20 May 2012

One region? I think not (Provence, France – Day Two)

Provence is yet another of those regions that is often thought of in one general way and also associated with a particular type of wine; rosé. Like so many other regions it is impossible to think of this region as one thing, because it is not only very large (one of the largest in France), but extremely diverse in terms of micro-climates, soil types, aspects and altitudes. Wine styles can differ, as can philosophies about the making of the wine. Many of the vineyards of Provence are individual growers who are part of a cooperative, which at the moment is churning out very simple, thin and watery rosé which is fuelling a very large global market for refreshing aperitif wine that can be served very cold, sometimes with an ice cube. Whilst this type of wine may be reflective of the market in general, and a reflection of the warm weather enjoyed in this part of Europe, it is not necessarily reflective of the many parts of Provence. From the coast to the forest-covered mountains, Provence has the potential to produce a great range of wines, from as many different varieties. A number of smaller producers are committed to this, and several appelations have sprung up in the last 50 years, two of which I visited today to learn more.

Gnarly vines at Domaine de Triennes

Of all the appelations in Provence, the Bandol AOC has the biggest cult following at the moment. It is a relatively small area not far from Toulon that covers about 1,500 hectares of vineyards. The most important red grape variety here is mouvedre, and the appellation dictates that at least 30% of rosé wines must be mouvedre, and for red wines it must be at least 51%. The owners of Chateau Pibarnon are another of those families who simply fell in love with the area and the wines when they visited from northern France, and decided to have a sea-change and establish their own winery. In 40 years they have become the most important winery in the region, and it has been through foresight and insight. The estate is tucked away in a valley about 20km off the coast, shielded from a lot of the winds and chills of the Mediterranean. The 40+ hectares of vineyards are planted in a number of areas on terraces, and there are now over 200 separate parcels they work with. They are clearly committed to the mouvedre grape, as 95% of their vines are planted to it. Most of the mouvedre is planted on south-facing slopes, as it is a variety which ripens later and needs a little more attention and sun to reach maturity. Within their unique amphitheatre vineyards there are both red and white varieties that don’t have as much difficulty ripening, and would be better to ripen a bit slower with a northern aspect. All varieties are treated separately, fermented and matured as necessary. Unfortunately I didn’t see the winery and wasn’t really explained the winemaking procedures for the reds, but for the rosé and white wines a gentle press is followed by up to 30 minutes skin contact to extract a small amount of colour and texture, before the juice is fermented in stainless steel tanks. The winery only makes four wines; the white wine, rosé wine, and two red wines, and the sales manager Jean Simonet took me through part of the range.

Chateau de Pibarnon
The Bandol Rosé 2011 is 70% mouvedre and 30% cinsault, and had a ripe savoury cherry and pumpkin spice nose, with some complex aromas of cured salty meat, whilst on the palate had very fresh and vibrant texture and warmth, with great balance and acidity with some nutty and cheesy notes on the back. The Les Retanques de Pibarnon Rouge is the entry red wine, and the 2009 had a fascinatingly complex nose combining spice, game, dark fruits and even some pickled red onions. On the palate the wine was quite light and fresh, with good intensity and spicy tannins. The Chateau Pibarnon Rouge is made with 95% mouvedre just as the vineyards are planted, and I was able to look at three vintages of this wine. The 2009 to start with had a very wild and feral game nose with spiced dark cherry and rhubarb, and introduced some shitake broth elements too. The wine was impossibly complex on the palate with full and mellow tannins and spicy fruit, but in spite of the complexity was very approachable. The 2008 vintage was even more complex, showing some nut and popcorn, cinnamon, cumin and red curry aromas with star anise and red liquorice. On the palate the wine had focus, drive and precision from the concentrated acids and fruit, showing the red cherry and pomegranate freshness with good savoury elements too. A slightly older vintage, the 2001 had developed some floral elements over time, and on the palate was decidedly silkier in the tannins, but no less focused and driven, developing some delicious mature savoury notes. As I looked very quickly at their marc brandy, it started to rain and in this I headed to my other appointment for the day.

?The Chateau de Pibarnon range
Domaine de Triennes was created in 1990 by two giants of Burgundy - Aubert de Villaine and from Jacques Seysses, founder of Domaine Dujac – and a Parisian friend Michel Macaux. They were convinced of the immense potential for Provence to produce world-class wines, and finally settled at the estate in the Var appellation. The cool-climate up in the hills 30km from the coast, the sloping aspects and the clay and limestone all offered great resources to craft exceptional wine. From the beginning the vineyards were designed specifically to make the most of the terroir, and were managed in a sustainable organic methodology. A range of varieties have been planted and replanted over time, varieties both native to Provence and introduced from other French regions. The harvest usually begins at least three weeks later here than in areas closer to the coast, due to the altitude and subsequent cooler climate. The fruit is very carefully handled in the vineyards and in the winery, where harvesting at night and at cool temperatures captures the freshness and essence of the site. The white wines are completely fermented and stabilised in stainless steel with the exception of the chardonnay, which like the red wines sees some oak, but only barriques from Dujac that have been used for at least two passages. Most of the wines are blends of varieties, but a few are single varietal wines. I was shown around the estate by winemaker Remy Laugier, who took me through a range of the wines that he is responsible for.

Former Domaine Dujac barrels in the cellars of Domaine de Triennes
The Domaine de Triennes Rosé is a blend of mostly cinsault and Grenache, with a little merlot and syrah to lend some colour. The 2011 vinatage had the classic Provence pale colour, aromatically expressing floral spicy strawberry and banana freshness, and on the palate was clean and fruity with some very focused acids and a little residual sugar fruit sweetness. The Les Aureliens Blanc 2010 is a chardonnay rolles blend, and on the nose has some battonage derived lees characters, combining with orchard fruit and citrus blossom notes. On the palate the wine has texture, integrity and freshness, without obvious fruit, some apricot kernel and biscuity savoury notes. The Sainte Fluer Viognier 2009 was aromatically spicy and herbal on the nose, expressing very subtle fruit, and on the palate had drive and warmth, with good mouth-filling fruit and viscosity. The 2010 vintage of the same wine showed more complex salty minerality and shellfish characters, more subtle fruit with some honey, and at the moment was very quiet. The Les Aureliens Rouge 2009 is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah, and was quite dominant in the cabernet elements, showing earthy dusty cassis and very toasty tannins on the palate. The Sainte Auguste 2008 introduces merlot to the blend, and this wine showed more of the syrah notes, as it was more plummy and juicy, with more pepper and spice elements. The 2007 of the same vintage was much jammier and broader than the 2008, expressing plenty of power and weight with good drive and intensity. Both the Les Aureliens and the Sainte Auguste wines were very good, but in my opinion could easily be replicated in many places in the world, and don’t necessarily speak of the origin.

Domaine de Triennes vineyards
Click here to see more photos from Day Two in Provence, France. Next week I venture north into the Rhone Valley, starting with the illustrious Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

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