Provence: The Homeland of Rosé, Part One

Rosé is gaining in popularity by leaps and bounds every year.  In the United States, consumption has increased by double digits every year since 2004.  But how much does the average consumer really know about this delightfully refreshing ‘pink’ wine?

Although rose is produced in many regions around the wine world, there is one place that stands out: Provence, France.

To really understand rose and all it’s many nuances, you must understand viticultural Provence. This is where the rosé story really began and where it continues to evolve.  Not only is Provence the largest producer of ‘pink’ but it’s also the benchmark to which other regions aspire.

For most people Provence is lavender, sunshine, Brigitte Bardot, movie stars and yachts.  But it’s also green hillsides, ancient Greek and Roman ruins, small fishing villages, winding roads through deep river gorges and vineyards.  Lots of vineyards .

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Charming seaside village of Sanary-sur-Mer

The wine regions of Provence credit: Wine Folly

The wine regions of Provence credit: Wine Folly

 

So lets’ start by finding where this magical land resides.

When we talk about the wines of Provence we are looking at a geographical region that is  approximately 150 miles long, bordered on the south by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east bye the Cote d’Azur (almost to the Italian border), the Rhone  to the west and the Durance River on the North.  (This is said to be ‘where the olive trees end”).

The region is not huge in size, but the variety of the land is quite diverse.  Small, independent mountain ranges or ‘massifs’, rise from the sea and also appear further inland, sheltering vineyards from the cold northern wind known as the Mistral. Rivers flow from the foothills of the Alps carving deep scenic gorges into the terrain and some vineyards are planted on the limestone cliffs jutting from the azure blue sea.

 

Vineyards outside Correns

Massif and vineyards near Correns, France

Vineyards on the edge of the Sea credit: Wines of Provence

Vineyards on the edge of the Sea    credit: Wines of Provence

The Mistral

The often fierce wind known as the “Mistral’ is an important piece of  Provencal culture.

It begins life far to the north, in the Baltic and North Seas.  Drawn to the south by that region’s warmer air, the wind picks up speed on it’s journey.  As it reaches the Rhone Valley it’s influence begins to be noticed, but once it reaches the city of Avignon, the mountains and hills of Provence funnel it eastward so the wind’s effects are felt throughout the area.

Often cold, the Mistral can achieve sustained speeds of 110 mph and last for days, sometimes weeks, at a time.  As with many things, there is good and bad  The benefits – the air is cleaner, sunnier, and moisture is blown away from the grape clusters, warding off molds and mildew.  The bad – in the Spring it may damage developing grape clusters.  The wind is also capable of ripping clusters or arms off the vines and even uprooting the entire plant.

Because you can’t fight it, the inhabitants of Provence have learned to live with this wind.  Doors are located facing south so the back of the house against the wind, church belfries are designed to allow the wind to flow through, and vines are planted to go with the wind, not against.

The climate here is varied, as well.  Near the sea, the vineyards bask in what’s known as a Mediterranean Climate with warm sunny summers and mild winters.  Further inland, and for vineyards at higher altitudes, the temperatures are naturally a bit cooler, with even a chance of a dusting of snow during the winter.

The soils of Provence are different, depending on location.  In general terms, the vineyards to the west are planted on mostly limestone and clay, remnants of an ancient prehistoric sea that covered what we now know as France.  Further to the east, you might find volcanic soils or crystalline schist.

 

Magical limestone & clay soils of western Provence

Magical limestone & clay soils of western Provence

For ‘terroirists’ or those of us who believe that the soils in which the grapes are grown are part of the final influence on the wine they produce, limestone may lend a bright acidity and minerality.  Clay can provide good tannins and subtle, dark fruit aromas while the schist often gets credit for body and structure.

In upcoming posts, we’ll travel back in time to discover the history of wines in Provence, go ‘scientific’ and talk about winemaking, visit the vineyards and meet the many grape varieties that go in to Rosé, and have a look at the 13 growing regions of Provence and what makes each – and it’s Rosé wines – unique.

We’ll also immerse ourselves in some of the culture and food of the region – after all, Rosé is not just about the wine – it’s Joie de Vivre!