19 June 2018

as var as I know: 25 years of the côteaux varois en provence AOC

My first move, upon being freed from my recent restaurant work somewhat sooner than anticipated, was to belatedly accept a lot of press junket invitations. This is how at the end of May I found myself spending two days shuttling around the Var with a gaggle of other journalists and bloggers, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Côteaux Varois en Provence AOC

The Côteaux Varois en Provence, a predominantly red wine appellation at its ascension to AOC in 1993, now devotes a whopping 91% of its production to rosé. I had mentally prepared myself for two days of industry doublespeak intended to pass off the effects of highly invasive vinification as the result of unique terroir and know-how. Perversely, this the reason rosé production holds such fascination for me: in no other wine category is there such a vast, irreconcilable gulf between what the mass wine market wants and what can feasibly be produced via natural vinification methods.

Natural rosé is one thing. The Provençal rosé currently soaring in popularity - salmon-coloured, dewdrop-clear, fruit-basket-flavored - is a different product entirely. In a surprisingly double-edged speech he gave at the AOC’s anniversary party in Saint-Julien, Gilles Masson, director of the Center of Research and Experimentation on Rosé Wine, called the “Provençal rosé idéotype” - a wine that is “transparent, fruity, round” - “almost an invention.” He went further than his prepared slides, saying it was “a type of wine that never existed in history.”


Masson presented this idea as miraculous and accompanied it with bullish sales figures, receiving applause from the gathered winegrowers, winemakers, and estate owners. Yet it wasn’t the only moment in Masson’s presentation when he described the present commercial situation of mass-market rosé so accurately as to effectively condemn it. 

Most striking was a slide showing how the average colour intensity of rosé has plummeted in the years between 2004 and 2017. 

Masson cited this as the result of “improvement” and a gain in “expertise” in vinification, echoing most of the other conventional winemakers and oenologists I met on the trip, many of whom insisted that the colour of their rosé derived from terroir and temperature control, rather than intense filtration and clarification. Whenever I insisted that the colour doesn't come from temperature control alone, they responded with deflections, my favourite being, ‘It comes from fermentation temperature. We harvest at night.’ 

This is a laughable explanation on several levels. Firstly, in Provence in almost invariably constitutes an admission that the domaine is machine-harvesting, a practice utterly adverse to quality winemaking. Secondly, the definition of 'night' is rather loose here; all they mean is they are not harvesting in the midday heat, a practice that has been adopted in numerous regions by this point. Thirdly, the explanation elides the plethora of clarifiers and fining agents often used to attain the salmon-sunset colour of supermarket rosés: bentonite, casein, charcoal, and a host of other additives. A cellar-hand at the cooperative Cellier de la Sainte-Baume confirmed as much during the trip, explaining that for fining they typically used isinglass (a fish gelatin), or less frequently, charcoal, known for stripping flavour as much as colour.

Lower vinification temperatures will indeed produce less colour extraction, and refrigerating the must at various stages will indeed give greater clarity. But not to the extent that oenologists imply when speaking to the press. 


Upon arrival in the region, we visited the pristine new winemaking facility of Bastide de Blacailloux, before repairing to the rooftop of another nearby winery recently acquired by that domaine's owner, the amiable insurance tycoon Bruno Chamoin. Storms threatened overhead throughout the tasting, without ever quite breaking; it seemed an apt metaphor for the future of the wine style we were tasting.

Almost unanimously, the wines struck me as over-sulphured, malo-blocked, colour-corrected, filtered to death, and probably perfectly unobjectionable with a fistful of ice cubes on a beach. 

There are antecedents in the wine world for wine styles whose massive popularity gave rise to a cynical uniformity and subsequent critical abandonment: Beaujolais Nouveau, Lambrusco, Soave, etc. Due to their popularity with minimally-informed drinkers, these wine styles became radioactive to more-informed drinkers. The same phenomenon is occurring today with Prosecco. It seems primed to strike Provençal rosé any day now. 

I managed to find one potable rosé among the twenty-five - the "Rosé d'Une Nuit" from the organic Domaine du Deffends. It wasn't a natural wine by a long shot, but the fruit was bright, the finish soft and elegant, the overall profile admirably pure. Weeks later, back in Paris, I was amused and astonished to see the same wine being poured by-the-glass at 5ème arrondissement natural wine hub Café de la Nouvelle Mairie, where one of the owners had also appreciated the wine on its merits.


Contrary to the greater region’s mediterranean reputation, the Côteaux Varois en Provence AOC enjoys a partly continental climate, thanks to its high average altitude (350m) and the massifs separating it from the Provençal coast. In morning in late May, I felt a pleasant chill in the air from time to time as our shuttle wound through the picturesque towns of Tavernes and Barjols. While high-altitude, the majority of the appellations vines are planted on flat and relatively deep clay-limestone soil; along with the ventilating effects of the mistral, this makes the AOC particularly amenable to organic viticulture. Almost all the domaines we visited on the press trip were certified organic; many were rather large (30ha or more). None produced natural wine.  

At 12ha organic domaine Château La Calisse, owner Patricia Ortelli distinguishes herself with ambitious prices, laudable hand-harvesting, and an outright hostility to natural winemaking. "I defend the AOCs of France," she declared fallaciously and without prompting on the morning we visited, "because there are others, notably natural wines, that have no character at all." 

When another member of the press trip, the Master Sommelière Annie Crouzet, asked whether the domaine used native yeast, Ortelli replied with a certain doth-protest-too-much animus: "It doesn't mean anything. I say my wine is natural to me. No one can tell me otherwise since there are no rules to natural winemaking." 

I piped in with a functional idiomatic definition - native yeast fermentation, minimal sulphur use, non-filtration - but Ortelli simply reiterated that there are no rules. It feels impolite to argue in such situations, since I wasn't paying for anything, merely freeloading on a PR performance aimed at others in the group, so I let the matter drop. 

At the cooperative the Cellier de la Saint-Baume, I learned that cooperatives do specific "organic days," when only organic grapes are processed, as opposed to normal days, when conventionally-farmed harvests are processed. 

At the 30ha organic domaine Château Lafoux practices hand-harvesting and five years ago began experimenting with biodynamic agriculture on certain parcels. The limited and very expensive "Vinicius" bottlings of white, rosé, and red are vinified with greater care and released later than the rest of the range, but even here, the domaine's oenologist Pierre Guerin dubiously insisted that malolactic fermentation simply "didn't happen" for the white or the rosé. (The language of contemporary oenology is structured to promote an understanding of malolactic fermentation as a stylistic choice, whereas in fact it is something that usually happens naturally unless one intervenes to prevent it, via some combination of sulphur addition, filtration, or enzyme addition.) 

The 60ha organic Domaine du Loou is run by the founding president of the Côteaux Varois en Provence appellation, Daniel di Placido. I enjoyed conversing with him as much for his long perspective on the evolution of local winemaking as for his gravelly, cinematic voice, a kind of aural regional treasure. 

While here too everything was too sulphured, yeasted, and filtered for my tastes, the wines benefitted texturally from the domaine's use of cement vats, rather than the steel that has otherwise become ubiquitous in the region. 


Gilles Masson's speech was one of a sequence given to open the festivities at a celebration in honour of the 25th anniversary of the Côteaux de Varois en Provence AOC. From where I sat in the audience, I scanned the room for the one natural winemaker I knew from the appellation, Jean-Christophe Comor of Domaine Les Terres Promises. To my relief I soon spotted him, leaning near the exit wearing lime-green pants.

His response, when I caught up with him near the shellfish concession kiosk and reminded him that I wrote about natural wine, was telling: "What are you doing here?"

"I was hoping to discover more people who work like you," I joked, and we laughed and shook our heads.

If Comor's unfiltered, low-sulphur Côteaux Varois wines are of uncommon quality in Paris, where I usually drink them, they're practically unique in the Var, where they're made. Instead the viticultural Var is fast becoming a realm of vanity domaines owned by successful businesspeople whose pragmatism seems to exclude any appreciation for the value of traditional modes of wine production. 

I suppose things could change if and when the Provençal rosé ideotype - a false, confected, invented wine - goes the way of White Zin? 


Last year I took a really enjoyable press trip to the Île des Porquerolles with the kind folks from Agence Claire de Lune. I discovered a really excellent rosé from Domaine de l'Îles.

An article on the 25th anniversary of the Côteaux Varois en Provence AOC at Terre des Vins, whose author was present on the same press trip.

I was amused to see that my friend Bert Celce once visited Domaine du Loou back in 2006. They weren't making natural wine then, either.

An interesting 2007 article explaining certain properties of contemporary fining agents in Winemaker Mag

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