The sun was shining brightly through the windows at Underbelly last Thursday. On the table, four bottles of rosé from Chateau de Pompelonne glowed an incandescent peachy-pink, the effect startlingly lovely and quite frankly, mesmerizing.
“It’s so beautiful!” I exclaimed, admiring the slight variances in shade between each bottle, my eyes helplessly drawn again and again to the radiant picture they made as a representative of the winery led me through a tasting of their four wines. “The color is what we’re famous for,” she said with a knowing, proud smile. “In Provence, the winemakers spend a lot of time trying to achieve the perfect color.”
Though Provence as a region produces white and red wines, rosé—specifically dry rosé—is its most widely produced, and most important wine. It is also the oldest known wine in France, its history dating back to 600 B.C., when the Phocaeans (Greeks) founded Marseille and planted the first known vineyard, making Provence the oldest known wine making region in Europe.
Provence has nine AOPs (Appellation d'Origine Protégée, wine speak for controlled designated place of origin based on the concept of terroir). The largest three—Côtes de Provence, Coteaux D’Aix-en-Provence and Coteaux Varois de Provence—produce 95 percent of the wines in the region and include 582 winemakers and 42 trade companies.
The grapes most often found in Provence and used in their wines, are red grapes—Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre, Tibouren, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon. A short contact period between the red skin and the juice prior to fermentation gives rosé its famous color.
I knew none of this until I took the master class on Provençal wine offered by the Wines of Provence when they visited Houston for the first time. Presided over by Camerata’s sommelier-owner David Keck, the class gave us a broad overview of this pastoral, sun-filled winemaking region. We learned how climate, soil, winemaking practices and the general characteristics of a specifically delineated area can affect the color, aromas and ultimately the taste of a particular rosé.
A lot of it is really more technical than the average consumer would need to know, but the idea is that if you know the characteristics of a particular region well enough, you’ll be able to predict how the wines in those areas will taste.
When we sampled the Chateau Saint Maur L’Excellence Grand Cru, a grenache-syrah-cinsault blend from the Côtes de Provence appellation, Keck called it a “classic, coastal-style Provençal rosé.” Its color was pale pinky-peach, its taste light and not too acidic, with a fruity, floral finish on the tongue.
A Chateau de Saint-Martin Grand Reserve Cru Classe, also from the Côtes de Provence region, but more inland, was a more peach-colored with a pale yellow tinge, and displayed intense notes of strawberry jam on the nose, yet was delicate and silky on the palate.
During the walk-around tasting, I found myself gravitating towards the everyday, first tier, less complex wines, because they were so easy to drink. Many of them — including the Estandon Vignerons Lumiere from Coteaux de Varois, the Bernard Magrez Douce Vie from Côtes de Provence, and the Chateau Carpe Diem Multa Paucis — had me thinking, on first sip, “I could drink this all day long.” The fact that they were easy on the pocketbook (in the $13 range) made them all the more attractive.
The more expensive labels ($15-$22 average, all the way up to $40), many of which were referred to as “gastronomic wines” were more complex and tended to pair especially well with food. We got to experience just how well thanks to a buffet provided by chef Chris Shepherd at Underbelly, the host restaurant for the event, who sent out a spread of plates full of charcuterie, cheese, salads and hummus dip, alongside bowls of Vietnamese-style turmeric fish, canapé tastings of his famous Korean-style braised goat and dumplings, spicy chicken skewers and Asian-style bao stuffed with braised meat and slaw.
Wanting to get more of an expert perspective on the wines we were tasting, I asked Michaël Peltier, the head sommelier at Hunky Dory and alum of Michelin two-star Bouley Restaurant in New York, what he looked for when choosing a rosé. He led me to a corner table and pointed to the Domaine de la Fouquette cuvée Rosée d'Aurore, which is on his list. “I look for something elegant, easy to drink, smooth and not too acidic, complex enough to pair with food. It should be fresh, and remind you of a vacation, zen and cool, like taking a break,” he explained. “Rosé in France is always associated with spending time outside. For us to drink rosé on the terrace is heaven.”
The big takeaway: When we talk about rosé wine, Provençal rosé is the gold standard—it is the oldest, most respected, most studied rosé in the world. It is also an extremely versatile wine which pairs well with everything from white meat and fish to Asian food, tapas, Mediterranean food and even Brazilian cuisine. It's a great choice for the multitude of ethnic cuisines we have in Houston. So the next time it’s warm and sunny outside and you’re looking for something refreshing to accompany your meal? Think pink, and order rosé.