Provence

Provence is the beating heart of the modern rosé revolution. from the parcels of the estate that offer the greatest concentration and balance. 

Although much of the south-east of France, (including the Rhône valley) falls under ‘cultural’ and administrative Provence, by most wine definitions Provence is limited to the administrative departments of the Var and Bouches du Rhône.

There is no single catch-all ‘Provence’ appellation for wine (although there is for olives and eau-de-vie!), with instead the largest appellation, Côtes de Provence, often playing that part. Côtes de Provence represents two-thirds of all Provençal AOP wine, and slightly more for rosé. The other contender for an overarching label for all of Provence is Mediterranée IGP (usually referred to as ‘IGP Med’), an IGP which includes almost all the south-east – and therefore Provence – as well as most of the southern Rhône and Corsica.

The core denominations here are:

  • Côtes de Provence AOP and its dénominations de terroirs.:
    • Sainte Victoire (also a cru)
    • La Londe
    • Pierrefeu
    • Fréjus
    • Notre-Dame des Anges
  • Coteaux Varois en Provence AOP
  • Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence AOP
  • Les Baux-de-Provence AOP
  • Bandol AOP
  • Cassis AOP
  • Palette AOP
  • Alpilles IGP
  • Coteaux du Verdon (Var IGP)
  • Var IGP
  • Méditerranée IGP (partly)

There are also a few small, localised IGPs, but volumes are low, rarely exported, and the wines tend to be very inexpensive.

For the most part, there is no overlapping, and therefore no quality pyramid other than Côtes de Provence and its dénominations. Wines in one AOP cannot usually declassify to another. That being said, the limits between the appellations are not always clear-cut: there are many Côtes de Provence parcels embedded within the Bandol area, and Côtes de Provence itself is cut in half with Coteaux Varois running through the middle.

A few appellations are sometimes included within viticultural Provence, but are significantly different from the others, either due to administrative differences or very distinct winemaking:

  • Bellet AOP
  • Terre de Camargue (Bouches du Rhône IGP)
  • Luberon AOP
  • Coteaux de Pierrevert AOP

Given this large number of appellations and the enormous diversity that exists within the largest, Côtes de Provence, we find that it makes more sense to talk about broad areas, although this sometimes mixes appellations up a little. Our tour of Provence follows this format:

  • The eastern edges bordering Italy
  • Coastal Provence (Fréjus, Saint Tropez, La Londe, Bandol, Cassis)
  • Central Inland Provence (Pierrefeu, Notre-Dame-des-Anges, Triassic plateau between le Luc and Brignoles, southern and central Coteaux Varois)
  • The Hills of Northern Provence (Dracénie, Hollywood Corner, northern Coteaux Varois, Coteaux du Verdon)
  • Western Provence (Sainte Victoire, Palette, Les Baux, Coteaux, d’Aix, southern Luberon)

The geology and terroir of Provence is often simplified into two major areas: ‘limestone Provence’ and ‘crystalline Provence’. Fairly alkaline, sedimentary chalky soils dominate the North-West, while schist and igneous or volcanic rocks dominate the south-east, including most of the coastal vineyards and the Maures.

Provence has an estate classification system, giving a handful of estates the right to display Cru Classé on their labels. This is a similar system to Bordeaux, as the classification is attributed to the winery or brand, rather than to the land as in Burgundy. It is also totally static and historic, with the list today remaining unchanged since 1955. Much like Bordeaux’s 1855 classification, Provence’s Cru Classés are mostly a list of who-was-who historically. The criteria used in the 40s and 50s are no longer relevant, and the classification itself represents no more than a snapshot of a bygone era, without bearing on the quality or noteworthiness of their rosés today. That being said, the list today does include historic and famous estates, some of which still make excellent wines. Early versions of the classification included estates from all today’s Provence appellations (including Bandol and Palette), although the final list is exclusively Côtes de Provence.

  1. Domaine du Jas d’Esclans
  2. Château Sainte Roseline
  3. Château Roubine
  4. Château de Saint Martin
  5. Château de Selle (Ott)
  6. Domaine de Saint Maur
  7. Château de Brégançon
  8. Domaine du Noyer
  9. Domaine de la Croix
  10. Château Minuty
  11. Château du Galoupet
  12. Clos Mireille (Ott)
  13. Domaine Sainte Marguerite
  14. Domaine de Mauvanne
  15. Domaine de l’Aumérade
  16. Domaine de la Clapière
  17. Clos Cibonne
  18. Domaine de Rimauresq

Since the 1990s, the Cru Classé estates have formed various groups to promote each other and guarantee quality, with 14 currently in the “Club des Crus Classés des Côtes de Provence”, having signed a Charte d’Excellence in 2005. These initiatives have mostly failed to give the classification the energy it needs to have meaning, leaving us to wonder what future it has. One key requirement for Cru Classé eligibility in 1943 was ageing the wine for at least 18 months before sale – not widely observed today..

Côtes de Provence is working with the INAO to upgrade to its dénominations géographiques complémentaires, or appellation sub-divisions. They are seeking approval they become crus, becoming for example Côtes de Provence Cru Sainte Victoire. We fully support any initiative that reinforces and brings added value to them. Within an AOP pyramid, they are roughly equivalent to the named Villages of the Côtes du Rhône, and typically represent a significant step up in quality and expression of terroir. They are covered in greater detail in their respective geographical areas, but here is a quick summary:

  • Sainte Victoire. The oldest, most prestigious, and most adopted (500ha+) of the DGCs. The only one currently approved as a cru. Limestone and red clay soil under the strikingly imposing Sainte Victoire mountain. Good intensity, vibrant red fruit. Often the best that Côtes de Provence has to offer.
  • La Londe. The second most prestigious, and probably the most expensive. Coastal vineyards in an almost tropical mesoclimate. Acidic schist soils producing saline, mineral, linear (as opposed to round mouthfeel) rosés. The most classic and recognisable – La Londe defines ‘Provence-style’ for many people.
  • Pierrefeu. Between La Londe and Notre-Dame des Anges. Pierrefeu translates to ‘firestone’ or flint, and gives an indication of the terroir. Not widely used, but the quality is good.
  • Notre-Dame des Anges. Follows the central valley along the Argens, also known as the Permian Depression. One of the most continental areas, with extremely hot summers. The newest denomination, created in 2019, with many producers yet to adopt it. A consistent style or theme has yet to emerge and the wines seem similar to those of Pierrefeu. 
  • Fréjus. Easily forgotten, this volcanic dénomination in the east of the appellation is by far the smallest and least well-known. It has the most stringent requirements, and therefore little which is eligible is actually declared as such. Quality is excellent and the rosés are often tightly structured.

It is worth noting that whilst Côtes de Provence as a whole is around 96% rosé by volume, within the dénominations this can go down to ‘only’ 85%, with the best grapes often reserved for the reds. Similarly to the Côtes du Rhône, the overwhelming majority (95%+) of AOP volume is at the generic Côtes de Provence level.

Coteaux Varois-en-Provence and Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, although formally their own separate appellations, are somewhere in between generic Côtes de Provence and the smaller Crus. They lack the same international recognition, and in many ways struggle to demarcate themselves and achieve their own independent style. Prices are relatively consistent between them, with Coteaux d’Aix and Coteaux Varois commanding slightly lower prices due to their lesser brand recognition abroad. Although the IGPs and Vin de France classifications are typically at the bottom of the price pyramid, it is very common to see premium cuvées with good marketing exceed prices for entry-level AOP wines. Miraval’s Studio is an IGP Mediterrannée, and Ott’s top wine, Étoile, is a Vin de France.

Although not formally recognised yet, two further areas stand out from the others, and will probably be Côtes de Provence’s next dénominations by the end of the decade: Saint Tropez and Dracénie. The first, recognised everywhere, comprises the coastal vineyards around Saint Tropez (see The Peninsula of Saint Tropez). Dracénie comprises the high-quality, high-altitude vineyards around Lorgues and Draguignan in the north of the appellation (see Dracénie).

As a whole, Provence’s appellations cover a vast area from which it is impossible to expect one single style or typicity to emerge, although Provence wines can usually be identified in a blind tasting. More precise identification is tough, with winemaking, vintage and price level all usually dominating terroir – especially with winemaking across the south emulating Provence-style rosés as much as possible. With practice, however, identifying terroir within Provençal wines is still possible.

Notes of stone fruit, and peaches in particular, are a give-away, especially if followed by creaminess on the nose and structural roundness. Provence rosés are more full-bodied and generous than Languedoc or the Rhône. Entry-level Provence is more likely to rely excessively on thiols, smelling of grapefruit – but this is effectively a flaw, and after an upswell in 2020 seems to be declining.

Oak is increasingly common in top Provence cuvées, with about three-quarters of direct-press pale rosés that have undergone oak ageing coming from Provence. So, while this can give a rough idea of provenance, the Rhône and Languedoc cannot be ruled out.

Pale colour is not necessarily an indication of origin or quality; they are paler than rosés from the southern Rhône and the Roussillon. Unlike in the Languedoc, blends are universal here, and the colour is less helpful in determining which varieties have gone into the wine.

It is impossible to categorically state that rosés from one region or another are the better wines, but Provence, and Côtes de Provence in particular, stand out for sheer consistency and reliability. Differentiating Provence wines by increasing quality has been a key strategy of the CIVP, the producers’ representative body, for some years. It is much rarer to find bad wines here, but also harder to find exceptions that break the mould. The appellation is a reliable guarantor of decent wines, and knowing the individual producers is much less important in Provence. For a buyer looking for a safe option, it is worth paying the premium here.