Though Provence has cultivated a reputation built upon its signature rosé wines, the current reality is that Provence excels in both the diversity and the quality of its offerings. Images of sunbaked azure beaches only begin to tell the story of the region, which extends inland to encompass a diverse topography of cool subalpine hills, limestone slopes and continental rain shadows created by the Massifs de la Ste-Baume and Besillon. The primary grapes of the region are a mix of those primarily used for rosé production, Cinsault and Grenache, along with other grapes typical of the Mediterranean coast, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Clairette. In addition, there are small plantings of international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, complemented by an infusion of Italian grapes under local synonyms: Rolle (Vermentino), Tibouren (Rossese di Dolceacqua), and Brachet (Brachetto). These Italian varieties are a reminder that portions of Provence were controlled by Italy up until the 1860 Treaty of Turin.
The overarching appellation for the region is the Côtes de Provence, which is one of France’s largest appellations by area, and is used to label much of the area’s rosé, even though red and white wines are permitted. Dry, mineral tinged, and hauntingly pale, the rosé of the region makes a summer day seem incomplete without its presence. Within the Côtes de Provence, there are four subzones, Fréjus, La Londe, Pierrefeu, and Notre-Dame des Anges, each recognized for a distinctive mesoclimate. Other larger appellations in the area which also contribute to the reputation of Provence’s rosé include the Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence and the Coteaux Varois, a cooler inland region suitable for even Pinot Noir.
In 1955 twenty-three historic producers in the Côtes de Provence were recognized with the title of “Grand Cru” for the excellence of their wines. This title was awarded to the producer, like the classifications of Bordeaux, and is not tied to a specific parcel of land, as is the case in Alsace or Burgundy. Presently, eighteen of the original twenty-three remain, and though it is arguable whether seventy years later they exclusively represent the best wines of the region, they nonetheless have capitalized on their classification to command premium prices for their wines.
Within Provence, Bandol is an appellation which has built a reputation upon wines that are weighty, earthy, and age-worthy. The area is an amphitheater of vineyards opening to the Mediterranean coast, which produces Mourvèdre-based rosé and red wines of deep complexity, often requiring several years aging before being ready to drink. As a grape, Mourvèdre needs the warmest sites and sunniest exposures to ripen, and produces wines with a complex bouquet that is savory, herbal, and earthy. Cassis, Bellet and Palette are other appellations within the Côtes de Provence that produce still, dry wine in all three colors. Cassis is famous for its white blends based on the same Marsanne and Clairette grapes that are also grown in the Rhône, the perfect pairing for the rich garlic and shellfish of the local bouillabaisse. Finally, separate from any appellation are the wines that are made in Provence under the IGP schema and rely upon non-indigenous varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon to translate sunny Provencal summers into concentrated, age-worthy red wines that are competitive with mid-tier wines from Bordeaux.