Vins de Provence


Long before being invited to this private tasting at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, I was aware that imports and sales of rose’ has risen over 20% and that a significant portion is produced in the Provence region of southern France.  However, there we were, standing in the white-on-white interior fusion restaurant, Asia de Cuba, staring at the wines of 18 Provence châteaux, set to discover what the excitement is all about.

With one small exception, all grapes produce the same clear juice, the color coming from lengthened contact with the skins.  Rose’ follows the same concept, but with very brief contact.  The wine still benefits from the pigments and tannins, giving the dry Rose’ its color, bouquet and flavor.  For prospective, 10% of the world’s wine production is rose’, 28% of all rose’ is French and 40% of that comes from Provence, with vineyards extending from the Mediterranean Sea up through Aix en Provence.

Throughout the world, Provence is the only region whose focus, primarily, is the production of dry rose’.  The vast majority comes from three appellations, each with distinctions within that create clear characteristics in the flavors.  Notably, Provencal winemakers ferment each varietal, individually, in vats, assembling the final “cuvee” blend afterward.  Prominent Rhone Valley grapes such as Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvedre are used along with Cabernet Sauvignon, renowned in the Bordeaux region.

A collaboration between two winemakers from the heart of Provence led to the creation of Abbaye Saint Hilaire whose wine of note was not a rose’, but an inimitable red Rhone-blend that added 15% Cabernet Sauvingon, a strange bedfellow. The resulting Abbaye Saint Hilaire Cuvee Prieur Red Wine 2007 was a very accessible, well-balanced wine with loads of fruit on the nose and palate, allowing the 60% syrah to contribute a spicy, white pepper finish.  With some luck, one may find this reasonably priced cuvee’ on a SoCal wine list.  The fruit intensity was very clear and appreciated, but the Abbaye Saint Hilaire Cuvee Prieur Rose’ 2010 was best expressed through a soft minerality throughout.

Chateau D’Esclans Domaines Sacha Lichine presented a flight of four rose’, each with vast differences in techniques, flavor and price point.  From the ripest vines on the property, The Grenache-based Chateau D’Esclans-Domaines Sacha Lichine “Whispering Angel” Rose 2010, their most popular wine, is lightly aromatic, heavy on flavor and designed to be very food-friendly.  By comparison with the full stainless steel fermentation, the mid-priced Esclans Cotes de Provence Rose’ 2008 added 20% oak to effectively soften the wine.  A real treat was in store with the last two wines, each from 50 to 80-year-old vines, aged in 100% oak barrels for months before release.

Both the Chateau D’Esclans—Domaines Sacha Lichine “Les Clans”($60) and “Garrus ($100) Rose’ 2008, each boasting a 75% Grenache, 25% rolle blend, expressed more complex, well-balanced flavors, adequate to stand up to food or enjoy individually.  However, at $20, I fully understand the attraction to “Whispering Angel”.

If you are a person who selects wine by the label or bottle shape, Chateau de Berne is targeting you.  Introducing new “liqueur” type, rectangular bottles two years ago, the Chateau de Berne Cuvee Speciale Rose 2010 has become a huge success, partly because of the sexy bottle, mostly because it’s a beautiful, reasonably priced dry rose’. Looking like a bottle of “patis”, consumed at an outdoor café, by a Peter Mayle character, this Grenache-cinsualt blend has the color of rose petals, a floral nose accented with soft orchard fruits that balance other exotic fruits on the palate.  The cinsault-grenache blend Chateau de Berne Bistrot Troezien Rose 2010, with the fruit intensity to match most, generates popularity through its $11 retail price.

Another affordable rose’ with a sexy bottle, more vibrant in color, the Chateau Gassier Sables d’ Azur Rose’ 2010, from 100% stainless steel, was very fruit-forward through the finish.  The sales representative, boasting an 87 pt. rating from Wine Spectator, told us the wine is available throughout the L.A. region for under $15.

Clearly one of the best I tasted was the crisp, clean Chateau Roubine, Cru Classe’ Cuvee Classique Rose 2010, compiled from six Rhone grapes and Cabernet Sauvignon, followed a nice floral nose with fresh, expressive fruit that would pair well with Asian dishes or a porch swing.  This wine is now on my radar.  The Chateau Roubine Cru Classe Cuvee Classique White Wine 2010, combining lesser known varietals ugni-Blanc, semillon, rolle and clairette, is recommended to those seeking a very dry, light wine with significant mineral notes.

Yet a third stylish bottle housed the Chateau Saint Pierre Rose’ Cuvee Tradition 2010, a salmon-tinted, cinsault-based rose’ with peach and other orchard fruits on the nose and palate.  The flavors and texture were very rich and a delightful burst of spicy notes led to a nice finish. The cinsault grape is used extensively in Vins de Provnence, both as dominant and sub-dominant partners. Cinsault adds softness and bouquet to the famous Rhone Valley blends and, now, offers a reprise performance with rose’.

Unique terrior with cooing winds and longer shade sets Domaine de Rimaresq apart from many wineries and has led to recent accolades from Wine Spectator, Steven Tanzer and others. The Domaine de Rimauresq “Petit Rimauresq” Rose’ 2010 and Domaine de Rimauresq “Rimauresq Cru Classe” Rose’ 2010, both highly powered varietal blends, expressed concentrated, well-balanced fruit flavors and an unusually rich finish.

Rose’ has made a comeback, consumer interest has returned and Vins de Provence understands the dynamics.  Many of these featured wineries have built lodging on the chateaux to promote tourism. However, the bottom line of success is one’s ability to compete in the world market, which requires exports to California.

At times, rose’ can understandingly evoke a “taste one, tasted them all” attitude in some and “this isn’t half bad” among indiscriminate others.  However, I found the Vin de Provence rose’ consistently expressed complex, concentrated flavor that was very balanced, none better than the one I would like to take home.

Among many other fine wines, my top rose’ uses all organically grown grapes, mostly Grenache, to create a wine that embodies all the best qualities of the region.  The Famille Sumeire Chateau L’ Afrique 2010, in addition to more traditional floral, orchard fruit nose and flavors, offers a clean, subtle cranberry tartness, all perfectly balanced and elegant.

The Sumeire family has cultivated their vineyards since the beginning of the 20th century.  Today, the 600 acres of vineyards, divided among three estates, are all officially organic.  Famille Sumeire also produced the Chateau L’ Afrique Red 2009, a Grenache-based Rhone-blend with a powerful nose and soft minerality, although benefits will be delivered with more time.

In France, vin rose’ out sells white wine and much of the production comes from the Provence.  As the wines emerge into the California market, they can, in my opinion, assimilate quite well and offer complex, deep flavors for those who are seeking something light during the summer months or year-round with Asian cuisine.

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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