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It’s Not All Pink: Provence Explored

An insight into the wineries, wine-makers and producers of the Provence wine region. Hint, it's not just tanned babes in white swimsuits with chilled glasses of rosé in hand. It is SO much more.

A few weeks ago, an Instagram account called the_roselifestyle began courting me. It was the typical playground ritual of liking a scattering of recent posts, following and then unfollowing and a few comments in the form of emoji’s – real words replaced by gesticulating yellow hands. Having scrolled through their feed like the distant, judging stalker social media makes of us, I think I now understand the Instagram version of a rosé lifestyle.

Which is, it turns out, tanned babes in crisp white swimsuits and blush dresses looking into the sunset, clutching their cold glass of pale pink wine. There are quite a few dreamy looking pools and inflatable flamingos involved as well. It’s endlessly a giant summer holiday along the Cote d’Azure when you’re sipping rosé wine.

No other hue of fermented grape has such a lifestyle attached to it. There’s no white wine glamour or bottles of red panache, or even an orange spring chic. And nowhere is the life en rosé lived so fully as Provence – one of the largest wine regions in the world, covering a staggering 120 miles of France’s south coast with its sun-drenched vineyards and known almost exclusively around the world for rosé.

You’d need to spend a month travelling the region to completely understand Provence’s terroir and viticulture. I had two days. But this is what I found: there’s a lot of pink wine, but that’s not all. In fact Provence offered an incredible chance to sip some of the world’s best reds and whites, and it wasn’t always necessary to be wearing a white swimsuit while you did it.

Having flown into Marseilles, the famed region of Aix-en-Provence was a quick 40 minute drive up the motorway and into the winding, dusty roads that climb up and down the edges of valleys, covered in neat rows of gnarled vines. The destination is Chateau La Coste, a modern winery that incorporates art and architecture into its land.

Beyond the gift shop, restaurant and all-day café with its thick doughy breads and chilled bottles of house wine, are the vineyards themselves and, at the heart, two enormous corrugated aluminium hangers that look as if they belong in Area 51 rather than the French countryside. 17 meters below one of them, in a chilly 12 degree environment, is where Chateau La Coste ferments and stores its beautiful wines, making a clear majority of rosé to its whites and reds.

On the hunt for the wine that makes Aix so famous, it was towards La Coste’s Rosé d’une Nuit and Grand Vin Rosé that I turned, the first, a fresh and fruity wine made with a blend of grenache, syrah and cabernet sauvingon and the later almost all grenache, with a hint of vermentino, creating a bolder, richer pink that is smooth, full bodied and complex. But as the passionate guide keeps telling our motely crew of nationalities and ages on the winery tour, the grape type is superfluous information when in France – it’s all about terroir and vineyard origin here. Behind him, the Australian couple on the tour raise their eyebrows in disbelief.

Chateau La Coste was the first winery on my flying visit to Provence, but by the end it was also by far the most beautiful rosés that passed my lips. Complex, mineral and with a bite of personality, they stood out from the swathes of ubiquitous blush wines that dominated the bars and seaside restaurants.

Retreating to the cosmopolitan of Marseilles by night, a city where the traffic pays no heed to such inconveniences as road rules and the hint of an English accent prevents you getting anywhere near a good restaurant, my first stop was Microcosmos, the city’s first urban winery. Run by Fabienne Lion Völlmy and her husband, the couple source their grapes from across Provence, buying where they feel the best crops are, before crushing and fermenting them all in Marseilles.

Across the range each bottle offers a different story and a different terroir, but they are united by the small yet dedicated winemaking prowess of the owners. Two in particular stand out, the Marvin II, 100% mourvèdre rose, edging its way into competition with La Coste’s pinks, and Hocus Pocus, 100% vermentino sous marc orange wine.

This orange was closer to a golden pale than the ripe flesh of a citrus fruit as it’s made using only the free-run juice and the juice left in the pomace after pressing for the winery’s white Vega. The skins and juice are left to ferment together giving the wine some fairly unique aromas and more body and structure than the white. It is easily one of the most pleasant orange wines I’ve come across, distinctly on the quaffable side of funky.

Another 40 minute drive (lengthened by a personal inability to distinguish left from right and thus successfully navigate) and I arrived in Cassis the next morning to visit Clos Sainte-Magdeleine, a picturesque winery with a backdrop of towering rocky cliffs and hills covered in vines. In a dense heat with the cacophony of cicadas attempting to drown out our guide we got to know the charm of this small coastal town.

Grapes have been a feature of Cassis for roughly around 2,500 years and it’s had its own AOC since 1936. Clos Sainte-Magdeleine has been a part of this history since the late 1800s and produces both rosé and whites, but it’s their Bel-Arme, a white wine fermented in modern unlined concrete tanks, resembling giant grey oeufs on feet, which takes the limelight. It’s not just a funky look though, as Decanter explains: “these tanks give a continuous flow to the wine as it ferments and ages, which allows a more homogenous liquid. The thick walls provide good insulation and temperature is very stable during fermentation, which avoids the need for artificial refrigeration.”

Made with a blend of marsanne, clairette, ugni blanc and bourboulenc the white that emerges from the egg-like tanks is silky, unctuous and fresh. Cassis might be a part of the Provence rosé machine, but its whites are certainly the jewel in this AOC crown.

A final stop, a quick sprint down the highway from Cassis, is Bandol, unequivocally producing Provence’s greatest reds. Making a beeline for Domaine Tempier, a driving force of the appellation and with a history dating back to the time of Louis XV, the red mourvèdres are every red wine lover’s dream come true.

Guided down into a wine cellar filled with huge Austrian oak barrels, with one of the owners, two French sommeliers doing their own wine tour, and an old bucket to spit in, it was the most authentic insight into a winery and its resting reds I have ever seen. Having tasted our way around the cellar, swilling vintages and switching between languages with each sentence, this estate and its majestic reds captured the essence of beautiful Provence winemaking.

The problem with this rosé lifestyle we’re all trying to embody using Provence’s wine, is that it embodies none of this authenticity that can be found here in the heartlands of Provence. It isn’t all babes in white swimsuits, clutching pink wine – because that wine has to come from somewhere and unless it means anything but an Instagram picture it won’t be made with dedication Provence’s best wineries are currently achieving. It isn’t all pink, white, orange or red - there’s all of that and much more beyond a filter, a like and a gesticulating yellow hand.

We travelled Luton to Marseille with Easy Jet for £60pp, Weds to Fri.
We stayed in a one-bed apartment in Marseille for two nights at £220, booked via Booking.com.