Last week we went on a road trip, down past the Camargue and the coastal towns of Sète and Marseillan, where Provence meets France’s other Mediterranean coast, the Langudoc-Rousillon. As we left the Alpes-Maritimes and crossed through the Var and then the Bouches-du-Rhône, three of the six departments that comprise the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, I thought about how much of this huge stretch of land we’d driven through was dominated by vineyards.
The grape is a key character in the Provençal identity; after all, the region boasts France’s first vineyards. The Phocaeans may have introduced the grape to Provence around 6BC, however it was the arrival of the Romans, four centuries later, that the art of winemaking developed and spread through France as their empire expanded.
Today, the vineyards of Provence cover an impressive 27000 hectares, count over 600 vineyards and produce around 170 million bottles of wine annually, much of that rosé. Yet, whilst a large percentage of this falls under the generic Côtes de Provence AOC, there are a handful of lesser-known Provence wine appellations which are reputed for wines other than the pink variety and make for enchanting discoveries.
LES BAUX-DE-PROVENCE AOC
Les Baux-de-Provence is one of France’s most stunning medieval villages, set in an isolated position amongst the Chaîne des Alpilles to the north of Marseille. The village itself, and seven other communes that neighbour it (Fontvieille, Maussane-les-Alpilles, Mouries, Paradou, Saint-Etienne-du-Gres and Saint-Remy-de-Provence) comprise one of Provence’s newest wine appellations. Initially granted AOC status for its red and rosé wines in 1995, it was only a few years ago that the quality of their white wines was seen to warrant a similar classification. Today’s Les Baux-de-Provence AOC comprises 350 hectares split between eleven producers. Like Bandol below, the appellation is renowned for its red wines, made here from mainly Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre. All but one of the vineyards practice organic winemaking, and the producers are lobbying to make this a part of appellation rules. If ratified, Les Baux de Provence AOC will become France’s first organic appellation.
A real blink and you’ll miss it on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence; Palette AOC is definitely one of France’s more boutique appellations, with a mere three producers. The largest and most reputed operation is Château Simone, which owns just over half of the 42 hectares of vines under cultivation in Palette, along with cellars dating back to the 16th century. Alongside them are Château Crémade and Château Henri Bonnaud. Despite its size, Palette is one of France’s oldest AOC’s, established in 1948, and is characterised by old vines and small yields which create serious white, red and rosé wines. Yet, for such a compact appellation, an incredible 35 grape varieties are permitted (mainly Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre for reds and rosés, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc for whites), which means it can be difficult to define a distinct Palette AOC identity.
The pretty fishing village of Cassis sits on the coast between Marseille and La Ciotat, and is famed for the Cap Canaille headland, the bays of the Calanques, and a white wine made with a 60% minimum of either Marsanne or Clairette, a traditional Provence grape. Along with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cassis has serious claims on being France’s first appellation, dating from 1936, and is also the only appellation in France found entirely within a national park, the Parc National des Calanques. Whilst the majority of the production is white wine, a red and rosé is also made from Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. As with Nice’s Bellet AOC, see below, the twelve producers of Cassis face a constant struggle to stave off hungry property developers with eyes on the their 215 hectares of vines; hardly a surprise when you see the views enjoyed by some of the appellation’s waterfront vineyards. especially Clos Saint Magdaleine.
Whilst Cassis may be famed for its white wines, further down the coast, towards Toulon, there’s a combination of grape and terroir which creates some red wine magic in the Bandol AOC! The grape variety Mourvèdre (also known as Monastrell in Spain and Mataro in Australia and the USA) is renowned for being one of the fussier varieties; however it thrives in the coastal communes and limestone soils of La Cadière d’Azur, Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, Le Castellet, Le Beausset, Evenos, Ollioules, Sanary-sur-Mer and the seaside village of Bandol itself. The largest appellation on this list, at 1400 hectares in size, Bandol was granted AOC appellation status in 1941 and today counts over 60 producers. Whilst Bandol rouge has achieved a cult status around the globe, the rosés of the appellation are recognised as food-friendly and for offering more complexity than average Côtes de Provence equivalents.
For regular visitors to this blog, Bellet is hardly new news, but it demands inclusion in this list anyway, as one of Provence’s lesser known appellations. For those of you who haven’t heard the name before, Bellet is authentic Nice wine, grown in the hills to the west of the city. Here, at an altitude of between 200 and 300 metres, ten producers cultivate a mere 50 hectares combined to produce a red, white and rosé wine of repute. In fact, over the centuries a drop of Nice’s finest wine has been enjoyed by such illustrious figures as Louis XIV and Thomas Jefferson. The region was granted appellation status in 1941 and today is France’s only entirely urban wine appellation. The AOC Bellet is also unique in another way; two grape varieties are grown here and nowhere else: Braquet and Folle Noire, the key ingredient in a Bellet rosé and red respectively. Rolle (or Vermentino) is the main variety in a Bellet white, as with much of the rest of Provence.
Throughout the year various events along the coast offer the opportunity to discover these wines. Keep an eye on my upcoming events on the French Riviera page.