Rosé and Provence – and Ancient Connection

Lafras Huguenet

Ten days ago this time, I was standing in a cold, bare winter vineyard in the South of France thinking of a dead poet. The poet in question was the great son of Provence, the late Frédéric Mistral who had obviously never walked through a Grenache patch in the Alpilles region in winter whilst the infamous mistral wind – no relation to monsieur Poet – was howling in from the north. If he had, Frédéric’s famous line stating that “when the Good Lord begins to doubt the world, he remembers that he created Provence,”might never have been penned.

For that icy wind, throttling at one in gusts and torrents, slices through each layer of clothing, finding skin and spreading an irritable damp chill through the body, the kind of chill that causes moodiness, ill-thoughts and a desire to shout abrasive abuse at Mother Nature. In this mood, the pale blue Provence sky above the vines starts looking like the veiny varicose thighs of spinsters, and the pale chalk-rock faces of the Alpilles slopes resemble the sun-dried skeletons of evil men who had died painfully.

Romans making pink wine.

But the wind keeps howling, having no sympathy or feeling for your despair at its meanness in disfiguring the region of Provence which, in warmer more forgiving times, is – as Frédéric wrote – one of the earth’s places capable of conjuring wondrous visions and feelings and emotions of splendour.

When shelter from the wind is procured in a hut next to a grouping of still bee-hives, how funny is it not to find one being offered a rosé. In the dead of winter, drinking a wine that is deemed to be summer in a glass and of which millions of liters are consumed in Provence. The traditional home of rosé wine.

This tradition runs deeper than the long summer days here, days made fragrant by the indigenous shrubs and herbs, afternoons and evenings that make the imbibing of chilled rosé so suitable. Provence’s culture of rosé actually began some 2 600 ago when the South of France was settled by the ancient Greek civilization of Phocaea. These folk discovered what is today known as Marseille and among other traits, the Phocaea grew vineyards – making Provence the oldest wine region of the greatness that is France.

These early settlers created a wine blended from red and white grapes. And by the time the Romans began colonising France in 50BC, they – being wine lovers – had heard of the “pink wines” of southern France. The might of Rome may have massacred the Phocaea, razed their buildings and sank those glorious sailing vessels, but the Romans held onto the vino and continued making the light-coloured pink blend of wine. As things go, the pink wine culture stuck, hence Provence’s reputation for crafting the best rosés in the world and in the largest volumes.

And here I was, ensconced in a goat-farmer’s hovel, the wind howling across the vineyards and plains of Provence while my room smelt of livestock hair, black tobacco and liquorice. Even here, under these conditions, Provençal rosé is a wonderful drink.

The wine in question is Oddo Rosé in the stable of Vallon des Glauges estate which offers the wine lover the pinnacle of Provençal rosé expression. From the glimpse of onion-skin and pale salmon that catches the eye, right through to the riveting finish on the palate, this wine is everything a great rosé should be.

The wine is made from three of the estate’s grape varieties, namely Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. Grenache offers fruitiness through cherry and plum, with Syrah providing a spicy edge and Carignan depth and presence.

I learn that reaching the right shade of colour and capturing the brilliant, vibrant zest of the fruit for which a classy rosé is known demands much more than managing the contact between pale juice and red skins. After the gentlest of pressings, the juice is given a fourteen-day settling period in a cold steel tank, which stabilises the colour and captures the vibrant essence of the grapes. This ensures that when the juice ferments none of the influences of the fermentation, whereby sugars are transferred into alcohol, affects the colour or dampers the fresh profile.

The result is Oddo Rosé: a sliver of salmon and pale pink to the eye. Energetic, fresh and inviting on the nose. And tasting it, this is what makes rosé such a thrilling and popular wine. Totally alive and fresh, the wine has a perky minerality underlying the delicious nuances of berries, peach and red-fleshed citrus fruit. Even sipped from a tumbler to the tune of goat farts and the foreboding screeches of a howling mistral wind, it tasted like the best wine in the world.

Upon my return to warm and windless South Africa, I thought about serendipity and its role in my life. For lunching at the Pink Valley estate in Stellenbosch yesterday, my host told me about the goats that she had procured for the making of goat-milk cheese outside the charming village of Greyton. I was listening to her while perusing the wine-list and, lo-and-behold, that very same Oddo Rosé from Vallon des Glauges had found itself onto the list. Owned by the Oddo family, Pink Valley had done the right thing, bringing its wares to the Cape and offering one a taste of true Provence rosé, giving the flavour of a land of wonder, and creating memories etched onto the mind.

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