Facts On Provence
Wines of Provence
Provence’s remarkable wines are shaped by its varied landscape, “Mistral” winds and arid, sunny climate which all contribute to its unique varietals. One needs to first embrace Provence to understand its wines.
Provence vineyards extend from west to east over some 200 kms. Between the Mediterranean and the Alps it covers over three departments: Var, Bouches-du-Rhône and Alpes-Maritimes.
There are three major appellations accounting for 96% of the volume of Provencal wine with ‘appellation d’origine’.
The first appellation is Côtes de Provence which
is divided into 4 denominations of the terroir: Côtes de Provence Sainte-Victoire, Côtes de Provence Fréjus, Côtes de Provence Pierrefeu and Côtes de Provence La Londe.
The second appellation is Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, and the third is Côteaux Varois en Provence.
Provence accounts for 6% of the French production of AOC — in all three colours: red, rosé and white. It is also the first region in France producing rosé AOC with 38% of the wines’ national production (about 8% of the world’s rosé). Provencal vineyards are historically famous for their generous rosés, but they also produce no less remarkable, powerful and robust reds (which age well in cellars) as well as light, tender and delicate whites.
From the second century BC onwards, the Romans settled on the land colonized four centuries before by the Phoenicians, the firsts to have introduced the vine. They developed wine culture and organized the Provincia Romana (Provence). This is the time of the founding of the military port of Fréjus, Forum Julii, and the city of Aquae Sextiae, (Aix-en-Provence). Rome then extended its empire farther north and west planting vineyards along the way. Thus the vineyards gradually settled in other Gallic regions: Rhone Valley, Alsace, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Gascony and Bordeaux.
The influence of monks and nobles.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, it’s not until the Middle Ages that vines flourish again in Provence, this time under the influence of the great monastic orders. From the 5th Century to the 12th Century, the abbeys of Saint-Victor in Marseille, Saint-Honorat on the Lérins Islands, (off the coast of Cannes) and Saint-Pons Nice and Thoronet produced wines that weren’t solely intended for the monks’ consumption or the elaboration of sacramental wine. Rather, it was carefully marketed to the local population and helped contribute to the monasteries’ income. Starting from the 14th century, the noble families, the bourgeoisie and the high-ranking officers of the royal army began to acquire and manage of Provence’s vineyards and build the foundations of the modern wine-growing traditions of Provence.
The phylloxera crisis
In the 1880s, Provence was affected by the vine disease phylloxera vastatrix. This parasitical insect, native to the eastern United States, destroyed almost all the vineyards of Provence. Finally it was a technical solution that saved the vineyards; this was done by grafting phylloxera-resistant American vines onto French vines. After enormous financial loss, the Provencal vineyards eventually recovered.
The foundations of modern viticulture
At the beginning of the 20th Century the opposite happened; overproduction brought a different kind of challenge and pushed wine growers to organize themselves. The cooperative movement was born in 1935, and the National Institute of Appellations d'Origine (INAO) was created. Its mission was - and still is - the definitions of the ‘terroir’ (soil) and the conditions of production of each appellation of origin. To preserve and enhance their wine identity Provence winegrowers (with the strength of their 2,600 years of history), began the long march to the Appellation d’Origine Controllée (official AOC classification or guarantee of origin).
Geology and climate
A particularly diverse terrain
Two major geological systems, one crystalline, the other limestone, coexist in Provence. The western and northern vineyards of Provence are composed of a combination of rolling hills and limestone ridges, with remarkable sites such as the Sainte-Victoire Mountain, the massif of Sainte-Baume or the Gorges du Verdon.
By contrast, the crystalline massifs of Maures and Tanneron further east - facing onto the sea – are made up of rolling hills and small mountains with chaparral vegetation and forests.
Continuing eastward - between Saint-Tropez and Cannes - this crystalline rock system is riddled with igneous rocks with amazing colours (such as the volcanic porphyry (deep-red) colour of the Esterel Mountains).
Those two geological systems, limestone and crystalline, correspond with two vegetation types typical in the Mediterranean area: the ‘guarrigue’ (scrubland) on limestone; and ‘maquis’ (scrub) on the crystalline ground. Neither of these types of vegetation are an important supply of humus (fertile soil). The soils of the Provence wine region are generally considered too poor in nutrients, dry and susceptible to erosion. However, these conditions (without excess moisture) are ideal for grapevines.
A Mediterranean climate: sunny, warm and dry
Sunny weather is the first characteristic associated with the Provencal climate, with 2700 to 2900 hours per year of sunlight. Temperatures are particularly high in the summer, but the diversity of the terrain is such that differences in climate change significantly even within a small distance. Like in all of the Mediterranean areas, rainfall in Provence happens in autumn and spring and can sometimes be violent. The summers are dry, hot, and sometimes even scorching inland— especially on windless days.
The Mistral Wind; violent but beneficial
The winds can be formidable in Provence and are part of the region’s climate. The strongest and most famous is of course, the Mistral. While icy in the winter (after blowing from alpine peaks), the Mistral also brings cool relief in the summer months. It can be violent and capricious, but the Mistral has one very beneficial quality for the vineyards of Provence: it is a very dry wind which protects the vine against moisture related sicknesses.