No other style of wine embodies springtime better than rosé.
And although rosé is produced in many parts of the wine world, there is one place that stands out: Provence, France.
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.
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 is also the benchmark to which other regions aspire.
So, what is it about this particular part of southern France that gives it the privilege of being known as the homeland of rosé? Perhaps the fact they’ve been making it for over 2,000 years has a little something to do with it!
The Phoenicians, and later the Greeks, were the first to bring viticulture to the region around 600 BCE, and they founded the city of Massalia, now known as Marseille.
The wine they produced for both local consumption and for trade was, according to scientific research, a pale-colored wine. The reason for this can be traced to the fact that their means of production were pretty basic – harvest the grapes, crush them to release their juice and then let that juice ferment. The idea of skin contact and deep-colored red wines was to come to the fore later in history.
As the age of Greek domination waned, the Roman Empire rose up and began its expansion through Europe. By 121 BCE, the area became the first of the Roman provinces (hence the name Provence from the Latin “Nostra Provincia” or “our province”). The new residents expanded the vineyards and began exporting more and more rosé throughout the empire.
The Roman influence may have declined in the 5th century AD, but rosé wines remained the style of choice, becoming even more popular when, in the 14th Century, Pope Clement the 5th moved the Papal seat of power from Rome to a little town called Avignon in the southern Rhone Valley. The weather was often warm, and the Popes adored the crisp, fragrant and refreshing rosés. And what the Pope loved, everyone in his sphere of influence loved as well, making rosé the wine of choice for the royal houses of Europe and the aristocracy for generations.
Today, when we talk about the wines of Provence, we are looking at a geographical region that is only about 150 miles long by 100 miles wide, bordered on the south by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east by the Cote d’Azur (almost to the Italian border), the Rhone River to the west and the Durance River to the north. (This is said to be “where the olive trees end”.)
Provence is a land of diversity with a vast array of terrains. Small, independent mountain ranges or “massifs,” rise from the sea and also appear further inland, forming natural amphitheaters, sheltering vineyards from the cold northern wind known as the Mistral. Rivers flow from the foothills of the Alps, carving deep scenic gorges, and some vineyards are planted on the limestone cliffs that jut out of the azure blue sea.
The climate here is varied, too. 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. Grapes ripen slowly and fully, developing incredible character.
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. 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, clean acidity and minerality. Clay can provide good tannins and subtle, dark fruit aromas, while the schist often gets credit for body and structure.
Another quintessentially Provençal influence is garrigue, the term given to the wild herbs like rosemary, fennel, sage and thyme that cover the hillsides and, according to many a wine-lover, influence the character of the wines.
Although most of the rosé is made using similar grape varieties, grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault being the most common, the styles and shades of Provence rosé are as diverse as the region itself. You’ll find wines ranging in color from delicate shades of onion skin or salmon through pinky/orange mango, all the way to rosy pink. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the color indicates quality or taste. A pale hue doesn’t mean a wine is more subdued than its darker counterpart.
Provence is indeed the homeland of great rosé wines – refreshingly dry, food-friendly wines that reflect the history and diversity of this enchantingly beautiful part of France.