The Wines of the Provence (II)

The AOPs talked about earlier this week cover 10% of what the Provence has to offer appellation wise. The remaining 90% (27,000ha) consists of three generic designations: Côtes de Provence (which itself is divided in four sub-appellations), Coteaux d’Aix en Provence and Coteaux Varois. Their size makes it difficult to see what makes them distinctive, soil or climate-wise, and they have the same complicated variety rules we saw with Les Baux. Uniqueness is difficult to establish if you are nudged in the direction of a (GSM) blend.

Coteaux Varois may hold most interest as it starts out as an extension of Bandol, heading further inland with the majority of vineyards behind the Massif de Sainte Baume. The climate here is still hot, it is the South of France after all, but the encasement between mountains make it more continental in nature, with a lengthier, warm end of the growing season. The wines often have a bit more freshness to them acting as a counterweight against power. Jean-Luc Comor of Domaine des Terres Promises makes a couple of wines under the appellation, with Abracadabrantesque being one of my favorites. The 2015, a blend of old Carignan and Mourvèdre, is completely shut down on day one, but opens up very nicely on spices, nutmeg and a wild, meaty streak, yet never becoming too dense. It is a bit rustic towards the end, but a bit of cellar time will get rid of that.

It should come as no surprise though, that a lot of producers disregard the limitations imposed by the appellation rules and commercialize their wines under IGP labels. These are often the estates that make a difference, showing what just a bit of out-of-the-box thinking can deliver. It really goes to show how a sloppy appellation construction really adds no value to a region’s wines and can even be detrimental to its reputation.

An estate that has never shown any interest in an appellation is Domaine Richeaume. Henning Hoesch, one of the heirs of Julius Hoesch, a German mogul in the chemical industry, founded one of the first organic estates in the Provence. The estate itself is about 60ha, with little less than half of it dedicated to vines. The wines are packed with personality, quite individualistic in their conviction. They are perhaps not to anyone’s taste but they definitely go beyond what you would expect or hope from the Provence.

Tradition 2015 is a nifty blend of 32% Syrah, 26% Merlot, 21% CS, 16% Grenache, 5% Tempranillo. Quite youthful on the nose, with still dominant oak ageing, yet with plenty of substance behind it. Liquorice, cassis, blueberries even a slightly volatile edge to it, but packed with power. Too young but promising. Columelle 2015 (53% CS, 42% Syrah, 5% Merlot) is playing on a whole other level. Give it plenty of air before even sticking your nose in it or tuck it away for years. A big whiff of crushed coriander seeds jumps out, garrigue followed by juicy black cherries, prunes and again liquorice. It is denser than the Tradition, aged for a larger portion in new oak as well, but with a substantial, fleshed out presence on the palate, all with a backbone of freshness. A generous wine with a beautiful savouriness to it, perfect with anything that touches a grill.

Some estates choose the middle ground, like Chateau de Roquefort. The wines produced by Raimond de Villeneuve are among my favorites in the region. Corail 2017 (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignan et Vermentino) is a proper rosé, in color for a start, but also offering an appealing impression of spiciness, pomegranate and raspberries. Les Mûres 2015 (Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault) is almost how a textbook Provence tasting note would look like: herby garrigue, black cherries, intense in structure but with a juicy deliciousness to it, topped with a savoury spicy finish.

The flagship cuvée is again the one that does not meet appellation rules. La Pourpre is only made in exceptional years, when the three varieties, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan ripen at the exact same time (not an easy feat with Syrah generally being ripe a lot earlier than Mourvèdre). This happened exactly three times in the last 15 years, with the most recent vintage being 2011. All three varieties benefit from a bit of air, so I would recommend decanting it for an hour or so beforehand. It starts of slowly with soft spiciness on the nose, cumin, thyme and a sprig of fresh rosemary. There is a subdued character to it at first, but the instant you taste, it comes alive with red berries, cherries and a lovely roasted meaty note, full of energy. The tannic structure shows that there is still a lot of potential to be gained with age, but it is now already a seriously impressive wine.

Finally, a word on the whites, only briefly addressed when talking about Les Baux de Provence. They arguably fare worse than the red wines, as they not only make up but a measly 5% of the generic appellations, but are also largely based on Vermentino (Rolle), a variety not exactly hailed for its memorable drinking experiences. Clairette, the other major variety may hold a lot more in store. It can keep its acidity even over the hot Provencal summers, and actually possesses the capacity to age and develop.

Clairette-dominated wines thus carry my preference, although they are not as easy to find (aside from Palette’s Chateau Simone). For a more approachable wine (especially when it comes to price) Château de Roquefort makes a great entry level Petit Salé. Zippy, fresh and herbal with a nice floral touch to it. I fear however that these wines will keep on lingering in the ‘interesting to taste’ category for many winelovers. The Provence will never be a region known for its astonishing whites, but that does not mean that we should be content with Vermentino.

Next week: exploring the completely forgotten Classification des Crus de Provence!

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