provence. People are looking for joy, lightness, freedom, and that’s what we supply. And, besides, it is beautiful to drink.”
If all this seems a far cry from the jug of rosé in a Provençal café or bar, consider that Saint-Tropez and Cannes are also in Provence. Luxury has been a part of the mix there for at least two centuries.
As much as the color, bottle and taste, that sense of luxury is part of the allure of Provence rosé. It brings that whiff of lifestyle as well as fruity aromas. No longer a one-size-fits-all shade of pale, it allows wine lovers of all stripes to sip with the famous from the comfort of home.
Any time we yearn for escape, a bottle of Provence rosé should be at hand.
Côtes de Provence. This is the heart of Provence rosé. Aromatic, fruity, floral and sometimes with a light herbal character, the wines are mostly enjoyed young, which keeps the freshness and bright immediate appeal. There are two cru vineyards: Mont Sainte-Victoire and La Londe. Their wines have extra richness and a higher price.
Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. Centered on the city of Aix-en-Provence, these rosés are full-bodied and often bolstered by Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, which give structure. That means they can age, although they can also be enjoyed in their youth.
Coteaux Varois en Provence. Between the Côtes and Aix, Coteaux Varois en Provence is beginning to show real quality. Similar in many ways to the two larger appellations, the best wines seem to have more of a crisp character, more bounce and vibrancy.
Les Baux de Provence. The farthest west of the Provence appellations, it’s the only one that’s entirely organic, with many biodynamic producers. Rosés are full-bodied, and sometimes hint at nuttiness as well as a mineral texture.