Did you know that Provençal rosé is likely the oldest wine of France, and that it may owe its existence to a freshwater stream in a natural cove? Did you know that some of Provence's richest, best-aging white wines are produced in the city of Nice? Provence is a very famous, and very little understood, wine region that churns out huge quantities of rosé and small quantities of incredibly fine wines. Read on to learn more about this important birthplace of French wine. In addition, check out the amazing wines you can try to get a taste of the truly astounding breadth of Provence. We'll have these wines available at The Barrel Room through July!
France's oldest wine region was founded circa 600 BCE. Though the area had been occupied for thousands of years by the tribes of the Halstatt culture, it took the marked influence of newcomers to initiate the cultivation of the grapevine.
Massalia (modern day Marseilles) was officially founded by the Phocaeans. Though the Phoenicians were active in the area, they did not establish a lasting presence. The Phocaeans were Ionian Greeks coming from Asia Minor. The port city was an ideal location to further Greek trade throughout the Mediterranean. Legend states that the Phocaeans took over the area from the Segobriges, aka the Segusiavi or Ligurians, who ruled the region. This foundation myth has the Greek Protis arriving at the Lacydon, a natural port with a freshwater stream. Upon disembarking, he received an invitation to a dinner feast from the king of the Segobriges. This dinner happened to be a ceremonial event where the king's daughter Gyptis would choose her husband. She chose Protis, and the king granted them Massalia as a wedding gift.
Gaining Massalia was a huge boon for the Greeks. It also had a dramatic effect on the culture of the surrounding peoples. Greek arrival brought about ideas of "civility" and Greek ideas of governance, and, most important to the purposes of this story, wine.
The Greeks believed that grape vines should only be planted where olives and figs grow. This lead to extensive plantings throughout modern day Provence, but none further inland. Wines were produced in what is now Cassis, Bandol, and Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, and exported along the Greek trade routes to Iberia.
Waning Phocaean influence created a bit of a power vacuum after 525 BCE. To maintain control, a partnership with the Romans was initiated by the ruling class. Massalia remained independent, but supported Rome during the Second Punic Wars by supplying ships and equipment. The city became a melting pot of Greek and Roman culture, and was referred to as the "city of wisdom" by Aristotle. Many elite came to Massalia for its culture and refinement.
During this time, Roman soldiers frequented the city. Need for a larger volume of wine led to vineyard expansion, pushing vines inland to the southern Rhone and Gaillac. The grape of choice was V. biturica, the ancestor of the Cabernets. Side note: modern Carménère may in fact be biturica, or a clone. The jury is still out at the moment.
In 49 BCE, Massalia closed its gates to the Roman army led by Julius Caesar. Massalia chose to support Pompey during Caesar's Civil War, an act which led to the Caesar's sacking of the city followed by its loss of independence. After this Massalia became a member of the Roman Empire and lost its surrounding territories. Wine production increased further to support the thirst of the empire, and the biturica grape was planted ever farther inland, reaching Bordeaux by 50 AD (where it would give rise to the Cabernet grapes).
The rise of Christianity and fall of the Roman Empire turned Provence into a haven for monastic culture. During the Middle Ages wine production continued, and the monks continued profiting. The fall of feudalism and serfdom opened the doors for wealthy nobles to buy up large plots of land, and châteaux developed. This is when we truly begin to see modern methods of winemaking taking shape.
Ancient Wine Styles
So what were the ancient wines like in France's oldest wine region? According to texts, Greek wines were typically very light in color, reminiscent of today's rosés. White wines were often infused with preservatives (think retsina). Without today's technology, wines did not last long. Red wines were pressed quickly and drunk immediately. White wines, which had less organic material from thick grape skins, could be fermented drier and last a little longer with introduction of a preservative such as sap.
Success and notoriety of the region's rosés owes itself to the location of Massalia. The light wines were exported to Iberia under Greek reign. Roman rule expanded the wines' distribution even farther around the Mediterranean, and roman writers such as Pliny the Elder spread word of them via marketing. The Middle Ages saw production continue to increase, and rosés were cheap and easy to make and could be sold immediately. By time the nobility bought large plots of vineyard land, rosés were synonymous with Provence. Development of the railroad system in the early 20th century resulted in ever-increasing rosé production to this day.
Most people are familiar with rosés of Provence. They tend toward a salmon color, they're bright, with high acidity and are typically completely dry. Given the history of wine production in the region, it's no surprise that rosé is the first thing people think of when asked about wines of Provence. But take a closer look at Provence, and you may be surprised by what you find...
Provence boasts a wide range of white wine styles. White wines are produced all across Provence, but the most complex and interesting can be found hiding in small appellations most people have never experienced. Clairette is queen of the white grapes here, followed by Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, and Ugni Blanc.
The villages that produce phenomenal whites are small in acreage, and most of the wine is consumed locally.
Cassis is a tiny fishing village, originally founded by the Phoenicians, that produces remarkable long-aging white wines from Marsanne, Ugni Blanc, Clairette, and Grenache Blanc (75% of wine production in the village is white). Phylloxera struck particularly harshly here, and even today vineyard land is roughly half what it was before the phylloxera epidemic. Cassis was one of the first AOCs in France, named along with Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel in 1936. The wines of Cassis are powerful and spicy, with aromas of honey and peaches and a very long finish.
Bandol's Clairette-based whites also age well, and can be every bit as complex as a Burgundy. Bandol is a very warm region just next to Cassis, protected from strong winds and cold northern air by mountain ranges and the Massif de la Sainte-Baume. Though known more for its red wines, the whites of Bandol have a vivacious acidity and rich body that combine to make a truly unique wine.
Palette, near Aix-en-Provence, is the smallest appellation in the south of France; only 3 producers exist here. Soils here are all limestone. These exotic wines offer up meyer lemon, white flowers, and typically a little toast.
The tiny little secret appellation of Bellet lies entirely within the city limits of Nice, and makes bold, rich whites from Rolle (the local name for Vermentino) and small amounts of Chardonnay. Bellet in its entirety occupies only 100 acres, with 15 producers making AOC Bellet wines. Legend states that the first vines were planted here by the Phoenicians, as far back as 2000 BCE. Wines here are typically full-bodied and powerful, with bright fruit and nutty, toasty notes.
Wines to Try
The red wines of Provence tend toward cedar box spice, leather, ripe red fruits, and soft but powerful tannins. These wines can be quite remarkable, and can age extremely well. Grapes are mostly Bordeaux and Rhône varietals with a peppering of interesting old varietals like Braquet, Calitor, and Tibouren. The notable appellations for red wines are Bandol and Les Baux de Provence, though many nice examples from the Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence can be found.
Bandol's reds are world renowned. These Mourvèdre-based wines are loaded with aromas of cinnamon, leather, and red and black fruits. Mourvèdre must comprise at least 50% of the blends. Late ripening Mourvèdre was mainly planted post-phylloxera, as it performed very well in the limestone and silica soils.
Les Baux de Provence consists of 12 estates in 8 villages on the sides of the Alpilles and is surrounded by the Val d'Enfer, a deep valley famous for its rocks that form fantastical shapes. Its red wines are deeply colored and offer generous aromas of garrigue. All production here is 100% biodynamic.
Wines to Try
And of course, the Rosés!
Here's the wine style for which Provence is best known... try a few interesting ones below for a nice way to experience the spectrum of flavor profiles found here.