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The Rosé Riviera

Rod Smith4

The epicentre of the yachting world – the Riviera – is also home to one of the world’s most definitive wine styles: Provence Rosé. The two go together like summer and sunshine.

Provence has historically been regarded as too sunny for supreme quality viticulture! This climate is of course fantastic for the people living here, but less so for the grapevine. 

It's not just temperature - there are plenty of hotter places where wine is made - rather that an excess of sunshine can make the grapes go over-ripe before sufficient sugars have built up in them. This is the reason why a lot of the grapes here are made into Rosé (in effect a white-style wine made from black grapes, if you think about it).

Even a little further west, in Languedoc, the dominance is for red wines, partly because it is cooled by so much more wind (as anyone who has been to the beaches near Narbonne can attest!)

Provence is pretty much the only place in the wine world where Rosé has always been taken seriously. Black grapes that may go over-ripe if left to full maturity, thus producing over-alcoholic raisiny red wines, can instead be picked a little earlier and made into rosé. This captures more freshness, more red fruit flavour than black, limited colour or bitterness, and less alcohol.

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Apart from isolated pockets in northern Spain (for the same reason), Provence is the only place where the best vineyards are given over to Rosé production. Everywhere else - in a gargantuan nutshell of a generalisation - rosé is what you do with black grapes that have got mildew or gone mouldy. Make such fruit into red wine and the mouldy flavours will survive the process. Make it pink, and they won't. Traditionally, you would stop the fermentation to leave some sweetness in - a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, after all.  This is why most New World rosé is, or certainly has been, so awful. It is now changing, and we have Provence to thank for that too.

The fact that Provence is so adept at making great dry rosé wines very beautifully dovetails with the local food. Flavours of olive (from simple oil on a pan bagnat right to intense tapenade) really prefer more flavour than white wines can afford, and yet benefit from being accompanied by something cold. Ratatouille, and other intense tomato flavours, are similarly hard to match with a big red wine, but rosé works well because of its crispness.

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Extracting colour and flavour from the skin of the black grapes – while avoiding layers of harsh, bitter tannins - is a real skill, and accounts for why rosé can run from the extremely cheap to the very expensive.  Among the best grape varieties for accomplishing this is Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) which can provide lovely wild strawberry flavour whilst also giving a fresh, herby pepper and spice quality. Grenache’s calling card is its distinct orangey-tinged colour. This, coupled with a pale hue (indicating judicious use of skin contact) are the signs to look for in a Provence Rosé. Other parts of the world however use different varieties, and the results may be much deeper and redder- without the wines being any the worse for it.

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Some Rosés for Summer

Château La Mascaronne

At the heart of the Côtes de Provence appellation, Château la Mascaronne is at a relatively high altitude, which enables them to ripen fully their grapes for rosé while retaining elegance.  The flavours of their Quat'Saison Rosé are of strawberry and nectarine, with a herbal freshness and excellent crisp finish. Thirst-quenching and delicious.

Château d’Esclans

This property is in the heart of the Esclans valley near Le Muy above St Tropez. Here the charismatic Sascha Lichine – whose father Alexis Lichine was the driving force behind the Margaux property, Château Prieuré-Lichine – has restored the property and vineyards with no expense spared. The mission was to produce the world’s best Rosé and in the Garrus cuvee, many people believe he has succeeded. Garrus is eye-wateringly expensive, but  the range begins with the strawberryish Whispering Angel, a new must-have rosé on the Côte d’Azur.

Château Miraval

This charming property has been a Riviera landmark for decades. It’s 30 hectares of vineyards, a very old olive grove and a set of buildings which are in essence a whole hamlet converted into one house, was the brainchild of the American Entrepreneur Tom Bove. The estate also features a recording studio where – among others – Pink Floyd recorded The Wall. The wines have always been excellent, and the rosé named ‘Pink Floyd’ in tribute. A few years ago the entire estate was purchased by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They probably wanted the security and space, but apparently Brad has taken a very active interest in the winemaking and endeavours to be around every autumn for the harvest.

The celebrity has – in every way – grown, but the wine remains a delicious example of Provence Rose with a mid colour and wonderful bitter-orange edge to its forest fruit flavours. It’s harder to find than it used to be and the price can only go in one direction, but it’s definitely worth seeking out.

RWAAbout the author:  Rod Smith MW is the owner of the Riviera Wine Academy offering wine tastings, dinners and courses tailored for yacht and villa guests as well as training for crew and general wine consultancy. One of only 312 Masters of Wine (MWs) in the world, and just a few in France, Rod is a charismatic presenter and authority on wine as well as a respected public speaker and international judge.

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