Red Wine of Provence – Why This Provençal Underdog is Important
More than just rosé, Provence is making red wine that you could cozy up to a fireplace with, pair with a steak, and even hold in your cellar for years to come.
Provence. For years now we have associated this special place with beautiful pale pink rosé, lavender fields, crystal blue waters, sunhats, and a luxury lifestyle. The birthplace of “rosé all day,” and “Hampton’s Water.” Those familiar notes of strawberry, grapefruit, and orange zest with a clean, mineral finish. But what if I told you there is a whole category of wine produced here that we’re completely missing out on?
The truth is, Provence is making red wine that you could cozy up to a fireplace with, pair with a steak, and even hold in your cellar for years to come. I’m not talking Bandol either. I’m talking AOC Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Côtes de Provence Sainte-Victoire, and even Côtes de Provence Fréjus with its distinct volcanic soils. Considering Provence has been making wine for over 2600 years this shouldn’t be a huge shock. But with rosé being 88% of the region’s production, we just aren’t being exposed to these rare gems…especially here in the US.
Upon my many winery visits last September, the vignerons would express that even though small, their red wine production was very important to them and the lineage of their families. Château Vignelaure located in the Var just 35km away from Aix-en-Provence, for example, was a pioneer for Cabernet Sauvignon in Provence. The founder of this Château was the former owner of Château La Lagune in the Haut-Médoc, and in 1966 planted grafted vines coming from Bordeaux. Following the Cabernet plantings came Syrah and Grenache (for blending purposes), making the first-ever vintage of the Château a red wine in 1970. Rosé production didn’t even start here until the early 90s! When walking through their limestone carved cellar, you are quickly captivated by decades of red wine bottles covered in dust and labeled with designation laws that don’t even exist anymore. We were lucky enough to experience a 1983 vintage (only 11 bottles left in the library), and the wine was still very much alive with notes of dried red cherry, fig, prune, leather, dusty rose, Earth, mushroom, and smoked meat.
So, besides Cabernet, Syrah, and Grenache, what other red grapes can you find in Provence? Well, considering its Mediterranean climate and proximity to the Rhône Valley, it should come as no surprise that you’ll also find Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise, and Tannat as part of the blends. It doesn’t just stop at the Mediterranean climate either. Some of my favorite wines came from “mountain fruit” where the microclimate of the vines is much cooler due to elevation and being cut off from maritime influences. These cool evenings contribute to a longer steadier growing season which means the berries don’t ripen too quickly (and in return lose acidity & freshness).
Montagne Saint-Victoire. A limestone mountain made famous by the likes of Post-Impressionist painter, Paul Cézanne, and home to 20% red wine production. The poor limestone/clay soils combined with high elevation give these red blends pronounced aromas, concentration, structure, and complexity. Some of my favorite reds came from Domaine Saint-Ser where female vigneron, Jaqueline Guichot Bertin leads a small team in biodynamic winegrowing and minimally invasive winemaking styles that showcase the purity of terroir. 33 hectares of south-facing vines create ideal conditions for age-worthy wines; my favorite being the 2011 Les Hautes de Saint-Ser. This Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend spends one year in new French oak giving structural roundness to wine with fresh acidity and minerality. Combine that with concentrated fruit and a balanced tannin structure, and you have yourself a wine that could age 8-10 years.
The red wines of Provence aren’t all big and powerful, however, which leads me to my next point – there is red wine here for anyone’s palate. Maybe instead of Syrah/Cabernet, you prefer an unoaked Grenache/Cinsault blend. Winemakers here aren’t afraid to offer multiple styles within their portfolio even through the constant pressure and demand for that prized rosé. Many winemakers I met were so passionate about their red blends that they even went outside the designation laws to create “Vin de France” bottles. Many of these bottles were passion projects or personal preferences on what they think their land is capable of. These wines will be impossible to find here, but a sure treat when visiting the region!
As I learn more about the world of wine, I’m realizing it’s important we stop categorizing regions only by what they’re most famous for. There is so much to discover and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. The next time you’re at a restaurant and see a red from Provence, I urge you to step outside your comfort zone and give it a chance. You may just find your next favorite wine.