A summer in Provence

An exploration of the region’s most versatile wines

by Jeff Bramwell

First, a point of clarification: This is not a recounting, sad to say, of an actual summer spent in Provence, although I was lucky enough to stop off for a few days last year. Instead, it’s a proposal of an idea; a summer’s worth of eating and drinking based around this Mediterranean wonderland’s legendary cuisine.

It’s easy to distill the entirety of Provence down to a simple glass of rosé and a bowl of bouillabaisse if you wish, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Provence is a varied terrain, from the rocky mountains and plateaus of the northern boundaries to the unimaginably crystal clear blue waters and stony beaches of the coastline, with a whole lot of scrubby vegetation and vineyard land in between the two.

Rosé leads the way in terms of wine production, and it’s undeniably the calling card among Provençal exports. These crisp and dry wines are more often than not made from a blend of Cinsault, Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah and a small number of other red grapes, with a handful of whites possibly being included in the mix. Flavors run the gamut, including pink grapefruit, strawberry, cherry, peach, and tangerine, and are augmented by floral and spicy accents.

The best of these are found throughout the appellations of Coteaux d’Aix en Provence, Bandol (more on this appellation later), Cassis and the larger Cotes de Provence. These are some of the most flexible wines you can find; they’ll pair with anything, from onion tarts and stuffed tomatoes to grilled chicken and pork. It’s a natural with just about any preparation of seafood you can imagine. How about a classic Niçoise salad with some grilled lobster mixed in for good measure?

Provençal rosé is rightfully a must for summer drinking, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only wine worth exploring from this region.

White wines are composed of a cast of relative unknowns, including Rolle (the same grape as Italy’s Vermentino), Clairette, Muscat and Roussanne, among others. Generally speaking, they’re of the light and fresh variety, sometimes highly aromatic but very rarely approaching the quality of the best from the neighboring Rhone Valley. But that’s no terrible knock on the wines; they’re a great match for light and fresh seafood preparations, and they’re rarely expensive. For some classic pairings, try grilled calamari with a squeeze of lemon and some garlicky aioli or mussels steamed in white wine with onion and crushed tomatoes.

Bandol sets the standard for Provençal reds, with Mourvedre providing the backbone of these serious, structured and spicy wines. They can be pretty rough around the edges when they’re young, but given time they soften to show red berry, pepper, and savory herbal flavors. The more everyday reds of Provence tend to tell a similar story, though with less depth and character.

Mourvedre is a frequent component in these wines, as are Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet. Lamb stew would be a traditional match, but in the interest of a more summer-compatible meal, skewers of lamb rubbed with rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper — grilled and served with the vegetables of your choice — would do the job nicely. Roast pork with sautéed mushrooms would be an equally authentic option.

Even if you don’t base all of your meals around this concept, then you can at least enjoy the wines with a sampler of olives, crusty bread and olive oil for a taste of Provence any time you want.

Jeff Bramwell is a co-owner of The Raleigh Wine Shop, located at 126 Glenwood Ave. in downtown Raleigh. Have a question? Email him at Jeff@TheRaleighWineShop.com.