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Provence in the Pink. Part II

© 2011, Tom Cannavan

Domaine de la Grande Séouve

Eric Dutch advertising executive Eric Kurver and his wife Adrienne bought the Domaine de la Grande Séouve in 2009, but over the past two years they have concentrated rather smartly on building a strong, modern brand with their rosé wine AIX, which now accounts for 90% of production from their substantial 73 hectare farm.

When Eric was 16 he worked in a wine shop and got more and more into wine, organising tastings and wine trips for friends whilst building a media business. He sold the business ten years ago and decided to move to the south of France. But there was no plan to make wine - the couple just wanted a change of lifestyle. "After four or five years we tried to get back into the media business in Holland with magazine publication," Eric tells me, but things had moved on in the Dutch media world and as they wanted to stay in the south of France, the attempt proved fruitless. "So we started a little wine business, selling and trading, and began to dream of owning a small domaine," explains Adrienne.

The Domaine they found is not so small. "It's much bigger than we'd intended," confides Adrienne, and is now almost totally focused on rosé. New presses, harvesting equipment and tanks are all dedicated to rosé production: "It's all about rosé," says Eric.

Eric smiles when he recalls his initially naive approach to thinking this would be like running any other business: "After we bought the domaine we assembled 30 of the top Provence rosés and listed which aspects we liked and which we didn't, basically designing the wine we wanted to make," he says. They then told their winemaker to produce a wine to that design brief, but as Eric says "Of course nature intervened and we discovered it was not so easy to 'dial up' a wine by numbers." Having been "Only 25% happy," with their first 2009 vintage, for 2010 they made changes to the picking time and blend. "Now things are moving in the right direction," says Eric.

Their AIX brand is strong, and with old vineyards they are delivering substance and not just style, which for a former advertising mogul, is surely the ultimate compliment.

Aix Rosé 2010
Lovely pale salmon pink. Delightful pomegranate and light citrus and redcurrant nose. The palate has a delicious freshness, a touch of herby and mineral intensity, and a lovely rolling mouth-feel cut by the lemony fresh acidity. 88/100.

Mas de Cadenet

Famille Negrel Maud Négrel of the Famille Négrel who own the Mas de Cadenet and the Famille Négrel brand, is part of the seventh generation to own and manage this important estate. Picture here (photo © José Nicolas) with her brother Mathieu and their father Guy, who is the estate's viticulturist, Maud met up with me and explained that the family has been at Mas de Cadenet since 1813.

Mas de Cadenet sits in the Provence appellation of Sainte Victoire, at the foot of the Montagne Sainte Victoire. Sainte Victoire has been an appellation in its own right since 2004, and Maud says "We have stricter rules and lower yields than the Côtes de Provence," and that her father was one of the prime movers in having the separate appellation recognised. Their vineyards are clay over limestone, "with very deep roots," Maud tells me. "This is terroir wine, we are not looking to make a wine to a template, but to reflect what the terroir gives us." She says it is a hot area, well away from the sea, and until the mid 1980s there was no tradition for rosé production. Today the 45 hectares of Mas de Cadenet's vines produce around 60% rosé, 30% red and 10% white wine.

There is old vine material here, mostly Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, with some vines 70 years old, and an average age of around 35 years. The estate is not organic, though no herbicides are used to control weeds, only mechanical means.

for tasting notes on 4 wines from Mas de Cadenet

Maison Fabre

Henri Fabre Maison Fabre is an important player in Provence, owner of six domaines including two Crus Classés in the shape of Château de l'Aumérade and Château de la Clapière. The 1952 classification declared 21 crus classés, today these are two of only 18 in production.

Henri Fabre (pictured) is director of the family company which has owned domaines in Provence since 1928, but as succeeding generations have bought more vineyards and estates, the operation has grown into the biggest vineyard ownership of Côtes de Provence, and 10th biggest vineyard owners in all of France with 550 hectares under vine. There is one large winemaking facility, but every estate and every parcel is vinified separately, and 90% of the overall production is rosé.

The business is based at the Château de l'Aumérade (including the winery), though the vineyards span a whole range of soils and micro-climates across the Côtes de Provence. Export Manager Romain Roccoli told me that the company farmed some vineyards at Château la Clapière and other estates organically and biodynamically from the early to late 2000s, but it proved too expensive with yields reduced too low for economic viability - "customers just would not pay the price," he says. Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Syrah are grown, as well as the white variety Rolle.

for tasting notes on 6 wines from Maison Fabre

Château de Berne

bottles Château de Berne is both an eighty hectare wine estate and a luxurious Relais & Châteaux hotel and Spa, sited not far from Lorgues in the Provençal countryside. I met up with winemaker and managing director Thomas de Lagarde, but was intrigued to learn that Château de Berne is owned by English businessman Mark Dixon. Mr Dixon is a successful and colourful character, CEO and owner of a substantial part of the Regus serviced office chain, making him a multi-millionaire, albeit one who started life selling hot-dogs from the back of a van. He visits the Château regularly, and can often be seen walking with his dogs in the vineyard.

Dixon has been responsible for the reengineering of the estate into a luxury 'destination' hotel and restaurant complex, based on similar set-ups he had experienced in South Africa. The wine cellar has 20,000 visitors per year, and an active programme of activities - a cookery school, chocolate and truffle days and more - attract wine and food loving high rollers, who of course also drink and buy the estate's wines.

Winemaking at the estate has seen investment too. Eight hectares of Grenache have just been planted on a particularly rocky vineyard close to the gates to domaine destined for the Grande Cuvée, and there are now 110 hectares under vines, which is up from 60 hectares five years ago after buying a neighbouring property and the new plantings. Only natural yeasts are used to start fermentation whenever possible. The domaine practises sustainable farming, but Thomas tells me they cannot be organic as the ground is just too rocky to plough. Château de Berne's vineyards lie at 300 metres and enjoy a relatively cool climate, so the harvest is three weeks later than on the coast. Around 70% of production is rosé and 25% red - whereas Thomas tells me 10 years ago 40% was red. The unusual, square-shaped bottle for the domaine's wines is certainly distinctive.

for tasting notes on 7 wines from Château de Berne

Château d'Esclans & more

On my last day in the region we had lunch at the wonderful Jacques Chibois restaurant in the Bastide Saint Antoine in Grasse. Before lunch, a tasting of eight wines from top estates I had not managed to visit, including the superstar estate of Sacha Lichine, Château d'Esclans, which provided a nice overview of Provence Rosés different styles.

for tasting notes on 8 wines from top Provence estates

Maîtres Vignerons

To give them their full title, the Maîtres Vignerons de la presqu'île de Saint-Tropez is an organisation that brings together several domaines to share expertise and financing of technical skills (monitoring of soils, vinification techniques, etc.) and business skills (marketing and sales). Founded in the 1960s there are seven members, all of whom are based around the gulf of St Tropez. A couple of big brands are made using grapes from all of the member domaines, but single estate wines are marketed by the Maîtres Vignerons too.

for tasting notes on 5 wines from the Maîtres Vignerons

Go to part I: introduction to Provence and its wines, and profiles of six top estates .