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Provence in the Pink

Text and photographs © 2011, Tom Cannavan

This feature is in two parts. There is a link to part II at the bottom of the page.

The southern French region of Provence conjures up immediate and familiar images, from the sun-kissed beautiful people of the Côte d'Azur, to the dreamy rural hinterland evoked by Peter Mayle in his bestselling autobiographical novel, A Year in Provence. Wine-wise, Provence stands for one thing in the eyes of many: rosé. Though the serious reds of Bandol have many followers, and some excellent white and red wines are made across the region, it is rosé, fuelled by its booming recent popularity, that now accounts for over 80% of the region's production.

map Strung along the Mediterranean coast where it rubs shoulders with the high rent playgrounds of the French Riviera, Provence's vineyards enjoy a warm, mild climate with abundant sunshine and normally adequate rainfall too. The cooling Mistral wine plays an important role, with winemakers able to exploit specific vineyard sites that are more or less sheltered from its effect. Soils vary widely, from the sandy soils close to the coast to pockets of clay, slate and limestone.

A wide variety of grapes is grown too, both Atlantic varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Semillon, Rhône varieties like Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Roussanne, and more distinctly local grape varieties like Tibouren for reds and Rolle (Vermentino) for whites.

Thinking Pink

rose shades It would be easy to imagine that the extremely pale coloured rosés that are now synonymous with the region are embedded in Provençal winemaking history, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though always a significant producer of pink wines, the proportion of rosé produced in Provence has soared in the last couple of decades. Much red wine production has switched to rosé, and new plantings have been specifically designated to make rosé. But the style of rosé has also changed. The wines were once much darker and often sweeter than the bone-dry, herb and floral-scented pale stuff of today's most desirable wines.

Legend has it that a producer near St Tropez accidentally produced an extremely pale and dry wine, but the beautiful people of the town loved it and so a trendy new style was born.

Today, this style of savoury, food-friendly rosé, with its appetising dry, herby flavours is being replicated in other regions and countries. Producers are learning that rosé can be much more than a useful by-product of making a red wine (running off a little juice after a short maceration to sell as a rosé whilst concentrating the remaining red). And whilst not all Provence rosé is great wine, the region and the producers dedicated to the style are making some serious wines - some of them at prices that would once have been unthinkable for pinks.

Domaines Ott

Jean-Francois Ott Domaines Ott is one of Provence's most significant producers, and with bottles costing €20 and upwards, one that has helped to set a new benchmark for the region. I met up with the charming and energetic Jean-François Ott, pictured here on the beach which literally laps the vineyards of their Clos Mireille estate in the Côtes de Provence.

Having founded Domaines Ott in 1912, the Ott family still runs the three properties that make up business, though a majority stake in the company was bought by Champagne house Roederer in 2004. Jean-François shrugs: "Part of the problem was succession. There are 21 of us in my generation of Otts, so 60% of company was sold to Roederer." That brought a global distribution network, and Jean-François insists it now allows the family to concentrate on production and not administration.

The three properties - Clos Mireille, Château de Selle in the Côtes de Provence and Château Romassan in Bandol - produce distinctively different wines under the Domaines Ott label. The 45 hectares of vineyard at Clos Mireille are part of a huge, beach-front forest and parkland. Château de Selle adds another 64 hectares further inland on the rocky limestone hills, whilst Romassan is the largest estate with over 80 hectares in Bandol planted mostly to Mourvèdre.

At the time of my autumn 2011 visit Clos Mireille's vineyards were undergoing substantial changes. Planted mostly with Ugni Blanc and Semillon, since 2003 Rolle has been favoured over Ugni Blanc and some vineyards have been ripped out and are planted with various grass crops in a four year programme that will condition and prepare the soils for replanting. Currently 70% of the vineyard area is Semillon, with Grenache the major red variety.

Mireille's vineyards literally run to the sea, and a saltiness is said to be detectable in the wines. Grapes harvested in the morning are taken straight to press whilst the afternoon harvest is refrigerated overnight. Sorting tables are used and whole bunches are pressed. The stems are not removed as they "act like a drain, allowing juice to flow more easily without pressing too strongly," according to Jean-François. Each variety and parcel is vinified separately. Maceration is very short: "We are happy with very light coloured rosé," says Jean-François, "and Grenache in particular gives very little colour." Slow fermentation occurs at low temperature, in barrels with battonage for their white wines and in steel tanks for rosé.

for tasting notes on 5 wines from Domaines Ott

Château Vignelaure

Philippe Bru It was a huge treat when visiting this gorgeous and peaceful hilltop Château in the AOC of Coteaux d'Aix en Provence to find that winemaker Philippe Bru (right) had prepared a vertical tasting of the estate's red wines back to the 1985 vintage. Bought by the Sundström family from Scandinavia in 2007, the new owners are investing in various part of the vineyard and winery, but are essentially changing little about one of the most respected estate's in Provence, whose model was the great wines of Bordeaux.

Though a recent archaeological dig has proved that wines have been made on this site since the first century, the present day estate dates only from the late 1960s when Georges Brunet (previously owner of the classed growth Château La Lagune in the Médoc) established vineyards to make wines in the Bordeaux style, planting mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with Syrah, Grenache and Merlot. The barrel maturation cellars and bottle ageing of reds was all set up to follow the Bordeaux 'recipe'. One big change under the new owners is the decision to plant white varieties for the first time, with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc to follow the Bordeaux pattern, plus Rolle and Marsanne. Philippe Bru came on board from a winery in Montpellier, though he brings much wider knowledge having worked for four years in Victoria and Tasmania, then eight years for the cooperative at Rasteau in the Rhône Valley.

The estate is beautiful, the 1790 Bastide surrounded by north-facing vineyards, silent except for birdsong from its position on top of the hill at over 400 metres. The air is clear with cool days, cold nights, and conditions that mean they have just embarked on a move towards organic farming on their 60 hectares of vineyard planted on limestone and clay mixed with gravel.

for tasting notes on 11 wines from Château Vignelaure

Domaine de Rimauresq

Pierre Duffort The contrast between the swish opulence of Domaines Ott and the grand hilltop setting of Vignelaure could hardly have been greater. Pierre Duffort, Managing Director (right) welcomed us in their modest tasting room in the Côte de Provence, and the first thing that struck me was that the wines almost played second fiddle to the most comprehensive collection of single malt whisky from the Wemyss Malts company of Scotland. In fact, this historic estate - one of the few 'Cru Classé' estates of the 1995 classification of the Appellation Côtes de Provence, was purchased by the Wemyss family in 1988.

Rimauresq takes its name from the 'Real Mauresque', the river that flows through the vineyards. Having suffered from decades of under investment by former owners, the Wemyss family, Pierre (who has been here since 2000) and his team have been slowly improving the vineyards and extensive old buildings. Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan are grown for the reds, Rolle and Ugni Blanc for whites and Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Tibouren for the rosés. When the Wemyss acquired the property in 1988 there were 32 hectares under vine, now there are over 70 hectares. Some 60-year-old plots of Syrah remain. "Then we produced 60% red wine," he tells me, "now we are 60% rosé." Most blocks face north/northwest, and the soils are strewn with rocks.

Pierre reveals another looming problem: "Our main red grape varieties are Syrah and Cabernet, but within 10 years the AOC plans say they will not allow Cabernet Sauvignon and certain other non-indigenous varieties in AOC wines." I ask if they will re-plant and he shrugs, "Either that or we have to declassify."

for tasting notes on 8 wines from Domaine de Rimauresq

Château La Coste

Matthieu Cosse La Coste is the remarkable château featured in my recent article,
Wine, Art and Architecture, where Irish owner Paddy McKillen is creating an extraordinary fusion of vineyard, gallery and exhibition space around his three passions here on this historic and large estate north of Aix en Provence.

Winemaker and estate director Matthieu Cosse came from Cahors in 2006 and has been on a whirlwind of a rollercoaster ride ever since as the Château La Coste project took shape. The artistic side is covered fully in my earlier article, but the changes, improvements and investment in the winemaking has been equally impressive. Once a large producer of average wines for the local market, the 130 hectares of vineyard began conversion to organic farming when Matthieu arrived and were certified in 2009. They are now managed biodynamically and are part way towards certification. Matthieu explains that their limestone soil are the basis for a winemaking project entirely aimed at expressing the terroir of La Coste. The vineyards are in a natural amphitheatre. White wine accounts for 15% of production, with north-facing slopes dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, whilst 35% of production is red wine and 50% rosé, based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Grenache. 22 parcels are vinified separately in the stunning new winery, and Matthieu says he has already identified two specific parcels of clay soils that are making the estate's 'Grand vin', launched last year: "Clay gives the most powerful wines," he says.

No expense has been spared with the meticulous new winery which is entirely gravity-fed, and equipped with vibrating sorting tables, a cold room for grape reception, small harvesting baskets and all the trappings needed to ensure high quality wines. Only natural yeasts are used for fermentation: "It's all about the terroir," says Matthieu. "Mr McKillen's first thought was to improve the quality, which touched all areas of the business from vineyards to the new cellar, and onto the artistic centre." That intention is certainly being realised in the wines I tasted.

for tasting notes on 5 wines from Château La Coste

Château de Chausse

Roseline Schlecher One of the most enjoyable visits of my few days in Provence was undoubtedly to the family estate of Château de Chausse in the Golfe de St Tropez, and its to indomitable matriarch, Roseline Schlecher (right). Arriving at the winery around lunchtime we found a note directing us to Madame Schlecher's nearby house, where the garden was filled with the sounds of her grandchildren playing in the autumn sunshine, whilst Roseline and her daughter cleared their lunch from a little table by the pool.

Roseline invited us into the warmth of her family home, filled with the evidence of a lifetime of family, work and varied interests. The Schlechers have been here since the early 1990s, once suspects as a bit of a family retreat for her and husband Yves, who worked in the stock exchange at the time. Initially with no intention of making wine, but the 50 hectare property sits on a prime clay and slate winegrowing slope, and so Roseline soon decided they should have vineyards, and 15 hectares of virgin land were cleared and planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Rolle and Viognier. The vineyards run to within two kilometres of the sea.

One suspects Roseline is being a little disingenuous when she says that for the first 10 years she was winemaker because "We didn't have money to pay for one." In fact, from tastings that included bottles back to the 2000 vintage she was a very good winemaker, entirely self-taught by travelling and working in various vineyards around Europe. They have had a full time winemaker for the past five years, though Roseline is clearly still in absolute authority: "We use new barrels only for the red wine, but never for the entire cuvée - too much oak makes my flesh creep," she announces with certainty. Her top white and rosé are made in tank, only from free-run juice, whilst the Viognier has "a little time in barrel to round it out." Around 45% of production is rosé, 40% red and 15% white.

for tasting notes on 7 wines from Château de Chausse

Château de Saint Martin

Adeline The Château de Saint Martin is an historic estate and cru classé of Côtes de Provence with 50 hectares under vine. The Château has been run by the same noble family since 1740, and I met up with the 18th generation in charge, Adeline de Barry (right). She took over from her mother in 1996, but the Comtesse de Gasquet is still very much in evidence, popping in to say hello on my visit.

Saint Martin also operates as a Chambres d'Hôtes, its atmospheric rooms being used to film the 2006 movie version of Lady Chatterley. Adeline took me on a tour of both the house and vineyards, explaining that the history of the estate can be traced back to prehistoric times, with carvings and sacrifice stones found in the grounds. Later research showed the estate entrance is part of an old Roman road, and in excavating the cellar to build a new one they found the remains of two Roman soldiers dating from 100 BC.

Monks lived on the estate from the 10th to 18th century, living in independent cells in the woods, but making wine in the cellars until 1740 when the family took over. The oldest vines are 80 years old, and currently 10 hectares are planted to other crops to prepare them for replanting - a rolling programme replants constantly, but always maintaining one third of the vineyards as very old vines. Adeline has lived here all her life, and points out that it has always been women who have managed it.

Beautiful old vaulted cellars carved into the rock by monks in 12th century are still used for finished wine, and the estate has a timeless air though, I gently questioned Adeline, a surprisingly large number of different labels, ranges and cuvés that seemed somewhat confusing. She looked surprised: "Artists use a lot of colours to represent Provence, so we have a large palate of grape varieties and blends to do the same," was her poetic if not conclusive response. She says the various soils give them this flexibility: "The schist part of vineyard is good for mineral wines, the northern part on clay gives more richness and fullness. We try to have every variety we grow planted on both sites to give us the maximum number of components to work with."

for tasting notes on 9 wines from Château de Saint Martin

Go to part II: six more estates profiled including Château d'Esclans.