Provence got its priorities right good and early. Wine has been made here for at least 2,600 years, making it the oldest wine-producing region of France.
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And, as with so much else about the local culture, its distinctive nature has been shaped by the successive waves of invaders and immigrants who have come to the region, including Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Catalans and Savoyards, all of whom introduced a very large variety of tastes, techniques and grape types.
Rosé de Provence is dry and fruity, totally unlike the sweeter "blush" wines produced in the United States or elsewhere in Europe, such as Lambrusco or Mateus Rosé. It's ideally suited to the intense flavours of Mediterranean cuisine.
Cassis white wine is straw-coloured and nutty and the Bandol reds deep and spicy with a tang of the local garrigue (wild, herby scrubland). A number of regions, such as Bellet, Pallette, Cassis or even Bandol, produce only a relatively small quantity of wine for local consumption (or rich importers) only. In other words, you'll just have to resign yourself to coming to Provence to taste it.
This article focuses on southern provençal wines. Click here to read about the wines of Northern Provence, including the Ventoux and Côtes du Luberon appellations, which are a part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region but in wine terms are managed as part of the Rhône.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
The Romans, in particular, developed provençal viticulture in defiance of a temporary ban designed to protect imported Italian wines, and despite their disdain for the local plonk.
In the 1st century A.D. the Roman poet Martial grumbled that the wines of Marseille were "terrible poisons, and never sold at a good price." Well, a lot has changed since then.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, monks took up the baton, producing wine for their own consumption, for celebrating Mass and as a source of revenue.
From the 14th century onwards, the nobility - notably King René, known as le roi vigneron (the wine-maker king) - and later the army moved in, acquiring many vineyards and laying the foundation for modern viticultural Provence.
The wines' fame began to spread. They were taken to London by Eleanor of Provence who became Queen of England in 1236. In the 17th and 18th centuries they were favoured by French kings.
According to legend, the hedonistic Louis XV (pictured, in a 1748 portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour), when asked the secret of youth, replied promptly, "The wines of Bandol". And, thanks to Marseille's expansion as a port, provençal wine made its way as far afield as India and Brazil.
In 1880 the phylloxera vastatrix insect, which had already chomped through the vineyards of the rest of France, arrived in Provence, virtually wiping out the local vines. As elsewhere, the solution to the crisis was found by grafting French plants onto American ones capable of resisting phylloxera.
For decades to come, provençal wine had a low reputation and suffered from over-production. Today, though, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur is the fourth-largest wine producing area of France and its renown is assured.
By the way, you'll look in vain for vineyards in Marseille itself - with two exceptions. In March 2011, 150 vines were planted on the hill opposite the Abbaye Saint Victor overlooking the Old Port, resuming an age-old tradition of viticulture formerly practised there by the monks. It's currently used for educational projects with local schoolchildren.
A second vineyard can be spotted a little further along this side of the Old Port, behind the New Hotel Le Pharo. A local artist has created experimental projects based there. Under French law you require a special permit to produce wine for commercial purposes, so neither of the two vineyards has done so, and Marseille still awaits its own vintage!
The terroir is the mysterious combination of soil, climate, aspect and a pinch of magic that conspire to form the character of a wine.
In the east are crystalline ranges facing the sea. Though the two types differ slightly, both have shallow, well-drained soil liable to erosion.
The region clocks up very many hours of sunshine: around 3,000 each year. In summer, temperatures are particularly high, even if they can range sharply between different altitudes. Autumns and springs are susceptible to very heavy, stormy rainfall which partly offsets the long arid summers.
There are also numerous winds, especially the dry, bitterly cold Mistral blowing in from the north-west which in summer brings relief to the overheated vines and helps protect them against rot, disease and humidity, although it can also cause physical damage to exposed or poorly tethered vines.
THE MAIN APPELLATIONS
Click on the map to enlarge the image
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.
Provence is known above all for its rosé wine which accounts for a full 87% of the region's production (the balance is 9% red and 4% white) and 40% of France's rosé production as a whole. It has ten main recognised appellation contrôlées - an appellation being a protected name under which a wine is sold, indicating the specific grape types used and the district they come from.
2. Coteaux d'Aix en Provence, the second largest appellation, makes red, rosé and, to a lesser extent, white wine. Marked in pale mauve. Click here to read about the remarkable Château La Coste winery and art trail in this appellation.
3. Les Baux de Provence in the Alpilles range of hills is, by contrast, one of the smallest appellations: its red and rosé wines received AOC status in 1995 (the white wines were added in 2010). Marked in brown.
4. Bandol, on the coast east of Marseille, makes one of the most highly respected wines in France, an earthy, tannic red dominated by the tricky Mourvèdre grape. It's also highly reputed for its crisp, dry rosé and produces a small amount of white too. Created in 1941, Bandol is one of France's oldest appellations. Read our full guide to the wines of Bandol. Marked in olive-green.
5. Cassis (nothing to do with the blackcurrant liqueur of the same name), is just a few miles down the coast from Bandol and one of the few areas in Provence producing white wine, a full-bodied, herby number.
As production is relatively low and it's enthusiastically consumed locally, Cassis blanc can be hard to come by outside the region. Read our full guide to the wines of Cassis. Marked in deep lavender.
6. Coteaux Varois, running from Brignoles to the foothills of the Sainte Baume range, received its appellation in 1993 and produces mainly rosé and red. Marked in bright green.
7. Bellet, just outside Nice and at some distance from the other provençal regions, makes some of the best wine in France on just 123 acres (50 hectares) of hillside that can only be worked by hand. It's one of the smallest appellations in the country. Not marked on the map.
8. Palette, even smaller, lies just outside Aix and is Provence's tiniest AOC zone. It's best known for its rich reds, but also produces rosés and whites, as well as a fortified wine. Marked in orange.
9. Coteaux de Pierrevert received a full appellation in 1998. Right in the north of the area covered by this article, its vineyards - which produce red, white and rosé wines - are among the highest in France, reaching altitudes of around 1000 metres. The climate is still considered as Mediterranean, but the hot summer weather can receive sharp blasts of cold from the high Alps which bring a certain acidity to the wines quite unlike the richer, more supple wines made in the warmer, lower-lying vineyards. Marked in yellow.
Four sub-appellations have been granted to the Côtes de Provence growers in recent years, named after the communes of Fréjus, Sainte Victoire, La Londe and Pierrefeu.
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