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Coming up ross

Published:  23 July, 2008

Provence may be best known in wine terms for ros, but not everyone in the ancient Var dpartement is keen on building a profile around the infamous pink stuff. Joanne Simon reports on a growing split among local producers

For most people, the name Provence evokes the azure Mediterranean sea, the beaches of St Tropez, the glitz of harbour-side casinos and the rich aromas of hearty cuisine. Many of the seven million tourists who flock to the French Riviera each year probably don't even know that between the great cities of Marseille in the west and Nice in the east, in the very heart of Provence, lies France's oldest winemaking region: the Var. Not only is the Var obviously old, with its medieval oullires' - long rows of olive trees alternating with rows of vines and wheat - it also just so happens to be the world's biggest ros producer. And there's the rub: if any wine does not travel, it has to be Provenal ros. It may taste like sunshine in a bottle when quaffed with bouillabaisse in the backstreets of Marseille, but how many of those exotic' airport-bought bottles bring smiles of delight when presented to untanned recipients back home? Worldwide sales of ros have declined in recent years, but it still represents more than half of all Provenal production. And while its quality may have improved with the introduction of modern, cool-vinification techniques, its poor image certainly has not. The Var covers three Appellations d'Origine Contrles, namely Ctes de Provence, Coteaux Varois and Bandol, and it should be noted from the start that each of these appellations is blessed with consistently good vintages, fine estates and talented winemakers. But since the region's fixation with ros does not yet seem to be abating, it seems appropriate to deal with the pink wine first.

Good intentions

Ctes de Provence is France's sixth largest AOC, stretching over 19,000 hectares (ha) and producing 120 million bottles annually, of which a massive 80% are ros. Referred to in the generic marketing blurb as dry, fruity and elegant', these wines - for which AOC Ctes de Provence is famous - are, in reality, most kindly described as wines which are meant to accompany food'. Their sunny southern low acidity almost always means that they are flat and dull, although there are exceptions, of course, not to mention good intentions. My aim is to make an outstanding ros, because it is much more difficult than making a good red,' says Jean-Pierre Marty, directeur gnral at Chteau du Galoupet, in La-Londe-les-Maures. The key is a balance between fruit and acidity and tannin, which is all in the extraction. And I won't claim that Galoupet has outstanding complexity and length every year, but we get it right perhaps every four years.' Unusually, Galoupet produces a separate Vin de Pays ros from a single indigenous grape variety, Tibouren (a good variety for ros', according to Marty), which also makes up 90% of Galoupet's 2001 Cru Class Cuve Spciale, which has an unusual nose of dried fruits and spice, a firm roundness on the palate, and a nicely balanced finish. But Galoupet is still an exception, rather than the rule. Most Ros de Provence is easy to drink, easy to forget,' sums up Christophe Taberner, commercial manager at Chteau Rimauresq, a 30ha estate near Pignans, and 55% of whose 1,400 hectolitres (hl) production is ros (the UK importer is Richards Walford). It is mainly sold in supermarkets, so it has a bad image,' he says, and, yes, it is a burden to us, but we stick with it for economical reasons. It's easy cash - we get our money back just six to nine months after making it.' Taberner says he believes red wine is where the region's potential lies, then risks losing all credibility when he adds: We just need to show it to the world, and they will like it!' But Jean-Paul Daumas at the fascinating Chteau Sainte Rosline, which comes complete with a mummified prioress and a Marc Chagall tapestry (but, as yet, no UK representation), says Taberner's statement is a typically arrogant approach. The French way is to make wines we like, then try to sell them. But this is impossible when we try to sell wines abroad, and especially ros. What French customers expect from Provence is ros, but as soon as you go outside France, it is not regarded as proper wine. Therefore it is necessary to watch the evolution of the market and try to produce wines which correspond to it.' For this reason, says Daumas, 50-60% of Sainte Rosline's vineyards are being cultivated for red wine production, although he remains unshaken in his pride for his ross, among them the dry, toasty, complex Clotre de Sainte Rosline 2001. All our ross sold out within five months this year, because people try them and can't guess they come from Provence,' he boasts (that peculiar boast more typical of a New World pretender' than a vigneron franais). Our ros is good, but how do you make a name for yourself from ros?' asks Jean-Louis Masurel, former banker-turned-Mot Hennessy MD, now at Domaine de Trians in Noules (UK importer Decorum Vintners). Production at the 22ha estate is now 65% red, 20% ros and 15% white. Our aim is to be one of the best wineries in Provence, and judging from the Michelin-starred restaurants which stock us, and the sommeIiers who have been at a complete loss after tasting our reds blind, I believe we are getting there. But not with ros.' For an overview of Provenal ros, there is perhaps no better place to visit than the Maison des Vins at Les Arcs, which houses the Comit Interprofessionnel des Vins Ctes de Provence (CIVCP) and aims to promote the region as a whole. Director Jean-Jacques Benetti agrees that red wine is selling better every year, but he insists that ros continues to be the region's biggest opportunity. Everybody else is already on the market with their red wines, so the competition is enormous. Meanwhile, Provence is famous for its ros and the New World countries are not making that much, relatively speaking. So for the moment, it is easier for us to concentrate on ros.' Love it or hate it, the Provenals certainly appear to be serious about it. In 1999, the CIVCP and the Chambre d'Agriculture du Var opened the Centre Provenal de Recherches et d'Experimentation sur le Vin Ros near the town of Vidauban.

New directions

Within the same Provenal vineyard, wines can be classified as Ctes de Provence, Coteaux Varois or Bandol, depending on individual slopes, soils, the moderating effects of the Mistral or, conversely, whichever hill offers protection from this suddenly less-than-desirable breeze'. It's no wonder several wineries have opted to produce Vin de Pays du Var wine (531,096 hl in 2000, to be precise). Burgundian winemakers Jacques Seysses and Aubert de Villaine joined forces in 1990 to buy Domaine de Triennes (OW Loeb, Morris & Verdin), convinced that the clay and limestone soils and St Emilion-like slopes around Nans les Pins could produce benchmark wines. We prefer Vin de Pays because we don't like the AOC restrictions,' they say, particularly proud of their single-varietal 2000 Viognier Sainte Fleur and their 2001 Gris (100% Cinsault). The classification system is complicated, which is why we intend to make a big name for Provence as a whole, using the commercial name "Provence Wines" on all bottles,' says Benetti. As always, it boils down to selling more wine: This is the hinterland of the Cte d'Azur, so winemakers used to be able to sell their wines easily to the tourists,' he says. But production has increased by 40% over the past ten years, which is why we need to do what we can to find new markets.' If simplifying the classification system is one option (and the peculiarities of soil and microclimate mean there are arguments for an AOC Ctes de Provence Villages, or perhaps the Bordelais model of tying cru class to individual estates), then slavishly following trends is another. As Benetti puts it: That famous grape, Chardonnay, does very well here, so some winemakers have really gone for it. But who needs yet another Chardonnay when we have our own grapes? It's all very well to respond to the market, but we don't know if it will help in the long term.' Certainly, there has been a strong move in recent years (backed by changes to AOC regulations) to re-establish a true Provenal identity by relying exclusively (where possible) on the best indigenous varieties. Where whites used to be of the hot and heavy, food-friendly' type, there is now a strong emphasis on Rolle, with its exotic fruit notes and round mouthfeel. And it's the same with reds,' says Benetti. Twenty years ago it was mainly Grenache; now it's Syrah and Mourvdre. And if old vines are treated properly, even Carignan can produce outstanding wines.' Of course, there's always the organic route, although there is no need to be cynical, tut-tuts Jean-Pierre Fayard of Chteau Sainte Marguerite (represented by Les Amis du Vin in the UK): We try to be organic, not in order to say so on the label, but because it's a good philosophy, a good way to work, a good way to drink.' While Fayard believes that white wine has the greatest potential in the La Londe area - which he hopes will eventually be rewarded with its own AOC classification - his son, Guillaume, is determined to produce red wines that can age, at Chteau Hermitage Saint Martin. Admittedly, it's early days, but the 2000 vintage, made from low-yielding (23 hectolitres per hectare [hl/ha]) Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvdre and Cinsault vines, does show excellent ageing potential, with its chocolatey notes and powerful structure.

The future is red

Some Ctes de Provence reds can have great finesse, while others are more tannic and chewy. And Bordeaux graduate Julian Faulkner is determined to make both - a soft, elegant, easy-drinking wine and a chunky, fat, Parker-style monster' - at his parents' Domaine du Grand Cros, near Carnoules (represented by CG Bull & Taylor in the UK). While still closed, his purple-black 2000 Nectar (45% each of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) has plenty of cassis, spice and pepper on the nose, and big chewy tannins on the palate. And having replaced the trellising of several parcels to increase leaf canopy and introduced a planting programme to increase planting density from 4,000 to 5,000 vines per hectare, Faulkner is surely a winemaker to watch. Another winery exploring the dual nature of Provenal reds is Chteau Les Valentines in La-Londe-les-Maures. The Mourvdre here is dense and rough, or noble and peppered,' explains owner Gilles Pons. 2001 Les Valentines, with its musky touch of clove, mint and violet, is powerful and complex, while his 2000 Cuve Bagnard (made organically, from 30-year-old vines) is fruity and elegant, with ripe tannins, lots of fruit and a long finish hinting of anise and liquorice. The wines of Provence may never gain the classic status of Bordeaux or Burgundy, but maximum yields are kept meticulously low - usually below 40hl/ha, which is remarkable in an area with 3,000 hours of sunshine per year - and the wines are becoming increasingly exciting. Syrah is silky and spicy (2001 Domaine de la Sauveuse has no harsh tannins, despite its youth), while the darkly plummy Mourvdre hints at the truffles which grow in the area. At Domaine du Deffends in Saint Maximin, for example, truffles actually grow around the vines. The inky (and aptly named) 2000 Clos de la Truffire does, indeed, have truffles on the nose, as well as blackcurrants, wild fruits and flowers. No doubt it would make a good match for the cuisine at Chez Bruno restaurant near Lorgues, where truffles are the main constituent of every dish, including dessert. It is a sobering thought that customers enjoying a three-hour meal at Chez Bruno probably consume more truffles than most people do in an entire lifetime. But I digress When it comes to Mourvdre, there is really only one word: Bandol. Here, at least 50% of this late-ripening, low-yielding variety is required in any blend, resulting in purple-black wines with a dense bouquet of cassis, violets and herbs, masses of spicy-plummy fruit and an incredible ability to age. 1999 Domaine de Souviou (70% Mourvdre) has intense black berry fruits, mouthwatering acidity and firm tannins, while the 1995 looks young but has softened into a light, elegant, smoky wine. Likewise, 2000 Chteau Vannires (represented in the UK by Gauntleys of Nottingham and Continental Overseas Wines) has firm young tannins, high acidity and delicious fruits, while the 1990 vintage is still amazingly youthful, with complex fruit aromas and spiciness. In contrast, red wines from the Coteaux Varois can have good colour and a fruity flavour, but are better known for their finesse. At an average altitude of 500 metres above sea level, the climate is continental, meaning that Mourvdre battles to ripen (unless you're Betty Cundall at Chteau des Chaberts, where hills in the form of a horseshoe provide protection from the prevailing winds). What it does mean, of course, is that all Coteaux Varois wines have a certain freshness, which augurs well for ros. But let's not get started on that again.