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The history of Provence wine

provence coastlineProvence is famous for many things, outstanding natural beauty, picturesque villages perched on hill tops – and wine…

Savouring the soul of Provence year-round is only a sip away –  a sip of rosé away. Some ex-pats and Francophiles may be astounded to know that rosé outsells white wine in France. Moreover, Provence produces over 35% of French AOP wine (AOP, or Appellation d’Origine Protégée, means ‘protected area of origin’ and guarantees authenticity and quality.) Rosé accounts for over 88% of all AOP wines grown in Provence.

History of Provence Wine

So how did Provence emerge as the standard for rosé worldwide? Blame it on the wandering Phocaeans of ancient Greece, who brought vines with them when they settled in Marseilles (then called Massilla) in 600 BC.

Later, the Romans came, saw and renamed the region “Nostra Provincia” (‘Our Province.’) Membership in the Roman Empire had its privileges, earning Massilla the right to export its wine outside the region. By 100 BC, Massilla’s wine makers introduced short maceration prior to fermentation, producing wines of a pale, rose-petal color. This pale wine – precursor to today’s rosé, earned renown as the prestigious quaff of aristocrats and it has been holding court ever since.

provence vineyards

Rosé is made from red grapes and winemakers reduce the grape skin contact to avoid darker juice pigmentation. The grapes are pressed immediately after picking to retain freshness and the pale color. Complexity in aromas and flavours develop by blending small-batch, single-variety rosés, then combining them into a final cuvée in stainless-steel tanks or oak barrels. The rest of the juice and skins are retained to create red wine, though this is not widely practiced in Provence. Blending varieties include Grenache, Rolle, Syrah, Mourvédre, Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tibouren.

A unique terroir is what forms the wines of Provence. Terroir is the French notion of ‘a sense of place’ made up of soil, slope, aspect, drainage, sunlight, moisture and biodiversity to inform a wine’s intangible character. A vast wine region, Provence includes many mountain ranges and micro-climates. The western part of Provence features limestone, clay and sand soils that support wild resinous herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage. In the east, quartz schist soils sprout low-growing scrub known as maquis. These native plants impart herbaceous qualities to the wines grown in their respective sub-regions, while seaside proximity delivers distinctive saline characteristics. Other Provençal flavor components include floral, fruit and spice notes.

provence wines to enjoy

Provence boasts a balmy Mediterranean climate with almost 3000 hours of sunshine a year, plus the Mistral, a cold, dry wind that blows away humidity almost 150 days of the year. Wine regions further north and inland exhibit a more continental or alpine climate. Sunshine ensures successful ripening, winds prevent disease, and cooler temperatures retain acidity.

Provence also supplies vin cuit, a “cooked wine” and made to a unique method in Provence. It is a sweet dessert wine traditionally served with the 13 Desserts de Noel Provençaux, a christmas tradition for several centuries in Provence, and its also very good with cheeses, especially Roquefort.

Clearly, the wine region of Provence  is much greater than the sum of its parts, offering a rich mélange of history, tradition, and terroir only a pour away, any time.

L.M. Archer, FWS works is a freelance writer and wine professional.

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