The wines of Northern Provence tend to be rich, spicy, full-bodied, dark reds that can be very high in alcohol - as high as 15% - from the long, arid summers baking in the fierce sun.
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They're very different from the Southern provençal wines which are mainly rosés and crisp, dry, light and fruity.
In France, wine regions very often sprawl across the boundaries of political or cultural regions, which is why the wines of Northern Provence fall, slightly confusingly, under the Rhône banner - and also why Rhône appellations can also be found in Languedoc-Rousillion and Rhône-Alpes.
A Thumbnail History
As in the south, viticulture here has a very long history. It's probable that vines were first cultivated in the region by the Greeks, having travelled north from Marseille where they landed in 600 BC.
Equally enthusiastic about the noble grape, the Romans then took over, and the amphorae, or terracotta pots, which they used to store their wine and other produce like olive oil, can be seen today at museums all across Provence such as the Musée des Docks Romains in Marseille, the Musée d'Arts and Traditions Populaires in Cassis or the Musée Archéologique in Vaison-la-Romaine.
As the Romans began to disappear from the region from the 4th century AD onwards, so too did the interest in wine. But that changed dramatically with the arrival of the papacy in Avignon in the early 14th century.
Pope Clement V and the subsequent Avignon Popes were said to be partial to a drop or two and actively promoted its production.
Clement's successor, Pope John XXII, was responsible for erecting the Châteauneuf du Pape, a summer residence whose name means, "the Pope's new castle"; it was destroyed during the Second World War, but the ruins (pictured) still dominate the surrounding countryside.
John also developed the famous papal vineyard there, which today is the best-known appellation of the Southern Rhône. Click here to read more about how the Avignon Popes promoted wine production.
A setback came when Burgundy, fearing competition from the Rhône wines, which travelled better than its own, slapped a ban on the import of all non-Burgundian wines into the Duchy on the pretext that they were "très petits et pauvres vins" - very small and miserable wines.
The ban remained in force until the 16th century, preventing Rhône wines from reaching Britain, the Netherlands and even Paris.
The origin of the term Côtes du Rhône goes back to the 17th century, when it applied only to wine growing around Uzès, in Languedoc-Rousillion: by 1737 all casks from the area had to be labelled "CDR", a region which was extended in the mid-19th century.
In the early 20th century, Châteauneuf du Pape was one of several regions involved in wine fraud, prompting strict rules to be drawn up for its production in 1923. The magnificently named Baron Pierre Le Roy Boiseaumarié, a lawyer, wine-grower and the owner of the Château Fortia in Châteauneuf du Pape, was the architect of these regulations.
They were the prototype of the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system which still governs food and drink in France today. Châteauneuf du Pape was legally recognised as an AOC wine in 1936.
The wine-growing terrain is dry, stony and barren, the soil is primarily limestone, with a thin layer of clay, and the vines are exposed to extremes of temperature from the hot summer sun to the cold Mistral wind that blasts from the north along the Rhône valley. All this, combined with the low rainfall makes for relatively low yields.
A characteristic sight of the region, especially around Châteauneuf, is the large pebbles scattered round the bases of the short stubby vines in order to absorb heat during the day and keep the roots warm at night, when the temperature can drop sharply.
Compared to other French regions, the appellation allows a generous range of grape varieties, 95% of the production is red wine, 3% is rosé and 2% is white. The primary red grape varieties are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, with a smattering of Cinsault and Carignan.
The Main Appellations
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We've mapped out wine routes in Provence with vineyards that offer tastings. Click here for a list of suggested wine routes and maps in both Northern and Southern Provence.
You may also find this Wines of Provence IGN Map useful if you are planning to drive around wineries in the region.
1. Côtes du Rhône varies enormously in style. The reds range in colour from deep crimson to almost purple and are generally full and tannic, though the wines from the right bank of the river tend to be lighter.
They go well with game and other rich meat dishes. A significant proportion of the crop is released as a primeur - a young wine - in direct competition with Beaujolais Nouveau. The whites can be dry with a tang of citrus or rounder wines which can be consumed as an apéritif.
Lovers of Rhône wine should head straight for Avignon in early autumn for the Ban des Vendanges (Harvest Proclamation), an exuberant all-day annual celebration at the end of August to mark the new season's grape harvest.
It starts with a ceremonial procession and a mass in provençal in the morning, then moves up to the gardens of the Rocher des Doms for family activities in the afternoon, followed in the evening by wine tastings, food and live music until midnight.
The other harvest celebration is for Côtes du Rhône primeur, Avignon's answer to Beaujolais nouveau - in other words, a big party to mark the arrival of the latest year's vintage.
Called Millévin, this welcome early winter warmer takes place each year on the third Thursday in November and features tastings, music, illuminations and apéritifs on the place de l'Horloge in Avignon, pictured.
This area is marked on the map in pale orange.
2. Côtes du Rhône Villages is one level higher and only certain specified villages are allowed to use the appellation. Marked on the map in light green.
3. Côtes du Rhône Villages ("named communes") come from 19 villages which, under still stricter requirements, are authorised to append their individual name to the label.
Only four lie within Provence: Cairanne, Roaix, Sablet and Séguret: the latter wine was mentioned by the Roman Pliny the Elder - who was clearly something of a wine connoisseur - in his Natural History, published around 78 AD. They have lower yields and a higher alcohol content than the basic appellation and are good candidates for laying down. Marked on the map in pale blue.
4. Côtes du Ventoux is situated on the slopes of the mighty Mont Ventoux, near Carpentras, and produces Grenache-based reds and rosés considerably lighter than most Côtes du Rhônes. Fifty one communes make up the appellation area. Marked on the map in dark green.
5. Côtes du Luberon currently covers 36 communes, all in south-east Vaucluse, at the heart of the area made famous by Peter Mayle in A Year in Provence and his other books about the region. 70% of the output is red wine, though it also produces rosés and whites; all of them are best consumed young. Marked on the map in grey-green.
If you're short of time and can't manage to tour the Luberon vineyards, make straight for La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon in Ménerbes. It offers free tastings and sells some 2,000 bottles from over 50 Luberon wine-makers - at vineyard prices.
6. Châteauneuf du Pape is the most prestigious of the southern Rhône wines, thanks largely to the influential American wine critic Robert M Parker Jr. Before he began promoting them, the wines of Châteauneuf were considered rustic and of limited appeal in the US. Parker's influence increased their price more than fourfold in a decade.
Produced in the area around Orange, these wines are easily identified by the impressive-looking crossed keys of Saint Peter and the papal crown embossed on the neck of the bottle - the so-called bouteille armoriée that was another innovation of the Baron Pierre Le Roy Boiseaumarié.
This is not always a guarantee of quality. What is guaranteed is the alcohol content: its minimum of 12.5% is the highest in France and some wines manage to punch up to 15%. A very wide range of grape varieties - as many as 13 - is permitted, though Grenache dominates. Marked on the map in magenta.
Each year on the first weekend in August, Châteauneuf du Pape transforms itself into a mediaeval village to celebrate the Veraison. The festivities include a mediaeval market with stalls, tournaments and jousts, mediaeval music, a candle-lit banquet and ball and, of course, wine tastings.
Véraison is originally a French wine-makers' term, but has been adopted into English use. It means "the changing of colour of the grape berries", and signifies the onset of ripening.
Whether as a publicity stunt or through an excess of 1950s paranoia about alien invasions, the municipality passed a law in 1954 banning UFOs from taking off, flying overhead or landing. According to Article 2 of the decree, any flying saucer or "flying cigar" to land in the commune would immediately be towed off to the car-pound. The law has yet to be repealed.
Find further reading on Amazon: The Wines of the Rhône Valley by Robert M Parker
7. Gigondas is, after Châteauneuf, probably the best-known appellation in the region. It produces red and rosés dominated by the Grenache grape and the best wines are full bodied, rich and laden with sweet fruit. Marked on the map in violet.
8. Vacqueyras produces mainly red wines, also dominated by Grenache. Marked on the map in yellow.
This area is renowned for its fortified dessert wine, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, of which the tireless Pliny the Elder enthused, "The Muscat grape has been grown for a long time in Beaumes and its wine is remarkable". Beaumes also produces a dry red Côtes du Rhône Villages. Marked on the map in bright pink.
10. Rasteau produces sweet wines which can be red, rosé or white. In June 2010 dry, unfortified red wines were added to the appellation, effective from the 2009 vintage. Marked on the map in pinkish-beige.
Click here for a list of suggested wine routes and maps in both Northern and Southern Provence, here for guides to the wines of Cassis and of Bandol and here for ten fun facts about rosé wines of Provence
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