Sep 2009 issue
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COVER STORY Provence: Heaven for the Senses Catherine Fallis, MS, ACWP
With plentiful sunshine, a rugged coastline, quaint fishing villages, and some of the most delicious seafood in the world, Provence is almost as well known to American visitors as Paris is. Situated between the Rhône delta and Nice in southeastern France, Provence is easily accessible by land or sea. The gritty port of Marseille—a city that Julia Child called home for a year, and the place where she claims to have learned the most about true French cooking—is counterbalanced by the fabulous Cannes, anchoring the Côte d’Azur.
Summer in Provence is heaven on earth. Cerulean skies, rugged mountains, Alpine meadows, and the calm Mediterranean set the stage. Sunburned tourists sip rosé with their leisurely lunches at chic beachfront clubs like Saint-Tropez’s Club 55 on the French Riviera. On languorous summer afternoons, the mating calls of the male cicadas, or cigales , gently lift one from a sultry stupor just in time to enjoy another round as the sun sets and the Provençal evening caresses the senses yet again.
Grasse, the world’s perfume capital, is here, as are some of the most fragrant flowers on the planet. Scents of classic garrigue , the perfume of the scrublands—olive, cypress, and Aleppo pine groves—fill the air, and fields of wild thyme, rosemary, and lavender abound. Garlic is in the air, too, and it’s consumed in salacious quantities—mostly in the form of aioli, the rich, homemade garlic mayonnaise. “Provençal caviar” (a tapenade of black olives, anchovies, and capers) and ratatouille are staples; herbes de Provence round out many dishes. On the lighter side, one can enjoy the black-olive-and-tuna-based salade Niçoise , fresh sea urchins, or a filet of rouget. Richer dishes include bouillabaisse, a Provençal stew of fish and shellfish. Fresh, fragrant whites and rosés from the region complement even the strongest flavors of these dishes, while the more formidable Bandol rouge —the favorite wine of in-the-know regulars and locals—is better suited for the local Sisteron lamb.
Phoenician traders established a trading post at Marseille around 600 B.C., planting grapes and making the first wines in French history. The Greeks and the Romans followed, and the area became an important winegrowing center. Julius Caesar, and later King Louis XV and the royal family, favored Bandol wines; in more recent times, Bandols were valued almost as highly as Bordeaux.
This crescent-moon-shaped land tumbles down lazily amid scrub and brush from the Alpine foothills to the sea. The climate is distinctly Mediterranean. A highly touted 3,000 hours of sunlight per year (a vine requires only 1,300) help make up for sharp fluctuations in weather. After short, violent Mediterranean storms, the blasting mistral wind quickly dries the vines, keeping them disease-free. “The mistral is the Provençal winemaker’s best friend,” says Lucien Peyraud, owner of benchmark producer Domaine Tempier. “Any rain is immediately windblown dry, avoiding rot.” The wind is so strong, however, that it can rip apart untrained vines or even whole vineyards planted on the unprotected plains. Terraced sites on limestone bluffs overlooking the sea are ideal, as found in Bandol and Cassis, though the largest grape-growing areas stretch all the way from the coast to the mountains.
Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Coteaux Varois, and Côtes de Provence are the major subappellations, supplying the world with dry, understated rosés. Les Baux-de-Provence, the first French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) to require biodynamic farming, produces serious reds in addition to rosés. The tiny Palette AOC, north of Marseille, is home to Château Simone, producer of the top white wines in Provence. Cassis is also best known for its whites. The small, steeply sloped Bellet AOC, producing wines of all three colors, sits on the eastern edge of the region, just outside Nice. Vins de pays are widely available in the U.S. market and represent the Provençal character well, but because this category often ends up in the chains at a discount, it’s wise to do a retail survey before making a commitment.
Although there was a push toward planting international varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, over the last decade or so, the focus has recently shifted back to indigenous grapes, several of which are not grown elsewhere in France. Top-label whites are often blends of several varieties, including Bourboulenc, Rolle, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Ugni Blanc, and Chardonnay, but vins de pays are often varietally focused. Grenache and Syrah factor heavily into rosés and simpler reds, with Mourvèdre providing the structure and longevity for premium reds, most notably Bandol. Although red-wine production is climbing in Bandol, Bellet, and Palette, 75% of the bottlings in these areas are still the ubiquitous dry rosés.
“Crisp, dry rosés and forceful reds are what the region is known for,” says importer Fran Kysela of Kysela Pere et Fils. Victor Owen Schwartz, owner of VOS Selections, says he imports Provençal wines because “they have bright, clean flavors and are terroir-driven, not oak-driven.”
The quality of wine made in Provence today owes much to the pioneering spirit of Domaine Tempier’s Peyraud, who helped organize a Bandol producers’ syndicate and urged the AOC to require Mourvèdre as the basis of Bandol rouge . Peyraud had learned that most of the vineyards were planted to Mourvèdre before phylloxera wiped them out, and that the grape adds a hearty richness, a firm structure, and a flash of sauvage to the softer, prettier Grenache. Over the years, the Peyrauds have acquired three old-vine Mourvèdre vineyards—Tourtine, Migoua, and Cabassou—which they bottle individually to great acclaim. These are the unofficial grands crus of Provence.
Commercial wines have also improved, though they would probably sell just as well in any case to the thirsty masses. “I first came to Provence in 1985, and I have been back there just about every year since,” says Kysela. “What I have noticed is the increase in quality across the board. The winemakers have more training and focus on unique terroirs. Fortunately, Provence is still one region of the world where the wines have not yet been ‘internationalized’ to any great degree.”
While sommeliers have virtually unlimited options these days when it comes to rosés, Provence is a must on any list, especially if the establishment serves Provençal-inspired cuisine. The whites, especially those from Cassis and Palette, are unique: floral, fresh, and mineral-laden. According to Kysela, Cassis Blanc is typically paired with bouillabaisse, while Côtes de Provence whites are best with grilled meats and vegetables, often prepared with local herbs. Kysela recommends Bandol rouge with Sisteron lamb and Bandol rosé with the popular black-olive tapenade or monkfish-liver purée.
French wine importer and merchant Kermit Lynch, a noted proponent of terroir and subtlety, adds, “I think regionally when I think of wine-and-food combinations, because the wine and cuisine of any region grew up together and make magic together. I love the smell of Provençal herbs like thyme that you can find in the wines, and there is, as in some Italian wines, a slight bitterness that makes them so good with tomato-based dishes and garlicky concoctions. The tannin of the reds is right with red meats, the rosés perfect with fish and pork. A good Provençal red like Bandol is good young, old, and in between.”