When Peter Mayle’s book “A Year in Provence” came out, it was like the New World had been discovered all over again. Tomatoes, olives, olive oil and rosé were served at nearly every dinner party I attended for the next five years.
In spite of Provence’s relative newness to American wine drinkers, winemaking pre-dates the Greeks. The area has been overrun by foreign powers throughout its history, accounting for the variety of grapes. It was decimated by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s, but as its Mediterranean climate is a natural for winemaking, the land rebounded.
Locals consumed most of the treasures of Provence’s vineyards before and right after World War II. Parisian bistros caught on early in the game and a few studious importers knew what was up before Mayle gave wine and food lovers a gift with his gastronomical memoir.
The appellation that gets most of the attention is bandol, but Provence has 10 appellation d’origine contrôlées for wine. Red, white and, of course, rosé is produced and the region uses many of the same grapes as the Rhône including syrah, grenache, mourvedre, carignan and cinsault for the reds and grenache blanc, roussanne and clairette for the whites. Cabernet sauvignon is sometimes added to blends. Rolle, which is also known as vermentino, and ugni blanc — aka trebbiano — are also grown, as are a handful of other grapes.
The rustic and often-barnyardlike quality that characterized many of the reds has toned down from days yonder. While many still have an earthy quality, they are cleaner and exude both terroir and fruit. The white wines are often full-bodied. There are fragrant grapes like viognier but rolle, ugni blanc and grenache blanc are more mineral-driven. More than any other pink wine, Provence has changed the popular perception of rosé. Dry, vibrant and at times complex, they are often delightful.
Choosing three wines from such a vast region was a challenge, so I decided to eliminate bandol and rosés from the pool as these are the wines that usually get most of the attention.
Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence (2008): Long before it became trendy, Mas de Gourgonnier was practicing organic viticulture. Composed of grenache, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and carignan, this blend offers an array of spice, dried herbs, dense blackberry fruit and rich tannins. Suggested retail: $22.99
Domaine Ott Blanc de Blancs, Clos Mireille, Cru Classé (2008): Founded in 1896, Domaine Ott is made up of three estates. Rosé is definitely its pre-eminent color, but this white wine that is made from semillon and ugni blanc always stands out. Full-bodied with floral, vanilla, pear and honey notes, it is unique and addictively good. Suggested retail: $39.99
Chateau Simone Palette Blanc (2008): Because of the price, I’ve gone back and forth over whether to include this gem or not, but since it is one of the very best whites made in France, there is some justification to its cost. Palette is a teeny, tiny appellation and there are just a few producers. This age-worthy wine is made from more than 50 percent clairette with ugni blanc, grenache blanc, Picpoul and others making up the rest. In about 10 years it will be at its best, but for now, it gives us a glimpse of what is to come with pears, lemon curd, raw almonds and mineral undertones. Suggested retail: $69.99
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.