Is There Life for Provence Beyond Rosé?

Provence has become synonymous with rosé—both the place and wine becoming symbols of some aspirational lifestyle. But at what cost? Jon Bonné on what we've lost in the wake of rosé's event horizon.

The night of the Paris attacks, I was holed up 500 miles south in an apartment two blocks from the port of Bandol. I spent the evening glued to my laptop, constantly refreshing the front pages of Le Monde and France 24, piecing together the unfolding horror.

Even the journalist in me couldn’t summon a wish to be in Paris that night. But I also couldn’t imagine a more discomfiting place to be. Bandol wasn’t just far from the chaos; it was a holdover of France in an unsullied (or at least naive) time—barely changed from its resemblance on old Roger Broders posters from the 1930s. The town streets were unsettlingly quiet, save for faint traces of bad Europop from a nearby disco and a drunken shout or two carrying on the still autumn air. The vibrantly painted fishing boats known as pointus bobbed in the harbor under the bright November moon.

The shock of the attacks only put into starker relief that sense of otherness that Provence embodies. Elsewhere, France is a land of drafty chateaux and rain. But Provence has established itself in the imagination—thank you, Cézanne, with your Mont Sainte-Victoire, and thanks to you, Peter Mayle—as a place of escape. Warmth replaces cold; olive oil replaces butter; the hills are defined by the scrub brush known as garrigue and the light becomes brighter and longer.

If this all sounds a bit worn, it’s because that mythic Provence has long been leveraged as the heart of a full-time industry, offering up doses of sun and salads Niçoises for expats and tourists of all stripes. Today, the region has become a mature version of a rustic myth set in motion a generation ago, to the point of caricature—all those country roads leading to the glamour of Riviera sands.

Still, Brand Provence has a powerful appeal. And while the region has always enticed foreigners—that sunny demeanor a counterpoint to French existentialism—today it is defined by one thing more than anything else: rosé.

Its pink wines are an easily accessible totem of the Provençal good life—pure Mediterranean idyll in a bottle. But the mainstreaming of rosé has transformed the Provençals in profound ways. Nearly 90 percent of their appellations’ harvest goes into rosé, and exports to the United States in particular have soared, up nearly 30 percent between 2013 and 2014 as rosé reached its event horizon.

That surge also suppressed nearly every other thought about wine in Provence, including the opportunity for young, innovative talents to develop as they have in other regions. If you look, you can find people like Théophile and Emmanuelle Milan, the children of the boundary-pushing Henri Milan, or Jean-Christophe Comor of Les Terres Promises, who farms in the hills northeast of Marseille. But they barely make a blip in a sea of mostly indistinct pink.

Comor, actually, coined what I thought was the best phrase to describe what’s holding Provence back: une pauvreté d’audace—“a poverty of audacity.” The more successful it becomes, the less interested it is in shaking things up.

To be fair, perhaps Provence was never a place for audacity. Even in the 1960s, pink wine represented half of all Provençal production, most of it drunk locally. But nothing could have prepared it for the current global obsession with roséwhich Provence is only too happy to facilitate.

And therein lies the crux of the problem: The net effect of the surging popularity is that Provence now represents little more than a lifestyle (or a simplified interpretation of a lifestyle). It’s not just that the wines have become boring; it’s that rosé’s deeper cultural relevance there has been whittled down to a vague fashionability. A bowl of saffroned, garlicky fish stew or a tranche of the onion tart known as pissaladière, plus a glass of salmon-hued wine, used to be the sort of simple pleasure that transported foreigners. But 40 years of fetishization, then a final shove from the rosé craze, have pushed Provence into cliché territory.

One truly sad side effect is that the broader diversity of Provençal wine has faded into a monotony of pink. There used to be much more enthusiasm for the rugged mourvèdre-based reds of Bandol and the ripe, fragrant whites of small nearby appellations like Cassis. Those haven’t disappeared entirely, but they have largely fallen into the shadows. Even Bandol, the region’s best-known appellation, hasn’t escaped this fate. Several local winemakers quoted me a statistic that Bandol has shifted from making 80 percent red wine to 80 percent rosé. (The local trade group did not confirm this, perhaps because it’s not a fact they want distributed, or perhaps because French functionaries are indifferent to emails from inquisitive Americans.)

And yet there is still charm to be found in Provence—even in its rosé, which can be done well and meaningfully when anyone bothers to care. In addition to Bandol’s Big Three—Château Pradeaux, Domaine Tempier and Château de Pibarnon—intense and complex rosé is still the order of the day at Château Simone, in the tiny Palette appellation, whose wines were famous half a century ago. It can even be done well at large scale, by those who appreciate the value of honest table wine. Consider Triennes, the project cofounded by two Burgundian heavyweights, Domaine Dujac’s Seysses family and Aubert de Villaine, in the late 1980s, which makes quite a lot of $14 rosé (550,000 bottles), plus red and white from their vineyards near Nans-lès-Pins, in the Var area northeast of Marseille.

But these are rarities. The pressure today is to churn out more rosé than ever—both quickly and at higher prices. Not too long ago, good Provençal rosé was relatively affordable, but today even early, ambitious price-hikers like Domaine Ott have been overshadowed by wines like the Cuvée 281 from Chateau Minuty, which, at $60 a bottle, has no other evident purpose than to telegraph a Saint-Tropez poshness. (By comparison, even Miraval, the Brad-Angelina rosé, is only about $20.) The proliferation of shapely, expensive bottles that might be more appropriate for perfume isn’t coincidence. It’s branding.

Even Kermit Lynch, arguably Provence’s greatest American promoter, has grown weary, as I discovered when I visited him one day in his country home in the hills above Le Beausset, a few kilometers from Bandol. To him, Provençal rosé has become today’s equivalent of Beaujolais Nouveau—which he doesn’t intend as compliment. It’s now impossible to convince customers to wait much beyond Memorial Day to drink their rosé, even if some—especially ones made with mourvèdre—begin to really shine around September. The rosé frenzy has also prompted a denaturing of sorts, a neutralizing of rosé character, bolstered by a cottage industry of enologists pushing commercial yeasts and additives. “They learned in school to scare the hell out of their winemakers, just like a doctor,” Lynch tells me. “‘Your baby’s going to die unless you let me operate.’”

Could Provençal rosé’s plight really be this grim? If I was going to locate a stronghold for rosé’s better nature, it would be in Bandol, 30 miles south of Marseille. By the early 19th century, its mourvèdre-based wines were already esteemed, thanks in part to it being a busy port town, and today it is the one place in France where robust mourvèdre is truly revered. For that matter, its best rosés can age like a red. I was reminded of this when Reynald Delille at Domaine de Terrebrune uncorked a bottle of his 1995. After two decades it had developed a mellow chestnut-like side, but retained its intense oyster-shell mineral freshness.

But not even Bandol can avoid the Provençal dilemma: How do you make a stand for serious wine when rosé in general, and the region’s modern aesthetic, is about the complete opposite? It’s not that Provence shouldn’t make happy, simple wines and take pleasure in doing so. It’s that it has become too easy, and too profitable, to do nothing else.

That was why, for instance, I found it heartbreaking to hear that even in Bandol, the expressive but finicky mourvèdre grape (it ripens at the very end of the season) is increasingly being replaced by easy, productive grenache, which crops at higher yields and thus is the perfect rosé vehicle. “It’s a shame,” in the words of Etienne Portalis of Château Pradeaux, “because the grape that defines Bandol is mourvèdre.”

I met up with Portalis at dusk one evening in a shed at the back of the property, as he tapped the ash from his cigarette—precariously, maybe, as drops of high-proof marc dripped from his 1950s-era alembic still. He stoked the fire, and the scent of burning vine wood mixed with the sweet smell of new brandy.

Pradeaux is a perfect example of the slightly decrepit old Provençal charm that Anglophones discovered 50 years ago: Its bright yellow château dates to 1620, its paths lined with 800-year-old olive trees. But Portalis, the youngest generation of a family that acquired the property in 1752, is one of the few combatants in the fight to preserve the last shreds of tradition, and to fend off the whims of fashion.

Pradeaux’s red wines are famously stoic: The best is aged up to four years in ancient casks, with mourvèdre’s acidity and tannins on full display. But Pradeaux also prides itself on what he calls “rosés de gastronomie”: profound pink wines, meaty and full of umami.

Such worries have even pervaded Domaine Tempier, not only the area’s most famous estate but the one that defined America’s Provence obsession, thanks to Lynch and the fandom of people like Julia Child and Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters. One can have a reasonable debate as to whether Tempier’s rosé—now around $45 per bottle—is as good as it once was, or is worth the price. (I generally find myself answering “no” to both, although the 2015 is very good.) But it doesn’t really matter: The Peyraud family, which runs Tempier, is iconic, at least to a certain generation of Americans, representing the essence of French country tradition. Matriarch Lulu Peyraud, a renowned cook, has been portrayed in countless articles as a household deity of Provençal culture.

Yet even Tempier hasn’t escaped the rosé onslaught. They now bottle their wine in April, three months earlier than in past years, in order to get it shipped before summer. “It used to be like cooking. You’d have to taste it gradually to see how it was coming along,” Véronique Peyraud Rougeot, Lulu’s youngest daughter, tells me as we taste the new vintage. “Now everyone’s too pressed.”

In the days after the Paris attacks, I found myself overwhelmed by the same charmed nostalgia for French culture as everyone else. In which case, Provence should have been a perfect place to be, having inspired Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso, to mention a few. I walked the streets of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence one afternoon (where Van Gogh retreated after trimming his ear) and saw a town driven by a sort of myth preservation, not quite evolving beyond a slightly idealized past. Wheat fields! Sunflowers! See where Vincent faced his demons!

All of Provence seems fueled by the same tendencies—its rosé unbound from an original context. Now just another beverage for the porch, it is hard to imagine how it could reclaim the deeper meanings of its wine culture. The virtue of the past has become parody in the present. A poverty of audacity, indeed.