I am in lockdown in my house in southeast France, and, like so many of the wine trade, unable to get out to taste and visit vineyards. So I am doing what I never have time to do, going through my piles of tasting books, extracting information collected over the past year (or two or three), catching up and giving myself the time to look deeper into my notes.
As I assess the splendid 2019 vintage for Provence rosé with its beautifully balanced fruit and acidity, I have looked through past vintages. The past five years have seen small vintages, hot droughts, cold and wet, hail and frost. Is this climate change? Or has Provence always had such irregular vintages?
In the 1980s, when I started working with the wines of Provence, the grapes were harvested during the heat of the day. Traffic jams formed behind trundling tractors, the air redolent of fermenting grapes; the cellars infused with asthma-inducing fumes of sulphur.
Rosé wine was often described as ‘light red’ (which indeed it was); the term saignée, bleeding the juice from the red wine, translated as some sort of blood-curdling medical action. Red wine was de rigueur with meaty barbeques, rustic pâtés flavoured with pungent garlic and little bitter-sweet black Niçoise olives.
I remember Michael Broadbent, who sadly died last month, telling me how he recorded in his tasting notes the ambience of the tasting – the weather, the people, the venue. So, when it came to recollecting the wine, ‘à la recherche du temps perdu’ (in search of lost time), the taste of the wine came back to him, with all its technical details. This appealed to my visual memory – my own Master of Wine study notes often resembled a travel guide, liberally sprinkled with photos, anecdotes and labels.
I recall my early days exploring the vineyards of Provence. Sipping robust, fresh, garrigue-scented white wines with the tiny Comtesse de Gasquet at Château Mentone; we sat in the dark, coolness of a voluminous stone cellar, which once housed silkworms. I remember her surprise when the new winemaker hacked out a thick crust of tartaric crystals from her old wooden barrels. And her reminiscences of the little train which once meandered between the châteaux and large agricultural estates of central Provence delivering produce and friends.
I remember being invited to share a large bouillabaisse with Pierre Vivet of Domaine Valette, and my squeamish English sensitivity at the many fish heads peering out at me from the tureen. Then my politeness at the extreme pungency of aged goat’s cheese, both perfect with the-then gutsy rosé.
My first drive to Bandol, before the motorway was built, was down the scenic meandering, tree-lined lanes that line the foothills of the Massif de la Sainte Baume, arriving at the hidden amphitheatre of Bandol vineyards. Its isolation was evident in its distinctive but unusual Mourvèdre-based red wine. Powerful and tannic, it needed years to mellow, and spoke of a slower time where wine was not bought and drunk in a day. A most memorable visit to Bandol was with students: we sat outside eating roast sanglier (wild boar) – the menace of vineyards in the south – at Domaine Gros’ Noré drinking bottles of red Bandol. One student attempted to ask the owner, Alain Pascal, some technical questions, only to be told that wine was for enjoyment and conviviality. ‘Relax, eat, drink…’ And we did.
Times have changed. In the late 1980s, Régine Sumeire of Château Tour de l’Evêque, started to make lighter more delicate pink wines, the colour of rose petals. Since then, rosés have become pale and elegant; hearty Provençal food has evolved into nouvelle cuisine and delicate international cuisine. Provence has transformed its old image as a rustic backwater: the glamour of the coast has now edged its way into the hills. The light red wine, drunk for a few short weeks during the heat of the summer, has become a major part of the Provence economy.
Our current shut-down has given us the opportunity to relish some of this slower pace once more.
Elizabeth Gabay MW has worked as merchant, consultant, writer and educator, specializing in southern France and Central Europe, and, since publishing Rosé: Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution (2018) also focusing on European rosé.