The pink boom has really established the Provence rosé brand in the mind of the consumer, yet selling it as a food match remains a challenge. Gaëlle Laforest heads to the Med to check out the 2015 vintage
Provence is like the teenager of French wine regions. It’s trendy, in the middle of a great growth spurt, and a bit overcomplicated when it comes to labels. It’s a category with big dreams – but one that’s incessantly questioning itself. Also, it’s proud of its qualities and wants the world to acknowledge them.
‘We started believing in this colour before others, and we are now the leaders. Our aim is now to strengthen our position,’ says Alain Baccino, Provence winemaker and president of the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins de Provence (CIVP).
AT A GLANCE
– Provence is France’s oldest wine region, with wine vine-growing dating back to 600BC
– The climate is hot, sunny and dry, with poor and well-drained soils
– 600 wineries
– 26,500 hectares of vineyards
– 88% of wine produced is rosé – it was the world’s first rosé producer
– Grapes used for rosé include Syrah, Grenache, Cinsaut, Tibouren, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and more. Blending is one of the main rules of the Provence AOC
– There are nine appellations in Provence, but three main ones cover 96% of volumes: Côtes de Provence, Coteaux Varois en Provence and Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence
That ‘position’ has certainly improved over the past 10 years, as the biggest rosé-producing appellation in the world has cashed in on a global trend. You can hardly walk by a British restaurant or pub in spring and summer without spotting crowds glugging pink stuff, and most lists now have at least one Provence rosé all year round.
‘We used to make rosé because we had to,’ observes Christian Faucher of winemakers’ cooperative Les Quatre Tours. ‘Now it’s a real trend. The young generation has done a lot for rosé. It’s become something of an entry into wine.’
No surprise, perhaps, that despite competition from the Languedoc and Loire, the Provence pinks sell effortlessly in France, where consumption of rosé has overtaken that of white wine. In the UK, competition – mostly from Spain and New World blush styles – is fierce. Yet, in spite of this, volumes exported to the UK have more than doubled since 2012.
‘A good selling point for Provence rosés versus others is their minerality, which fits nicely into the current trend for Chablis substitutes,’ says Theo Sloot from The Oxford Wine Café. ‘Clean and crisp, unoaked and made fresher and more lifted by the minerality.’
But it’s not just about flavour. The region has done wonders in marketing itself as reliable, quality-driven and fashionable.
‘Provence is definitely emerging as a bit of a brand in itself – it’s seen as the one to go for,’ adds Sloot. ‘Rosé sales continue to rise evenly and it’s beginning to be seen as cool now. Provence definitely sells itself partly because it’s the only rosé that most of the public recognise these days.’
This character is created by climate (warm, windy, dry); grapes (mostly Cinsaut and Grenache, but also Mourvèdre, Syrah and Tibouren); and winemaking techniques involving night harvesting, direct pressing and cold maceration. Add these together and you get the trademark fresh, powerful, light-coloured rosés.
Winemaker Patricia Ortelli bought Château La Calisse at an auction 25 years ago, pulled out all the existing vines and replanted the land so she could make what she calls ‘grands vins de Provence’, rather than big Bordeaux-style reds.
‘Rosé is Provence because of the climate and grapes,’ she says. ‘The light is the best possible for the fruit. It is very difficult but very interesting to make.’
‘What’s difficult is that all the work on rosé has to be done in a very short time; barely 24 hours,’ says Baccino. ‘Wine isn’t an exact science. Between what you’re trying to get and what you actually get…
‘Provence has precise demands,’ he continues. ‘First, colour; although we don’t try to control it. We just qualify it. What we’re after is taste. And now we’re trying to understand the terroir, to bring out the typicity of our wines.’
Ah, yes, terroir. Or more accurately, terroirs – plural. In the east, the climate’s more temperate, with acid schist soils, while the central areas around Marseille and Toulon stand on limestone soil, with increasing clay as land progresses east towards Aix-en-Provence. Sea influence on the coast contrasts with hot, dry days and cold winters inland.
There is a fantastic variety of wines, from crisper, fruity styles to more mineral, peachy wines, and even well-structured, richer and sometimes tannic gastronomic wines.
The result: a multitude of precisely defined appellations to protect the various styles. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, winemakers are also trying to do something different.
For example, Château Léoube has been producing a sparkling wine since 2013. Made using the traditional method, it’s mostly Cabernet Franc and spends nine months on the lees, showing fine bubbles and a round, fruity palate. The bubbles mean it doesn’t fit in any of the AOPs, although the CIVP is pushing for Provençal sparkling – made using the traditional method, with a ‘dosage’ of grape must instead of sugar and minimum nine months’ ageing – to be added to the appellation.
‘We care about diversifying and innovating,’ says Baccino. ‘Sparkling is one road we can go down.’
At the Centre for Research and Experimentation on Rosé Wine, lab tests and tastings take place – everything from studying how the same grape varieties express themselves in different terroirs, to establishing a precise vocabulary for the wines’ colours and taste profiles.
The team is also working on identifying robust grape varieties to help limit the use of pesticides going forward, although many in Provence are already committed to organic vine-growing (see below).
The overwhelming focus, however, remains on the easy-going style of wine that’s synonymous with Provence. Léoube winemaker Romain Ott describes it best: ‘If the wine is too aromatic, too acidic, too strong, you don’t drink more than one glass. Most wine drinkers aren’t connoisseurs. They just like wine.’
In the UK, when it comes to rosé it’s the colour that sells. As customers’ tastes have shifted towards drier pinks, so their buying habits have moved towards the paler rosés of Provence. At The Library Bar in Bristol, owner Louise Hawkins had to add a Provence rosé to her list after customers came in specifically asking for it – though it remains a style for the more educated consumer.
‘It now sits as our second most expensive rosé, after our local Somerset Pinot Noir rosé,’ says Hawkins. ‘I believe that because of its unique categorisation it can demand a higher price point. But for people who drink rosé as their go-to wine, they will not believe it is worth this price point and order something a little cheaper.’
Provence is almost alone in producing a good number of expensive pinks. ‘They are great,’ says Erik Simonics, head sommelier at The Savoy, ‘but the more price-friendly ones are also very high in quality and can be very enjoyable. I do not think that they are too expensive, you just need to look for the right ones.’
As for the Provençaux, they are confident of their flagships. ‘When you reach that price point you need to be the leader,’ says Olivier Cril of Estandon Vignerons, the region’s biggest producer with 18 domaines and cooperatives. ‘And we don’t have competitors at that price. If we’re careful, Provence can be as successful as Champagne in the next 10 years.’
That’s quite a statement, given that not even the region’s winemakers are united on what constitutes the ‘best wine’. Elegant and mineral, or bigger, oakier and more powerful?
Pairing with pink
‘We’re aware of gastronomic rosé,’ says winemaker Enzo Fayard, from Château Hermitage Saint-Martin. ‘But we still want the wine fruity and tight. We don’t want masculine rosé – using oak doesn’t go towards the “fête du rosé” spirit.’
For Baccino, too, such bolder rosés made for ageing are a ‘step backward’. The rationale behind these more structured, full-bodied wines is that they’re better to match with food. At La Bastide des Magnans in Vidauban, in the heart of Provence, owner Christian Boeuf lists as many Provence rosés as he does reds.
‘We’ve got such a diversity of rosés nowadays that we can match them to all forms of dishes,’ he says. ‘Mediterranean vegetables, saffron, olive oil… But there’s also more structured, textured rosé for “bigger” dishes – I serve a rack of lamb with confit pink garlic paired with Château Rasque Clos de Madame rosé,’ he says.
The UK trade seems more sceptical. ‘From a sommelier’s perspective, it’s challenging,’ says Gaetano Giangaspero at London’s Orrery restaurant. ‘You’ll find a really good red or white to match the food, but rosé is more restrictive. I think it’s better positioned as an aperitif.’ And this from a man who is updating his rosé range to 10 wines in the summer.
It’s the same story for Oxfordshire gastropub The Wild Rabbit, where nine out of 10 rosés are sold as an aperitif. ‘It’s great with seafood and light meat dishes, but our customers prefer having a bottle of it in the front garden before dinner,’ says manager Tom Curtis. In Oxford, Sloot thinks food-matching with rosé is ‘still to come’.
That said, maybe now is the time to give it another try. ‘2015 is really positive in terms of quality,’ says Cril. ‘We can show the world that we are the best.’
Provence was always light on the use of chemicals, but winemakers are now increasingly going organic, with more than 16.8% of the land under vine in the wider Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region being farmed organically. There’s even a village that’s entirely organic – in Correns, wine, fruit, vegetables, cheese and honey are all made organically.
‘[Being organic] is not a marketing tool for us. We believe in respecting nature to produce healthy food and create a sustainable soil for the next generations,’ says Jérôme Pernot of Château Léoube. ‘We also work a lot with the phases of the moon, both for the viticulture and vinification. Again, this is not a marketing tool. This is how we were farming a long time ago.’
Patricia Ortelli of Château La Calisse agrees – with a caveat. ‘The vine is much more beautiful in an organic terroir. However, we shouldn’t go to such extremes as no sulphite. Yeasts produce sulphites, so that just doesn’t exist. We need them to clarify wines and retain aromas.’
On the whole producers realise that they are well placed to take advantage of organic methods. ‘Provence is a region suitable for organic growing – it makes things easier,’ says Olivier Fayard of Château Sainte-Marguerite. ‘When you give chemicals to the vine, it doesn’t feel as good. We believe that organic grapes will make better wines,’ he concludes.
Five to try
Château de Nestuby Rosé 2014, Côtes de Provence
Aromas of berry sweets mix with liquorice and rose petals, before flavours of confected fruit against refreshing acidity and a steely minerality; all for a very reasonable price.
Serve with: sunshine – it’ll do well on its own
£6.96, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840
Château Léoube, Secret de Léoube 2014, Côtes de Provence
A blend of equal parts old vine Grenache and Cinsault with some Carignan, vinified following biodynamic methods, it’s a delicate pink with notes of red berries and flowers, with some depth on the palate.
Serve with: scallop ceviche, or even something a little gutsier, like a vegetable tart
£11.61, Bibendum Wine, 0845 263 6924
Estandon Vignerons, Lumières de Provence 2014, Coteaux Varois en Provence
A real gastronomic rosé. This is powerful, with aromas of ripe pink fruit that continue on the palate. There’s a slight richness coming from some time spent on the lees and in oak, elevated by a citrus acidity.
Serve with: fish in creamy sauce with girolles
Matthew Clark, 0844 822 3901
Château La Calisse Patricia Ortelli Rosé 2014, Coteaux Varois en Provence
Pale salmon in colour, this has floral aromas with delicate honey-water and grapefruit notes. There’s lovely minerality on a silky palate that’s got a distinct redcurrant note. Good acidity.
Serve with: white meats or steamed fish
£14.40, Pierre Hourlier Wines, 01332 341466
Domaine des Diables Le Petit Diable Rosé 2014, Côtes de Provence Sainte-Victoire
Pale peachy pink in colour, this blend of 60% Syrah with Grenache and Cinsault is crisp and fresh. Precise, lifted grapefruit nose, with red berries on the palate and a hint of minerality. Very gluggable – a great summer pink.
Serve with: a Mediterranean feast, but this makes a great stand-alone aperitif too
£7.80, Lea & Sandeman, 020 7244 0522