Provence is the renowned home of lavender fields, olive tree groves and the occasional disgruntled British writer. We know it through the bouillabaisse of Marseilles and the glitz and glam of St. Tropez and Cannes. It's time to taste it in its wines.
Sunbaked and hardscrabble, the vineyards of Provence embrace dual terroirs — one crystalline, the other limestone — both thin and dry, spread across three departments of southeastern France along the Mediterranean. What the French call "garrigue" and "maquis," scrublands and shrubs made of hardy plants such as rosemary and wild sage, scent the air (and, some suggest, the wines).
Up to 3,000 hours of sunlight a year bleaches these soils; just enough rain keeps the dust down; and always, everywhere, howls the mistral, the incessant wind of Provence, another desiccant.
Provence calls itself the "birthplace of the vine" in France, pointing to the advent of viticulture with the Phoenicians in 600 B.C., though that claim is batted back by other regions of the country that state the same (the Jura, for example, or the northern Rhone).
But unique to Provence is its steady collection, over time, of rulers: Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Carolingians, Catalans, Sardinians and knights and nobles from the Holy Roman Empire and the houses of both Anjou and Savoy.
Most of these brought wine grapes with them that continue to grow in the vineyards of Provence and flavor its wines. Some of the 13 permitted varieties are grenache, cinsault, mourvedre, rolle (vermentino), carignan and a special grape native to the region, tibouren.
Above all, Provence is in the pink. It produces only 3 percent white wine, 9 percent red, but a whopping 88 percent rosé wine. The French consume nearly 9 out of 10 bottles of Provencal wine at home, so that makes Provence relatively late to the table of the export market.
The main appellation that you'll see is Cotes de Provence, which is itself an expansive region, so it is best to follow trusted producers' names. A couple of smaller regions, Coteaux Varois en Provence and Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, are gaining recognition outside France. Finally, you'll also find some terrific wines, mostly reds and rosés, under the appellations of Bandol and Les Baux de Provence.
Most of all, though, Provence wines are among the world's better examples of the synergy of wine and food growing up together in the same place over time. Provencal food, laden as it is with both olive oil and garlic, scented with the wild herbs of the garrigue, and based to a large extent on the shellfish and seafood of the Mediterranean, is paired nowhere more successfully than with its lean, incisively sculpted rosés, aromatic whites and earthy, spicy reds.
Here are several recommended wines of Provence, arranged by white, pink and red.
Suggested Provence wines
2011 Chateau Roubine Blanc Cotes de Provence: A mix of four different white wine grapes common to Provence, for a juicy but snappily edged quaff perfect for summer fare such as sandwiches, cold fried chicken or salads. $15
2011 Chateau Margui Blanc "Les Pierres Sauvages" Coteaux Varois en Provence: Mostly rolle (vermentino) with a soupcon of ugni blanc; crisp and zesty but also chock-full of fruit (white grapefruit, lemon, pear and apple) and, as the name suggests, wet-stone minerality. $30
2011 Domaines Ott Blanc de Blancs "Clos Mireille" Cotes de Provence: Its 100,000 bottles of this wine represent a full one-third of all Provence white wine production; a blend of 70 percent semillon and 30 percent rolle (vermentino), raised in oak for nearly a year, for peach and apricot flavors atop a lean, incisive acidity. $40
2012 Chateau La Gordonne Rosé "La Chapelle" Cotes de Provence: The key to the deliciousness of this strawberry-tasting pink is the fact that it's made by its Champagne house owners; they pick the grapes in the dark and crush the grapes immediately to retain freshness and fruit. $20
2012 Chateau Margui Rosé "Perle de Margui" Coteaux Varois en Provence: Four grapes (cinsault, grenache, syrah, rolle); minerals, grip, persistence of flavor, delicious. $22
2012 Clos Cibonne Tibouren "Cuvee Speciale" Cotes de Provence: Unique to Provence, a light red that resembles Jura's trousseau for its highly aromatic, earthy tones and scent of herbs; super-delicious and lively, moderately tannic and a great treat with grilled summer fare because it can take a chill. $30
2010 Mas de Gourgonnier Rouge Les Baux de Provence: An old favorite, a blend of about half grenache and the remainder cabernet sauvignon, syrah and carignan for all-organic grapes; deeply pigmented, roundly rich, softly tannic; no wood, so it ups the ante on fruit and juiciness. $20
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.