Provence: A province where the rosé reigns

rose provence

As the earth turns, seasons change. Despite this year’s illusion of endless winter, my daffodil bulbs are showing their heads almost on schedule.

Along with the joys of spring comes a mighty thirst — for beautiful, crisp, pale-pink rosé wines. At a recent Wines of Provence media luncheon tasting at Lafayette Restaurant in Manhattan, I was reminded of how enticingly quaffable the rosé wines from Provence have become, as they have grown in quality and popularity over the past two decades. 

Ever since the Greeks brought wine grapes to the south of France in 600 B.C., the hot, windy, dry climate has favored red grape varieties like cinsault, syrah, grenache, mourvedre and carignan, all of which have clear juice that, when picked early enough to retain their acidity under the scorching sun, can be blended into pale-pink wines with more stability and fi nesse than their clumsier white or red counterparts. Although coarse red wines (often mixed with water) used to be the daily beverage in the south of France, developments in the international wine trade have reconfi gured Provence’s vineyards and wineries to the point that today 88.5 percent of wines from Provence are rosé, while only 8 percent are red and 3.5 percent white.

The United States is the biggest export market for Provence’s rosés, with the quantity increasing from 146,000 liters in 2003 to an ocean of 3,647,312 liters in 2013. The dollar value of Provençal rosé in the U.S. increased 48 percent in 2013 alone, which is probably why the PR people from Provence treated us humble wine journalists at Lafayette to that absolutely spectacular luncheon, designed to complement an array of three dozen glistening pink wines.

The meal was an ode to springtime, with plump mussels, squid, shrimp, octopus, herbs and chickpeas bathed in olive oil, followed by tiny new artichokes with Niçoise olives and arugula, steamed halibut in lemon verbena sauce with pristine baby peas and a finale (for the one red wine served) of cheeses with dried fruit compote. (I know; artichokes do something to the taste buds that makes them insensible to wine’s finer points, but the chef couldn’t resist serving them and the PR team ran around and poured a lusty white Provencal “rolle,” aka vermentino, that reset our palates for more delicate rosés.)

Our host at the Provence tasting, Francois Millo, director of the Provence Wine Council, emphasized the distinctive qualities of rosé wines from Provence: In Provence rosé is made “on purpose,” using red-skinned grape varieties that are macerated for only a few hours to extract the requisite amount of pale color into the otherwise clear juice. This is in contrast to techniques used in many other regions, either blending white and red wine or bleeding a fraction of pale wine from a red wine fermentation (saignée) in order to concentrate the red wine and gain rosé as a side product.

Today, large infusions of capital investment for modern technology (including night-harvested fruit, controlled temperature fermentation in stainless steel and use of inert gas to protect the juice from oxidation) have taken the quality of Provence’s wines to another level. Most important, these are dry wines, fermented to contain little or no residual sugar. The growing preference for dry rosé is evidenced by the decline in the market for “blush” wines (off nearly 7 percent in 2012-13, while all premium rosés grew over 70 percent in the same period).

The best of the rosés from Provence balance vivacious acidity with delicate fruit and floral aromas. Of the wines I tasted, I especially enjoyed the energetic Sables d’Azur, made by Glassier right at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire (a view made famous by Cézanne); the strangely salty and textured Arbaude from nearby Mas de Cadenet; and the refined Cuvée Minotaur, with its hints of wild herbs from the Massif des Maures.

Long Island has its own “rosé on purpose,” most notably the all-rosé line of wines made by Croteaux Vineyards in Southold. The Croteau family has styled its wines for Long Island’s casual seaside lifestyle, taking the rosés of Provence as their model but adapting grape varieties — merlot, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc  — most suited to our climate.

As they explain, “While the grape varietals we grow may be different, the lifestyle and rhythms of the seasons are undeniably similar. Each year when we release our rosé, it is permission to start thinking of approaching warmer days and the relaxation that comes with them.”

In case you needed permission to relax, voilà and vive rosé!

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.