What other wines beyond rosé can define Provence’s future? It’s a question that troubles all of southern France, actually, but as even as the Languedoc has made a star shot (not quite successfully), Provence has hung back. The winemaker Henri Milan puts it succinctly—“We live in a parallel universe here,” he tells me—although it was actually Homer who, in The Odyssey, coined a name that applies to many Provençals: lōtophagoi, “lotus-eaters,” so entranced by their own charmed lives that they remained in a happy stupor, abandoning any thought of the world beyond.
That helps to explain why the region’s identity questions are not only unresolved, but barely seem like they’re being asked. And there are several strong traditions (just decreasingly so): mourvèdre in Bandol from the likes of Château Pradeaux, Château Sainte. Anne, Château Jean-Pierre Gaussen, Domaine de Gros ‘Noré and, of course, Tempier; white clairette in nearby Cassis and elsewhere; even the wines of Clos Cibonne, based on the ancient tibouren grape, which has found many modern fans, although I suspect the big charm comes from an archaic, indigenous grape. A few well-established Provence rosés still deliver, too, including Château de Roquefort and Commanderie de Peyrassol.
But, too often, they’ve been subsumed by a huge volume of mild, relatively generic wine. Even the wines in Bellet, a tiny appellation in the hills above Nice, were more competent than thrilling—not bad, but not worth the steep prices. (To be fair, it’s a bit like growing vines in Malibu.)
At the same time, a small handful of pioneers are pushing things forward, in at least three places.
To the west, near where Provence begins to edge into the Languedoc, the limestone ridges of the Alpilles jag up from the plain south of Aix-en-Provence. On the south flank lies the medieval fortress of Les-Baux-de-Provence, along with a handful of old Provençal wineries, notably the organically farmed Mas de Gourgonnier. The north flank is home to Trevallon, which asserted its fortunes on cabernet and syrah, drawing the ire of local authorities, who deprived them of the Les Baux de Provence appellation—that classic French twist of penalizing the pioneering outsider that quality-shames its neighbors.
More recently, Domaine Hauvette is making a case for cinsault as the Alpilles’ great hope; nearby, you’ll find the hearty wines of Henri Milan, just outside Saint-Rémy, which have a currency among naturalist drinkers.
Look for: Hauvette’s savory, cinsault-driven Petra rosé, $35 [Buy], and Amethyste red $57 [Buy]; Milan’s unsulfured, tea-scented Papillon red, $25 [Buy], and Gourgonnier’s unsulfured but well-behaved Cuvée Nature, $30 [Buy].
Mouth of the Rhône
A half-hour drive south from the Alpilles sits the Étang de Berre, a 60-square-mile inland sea. Just above it is Domaine de Sulauze, where Guillaume Lefèvre and his Brazilian-born wife Karina have been upgrading an old family farm, planting grenache blanc, vermentino (the cuttings came from Corsica’s Jean-Charles Abbatucci) and more in the old head-staked method, along with growing wheat, raising chickens and brewing beer. The Lefèvres want to explore the real potential of Mediterranean varieties, to understand what it means to make what the French sometimes call meridional wine in this particular part of the coast; hence, no chardonnay.
La Roquebrussanne and the Varois
Farther east, outside Marseille, if you keep driving up the D1, you ultimately drop into an ancient plateau high in the hills. This is the heart of the Côteaux Varois, a little-known and slightly colder subset of Provence, where the wine rules hearteningly encourage more use of vermentino, the great white hope of the Mediterranean.
Here, you will also find old grenache and cinsault, most of it going to co-ops and much of it seeming half-abandoned. This is where Jean-Christophe Comor, a native of Aix-en-Provence, came after leaving a political career in Paris to found Les Terres Promises. He and his wife are building a winery in a former sheep barn on their property, where they are currently digging holes for amphorae.
Comor, like several others, was taken with the history of Roquebrussanne, which in Roman times was a major source of wine production, as evidenced by the few ruins still left, and with the opportunity to do more than just rubber-stamp rosé in Provence. He saw the potential in the full diversity of southern grapes, but especially red cinsault and carignan, and white clairette. “Most of the wines in Provence had so much heat, so much alcohol,” he says. “I wanted to show you could make wines with freshness in the south.”
Look for: Terres Promises’ subtle, verbena-scented L’Apostrophe rosé, $21 [Buy] and the 2015 cinsault-based rosé from Triennes, $14 [Buy], which uses old-fashioned blending skills to make a deeply textured pink that can hit shelves by spring.