The wines of the South of France are very much like the region itself—elegant, generous and delightful, filled with sunlight and conjuring up images of life as it should be lived.
The area is best known for dry rosé, which was extremely popular in America before the White Zinfandel epidemic swept the land. The popularity of the original pink-hued vins has been on the rise again in recent years—and fortunately so. The wines are crisp and bright, touched by the faintest suggestions of tannin and red fruits.
The best-known versions come from Côtes de Provence, Les Baux de Provence and Bandol. For a friendly introduction, try a pretty bottle of Whispering Angel ($20) from Château d’Esclans, which is owned by Sacha Lichine, son of the late Alexis Lichine, who was partly responsible for introducing French wine to the United States. When it comes to food matchups for these rosy-toned wines, remember the advice of Julia Child: “Rosé goes with everything.”
Along with Bordeaux, Provence is unique among French wine regions with a classification of wine estates as opposed to vineyard areas. Fourteen properties were deemed crus classés (or classed growths) in 1955, and the indication on the label is a guarantee of quality. The most commonly available in the States are Château du Galoupet and Château Roubine. The most common red grape is Mourvèdre (also popular in the nearby Rhône Valley), although Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are being more widely planted. Popular white grapes in Provence include Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Ugni Blanc.
Whether white or red, Provençal wine has a different aroma and flavor profile than the wines Americans usually drink. Many who have spent time in the region insist they pick up scents of rosemary, thyme, lavender and other wild herbs native there. The reds tend to be distinctly earthy on the nose, although fruit emerges easily on the palate, while the whites are generally devoid of barrel aging, which makes their herbal characteristics more pronounced. Either way, it’s best to judge them on their own terms rather than compare them with California Chardonnay or Cabernet. Keep in mind, too, that these wines are designed to go with food; the whites are a dream with shellfish, while the reds match perfectly with red meats and wild game.
To the west of Provence lies the Languedoc-Roussillon, the largest wine-producing region in the world. Historically, this area has been more associated with mass production than quality—particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, when vintners focused on turning out “fighting varietals” designed to compete with inexpensive wines on American supermarket shelves. To a certain extent, this is still true: Look closely at a low-priced bottle of “California” Pinot Noir, and often you’ll find the wine comes from this French region.
In recent years, however, quality has been on the rise in the Languedoc-Roussillon as a new generation of young winemakers focuses on cultivating the area’s natural strengths. The best-known appellations are Coteaux du Languedoc, Corbières, Faugères, Minervois, Saint-Chinian and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages. A good introduction to the new wines of this area is Marius, made by powerhouse Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier. It’s available in red, white and rosé versions and retails for $12. In the $20 range, check out the wines of Gerard Bertrand, Hecht & Bannier, Château Léoube and Château de Jau. Any of these options will provide a supple and fragrant match to grilled dishes and are as easy on the palate as they are on the pocketbook. That’s living well.