Provence is a geographical region and historical province of southeastern France, which extends from the left bank of the lower Rhone River on the west to the Italian border on the east, and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the south. It largely corresponds with the modern administrative région of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and includes the départements of Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and parts of Alpes-Maritimes and Vaucluse.
The Romans made the region into the first Roman province beyond the Alps and called it Provincia Romana, which evolved into the present name. It was ruled by the Counts of Provence from their capital in Aix-en-Provence until 1481, when it became a province of the Kings of France. While it has been part of France for more than five hundred years, it still retains a distinct cultural and linguistic identity, particularly in the interior of the region.
Provence is probably best known for its rosé but it also produces red and white wines. The main grape variety grown here is Mourvèdre, with many wines blended with Grenache and Cinsault.
Wine has been made in this region for at least 2,600 years, ever since the ancient Greeks founded the city of Marseille in 600 BC. Throughout the region’s history, viticulture and winemaking have been influenced by the cultures that have been present in Provence, which include the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Catalans and Savoyards. These diverse groups introduced a large variety of grapes to the region, including grape varieties of Greek and Roman origin as well as Spanish, Italian and traditional French wine grapes.
Today the region is known predominantly for its rosé wine, though wine critics such as Tom Stevenson believe that region’s best wines are the spicy, full-flavoured red wines. Rosé wine currently accounts for more than half of the production of Provençal wine, with red wine accounting for about a third of the region’s production. White wine is also produced in small quantities throughout the region with the region of Cassis specializing in white wine production. The Côtes de Provence is the largest wine-producing region followed by the Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. The Bandol region near Toulon is one of the more internationally recognized Provençal wine regions.
The exact time when viticulture began in Provence is difficult to calculate. Early inhabitants may have used indigenous vines to produce wine before the Phocaean Greeks settled Massalia in 600 BC. Archaeological evidence, in the form of amphora fragments, indicate that the Greeks were producing wine in the region soon after they settled. By the time the Romans reached the area in 125 BC, the wine produced there had a reputation across the Mediterranean for high quality. Over time, the viticulture and winemaking styles of the Provence have been influenced by a wide range of people, rulers, and cultures, including the Saracens, the Carolingians, the Holy Roman Empire, the Counts of Toulouse, the Catalans, René I of Naples, the House of Savoy, and the Kingdom of Sardinia.
At the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic reached Provence and devastated the region’s viticulture. Many vineyards were slow to replant and some turned to the high yielding but lower quality Carignan grape. The arrival of the railroad system in the 19th century opened up new markets such as Paris in the north, and in the 20th century, as tourism developed along the French Riviera, production of rosé increased as a compliment to the regional cuisine that features dishes such as bouillabaisse and aioli.
Provence has a classic Mediterranean climate, with the sea forming its southern border. Mild winters are followed by very warm summers with little rainfall. Sunshine is found in abundance in this region with the grapevines receiving more than 3,000 hours per year, twice the amount needed to ripen grapes fully. This abundance does have the adverse effect of potentially over ripening grapes if vineyard owners are not cautious. The strong mistral wind from the north provides positive and negative influences on the viticulture. While it can cool the grapes from the heat and dry the grapes after rain, providing some protection against rot and grape diseases, it can also damage vines that are not securely trained and protected by hillside landforms. In areas where the wind is particularly strong, the ideal vineyard locations are on hillsides facing south towards the sea, with the hill providing some shelter from the mistral’s strength. In those areas, the type of grape varieties planted will also play a role since south-facing slopes receive the most sunshine and in the warm climate can easily over expose delicate and early ripening varieties which would be better suited on north-facing slopes.
The soil across Provence is varied, lacking uniformity and generalization. In isolated areas, such as the Cassis and near the Mediterranean coastline, are deposits of limestone and shale. These area tend to be planted with white wine grapes that perform better in those soil types.
Some coastal areas in the region have soils with more schist and quartz in their composition while inland there is more clay and sandstone.
The main grape variety throughout Provence is Mourvèdre, which is the primary component in many red wines and rosés. Provence makes over 1,000 kinds of wines. It is often blended with Grenache and Cinsault, with the latter being used as a significant component in most rosé. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are rising in prominence, though some traditional Provençal winemakers view those grapes with suspicion and a sign of globalization and appeal to international tastes. For the last century, Carignan has been a major grape but as more producer aim for improved quality the use of this high yielding grape has decreased. Other significant grape varieties, used primarily in blending, include Braquet, Calitor, Folle and Tibouren. The major white wine grapes of Provence include the Rhône varieties of Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Marsanne and Viognier as well as Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Rolle and Ugni blanc.
Over its history, many grape varieties have grown in Provence that are now nearly extinct including Pascal blanc.