Trip to the Var: Part I

I believe I may have mentioned that my Officer in Charge of Drinks has been purchasing wine online. His most recent acquisitions were a selection of rosé wines from the neighbouring Var. During the summer, there’s nothing nicer at the weekend than quaffing a chilled rosé on the terrace as the sun sets on a week of hard graft. A bottle will last us all weekend but, in this case, after each one we’ve taken and compared notes. Clear winners emerged and we thought: “Why not visit the vineyards one weekend?” I decided to do a bit of research beforehand to discover more about our rosé wines in the region.

When the Phoenicians founded Marseille 2,600 years ago, they introduced the grapevine making Provence France’s very first wine region. Four centuries later, the Romans began to settle in Provence and continued cultivating grapes there, and indeed elsewhere. Provence is also the only region to focus on rosé  – 88% of its wine production – and is home to the only research institute dedicated to the style.

Of course, the area is blessed with a fantastic climate: lots of sunshine and not too much rain, with warm days and cool evenings. The Mediterranean sea moderates the temperatures and the (in)famous Mistral wind keeps the vineyards dry, free of pests, and the skies clear.

The geography is diverse with numerous mountain ranges that texture the landscape providing gentle slopes and sheltered valleys. The soils are diverse as well. Limestone rules in the western part of Provence where the land was once covered by a warm, shallow ancient sea. Travel east and the soil is mostly chrystalline schist (granite) and, in one small area, volcanic.

Throughout Provence, wild, resinous shrubs like rosemary, juniper, thyme and lavender grow almost everywhere. Many say these plants, collectively called Garrigue (on limestone/clay) or Maquis (on crystalline schist), influence the character of the wines.

As the map above shows, Viticultural Provence comprises nine main regions or AOC (Appellation d’Origin Contrôlée). An AOC is basically a specific area for growing grapes defined by the factors that establish its unique character – such as type of soil, the climate, and geography. Being within an AOC has rules. A grower is restricted as to what kinds of grapes they can grow, how they are grown and how many tons can be harvested. Wines must be made to specific blending percentages with regulated levels of alcohol and residual sugar. They also must follow strict labeling protocols.

We particularly enjoyed the wine from one of the four areas within Côtes de Provence, the largest AOC, and the biggest producer with about 75% of wine production (of which 89% is rosé). We decided to visit two vineyards within La Londe which has soil with plenty of quartz (heat-retaining, lower acidity), little rainfall and constant sea breezes.

The drive along the motorway was particularly enjoyable. Hardly any traffic and the scenery is glorious at this time of year as it’s so lush. Plus, the red rocks and soil provide a brilliant contrast with the verdant greenery. We’ve visited this area before but only in the winter to watch bike racing, not to taste its wines. It’s an area we normlly drive past on the way to somewhere else!

Please don’t expect detailed tasting notes. I give wines marks out of 10 depending on whether or not I like the taste. Wines have to achieve at least an 8 before I’ll buy more. As you know from my little mishap in Australia, cost is rarely a factor.

We firstly visited Domaine de Figuiere which produces organic wines. We’d tried a number of their wines previously and were keen to learn more about the rest of their range of rosés. With strict protocols in place, we were delighted to have arrived before the rush and were able to experience the remaining rosés which we found very much to our taste. They have a large bright tasting bar adjacent to a small restaurant (currently closed) which would normally serve local specialities with which to better enjoy their wines. We left laden with a couple of boxes!

Next up was the nearby Chateau Saint Marguerite, yet another organic family producer, a vineyard where we’d also tasted a number but not all of its rosé wines. We particularly wanted to taste its Cru Classé, recognised since 1955 and one of only 18 prestigious wine estates to be accorded that status. The family had recently built a new and very modern tasting and production facility which we loved. We also adored the wine and left with yet another box.

We’ll happily return later in the year to both vineyards to taste their offerings of red and white. Meanwhile, should we run out, the Officer in Charge of Drinks can order further supplies on line. Now, we needed to find somewhere for lunch!