In the triangle formed near the Mediterranean coast by Nice in the east, Marseille in the west and Avignon to the northwest, lies the region of Provence.
Provence was the first region in France to turn to winemaking some 2,600 years ago. Today some 500 wineries tend vineyards on 68,000 acres — tiny by comparison to the nearly ten times larger 6.7 million acres of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Here the siliceous and limestone soils cooperate with mild winters and hot summers to grow Grenache and Syrah, as well as Ugni Blanc, Rolle and Clairette, among others.
Long considered a producer of mediocre wine, the region has been experiencing a renaissance on the last few decades. Though regulations have caused many do forgo obtaining the vaunted AOC label (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, an administrative designation that regulates wine production), the VDQS (Vin de Qualité Supérieur, a step below AOC) wines are in taste second to none.
A large variety of grapes are used in Provence, but the rosé continues to be a specialty of the region, with 75 percent of the total production of 140 million bottles, forty-five percent of total French rosé output. Made from Carignan, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and others its fruity zest is dry.
The Bandol and Bellet produced here are treasured by connoisseurs of great wine.
Bandol vines grow on the hills between La Ciotat and Toulon, facing the Mediterranean Sea. The vineyards here, first planted by Romans 2,500 years ago, are among the oldest in France. The nearby port of Marseille has served as a staging point for exporting Bandol to India and Brazil for two centuries.
The spicy, red Mourvèdre grown here is the starting point for one of the best full-bodied Provence reds available. But coming from only 2,700 acres and leading to only 5 million bottles it can be difficult to find.
Bellet, just west of Nice, is one of the smallest appellations in France. The mere 80 acres of siliceous and chalky hills on which grow Rolle and Chardonnay are so steep they can only be worked by hand.
But those hands produce 80,000 bottles of some of the best aromatic whites, fresh rosés, and delicate reds available. And the local Braquet forms a red that can age up to 10 years. If you can find them, be sure to pay attention to the honey and banana overtones of the white, especially good with shellfish and Banon cheese.
For a real treat, try to visit the Château Sainte Roseline, under cultivation for seven centuries. On less than 300 acres these master vintners grow 11 varieties of grape including Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon to make red, and include Cinsault and Tibouren for the famous rosé, and Rolle and Sémillon to make whites.