Alternatives to Rosé, Even in Provence

With apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson, rosé to the left of us, rosé to the right of us, rosé in front of us, and there we were, drinking white wine in the heart of Provence.  The sommelier at La Presque’îe, a spectacularly situated restaurant–with food to match–on the outskirts of Cassis overlooking the Mediterranean coast, told me that they sell a lot of rosé, but that, like us, many diners order white wine.

After all, this is Cassis, a village and appellation just east of Marseille, where roughly three-fourths of the wine produced is white, unlike the rest of Provence where 85 percent of the wine produced is pink.  (Much to my surprise, the town and wine, is pronounced, “ca-see,” whereas the fruit and the liqueur made from it, neither of which have any connection to the town, is pronounced, “ca-cease.”) The terraced vineyards are squeezed between expensive residential real estate on steep hills–limestone calanques–that plunge into the Mediterranean.

The small, roughly 500-acre, Cassis appellation was one of the first created in France, in 1936, along with Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Only a dozen producers make wines here from the usual blend of Mediterranean white grapes, primarily Marsanne and Clairette, along with Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc and Sauvignon Blanc to fill out the blend. In general, none of the wines see any oak either during fermentation or aging.  Producers opt to capture and highlight the freshness and fruity vibrancy of the wines by using stainless steel vats.  Despite such a small cadre of producers, there is a range of styles of Cassis, from steely and riveting to more tropical and lush, while still retaining vibrancy.  But there are constant characteristics despite the stylistic differences.  Citrus notes, especially in the finish, are a common thread as are alcohol levels that hover between 12 and 13 percent.

Two of my favorites actually fall at either end of the stylistic spectrum.  The 2017 Domaine du Bagnol ($26, 89 points), crisp with an almost steely edge and a citrus-tinged finish, is perfect for the brine-y seafood of the region.  The 2017 Clos Sainte Magdeleine ($25, 90 points), a more full-bodied wine, manages to combine a beguiling subtle tropical character with bracing acidity.  It could easily do double duty as an aperitif while watching the boats or to accompany grilled sardines.

Les Baux de Provence, like Cassis, is another small appellation in the heart of rosé country.  While producers there do make significant amounts of rosé, the real stars of the show are the reds and of course, the olive oil, which has its own appellation, Vallée des Baux de Provence.  (Be sure to try the oils from Moulin Cornille, the very fine co-operative in Mausanne-lès-Alpilles.)  As in Cassis, there are only a dozen wine producers in the AOC.  Another highly regarded producer in the delimited area, Domaine Trévallon, uses the IGP designation because they traditionally incorporate more Cabernet Sauvignon (50%) than prescribed by the regulations.

The 620 acres of this appellation extend around one of France’s most visited tourist sites, the 10th century ruined Château des Baux-de-Provence, just south of St. Rémy de Provence.  The entire appellation is farmed organically, a practice that is aided by the legendary mistral wine that descends, sometimes for days at a time, from the north.  The wind blows more than 100 days a year, helping to keep the vineyards free of disease.  The wind is so omnipresent and fierce that the north side of all the houses (mas, in the local dialect) have either no or very small windows.   The mistral has been blamed for causing insanity among the local inhabitants and, I have been told, but cannot verify, that it can be used as a mitigating defense in a murder trial in Provence.

The modern era of winemaking in the area began in the 1950s after a severe frost in 1956 destroyed over 80 percent of the olive trees and sent farmers scurrying to diversify.  Their focus was to distinguish themselves from Côte de Provence, the vast and often anonymous appellation that was associated with innocuous pink wine.  They finally succeeded with the French wine authorities granting their own appellation, Les Baux de Provence, in 1995.

Although the primary grapes allowed are the usual Mediterranean reds, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon can comprise up to 20 percent of the blend.  The inclusion of Cabernet is explained by its presence in the region prior to the phylloxera devastation of the 19th century.  Not surprisingly given the blend and its proximity to the southern Rhône–Châteauneuf-du-Pape is only about 30 miles to the north–the wines have a Rhône-like robustness coupled with the herbal and spiced flavors of Provence.  The tannins are usually fine, except when Cabernet’s thumb print is overly obvious, which means they can take a brief chill without gaining unpleasant astringency. Despite its southern location and potential for super-ripe grapes, the stated alcohol of these wines rarely exceeds 13.5%

Domaine Hauvette, founded only in 1988 and run by Dominique Hauvette, makes an extraordinary range of wines.  Their 2011 “Cornaline,” the current vintage, is a blend of Grenache (50%), Syrah (30%) and Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is stunning, delivering an engaging and balanced combination of bright red fruit flavors intermingled with herbal notes.  It has fine tannins that amplify its finesse, and a surprisingly light body given the power it packs.  It has that Burgundy-like sensibility of flavor without weight ($42, 94 points).  Their cuvée “Le Roucas,” has more Grenache (60%) in the blend and is meant for earlier consumption.  The 2015 “Le Roucas” is light in body, but not in enjoyment ($30, 90 points).

Domaine de la Vallongue also has multiple bottlings.  The 2015 “Garrigues,” true to its namesake, has a healthy dollop of herbal flavors that complement it bright fruitiness.  It, too, has captivating elegance ($20, 90 points).  Their “Pierres Cassés” screams “importance” with its heavy bottle engraved with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-like crest.  A blend of Syrah and Grenache, it’s a hefty wine.  I’d suggest drinking the 2015 “Garrigues” now and leaving the 2014 “Pierres Cassés” in the cellar for a few more years to let it come together.

Two wines that are widely available in the U.S., Mas de Gourgonnier and Mas de la Dame are both good examples of what the appellation has to offer.   The 2015 Mas de Gourgonnier delivers an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable combination of light red fruit, earth and herbal notes.  Non-intrusive tannins make it easy to enjoy this summer when food calls for a lighter and lively red ($16, 90 points).  The 2015 Mas de la Dame has a similar profile with perhaps a touch more weight. ($17, 90 points).

So, who knew…wine from Provence that’s not pink, but that’s perfect for summer drinking!

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E-mail me your thoughts about Provence wines in general or Cassis and Les Baux de Provence in specific at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

July 18, 2018