You will be forgiven if you are ignorant of the Provence’s classification des crus. The Oxford Wine Companion makes no mention of it, nor does l’Atlas des Vins de France. Hell, even the official website of the Provence wines seems to be oblivious to its existence! Its presence in the shadows speaks volumes of its irrelevance to the big picture of wine in the Provence. Surely this was not intended, so how could it have gotten this far?
Although the creation of the crus classés actually predates the establishment of the appellation “Côtes de Provence”, which was only acknowledged in 1977, these two events are closely related. In a very successful attempt to structure the unique character of French wines, the French system of appellations was created in the 1930s. Savvy estates saw the opportunities it presented, and before long, producers organized themselves to lobby for the creation of an appellation in their backyard. In the Provence, the owners of Château de Saint-Martin and Château Sainte Roseline were the driving forces behind the local syndicat des vignerons. Its initial goal was the creation of what is now the appellation Côtes de Provence. This turned out to be quite the hurdle however, so they decided to settle first for a formal acknowledgement of certain estates as being superior in capturing the Provencal spirit in wine. It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that the list of proposed estates was identical to the Syndicat’s membership role!
Other regions rightly claimed that it was preposterous to set up a classification in a region that had not even been granted an overarching appellation at the time. Alas, the INAO ignored objections, and, in 1955, the same year as the classification of Saint-Emilion, the 23 estates were formally recognised as being better than their neighbours, and received permission to label themselves as “Cru Classé”. Its legacy has however proven to be less durable than that of Saint-Emilion, as the crus are nowadays only remembered by the classification’s remaining members (5 estates no longer exist), and by sommelier students.
Given the club’s inactivity, it’s difficult to assess what exactly makes them stand out, aside from their talent for lobbyism. Most of them have done well for themselves, as they are among the largest estates in the region, but you can sense in the wines of Château Minuty, Clos Mireille or Chateau du Selle (the latter two being part of the Ott kingdom) that some serious compromising has been made among the way when it comes to uniqueness and quality. On the other hand, Domaine de Rimauresq and Chateau Sainte Roseline on the other hand and I would have no problem recommending their wines.
What I find more disappointing is the fact that most estates content themselves with producing variations on blends of Syrah/Grenache/Mourvèdre/Cabernet Sauvignon. As I mentioned previously, I am not entirely convinced that these will put the Provence on the wine map (with the exception of Mourvèdre), especially in times when it is not just hardcore winegeeks moving away from internationalized varieties. One delightful exception is Clos Cibonne.
The roots of the estate go deep as it has been the property of the family Roux for over 200 years. As is often the case, a long family history is not necessarily a long winemaking history, and it wasn’t until 1930 that the production of other agricultural products was halted in order to focus only on wine. André Roux was young, ambitious, and a firm believer in the qualities of Tibouren. His work with this little-known variety has paid off, as Clos Cibonne is the only Cru Classé that is allowed to put the grape variety’s name prominently on the (very classic) label.
Tibouren is a variety that is in general planted between Toulon and Saint-Tropez and interestingly enough, it pops up again just across the French-Italian border in Liguria, where it’s known as Rossese di Dolceacqua. Wine Grapes states that there currently is about 445ha in France, vs. 268ha in Italy (of the variety ‘Rossesse’, so this could include distinct varieties as well), so this makes it quite niche. It was not that popular in the fifties and sixties, when focus was more on quantity than quality, so varieties that were too much of a hassle to work with got ripped out. When it comes to viticulture, Tibouren lost marks as its yields are relatively small, and it can accumulate sugars too quickly, leading to higher alcohol percentages. On top of that, its vinification requires attention, as oxidation lurks around the corner and colour extraction is difficult to do right as well. André Roux stuck to his beliefs in the variety’s potential however, and over the years the wealth of experience and skill allowed him to develop the most suitable expression you could wish for Tibouren: rosé.
The Tradition Rosé 2015 (90% tibouren, 10% Grenache, remember, appellation rules enforce blends) may not be the right shade of pink to surf on the rosé tsunami these days, yet it oozes charm. It shows little red berries and rose hip on the nose with an herby anise seed touch to it, creamy and generous on the palate, structured and most of all savory in its long finish, this is the ideal food rosé. There is real character to it, but in a nuanced way that keeps it from becoming bland. The wine is aged in large old foudres, adding grip to the palate and an intensity that will make it a good match against even spicier dishes. On top of that, it is quite capable to survive some cellar, as Pascaline Lepeltier’s recent Instagram post shows, and I think that age will only bring out its delightful savory side.
Now the estate has built its reputation on the Tradition rosé, but it is not resting on its laurels. In 2009 a Tibouren-dominated Tradition Rouge was launched. The wine goes through carbonic maceration as to maximize its aromatic intensity, before ageing further in large old foudres. The 2016 is very fruit-forward, fragrant with lovely sweet, sun-ripened strawberries jumping out of your glass. It is quite elegant, playful, a real surprise in comparison with what you would expect in a Provencal red. It may lack the complexity that I preferred in the rosé, but remains nonetheless a charmer.
In recent years the estate has succumbed a bit under pressure with the creation of Prestige Cuvées, named after the great -grandchildren of André Roux. Cuvée Caroline 2015, the rosé, has been aged in new oak and it shows. Very dominated by its ageing, perhaps even a bit too much extraction and sterner than the Tradition. Perhaps age will do it some good, but at the moment I have my doubts. Cuvée Olivier 2015 unfortunately conforms to the dominant Provence blending model, consisting of 60% Syrah, 15% Grenache and only 25% Tibouren. It is a perfectly acceptable wine, a bit heavy on the oak but with good structure, yet again not as surprising and charming as its Tradition counterpart.
It is a pitfall that few estates seem able to avoid: making a fantastic entry level/mid-range wine, yet someone feeling the need to make a pumped-up version, more concentration, more power, more of everything until it gets so over the top that it loses meaning. I love the Tradition Rosé, the Red makes for perfect springtime drinking, yet the prestige range may need to refocus on what makes the other wines so great.