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!

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Fifty (Plus!) Shades of Pink – the Many Hues of Rosé Wines

Rosé comes in a wide array of shades. Why is this and does the color of the wine give any indication of its quality?

Rose shelf 2

A dizzying array of Rosé!

 

Rosé wines can range in color from delicate shades of ‘onion skin’ or ‘salmon’ through pinky/orange ‘mango’ all the way to rosy pink. In fact here is a chart produced by The Center for Rosé Research, located in Provence, that shows approximately 139 different hues!

 

Shade of Provene Rose

Rosé comes in a wide variety of shades.

 

There are a variety of factors that can affect the final shade of a rosé wine:

Different grape varieties will render a different shade to the wine. For example Grenache Noir will be a salmon shade, while a thicker skinned Syrah will be more pink.

Temperature of the fruit is also a factor. Warmer grapes will exude more pigment resulting in a darker shade of wine. For this reason, cooler night harvesting is now practiced by 60-70% of the wineries in Provence in order to produce a paler shade of wine. And that dedication to ‘cool’ continues in the cellar. By ensuring that the wine, through all phases of production, is kept at a lower temperature, the resulting wine will be full of big, beautiful fruit and floral aromas.

There are two basic ways to make rosé and the winemaker’s choice will influence the final shade of the wine.

The traditional and most frequent method of production of Provence Rose is knows as Direct Press where the fruit is pressed very soon after harvest with minimal skin contact. This method produces a wine of paler shade than other production methods such as ‘Saignee’. This term means ‘to bleed’ and in the process, the winemaker will crush the fruit as for the production of red wine, then ‘bleed off’ or remove some of the juice after a period of hours or days. This juice, which is lighter in color and tannin than a red wine, will be used for rose wine and the must left in tank will become a full-bodied red.

Here’s a short video, courtesy of the Wines of Provence, about the two methods:

Other influence such as the grapes exposure to oxygen, the altitude and climate of the vineyard, and indeed the soil on which the grapes are grown, will all influence the finished wine. As an example, some of the grapes from the Cote de Provence Frejus AOC in eastern Provence are grown on volcanic soil, which will lend a slight copper tinge to the wine.

The depth of color of the rosé, however, is not an indication of quality or intensity. A pale, salmon color rose may have intense, explosive fruity aromas and flavors, while a more intensely pigmented wine may have more subdued aromas.   Perhaps, not what you might guess from just looking at the bottle!

Roses are a pink ‘rainbow’ of color – each wonderful in it’s own, distinctive way.