Is there a more beautiful wine region in the world than Provence? It is difficult to believe that I am actually "working" when I travel from village to village along the French Riviera, soaking in the fragrance of the flowers and the aromas of the Mediterranean Sea, enjoying the warm sunshine and the brilliant light underneath the dazzling blue sky. No wonder so many artists were inspired to do their best work here!
Provence has the distinction of being France's oldest wine region. The Phoenicians landed on the beaches around Marseilles with vines 2600 years ago, well before the Romans conquered Gaul and planted their vines. Provence's old capital, the town of Aix-en-Provence, is still an important wine area. Provence is blessed with perfect climate: sunny, dry days, with just enough rainfall, and the famous "Mistral" winds, blowing down from the north, drying out the grapes and protecting them from rot and other diseases. Sea breezes temper the hot rays of the sun.
Provence is famous for its crisp, dry rosé wines, which dominate production. What could be more idyllic than sitting at a café overlooking the sea, enjoying some fresh seafood or fish, and sipping a chilled Provence rosé? But many producers are concentrating on red wines lately, and reds now make up over one-third of Provence's wine production. And I must say that their white wines, formerly the weak sisters here, are now better than ever.
Here is a brief rundown of Provence's eight AOC wine zones, and the wines of each region:
--Côtes de Provence: The region's largest zone (making about 75 percent of Provence's wine), in the southeastern corner, covering 85 communes with over 400 producers. About 80 percent of the wines produced here are rosé, with 15 percent red, and 5 percent white. The main varieties used for both red and rosé wines here are Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan, and Mourvèdre, with more and more Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon taking the place of Carignan.
--Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence: The second-largest AOC zone, taking in 50 villages, occupies the northwestern part of Provence around the town of Aix-en-Provence. Emphasis here is more on red wines, with 60 percent red, 35 percent rosé, and 5 percent white. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have a stronger presence here, along with Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre.
--Les Baux-de-Provence: Just northwest of Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, and south of the Rhône Valley AOC zones, Les Baux-des-Provence produces 80 percent red wines, many very dark and full-bodied. The remaining 20 percent are dry, full-bodied rosé wines. Grenache. Mourvèdre, and Syrah predominate. Domaine de Trévallon makes a powerful Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah wine here; Mas de la Dame is another leading winery. Many starred restaurants are located in and around the hilltop village of Les Baux-de-Provence.
--Coteaux Varois: Situated in hilly, central Provence, Coteaux Varois is known for its rosé wines, which dominate production, but some good reds are also made here. Look for the good-value wines of Château Routas.
--Bandol: In southwest Provence, bordering the Mediterranean, the Bandol AOC zone encompasses the old fishing village of Bandol on the coast, a popular holiday spot. Red wines are Bandol's calling card; Mourvèdre grows especially well here, complemented by Grenache and Cinsault. Bandol is the home of Domaine Tempier, Provence's most renowned red wine estate. Domaines Ott, famous for its rosés and earthy whites, is also in the Bandol zone.
--Cassis: Not to be confused with the blackcurrant liqueur of the same name, Cassis is another pretty fishing village ten miles west of Bandol. The Cassis AOC zone is the one district in Provence where white wines dominate. The whites, which are made mainly from Clairette and Marsanne, with some Ugni Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, are full-bodied, dry, low-acid, herbal-scented wines which are delightful with the local specialty, bouillabaisse. Some reds and rosés are also made here, but the whites justifiably are in the spotlight.
--Bellet: A small AOC zone in the hills above the city of Nice, but the vineyards are in danger of being swallowed up in Nice's urban sprawl. A pity, because the white wines, made from Rolle (Vermentino in Italy), Roussanne, Clairette, and Chardonnay, are especially fresh and fragrant.
--Palette: East of the town of Aix-en-Provence, Palette is Provence's smallest AOC zone. Most of the vineyards are owned by one wine estate, Château Simone. Rich, long-lived reds are made here, as well as fine rosés and whites.
I recently attended a tasting of Provence wines, in all three colors. The producers I spoke to are very excited about the quality of their 2005s, a dry, fairly warm year, but with enough cool weather to produce wines with crisp acidity. Here is a sampling of some of the wines that impressed me the most:
Domaine Saint André de Figuière, Côtes de Provence (Provence, France) Rosé "Cuvée Magali" 2005 ($12, Frank Johnson Selections): What a charming rosé! It is fresh, light, crisp, and totally dry, but with enough flavor to hold up to grilled vegetables or seafood. Made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cinsault, and Grenache. 89
Domaine Saint André de Figuière, Côtes de Provence (Provence, France) Rouge Vielles Vignes 2004 ($22, Frank Johnson Selections): Domaine Saint André de Figuière, which owns all of the vineyards of its wines, is quite proud of its old-vine (about 25 years-old) red, a substantial, dark-colored wine with tart, black cherry aromas and flavors and spicy, peppery notes. Made with 60 percent Mourvèdre, 25 percent Carignan, and 15 percent Syrah. A very impressive wine. 91
Château Beauferan, Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence (Provence, France) Blanc 2004 ($11, Grand Vintage): It's so refreshing to drink this Provence white, with its crispness, and its floral, lime, mineral notes. The perfect wine for warm weather, and a plate of grilled seafood. Great value! 90
Château Beaulieu, Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence (Provence, France) Blanc 2005 ($15, Regal Wines): The 2005 Château Beaulieu Blanc is a crisp, medium-bodied, rich white wine, with aromas and flavors of grapefruit and a hint of pineapple. It's a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Rolle (Vermentino). Substantial enough to stand up to a full-flavored fish entrée. 91
Château Beaulieu, Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence (Provence, France) Château des Gavelles Rouge 2003 ($12, Regal Wines): The 2003 Château des Gavelles red is a marvelous wine at this price, with aromas and flavors of fresh strawberries along with some herbal notes. A blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Syrah. 90
Domaines de Bertaud-Bélieu, Côtes de Provence (Provence, France) Rosé "Prestige" 2005 ($16, Bertaud-Bélieu USA): The vineyards are located on the Saint-Tropez peninsula, and so a visit here, including a stop at world-famous Saint-Tropez beaches, might be well worthwhile! The 2005 Domaines de Bertaud-Bélieu Prestige Rosé, with raspberry aromas and flavors, is medium-bodied and quite delicious, although a tad sweet. 89
Domaines de Bertaud-Bélieu, Côtes de Provence (Provence, France) Blanc "Prestige" 2005 ($18, Bertaud-Bélieu USA): This producer's 2005 white, made from Rolle and Sémillon, is even better than its rosé. It is crisp and flavorful, with citrus aromas and flavors, and full-bodied enough to go with chicken as well as seafood. 91
Cercle des Vignerons de Provence, Côtes de Provence (Provence, France) Rosé "L'Estandon" 2005 ($13, Diageo Château & Estates): L'Estandon Rosé is one of the best-known and best-distributed Provence rosés. Produced from a cooperative of 150 growers, it is typically reliable, year after year. The 2005, made from a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah, is a winner. It is fresh and crisp, a virtual panoply of berry fruit aromas and flavors. 91