WINE: What's Going Well in Provence

International Herald Tribune

February 20, 1973

The rosé wines of Provence are among the most popular in France, which says a lot about the current state of the French palate. Promoted as the "Vacation Wines of the Sun," they ought to be light, fresh and fruity to be enjoyable in the hot Provençal summer. Most of them are quite the opposite – tired and tasteless – although there is no good reason for it.

Provence has good soil, an ideal Mediterranean climate and the longest winegrowing tradition in France. It goes back at least as far as the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseilles), founded half a millennium before Caesar even thought of conquering Gaul.

I myself am not much of a rosé fan and I had given up on Provence rosés as the worst of a bad lot until I tasted Bernard Laudon's wine. I took a liking to the man before I met him. A wine invariably reflects the character of the man who makes it and his Provence rosé was direct and as youthful in spirit as in fact.

Although he comes from generations of local winegrowers, Mr. Laudon is no typical Provençal, or even French, winemaker. He speaks excellent American English and is fascinated by the firearms of the West. Quick on the draw with a Colt .45 (almost shot his leg off once, getting into practice), he prefers a lever-action Winchester for dropping the wild boar that still roam Provence. He also has a beautiful American wife.

To get back to Mr. Laudon's wines – red, and white, as well as rosé – they show what Provence is capable of. Nor is he any narrow-minded, self-promoting producer. He introduced me to a number of other outstanding Provençal wines such as Château Minuty, Château Sainte Roseline, Domaine de Bertaud and Domaine Ott, and constantly bemoaned the fact that they did not have a larger following.

The problem in Provence is basically one of quantity vs. quality. Côtes-de-Provence is a Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS), the second-best official category of French wines. All that prevents these wines from entering the highest category of fine wines with an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) is that the mass of winegrowers seem perfectly content not to.

Such a promotion would entail lowering the yield per acre from the current 535 gallons to about 400 gallons. It would involve sharply restricting the use of the Carignan and Ugni Blanc grape varieties from something like 80 percent of the vineyard to perhaps 20 percent.

Both of these varieties are highly productive, but aside from a certain harsh body for red Carignan and a rather flabby softness for white Ugni Blanc, they add little. Together they are largely responsible for the heavy, orange-colored "rosés" for which Provence is today notorious.

Not that there is any lack of authorized noble varieties to draw upon. They give a lower yield but Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah produce the fine wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage. The Cabernets are the best red varieties of Bordeaux and Sémillon is a fine white Bordeaux grape. Rolle is another excellent variety from the AOC Bellet above Nice.

Provence does not pretend to compete with these famous wines, but when properly made its wines can be the equal of most Côtes-du-Rhône, Beaujolais and even generic Bordeaux. And this is why a grower such as Mr. Laudon can succeed with difficult restaurateurs such as Georges Garin and the Troisgros brothers. He will not sit still and is always probing into the reasons one wine tastes better than another.

He figures that Provence is redolent with the heady aromas of pine, lavender and thyme, and that this richness of aroma applies to grapes as much as anything else. The idea is to extract these aromas and yet keep the wines light and easy to drink even in the oppressive heat of noon.

Mr. Laudon makes what he calls friand red wines, wines with both freshness and character. They are not "new" wines nor are they wines to keep more than a couple of years. The trick is to get the aromas and color out of the skins without picking up an excess of tannin from them and the stems and pips.

This is done by stemming (destemming) the bunches and only partially crushing the grapes. If they are completely crushed, too much tannin enters the wine and too much aroma can escape during the fermentation.

Mr. Laudon uses a method known as macération carbonique, in which everything proceeds in a neutral carbon-dioxide atmosphere, taken from a first vat of fermenting wine (grape sugar yields alcohol and carbon dioxide), which prevents oxidization of the aromas.

A slow, controlled fermentation of stemmed grapes also keeps down tannin but does not hinder the release of color. The result is a richly colored, fruity wine to be served cool and which slips down as easily as an unsugared Beaujolais and leaves the head equally clear.

The same is done to achieve a clean, tasty rosé except that the skins are only briefly in contact with the juice, no more than 36 hours.

To get a fresh, crisp white from the normally over-aromatic white grapes the Provence sun develops, Mr. Laudon simply picks his Sémillon grapes before they have reached complete ripeness. This retains the proper balance of acidity that is familiar in more northern vineyards.

Bernard Laudon is something of a Young Turk to those of his Provençal colleagues who are too set in their ways to follow his example. In the meantime, his wines and others like them are the Provence wines that are being exported to the United States, where drinkers are already enjoying what should be AOC wines. Until the mass of his colleagues wakes up, the French will have to content themselves with VDQS quality.