Provence and Corsica
Provence, the birthplace of French wine, lies to the east of the Rhône basin on the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast. Steeped in rich culinary tradition and flooded with tourists, the region finds a ready audience for its pale-hued, dry rosés.
Côtes de Provence AOP, under which three-quarters of Provençal wine is bottled, is dedicated to rosé production. While red and white wine is made, rosés account for over 75% of the appellation’s output. The rosés must be blended from at least two varieties; they are given color through a short period of skin contact, saignage, or—in the case of the palest of wines—immediate pressing of whole grapes. Blending of white and red wines is not an approved method for still rosé production here or elsewhere in France. Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and the local, garrigue-scented Tibouren represent the bulk of both red and rosé blends. While many rosés may be bottled in a traditional, hourglass-shaped skittle bottle, this is not necessarily a mark of quality. Rosés and red wines may be bottled under one of four subzone designations: La Londe, Pierrefeu, Sainte-Victoire, and Fréjus.
Although Provençal rosé occupies the public imagination, the red wines ofBandol AOP are the true stars of the region. Bandol produces rosés and Clairette-based whites, but the red blends harbor the most potential. Bandol is the only appellation in France to require focus on the Mourvèdre grape: a minimum 50% is blended with Grenache, Cinsault, and—to a lesser extent—Syrah and Carignan. The resulting wines are full-bodied, plummy, dense, and often show an animal character. The wines must spend 18 months in oak prior to release, and often need years in the bottle to demonstrate their full potential. Domaine Tempier, Château de Pibarnon and Château Pradeaux are excellent sources.
The dry, warm Mediterranean climate of Provence is aptly suited to viticulture without fear of mold or rot. Sustainable and organic methods of farming are widely employed. Vignerons in Les Baux de Provence AOP, a former subappellation of the larger Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence AOP, have pushed for a mandate for organic viticulture, but their efforts, by the close of 2010, have not yet yielded results. The warm hilltop appellation, protected from the Mistral wind, releases red and rosé wines, based on Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault. A 2011 revision of the appellation's rules added white wines, based on Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Vermentino, and Roussanne. Domaine de Trévallon, one of the premier estates of southern France, is located within Les Baux de Provence, but the region's 1995 promotion to AOC and subsequent emphasis on Mediterranean varieties left the estate to release its Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines as vin de pays.
The appellations of Cassis AOP, Palette AOP, and Bellet AOP produce wines of all three colors. The tiny Palette allows a dizzying variety of red and white grapes but boasts only one producer of note: Château Simone. Cassis and Bellet offer more promising whites than reds. Clairette and Marsanne account for the better Cassis wines and Rolle—Italian Vermentino—is increasingly used for the whites of Bellet. Coteaux Varois en Provence AOP was granted an appellation for red, white and rosé wines in 1993, following its earlier promotion from vin de pays. Like Domaine de Trévallon, Domaine de Triennes—the most noteworthy producer in Coteaux Varois—chooses to release wines as vins de pays.
The potential of Provence as a fine wine region is being explored: new appellations find their footing as encépagement regulations are in flux. As evidenced by the examples of serious producers resorting to the freedom of vin de pays, Provençal appellations will continue to adapt. A commitment to quality is in place: Côtes de Provence AOP is the only French appellation outside of Bordeaux to publish a ranking of grand cru classé estates. 23 estates were originally classified in 1955.
The island of Corse (Corsica) has long been a steady contributor to Europe’s surplus wine lake, although many of the island’s lowest quality vineyards have been uprooted. More productive vines, such as Carignan and Alicante Bouschet, have been torn out in favor of higher quality grapes. Nielluccio (a variant of Sangiovese), Sciacarello and Vermentino are indigenous to the island, demonstrating Corsica’s close connection to Italy. Nielluccio and Sciacarello are blended with Grenache, Barbarossa, and a host of Rhône grapes for the red and rosé wines of the generic, island-wide Vin de Corse AOP. White Vin de Corse wines are blends of Vermentino and Ugni Blanc. Ajaccio AOP and Patrimonio AOP are the island’s two communal appellations. Muscat du Cap Corse AOP wines are vin doux naturel.
On the southern coast of France, Languedoc stretches in a crescent shape between Provence to the east and Roussillon to the south. Gaillac and the other regions of Southwestern France lie due west of Languedoc. The vine has always flourished in the Mediterranean climate of Languedoc, but wine quality has surged in the area only recently. When considered collectively, Languedoc-Roussillon has more acres planted to the vine than any other winegrowing region in the world, and is the only region in France to surpass Bordeaux in plantings. In 2006, when France recorded a production total of approximately 56 million hectoliters, Languedoc-Roussillon contributed 16 million hectoliters—nearly 30% of the national total. While Languedoc-Roussillon plantings—particularly those that do not qualify for anything beyond basic Vin de France—are on the decline, the region is still responsible for a large percentage of Europe’s low-end wine surplus.
Many of the quality appellations are clustered within the western side of Languedoc. Fitou is one of the region’s oldest appellations, dating to 1948. The Fitou AOP is divided into two distinct, noncontiguous sectors: Fitou Maritime and Fitou Montagneux. The wines are red blends, usually dominated by Carignan. Both sectors of Fitou are embedded within the larger Corbières AOP, which produces reds, rosés, and a small amount of whites from extremely varied soils and microclimates. One subzone, Corbières-Boutenac, has achieved full appellation status for Carignan-based red wines. North of Corbières is Minervois AOP, a designation for red, white and rosé wine. Like Corbières, Minervois is divided into several distinct subzones. The center of the appellation, Minervois-La Livinière, received its own appellation in 1999 for red wines.
Cabardès AOP and Malepère AOP produce red and rosé wines only. Cabardès wines maintain a balance between Grenache, Syrah, and the major Bordeaux red varietals. Malepère received full appellation status in 2007, and its encépagement stipulates a minimum 50% Merlot and Cabernet Franc for red and rosé wines, respectively. St-Chinian AOP and Faugères AOP produce red, white, and rosé wines from Southern French grapes. White wines are a recent addition to the St-Chinian appellation, as are two subzone designations for red wines: Berlou and Roquebrun.
South of Malepère and Cabardès is the Limoux AOP. Like Malepère, Limoux red wines are Merlot-based. Still whites are produced from Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Mauzac, and must be fermented in oak. The local Mauzac also makes up a minimum 90% of Blanquette de Limoux, a distinctive méthode traditionnelle wine that lays claim to being France’s oldest purposefully made sparkling wine. A sleeker, more modern style of sparkling wine is Crémant de Limoux AOP, which stipulates a maximum 20% Mauzac and Pinot Noir in favor of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Tiny quantities of Limoux Méthode Ancestrale are made solely from Mauzac, wherein the wine’s fermentation arrests in the cold of winter, reawakening in the spring.
The eastern half of Languedoc is dominated by the regional appellationLanguedoc AOP. Formerly Coteaux du Languedoc AOC, this appellation encompasses all of Languedoc-Roussillon, extending from the Spanish border to the city of Nîmes. Languedoc AOP covers the production of red, rosé and white wines and by 2015 encompasses twelve geographic designations. The Languedoc AOP reds generally require at least 50% combined Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Lladoner Pelut; however, varietal makeup and percentages vary by geographic designation. There have been discussions and proposals regarding a grand cru system in Languedoc, which would likely create a hierarchy among its geographic designations and neighboring AOPs, but as of 2015 nothing concrete has emerged. Occasional promotions to AOP status occur, however: in 2014 Terrasses du Larzac, a former geographic designation of Languedoc AOP, received independent AOP status; La Clape followed in mid-2015.
Lastly the Languedoc contains a number of small fortified wine appellations, including Muscat de Mireval AOP, Muscat de Lunel AOP, Muscat de St-Jean-de-Minervois AOP, and Muscat de Frontignan AOP. Muscat de Frontignan wines are the most common, and may be either vin doux naturel or vin de liqueur.
Roussillon, extending northward from the Spanish border, is singularly important for vin doux naturel production. Over 90% of France’s fortified wines are made in the region. Much of this wine is Rivesaltes AOP, a vin doux naturel appellation representing a myriad number of styles. Rivesaltes—meaning "high rivers" in the Catalan tongue—produces fortified ambré, grenat, tuilé,and rosé: amber, red, tawny, or pink, respectively. The ambré and tuilé styles are aged in an oxidative environment until at least March 1 of the third year following the harvest.Grenat wines are aged reductively for one year, and must be bottled before June 30 of the second year. Producers will often follow these minimum guidelines with extended aging for the oxidative styles: some may age the wines in glass bonbonnes under the relentless Roussillon sun; others may employ a solera. Rivesaltes AOP wines aged for a minimum five years may be called “hors d’age”; in practice these may receive up to 20 years of aging prior to release. The fortified wines of Rivesaltes may be varietal wines or blends; the Mediterraneanencépagement includes Grenache (Noir, Gris and Blanc), Maccabéo, Tourbat, Muscat of Alexandria, and Muscat à Petits Grains. While Grenache Noir is the sole component of grenat wines, producers of tuilé styles may blend the grape with white varieties. When the wine is produced solely from the two Muscat varieties, it may be labeled Muscat de Rivesaltes AOP. The sweeter Muscat de Rivesaltes is typically released earlier and is better suited for youthful consumption, as the wine quickly loses its aromatic freshness.
Rivesaltes was the birthplace of vin doux naturel—here Arnaud de Villeneuve, a 13th century physician, introduced the process of mutage as a means of medicinal elixir-brewing—but it is not the only modern appellation in Roussillon for the style. Maury AOP authorizes vin doux naturel in a similar range of styles, principally produced from Grenache Noir, Blanc, and Gris. In Banyuls AOP, the southernmost wine appellation in continental France, Grenache Noir accounts for at least 50% of the Traditionnel fortified reds; the Banyuls Grand Cru AOPrequires at least 75%. To be labeled grand cru, Banyuls must spend a minimum 30 months in barrel. If destined to be vintage-dated, Banyuls is generally bottled within one year and labeled rimage. Banyuls is France’s richest, most full-bodied and most consistently quality-minded VDN appellation.
Unfortified red, white, and rosé wines from the producers of Banyuls are released as Collioure AOP. Producers in Maury, on the other hand, have the option of releasing dry red wines under the Maury AOP banner as of 2011. Other dry wine appellations include Côtes du Roussillon AOP, a regional appellation for red, white, and a high percentage of rosé wines. A subzone, Côtes du Roussillon Les Aspres, was recognized in 2003 for Syrah- and Mourvèdre-based red wines from the villages nestled within the area of Les Aspres and the Albères Mountains. Côtes du Roussillon-Villages AOP is reserved for the red wines of 32 communes to the north of Les Aspres. Four communes may add their names to the appellation: Latour-de-France, Caramany, Lesquerde, and Tautavel. As ambitious producers discover a wealth of old vine plantings, trim yields, and rethink the worth of once-derided workhorse grapes like Carignan, Roussillon's reputation for wines beyond the traditional vins doux naturel will continue to rise.
Despite so many disparate AOPs and acres under vine, the Languedoc-Roussillon region produces only 10% of France’s AOP wine. Although the European Union’s vine pull scheme has made a recent dent in the sheer amount of available wines, Languedoc-Roussillon covers a vast vineyard area, much of which has been classified as vin de pays. An enormous amount of vin de pays wines are produced, at every level of quality. Vin de Pays d’Oc is the overarching classification for the entire Languedoc-Roussillon region.
Southwestern France and the Dordogne
The appellations of Southwest France—Sud-Ouest—draw considerable influence from Bordeaux, Spain, and Southeastern France. Southeast of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, the Dordogne River cuts eastward through the region of Bergerac. Bergerac AOP produces all three colors of wine from Bordeaux varietals. Sec denotes dry whites from the region. Côtes de Bergerac AOP, in the absence of actual hills, requires a higher amount of minimum alcohol. The blended reds of Pécharmant AOP are the longest-lived wines of Bergerac. Sweet wine appellations within Bergerac include Monbazillac AOP, Saussignac AOP, Rosette AOP, Haut-Montravel AOP, and Côtes de Montravel AOP. Monbazillac is the most notable, generating botrytised wines from Bordeaux varietals. Muscadelle particularly excels in the sandy soils of Monbazillac; multiple triesand a ban on mechanical harvesting are testament to the appellation’s new commitment to quality. Montravel AOP wines, unlike Côtes de Montravel and Haut-Montravel, may be red or white and must be dry.
South of the Bordeaux satellites of the Dordogne are numerous wine regions; the most important are Cahors AOP, Madiran AOP, Jurançon AOP, and Gaillac AOP. On the Lot River, Cahors offers robust, sometimes-rustic red wines produced from a minimum 70% Malbec, with Tannat and Merlot. The wines of Madiran in Gascony are tannic, concentrated reds—so tannic, in fact, that it was a Madiran winemaker, Patrick Ducournau, who developed the technique of micro-oxygenation in the early 1990s to soften the blow of Tannat. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the local Fer are the secondary grapes of Madiran. Producers in Madiran may produce semi-sweet and sweet white wines as Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOP, primarily utilizing Petit Manseng, Petit Courbu, and Arrufiac. Dry Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh is labeled sec.
Jurançon produces distinctive white wines in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques département, principally from the Gros and Petit varieties of Manseng. The Petit Manseng grape is better suited to sweet passerillage wines, and Gros Manseng provides the tangy dry whites of Jurançon Sec AOP. Petit Courbu, Camaralet and Lauzet are secondary grapes for both styles. Other AOPs in the Basque-influenced Pyrénées-Atlantiques département include Irouléguy and Béarn.
The vineyards of Gaillac AOP, established by the Romans of ancient Gaul in the 1st century CE, are among France’s oldest. The wines today may be red, white or rosé. Duras, Fer, Syrah, and Gamay account for the red blends, with a smaller allotment of Bordeaux red varietals now allowed. Gaillac's principal white grapes are Mauzac, Muscadelle, and Len de l’El. Len de l'El—whose name, meaning "far from sight" in the old d'Oc tongue, conveys the clusters' long stalks and the distance to the "eye," or bud, from which they sprouted—has a natural fleshy, soft character that complements the tarter acidity of Mauzac. A Premières Côtes appellation exists for the dry whites of eleven delimited communes. Sweet whites are labeled Gaillac Doux, whereas sparkling whites are produced as Gaillac Mousseux. These sparkling wines may be made by the traditional method or by méthode Gaillaçoise, a variant of the méthode ancestrale.
Marcillac AOP is a unique appellation in France, producing varietal Fer reds—a minimum 90% is required in AOP vineyards. South of Bergerac, Buzet AOP and Côtes de Duras AOP produce Bordeaux-style wines in all three colors. Côtes de Marmandais AOP are similar in style, but allow a complement of regional grapes; the red wines in particular may show Syrah influence. Fronton AOP (formerly Côtes de Frontonnais) produces blended reds and rosés with a minimum 50% Negrette.
The close of 2011 saw a number of former VDQS zones in the southwest catapulted to AOC/AOP status.