The wines of the Provence (I)

So sunny temperatures and an ongoing drought like Belgium hasn’t seen for a while make this the ideal time to focus on a region that turns this climate into an advantage to winemaking: the Provence! This will be a series of articles published over the course of the summer, hopefully giving you a decent idea of what you can expect from what I discovered to be a flawed but fantastic source of great wines.

The Provence is a fascinating wine region, which is unfortunately being drowned in an ocean of mediocre rosé. Ok, rosé bashing has become popular in recent days, but if you take yourself seriously as a winelover, how could you not? The vast majority is so goddamn bland and indistinguishable, yet people simply find a way to shut off their taste buds and simply chug what is basically flat swill, far removed from what wine can be.

Instagramming rosé is almost a status symbol nowadays, a way to show that you go carefree into the summer, especially if a ludicrously expensive bottle of Chateau d’Esclans is nearby. Your average Provence rosé has nothing to tell, does not have a context, and is only produced to fit into a lifestyle story created by clever marketeers. We have gotten to a point where not only rosé wines with individuality are ignored, but where the Provence as a whole is simply seen as a prime source of plonk.

Even so, a fascinating wine region is not necessarily a good wine region, but there is plenty of tapped, and loads of untapped potential in the Provence, if only you know where to look for it. This is more difficult than it sounds, as a lack of an understandable appellation structure as well as complicated rules with regards to grape varieties stand in the way of a clear reputation that goes beyond just one color of wine.

The appellations that do provide clarity on what they stand for are few. The only one that has truly made a mark for itself, detached from the Provence brand, is Bandol. I will publish more in-depth articles over the coming weeks on the great wines produced here, but for now, let’s say that its popularity is derived from proper rosé, whereas its reputation is built upon Mourvèdre-based reds.

Up next I would say that Palette and Bellet have been able to build their own identity, but only by piggybacking on their flagship estates: Chateau Simone (Palette) and Chateau de Bellet (guess). Their reputation has far greater reach than their respective appellations could hope to achieve, and other estates that commercialize their wines under the Palette or Bellet appellation have yet to find a way to step out of their neighbors’ shadows. Finally, we have Cassis, which will get its own chance in the spothlight, and Les Baux de Provence.

There is not a tourist who has visited the Provence without making a stop at this wonderful village, yet few will remember it for its wines. This is especially odd as two of the best estates in the entire region, Trévallon and Hauvette, own vineyards smack in the middle of the appellation. The problem lies with the appellation rules. The main varieties allowed for red wines are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. You need to include at least two of them in your wine, and together they have to make up at least 60% of your final blend. Any variety that could claim some nativeness to the Provence is deemed a cépage accessoire and passed over for what is basically a blend more readily associated with the Southern Rhône Valley – not boding well in terms of competition.

So, if a winemaker were to emphasize the quality of native varieties, the result could only be commercialized as an IGP. This is exactly what happened to Hauvette’s flagship cuvée Améthyste, which contains 60% of Cinsault, a seriously underestimated grape variety that can deliver fantastic red wines, yet ends up in rosé plonk too often. The 2013 is a beautiful wine. It needs a bit of air at first, but then it is wonderfully aromatic with sweet raspberries and strawberries, yet with grip and spiciness on the palate. Very precise and fine overall.

Trévallon really gets the shaft when it comes to appellation rules. The Durbach family had bought the property in the fifties, but it was only in the seventies that the second generation, Eloï Durbach decided to plant vines to make wine. He discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon had been an important grape variety in the region before phylloxera struck in the nineteenth century, and he wanted his wines to reflect this history, blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah. Authorities were wary, and it should not come as a surprise that he was only permitted to use the IGP Bouches du Rhône.

When Les Baux was upgraded to appellation status in 1995, Cabernet Sauvignon was reluctantly included as a secondary variety.  With a somewhat vicious nod to Trévallon however, its potential contribution to a blend was limited to 20%. Thus nowadays, the estate produces what it undoubtedly one of the most esteemed and priciest IGP wines in France.  Its reputation is well-deserved, especially for the red (a little less for the white in my opinion). The 1994 I enjoyed a while back was marvelous. Light ruby in color, redcurrants, sweetness of fruit and a dusty herbal edge on the finish. It is a wine of impressive complexity, hiding behind a playful light-footedness, simply bringing joy.

In fairness, it has been a work-in-progress. The founding vignerons tried to add an organic viticulture requirement to their cahier de charges, but have not yet been capable to push it through with the INAO. Nonetheless, 90% of the estates producing wine here stick to organics, in particular because the hurdles other regions face (humidity, mildew or other diseases that can strike a vine) are only rarely an issue, with the famous Mistral winds ensuring healthy vines.

In 2010 the appellation was expanded to include white wines, but this has not exactly been a successful venture as leading estates are hesitant to use it. To find out why, simply look at the grape variety requirements. Clairette, Vermentino (Rolle) and Grenache Blanc are to take center stage, with a minimum of two of these making up at least 60% of the final blend. I’ll talk a bit about Vermentino later this week, suffice to say for now that it is not the most suitable variety for the terroir of les Baux.

Thus, it is once more unsurprising that the better (and more expensive) wines are still commercialized as IGP Les Alpilles. One cannot find a more apt example than Mas de la Dame, which produces an average, not very memorable AOP Les Baux de Provence La Stèle’ which goes for EUR 9,95 at the estate, and an IGP Les Alpilles Coin Caché’, which sells for EUR 22,5. The latter is an interesting blend of Rousanne and Sémillon, raised quite noticeably in oak. The 2011 is definitely not for the weak, dense, grilled bread and a bit fat. More something that I would pair with food rather than drink on its own. I greatly prefer Domaine Hauvette’s Dolia, which is a fantastic blend of equal parts Rousanne, Marsanne and Clairette. The 2009 I enjoyed a while back was great. Subdued on the nose when opened, but then going on to ripe pears, apricots, a bit of nectarine with a gorgeously fresh, lipsmacking mineral touch to it and again showing the precision I adored in the Améthyste.

Coming up later this week: the generic appellations!

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