Cézanne wasn’t kidding: the light in Provence is unique. Despite the nearby Mediterranean sea and the humidity you would expect from it, the sky is persistently piercing in its blue hue, and the landscape beneath it is saturated with color. It is a photographer’s dream, and — one would assume — a boon for wine growers, who would seem spoiled by such lovely conditions. Could it be that the consistency of Provence rosé stems from these charmed conditions? Or does it have more to do with the process in which these wines are made?
I wanted to investigate this a bit, but from the comforts of home (I last visited Provence in 2017, so it is on my “overdue for a return” list). For one, those “charmed conditions” are hardly that. Winegrowers in Provence face numerous challenges year-in, year-out, including post-budbreak frosts, excessive summer heat, water stress and increasingly, smoke-taint from wildfires in the area. Climate change is sparing no one from its unpredictability. The touristic fantasy of Provence that a glass of faintly peach-colored wine conjures is something quite different on the ground.
But the producers of Provence rosé know this, and they know it well. For years, the Provence Wine Council (CIVP) has leveraged its resources to research interventions and adaptations that run from root-stock choice to vinification techniques. For a region that has staked its reputation on a consistent profile defined by freshness and taunt aromas, this work is critical. The future of Rosé As We Know It is at stake.
Chiefly, I wanted to understand if I could detect terroir in the glass, or if the dominant flavors and sensations of the end product spoke more of craft, as we explored in this companion article. There is nothing wrong with the latter, by the way. If the end result is delicious and distinctive, then we ought to applaud however it found that form. Great wine never comes from subpar ingredients, so of course the vineyard matters. It is the distance from that to final wine that interests me.
With the help of the CIVP, I procured nine wines for a comparison tasting. With the exception of one wine, which was unfortunately damaged, likely by UV light (more on that at the bottom of this piece), I found that consistency which the region is known for. At times, it registered as sameness. Despite enormous differences in climate from vineyard to vineyard, as well as substantial variance in the blending percentages, you really have to hunt for discrepancies in the aromas of Provence rosé. The texture on the palate is where the great wines step it up a notch.
These wines were tasted blind and simultaneously. They were revisited twice: one hour after the first round, and again two hours after that.
Top Pick: 2021 Château de la Clapière Côtes de Provence Rosé
This is a serious rosé (★★★★ 3/4). Hailing from the southern village of Hyères near the Mediterranean Sea, Château de la Clapière’s rosé was notable for its lovely petrichor sensations and for playing hard-to-get. Right away, it entices you, but it seems to suggest that there is more to come. Since many of its peers were immediately forthcoming, I found this dance to be welcome, and a possible sign that this wine is about more than just craft. Notes suggestive of strawberries and cream, lime pith, rainstorm, and a delicate floral tone all found their way into my notebook.
Château de la Clapière is one of the 18 estates classified in 1955 as Côtes de Provence Crus Classés. That distinction is more of a hallmark of historical pedigree than a call for quality these days, but for the wine to deliver on this premise of distinction was an added bonus.
Cinsault (40%), Grenache (31%) and Syrah (29%)
2021 Château Gassier “Esprit Gassier” Côtes de Provence
Full disclosure: this is the only Provence wine estate that I have personally toured; a press-tour sojourn with Wilson Daniels in 2017. That importer no longer works with Château Gassier, but of all the wines included in this lineup, I was most familiar with this one. My recollection was a general sense of pleasure, and that it worked wonderfully with gazpacho. Beautiful bottle, too, but we all know that’s the seduction of Provence rosé. They really up their packaging game (see Château de L’Escarelle’s “Le Pacha” below).
This was all the more reason to taste these wines blind: would “Esprit Gassier” stand out from the crowd?
Yes, it certainly did (★★★★ 3/4). There were the usual Provence rosé aromas of light stone fruit, flowers and mineral, but also an added zip of herbaceousness that stood out. Think of Sauvignon Blanc with a light orange perfume. Supple and silky on the palate with a gentle lift on the finish, this wine is pure pleasure and needs to be nothing else.
Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Rolle and Cabernet Sauvignon (% not disclosed)
2021 Château Calissanne Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé
My experience with Château Calissanne’s Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé (★★★★ 1/2) was a great example of how we can get carried away as consumers with the terroir hunt. How? Because I was compelled — upon tasting a slightly meaty, iron-tinged flavor — to wonder if this wine hailed from iron-rich soil. While soil can certainly influence texture (see also: Chablis, Etna), proof of soil lending flavor to a wine is very scant.
After the tasting, I investigated Château Calissanne’s soil and learned of two types: clay-limestone and clay-sandy. No mention of iron. OK, moving on! Sometimes the terroir business is like chasing a shadow. It just doesn’t lead you anywhere.
However, I must say this wine was one of the more texturally interesting. It seemed a bit “salty” on the finish, with a momentum from one sip to the next that made it highly versatile at the table. It also bursts with citrus fruits. Read up on this estate’s fascinating history, which includes an archaeological site from the Celtic-Ligurians of the 4th century.
Grenache (33%), Mourvedre (33%) and Syrah (33%)
2021 Maison Saint Aix Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence Rosé
One of the more popular and recognizable brands in Provence rosé, Aix (★★★★ 1/2) is as much about the effectiveness of simple branding as it is about simple pleasures. This wine struggled to make a clear impression on me by playing it very safe with typical aromas of light strawberry and citrus with a hint of petrichor-like minerality. Bright and aciditic on the palate — like biting into a tangerine — Aix’s best trait was its textural evolution, as it improved and became more silky after an hour of being open.
Grenache (60%), Cinsault (20%) and Syrah (20%)
2021 Château La Coste Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé
Château La Coste’s Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé (★★★★ 1/2) was one of the darker-colored wines in the group. Along with that (and maybe because of that), the aromas were also more pronounced, carrying an aspect of breadiness to it that I associate with lees stirring, but which I was unable to confirm yet. There is depth here that I don’t often associate with Provence rosé, but upon revisiting the wine a third time in the night, much of its detail had faded, otherwise, it would have been in the upper echelon.
Grenache, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon (% not disclosed)
2021 Domaine de Cala Coteaux Varois en Provence Rosé
Another wine that I have sampled numerous times, Domaine de Cala’s Coteaux Varois en Provence Rosé (★★★★ 1/4) resides squarely in the category of Entertaining Wine, meaning it is best for socializing and care-free sipping, but won’t be sending you down a rabbit hole of detail anytime soon. It opens with decidedly more bitter citrus fruit and a savory streak that is intriguing, but which has no staying power. Consider it a willingly subservient partner to food pairings: that acidity will provide refreshment, but it won’t heighten nor detract either.
Cinsault (60%), Grenache (30%), Syrah (8%) and Rolle (2%)
2021 Château de L’Escarelle “Le Pacha” Coteaux Varois en Provence Rosé
Since this was a blind tasting, I could not be doped by this wine’s packaging: a whopping 1555-gram glass bottle that imprinted the name and stylized vines in white directly on the glass. Clearly, Château de L’Escarelle is talking up a big game with “Le Pacha” (★★★★). Their website even notes the commitment of owner Yann Pineau “to reduce his carbon footprint and to encourage his co-works to reduce their own.” They can start by shaving a pound off this bottle. That excess weight requires more carbon both in its creation and in its transport. There is absolutely zero reason for it in a clear-glass rosé.
Of course, I could feel this weight tasting the wine blind (the wine had to end up in my glass somehow). And what I found was a mouth-filling, texturally sounds rosé with rather forgettable aromas. In the end, I docked this wine a quarter point in my ranking because of the egregious weight of the bottle.
Grenache (40%), Syrah (40%) and Cinsault (20%)
2021 Saint Andrieu “L’Oratoire” Coteaux Varois en Provence Rosé
“I’m finding that a couple of these wines have no strings to pull on to see where they lead,” I wrote in my notes, “while the good wines have a few more threads to follow.” Saint Andrieu’s “L’Oratoire” (★★★★) fit into this camp by smelling overtly like an ordinary Sauvignon Blanc. Sometimes what wine marketers call “freshness” is simply just tartness, and this wine veered a little too far in that direction. Would it suffice for most people’s patio sipping? Absolutely, but it could present a whole lot more dimension as the wines listed at the top did.
Grenache (51%), Cinsault (22%), Syrah (17%) and Rolle (10%)
Note: These wines were provided as samples by the CIVP. Learn more about our editorial policy.
A Note On Light Damage
I am not including the name of the winery whose wine was omitted from this report out of fairness to them. I am 95% certain that the damage occurred after the wine left the winery.
Light damage is more common in rosé than other wine categories because of the clear glass bottle. Excessive UV light can release volatile sulfur compounds and create off-odors like hard-boiled eggs, cabbage, or wet dog. It can effect the texture, too. My first inclination was that the wine was corked, but the cork had no noticeable smell. It was when I really zeroed in on the nature of the aromas and the lifelessness of the acidity that I deduced it was likely light damage that killed the wine.
It is misguided to fault the producer on this one. Sure, they chose to bottle in clear glass, but good luck selling a rosé without showcasing its color. Somewhere along its route to me, the wine caught too much sun. It happens.
So what can you do if you encounter light damage in a wine? Well, for one, see if your storage of the wine at home had anything to do with it. Secondly, consider who you are buying from. Never buy from a wine merchant who displays their wines in a window, especially their rosé.
If the wine is clearly flawed, you can try to take it back. A good wine merchant will want to make you a happy customer, so it is worth shoving the cork back into the wine, and driving back to the store to see if they can trade the wine for another or issue a refund. Some wine merchants will take it up with their distributor and get compensated, or they might just chalk it up as a loss. Be respectful, and also take care of it quickly. I wouldn’t even return to the merchant if it has been more than three months since you bought the rosé, because they could easily (and rightly) ask how you stored it at home. Sometimes, we have to chalk it up as a loss as well.
Captions (All photos ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle unless otherwise noted): 2021 Château de la Clapière Côtes de Provence Rosé, the Provençal town of Puyloubier, antique fermentation vessel at Château Gassier, 2021 Château Gassier “Esprit Gassier” Côtes de Provence, carousel in Aix-en-Provence, fountain in Puyloubier, 2021 Château Calissanne Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé, 2021 Château de L’Escarelle “Le Pacha” Coteaux Varois en Provence Rosé, vineyards at Domaine de Cala (©Domaine de Cala).