Lavender fields forever

By Celia Strong

Off we go on another adventure to a well-known part of southern France: the great region of Provence. This area was the first Roman province outside of Italy and they called it “provincia nostra,” our province. Today, this area is known for its wines, its foods, its easy lifestyle and, yes, lovely, huge fields of lavender. For those not up to date on aromatherapy, lavender is known for its relaxing powers. The scent in the air — from the fields of flowers, buds and soap scented in bathes, oils or candles — is inviting and relaxing. Lavender also influences the aroma of this week’s rosé wine.

Wines have been made in Provence for at least 2,600 years, ever since the Greeks founded the city of Marseilles in 600 B.C. As various cultures came and went in this area, they all influenced the grape growing and winemaking of the region. Over the years, each culture brought different grape varieties — some Greek and Roman in origin, some Spanish, some Italian and even some French. Wines today are red and white and rosé. Rosés are now more than half of the annual production.

Fragments of amphora from the Greek days in Provence indicate that they were making wine here almost as soon as they arrived. Before them, earlier inhabitants may have even made wine from indigenous grapes. In 125 B.C., when the Romans came, Provence wines already had a reputation for high quality around the Mediterranean. Over the centuries the Saracens, the Carolingians, the Holy Roman Empire, the Counts of Toulouse, the Catalans, René I of Naples, the House of Savoy and the Kingdom of Sardinia all played a part in what Provence wines would become.

The phylloxera epidemic, at the end of the 19th century, devastated the vineyards of Provence and many of them were slow to replant. Some turned to higher yielding varieties, like Carignan, even though they produced lower quality wines. And, like in other countries where we’ve studied wine, the building of railroads in France opened new markets in the northern part of the country for these wines, including Paris.

The 20th century brought tourism to the Riviera. And, the production of rosé wines, as compliments to the local cuisine and flavors, was increased.

Provence has a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and warm, dry summers. There are more than 3,000 hours of sunshine here each year, twice as much as the grapes need to ripen. The soil across the region is varied and not uniform anywhere.

The main grape grown in Provence is Mourvèdre, used in red and rosé wines. Grenache and Cinsault are also grown, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and Carignan. Other red varieties include Braquet, Calitor, Folle and Tibouren. White grapes include Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Viognier and even Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Rolle and Ugni Blanc. Just from some of these names we can see the influences of different cultures.

Aromas and flavors of Provence wines are said to reflect the landscape of the region — lavender, thyme, rosemary growing everywhere, olive trees, roses and peaches. Red wines and white wines tend to be full-bodied. And, then the rosés. Visitors to the area usually become rosé fans, or addicts, when they come home. Not only are they new wines, they are the memory we all treasure from our visit to Provence.

Provence has eight major AC wine regions in it. The largest, and the one we need to know about today, is Côtes de Provence. This AC is located on the eastern side of the region and includes 85 communes. About 75 percent of all Provence wines are made in this AC. And rosés are 80 percent of that. That leaves about 15 percent for reds and 5 percent for whites. Producers limit the amount of Carignan that they use, to make better quality wine, maxing it out at 40 percent in the rosés and reds. Also, winemakers are experimenting with new techniques too. Some use oak barrels for aging, some are trying temperature controlled tanks for cooler fermenting.

The traditional bottle for Provence wines is between an amphora and a bowling pin. When you see one, you know it.

Now, a really quick review of rosé. The name “rosé” comes from the French word for “pink.”  Makes sense. They are made from dark-skinned, red grapes and the juice is allowed to sit with the skins for a short time. All the color does come from the skins.  (There are two other methods to get pink wines. One, the “saignée,” where some pink juice is pulled out of vats of what will be bolder red wine with less liquid to skins and the pink juice is fermented into mild rosé. And blending, where red wine or grape juice is added to white wine.) Usually for rosés, the time for must and skin contact is one to three days. The shades of rosé range from pale, “onion”- skin orange to light purple.

Here are some foods that pair well with rosés: Anchovies; Asian food; artichokes; avocado; Brie that’s not too runny; carpaccio, beef and salmon; chicken; couscous; crudités, or raw vegetables; fennel; goat cheese, especially feta; Lebanese food; Moroccan food; olives and olive oil; pink peppercorns; pesto; radishes; rabbit; salmon; satays; spices — coriander, cumin, saffron; sushi; tomatoes; and tuna. Yes, I’m hungry now too!  (Foods that don’t work are cream or butter sauces, red meat, hot curries, strong cheese and winter foods.)

So, now, with my stomach growling at me, let’s get to our wine for this week. Our winery is Hecht & Bannier, which was founded in 2002 by Gregory Hecht and François Bannier. These two men decided to produce wines from select Languedoc, Rousiilon and Provence vineyards. Most of their wines are blends of grapes from five to ten different sites. While they maintain their appellations, this blending allows them to achieve unique wines that each show the best of its appellation.

We are here for their Côtes de Provence Rosé, a blend of 45 percent Cinsault, 30 percent Grenache and 25 percent Syrah. They chose plots of grapes so that this rosé wine would have charm and minerality, with notes of dried herbs and flowers. They harvest these grapes at night, between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m., so oxidation can be avoided and the fresh characteristics of each vineyard and variety get into the finished wine. They avoid excessive maceration and extraction for the same reason, for freshness in the wine.

Fresh and crisp and zesty are the best words to describe this wine. It glows with summer fruit flavors (raspberries, strawberries, cherries, tangerines) and pairs wonderfully with all kinds of Mediterranean flavors. Each of its three grapes play their part and we get a special expression of Provence. It is definitely more complex than many other rosés.

And, yes, close your eyes and you can smell the lavender fields in your glass. Forever. Available for only $19.99 at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island. Enjoy.

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