Provence is the birthplace of the French vineyard, as well as the birthplace of rosé wine. The ancient Greeks (traders from the city of Phocaea) brought wines and vines to southern France around 600 BC, when they founded the city of Marseille. In the 2,600 years since, the art and culture of winemaking have become central to the local way of life.
• In the time of the Greeks, all wines were generally pale in color — the color of today's rosés. By the time that the Romans reached the area in 125 BC, the rosé wine produced there had a reputation across the Mediterranean for its high quality. But even with the Romans' introduction of red wine, rosé held firm in the area the Romans called Provincia Romana — today's Provence.
• After the fall of the Roman Empire, various invaders came and went, each influencing the Provençal winemaking tradition through grapes brought from their home regions. It wasn't until the Middle Ages, however, that winemaking in Provence saw real growth. This was brought about by the monastic orders in the local abbeys, who made rosé wine a revenue source for the monasteries.
• Starting in the 14th century, the nobility and military leaders acquired and managed many vineyards in Provence, laying the foundation for the region's modern-day viticulture. Rosé became prestigious, the wine of kings and aristocrats. At the end of the 19th century, however, the phylloxera epidemic reached Provence and devastated the region's vineyards, forcing vintners to replant.
• The birth of the railroad opened up new markets for Provençal wine, and in the 20th century, as the tourism industry grew up along the Côte d'Azur, rosé production increased. In 1935, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) was founded to define and establish the terroir and production criteria for individual winegrowing regions, called AOPs.
• In recent years, a new generation of winemakers has begun incorporating modern techniques into the traditional methods of rosé production, improving the wine's character and quality. To support winemakers in this effort, the Center for Rosé Research (Centre de Recherche et d'Expérimentation sur le Vin Rosé) was established in Provence in 1999. It remains the world's only research institute dedicated to rosé wine.
After having been largely ignored outside of France for decades, dry rosé — for years Provence's best-kept secret — is being rediscovered worldwide as a modern, versatile wine that complements modern-day cuisine and lifestyles.
Today the best rosé wines still come from Provence, the rosé center of the world.
How Is Provence Rosé Made?
To learn what makes a true rosé, you have to understand how it's made – the vinification process. All fine wine production takes the right vines, equipment, knowledge, experience, instincts, and passion, yet the rosé-making process is more delicate and complex than the making of white or red wines.
Art and science
Like red wine, Provence rosé is made from red grapes. It's the natural pigment of the grape skins that gives both red and rosé wines their color and tannic structure. The color, flavor, and elegance of rosé depends on at least three things:
- Type and quality of the grapes
- Temperature control throughout the winemaking process (cold preserves the aromas)
- Length of time the nearly colorless grape juice remains in contact with the pigmented skins and seeds (the "skin contact" period)
Provence rosés get their unique color and character from this limited time of skin contact, which lasts for only a matter of hours. Red wines, by contrast, are "long vatted" – the skins are in contact with the juice for days, giving the wine a rich, dark color and a more tannic flavor.
While rosé-making is an art, it's also a science, and the tools, controls, and equipment available have evolved significantly in recent years. Today's techniques, though rooted in tradition, are much more sophisticated and reliable than those of decades past. This is thanks in part to the work of the Center for Rosé Research in Provence, the only such organization in the world.
Step by step
Let's back up and review how rosé is made, from the vine to the bottle.
1. Harvesting. Each Provence AOP rosé is derived from multiple growths of red grapes. Initially, the producer harvests and produces wine from each growth separately. The grape harvest (vendange) starts in August or September in some parts of Provence, and October in other parts. Harvest begins when the grapes are fully mature – when they have the ideal ratio of sugar to acidity.
Many vineyards conduct the harvest at night or in the early morning hours, when the air and the grapes are cooler. The hot days of late summer can raise the daytime temperature of the grapes on the vines to over 95°F, which would be too big a shock for crushed grapes entering vats in 57°F cellars.
Provence vine-growers conduct the harvest in one of two ways:
- By hand, with clippers.
- Mechanically, with a harvesting machine that cuts, cleans, and transfers the grapes. Machines can be used only with certain types of grapes and in vineyards where the vines are easily accessible.
2. Washing and destemming. The harvested grapes are brought to the chai – a wine storage building, where the grapes are washed. Before crushing, the producer may also destem the grapes, though this step is optional. Most producers use a destemming machine, which separates the stems from the grapes by catching the stems in a net.
3. Crushing. The winemaker then crushes the whole grapes using a machine designed to just burst the skins. The resulting substance, called must, consists of juice, pulp, seeds, and skin.
4. Vatting or Pressing. At this step in the process, the rosé producer chooses between two vinification options: direct pressing, which yields a pale pink wine, or maceration/bleeding, which yields a darker-colored pink wine.
Direct Pressing. This technique, which is used by the majority of Provence producers, yields a rosé that's light in color, because the dark skins stay in contact with the clear juice for a very short period of time. In direct pressing, the grapes – either destemmed or in clusters – are immediately pressed in a wine press (pressoir) to release the juice. The pale pink juice is then delivered to the fermentation tank.
Maceration and bleeding. This is a steeping-and-draining process. During maceration, the crushed grapes soak in a tank for between two and 20 hours at a cool, tightly controlled temperature (usually ranging from 60° to 68°F). As the juice and skins comingle, the skins release their pigments and delicate aromas. The winemaker tests for color and, determining that the maceration period is complete, opens a filter in the bottom of the vat to drain – or bleed – the juice into the fermentation tank using the force of gravity. Exactly how long the vatting time should last is one of the questions that make rosé winemaking so delicate. It must be long enough for the red pigments to give the wine its pink color. But it mustn't be so long that the tannins in the skins begin to detract from the wine's lively elegance.
5. Fermentation. Provençal rosés are typically fermented in large tanks made of stainless steel, cement, or wood. The temperature is carefully controlled at around 64°F. This step generally lasts from 8 to 15 days.
6. Production in vat. During this crucial phase, the producer ensures that the wine has the needed oxygen and that the yeasts are well brewed, revealing the rosé's true taste.
7. Tasting/testing. Here the sommelier analyzes the wine's taste, aroma, and visual aspects, such as color, brilliance, clarity, and fluidity.
8. Blending (Assemblage). This is the art of evaluating rosé wines made from different lots and blending them to achieve the precise color and style of rosé desired. Following time-honored vinification principles, a Provence AOP rosé producer will carefully review batches of wine made from different grapes and different sections of the domaine. He'll then assemble them together, adjusting the proportions to reach a final cuvée that is balanced, harmonious, and reflective of the terroir of each original growth. The complexity of this process is why in Provence, assemblage is often likened to the task of an orchestra conductor.
9. Bottling. All Provence AOP rosés are estate bottled – made and bottled by the grower under AOP rules. This guarantees the quality of the wine and ensures the reputation of the AOP system.