A Glass In Provence

Posted on: 31 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Our wine expert discovers drinkable gems among the lavender and thyme scented hills of this magical region.

Over the last few years Provence, that sun-soaked corner of South Eastern France, has become something of the flavour of the month. From a seemingly endless procession of TV chefs singing the region's gastronomic praises to the litany of best-selling books that have followed in Peter Mayall's august footsteps, it seems that everything Provençal has been reported and beatified. Everything that is, except wine.

Even in trade circles the wines of Provence - including some of those from the villages of the Southern Rhône - are a bit of a closed book. I remember not so long ago entering a very well stocked wine shop in Hereford and asking for a bottle of Château Simone (£19.95, Yapp Brothers) and being asked by the manager which part of Bordeaux it was from. Impressed I was not - but the fact these wines aren't better known is a real shame if you ask me.

The reds, which often blend things such Cabernet and Syrah, can be sensational. The whites, whilst idiosyncratic, can be fascinating and as for the rosés, well there are no better ones in France.

So please allow me to take you on a brief trip through the lavender and thyme scented hills of this magical region by way of few dazzling wines.

Great heat and great white wines are not generally good bedfellows. For whites to really flourish they tend to need a degree of coolness else the acidity can be baked out of them, leaving them feeling a little 'flabby'.

In Provence they get around this problem by being very choosy about the grapes they plant, and whilst they do have plantings of familiar names such as Sauvignon and Chardonnay, it's elsewhere that the interest lies. Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Rolle may not be household names, but the wines they can make can be astonishing.

Rolle for instance is responsible for one of my all time favourite whites, the Château Miraval Terre Blanche (£10.99 everywine). With a palate of ripe citrus, peaches, apricots and roasted almonds it gloriously blends richness with refreshment and will go brilliantly with white meats, fish or green salads.

Just up the road, and proving the value that this region can offer, is the Reserve Naturalle Viognier (£4.94 Tesco.com). Packed with peaches, dried apricots and lemon zest, it's rich, almost oily and decidedly powerful. I had it with roast chicken stuffed with garlic, lemon and tarragon and despite that mighty-mouthful of flavours it worked brilliantly, so you can afford to be bold with your food matches.

If there's one set of wines for which Provence is famed it's its rosés. Down here, on the scrubby, dry, limestone and clay soils, heat-loving Grenache thrives. Grenache is perfectly suited for rosé production as it naturally gives low colour and can be harvested early, when the acidity is still good, whilst still having enough sugar to make tasty wine.

Some of these can be pricey. Domaines Ott for instance will run you over £20 (Four Walls Wine Company) a bottle but you don't need to spend a fortune to be well rewarded.

The Château Unang (£7.99 Lockett Bros) rosé gives you as much raspberry, red cherry and strawberry fruit as you could wish for and with its gentle, yet fresh, acidity it's a superb solo summer sipper or partner to barbecued chicken or cool, fresh soft cheeses.

Quite different in character, yet just as compelling, is the Vielle Ferme Rosé (£5.49 Bon Coeur). Produced by the winemaking dynasty, the Perrin family, this is somewhat richer, lower in acidity and as such better suited to being served on its own or with red meats.

Last, but no means least, we have the reds. For me these are some of the most extraordinary, complex and exciting wines on the planet. The appellation contrôleé laws, the rules that tell the farmers everything from what they can plant to which pruning method they should use, are some of the most relaxed in all France and allow for experimentation.

This has given rise to genius wines such as the Château Miraval red (£11.16 everywine). Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet and long oak ageing go to make this the masterpiece it is.  Inky in colour, the nose is replete with tones of brambles, mulberry and wild herbs, whilst the palate is loaded with cassis, black cherry, kirsch and vanilla notes. Absolutely stunning on its own, it'll bring out the best in red meats - beef and venison particularly - or hard, very mature cheddar or goats' cheeses.

My final recommendation is technically from further north in the Rhône, but frankly this is so good I need to stretch a point!  Tesco's Côtes du Rhône 2006 (£4.73 Tesco) is for the money one heck of a glassful. Full, rounded and packed with damson, black cherry and sweetly spiced, pepper tones, it's a great wine for barbecued meats, will take on bold cheeses with aplomb, and makes for a tasty little number all on its lonesome.

Well all this talk of food and wine has given me a thirst, so I'm off to do some 'research'.

More soon!


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