Back to School – Wines of Provence

November 10, 2009

I recently had the opportunity to go back to school, Jonathon Alsop’s Boston Wine School, that is, for a three week series on the wines of Southern France.  Not sure what to expect, I deliberated over what to wear for several hours, made sure I had a fresh notebook and extra pen, and waited nervously for the bus.  Okay the only preparation advised was to wear dark colors in case you spill wine on yourself and to let the T (Boston’s lovely public transportation system for those unfamiliar) be your designated driver.

Being the good student that I am, I was the first of six to arrive, which meant that I probably got to enjoy one more glass of wine than everyone else during the meet and greet.  This was already beating the hell out of B.C.  Checking the syllabus, I discovered week one was all about the wines of Provence, to be followed in turn by the Languedoc-Roussillon and then finally the Southern Rhone.  So we sipped a rose and enjoyed roasted tomatoes and garlic as the remainder of the class trickled in, and then moved to the table.

Coming in, I would say I was moderately familiar with the wines of Southern France in general, but only minimally so with those of Provence.  I knew it was in the Southeast corner of France, made a good amount of rose, and a wine called Bandol from the Mouvèdre grape that I had had a few of and was quite fond of, but that was about it.

Rather than focusing on each wine in turn and using this to build a composite picture of the region, this tasting took the opposite approach.  We talked in general about Provence – history, style, cuisine, attitude, terroir; and the wines themselves served as a sort of a backdrop for that discussion.  We barely got into specific appellations or varietals, but I feel like I now have a real sense of the wines of Provence, what I like and dislike, when and where I would want to drink these wines, and who I would recommend them to.  For this region, this approach worked, in a way that I don’t think it would for say Bordeaux.

First of all, Provence has an ancient wine history, going back 2600 years, predating pretty much the rest of France by a millennium.  Perhaps paradoxically, the wine culture here is more relaxed in comparison to much of the rest of France.  A lot of the wines are consumed locally, there is a lot of diversity and variability in blends, and bottles come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  The general sense I got was a more carefree attitude about wine, which complements perfectly these easy-drinking and fun wines.  They are also the most Italian-like of French wines.  Because of the latitude, very little white wine is produced; rose is basically Provence’s white wine.  The reds tend to be very fruit forward and light in body, using classic Southern Rhone grapes – Grenache, Syrah, Mouvèdre, as well as international varieties like Merlot and Cabernet.

I always find it interesting to try and personify wines, both styles in general and specific bottles, and this one came to me almost automatically.  A Provençal wine is the girl at the bar dressed sexily but not sluttily, sipping a dirty martini.  She’s only going to have one, maybe two tops; she’s not going to get drunk, but is still going to have more fun than 90% of the people in the bar.  What’s more is she’s strangely approachable, not saying she’ll go home with you, but friendly and down to earth.  These wines exude confidence and sophistication, but at the same time beg not to be taken too seriously.

So onto the wines themselves.  We started off with a rose of Grenache, that was drier than I expected, nothing special, but quite good.  The first red was a Merlot, which had way more red fruit than right bank Bordeaux or California Merlot, which I tend to find heavier on purple and black fruit.  We then tasted through three red blends, mostly from Southern Rhone grapes and showcasing the 2005 and 2006 vintages.  The common theme here was again bright red fruit – strawberries, raspberries, cherries.  The Jaboulet Isnard Côtes du Ventoux had a mesquite spice component on the nose that was quite unique.  The Saint André de Figuière “Cuvee François” had a creaminess to it that suggested oak, but very, very subtle.  Finally the Mas de Gourgonnier, which came in a very cool squat bottle that looked like it should have had Cognac in it, had an obvious lavender component on the nose.  The time I spent as a kid smelling everything in Yankee Candle and Bath & Body Works has done wonders for my ability to identify and articulate these aromas.  On the palette these three red blends were actually pretty similar, whereas the noses were completely different.  The wines also were somewhat static, which I do not mean to equate with simple.  Rather than a dynamic progression of flavors though, in each wine the same flavors persisted from attack to finish, a still image, albeit complex and lasting, rather than a movie.  We finished up with a dessert wine of Muscat, which had unmistakable honey and Grand Marnier flavors and paired phenomenally with the Brie that we were served.

All in all I was pretty high on Provençal wines.  I feel like these are great wines to drink by themselves, but I am equally excited for Bistro du Midi (a Provençal restaurant coming to Boston at the end of this month) to open because they also pair incredibly with this cuisine.  I am equally high on the Boston Wine School.  A couple of highlights – the cellar feel is awesome, Jonathon takes his food pairings quite seriously, and they do bachelorette parties!  I’m even excited to do my homework.  Granted, our homework assignment is to find a bottle of wine representative of Southern France, drink it, and be prepared to talk about it next week.  I don’t remember school being so much fun.


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