Wine has been made in Provence since the Greeks settled Marseille, before the Romans arrived.
The greatest part of provençale wines are part of the Côtes du Rhône appellation. This appellation is a perfect example of the French system of wine classification – interesting, and a bit mental.The vast region from the Massif Central to the Lubéron National Park, and along a 200 Km stretch of the River Rhône running upstream from Avignon, is home to the Côtes du Rhône appellation. They produce more than 400 million bottles of wine, white, rosé and red.
The appellation is divided into four quality levels:
1. AOC Côtes du Rhône
2. AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages
3. Next up are 18 villages which are allowed to add their village name to the AOC Côtes du Rhône label.
4. At the top of the tree are the 17 Crus who don’t have to include AOC Côtes du Rhône, the name of the village is enough, most famously Chateauneuf du Pape.
The rules differ wildly - south of Montelimar there’s a minimum of 40% grenache grapes. Throughout the whole region all the reds must contain a minimum of 15% of Syrah and / or Mourvedre. In the most famous Provence appellation of all, Chateauneuf du Pape, they are allowed to grow 18 varieties of grape, but after the harvest they have to throw 5% of the crop away.The appellation is divided into septentrional (northern) and méridional (southern) regions, and we’re concerned exclusively with the southern vineyards, which are found overwhelmingly to the east of the Rhône, in the region north of Avignon and west as far as the hills of the Lubéron. Specifically the Crus appellations of Chateauneuf du Pape, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Beaumes de Venise and Lirac. After our visit to the Abbaye de Sénanque and the Lubéron, we spend two days cycling through these famous vineyards, visiting four producers, meeting the owners and trying to understand the subtle differences between these lovely wines.
If you want to understand French wines, first of all you have to accept that the rules are at the same time a bit sensible, and just a little bit lunatic.
Chateauneuf du Pape is the Prince amongst these wines, but in one vineyard we’ll learn how the A6 motorway cut a vineyard in two, creating an AOC Chateauneuf du Pape, and a Vin de France (the new name for vin de table – basically there is no lower classification of wine in France – except maybe the French would say “all foreign wines”!). But we’ll find out just how stunning his vins de France are.Our second lesson will focus just a few miles to the east, in four lesser-know appellations that follow the style of their more famous neighbour, Lirac, Beaumes de Venise, Gigondas and Vacqueyras.
These used to be high quality wines that were virtually unheard of (outside France) and therefore reasonably price. Unfortunately, they were a bit too good to remain a secret, and as their reputation grows, so does their price. But nothing like Chateauneuf du Pape. I always think choosing these wines shows a bit of nous on the part of the imbiber, and we’ll cycle through them on the Wednesday and Thursday of our new tour.The best wines of Provence bear comparison with any wine region in the world, and on our new tour I think we can prove that to you.