There is a certain sense of romance associated with the south of France, n’est-ce pas? The turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, palm trees lining the Côte d’Azur (aka the French Riviera), groves of olive trees and fields of lavender. And vineyards, bien sûr.
Yes, wine is a big part of life in France, particularly in Provence, where it is not uncommon for children to be given watered-down wine at mealtime. The region boasts nine Appelations d’origine controlée (or AOCs), the indication of the strictest standard of French wine. In Provence, wine has been around for so long it pre-dates Roman times, and some say rosé originated here. It stands to reason that rosé makes up 88% of the wine production in Provence.
I have spent a lot of time in Provence, since I have family in both Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. This summer, during our 9-week European tour, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks with family on their vineyard at the bottom of Mont Ste-Victoire, whose peak was made famous by a series of paintings by Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne.
Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c. 1887), Paul Cézanne, Courtauld Institute of Art
Mont Sainte-Victoire takes a different shape from different vantage points – this view from our window was a wonderful sight to wake up to every morning!
We were staying in the rustic commune of Le Tholonet, about a 15-minute drive to Aix-en-Provence, placing us in the smallest provençal AOC: Palette.
Provence wine map c/o Wine Folly
Provence is a little-known wine region to start with, although you often see Bandol rosés hit liquor-store shelves in the summer. But if Provence is little-known, Palette is completely unheard of to most people outside of France, so I made it my mission to learn more about this tiny appellation.
Area: Tiny – 106 acres (43 ha)
Production: 1,550 hL per year, closer to 1,000 hL in years with frost. Palette generally produces blends: reds (45%), whites (35%) and rosés (20%). The reds are heavy and rich, while the whites are dry and round, with floral aromatics.
Soil: Mainly limestone (you can see it in the white hue of Mont Ste-Victoire above) with some clay, pebbles and gravel.
Climate: Palette boasts a hot, dry Mediterranean climate, with 300 days of sun a year. Most vines are north facing to avoid getting too much sun. The river Arc and surrounding forests cool the vines, while the maritime breeze prevents mould and other humidity-borne disease.
Grape varieties permitted under AOC rules: So many! Over 30, including Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, Clairette Blanche, Picardan, Bourboulenc plus lesser-known varieties like Castet, Muscat de Hamburg, Petit Brun, Téoulier, Panse Muscade, Terret Gris, Piquepoul Blanc, and Aragnan.
Harvest: Generally occurs in mid-September, and always by hand (Palette is known for its staunchly preserved traditional winemaking methods)
Aging: Reds spend at least 18 months in oak, and whites and rosés must be aged for at least 8 months.
Just as in Languedoc, the intense heat all across southern Europe last summer meant that the grapes ripened quickly, precipitating harvest by a week or two, so that the 2017 harvest was already done by the time it would have normally started. A result of global warming, perhaps? Palette grape producer Michel Lagier can actually remember the day in May 2009 when climate change reared its ugly head in Le Tholonet. On that spring day, Le Tholonet experienced a hailstorm the likes of which it had never seen, with so much hail accumulation it clogged the sewers. The storm caused incredible damage in a region whose infrastructure is set up for hot, dry weather, and put countless vineyard parcels out of commission for the rest of the growing season. And then there is the frost. Provence generally has mild winters that only occasionally dip below freezing. However, the region has experienced late spring frosts for three years in a row now, which is killer for vines. As a result, 2017 yields were generally smaller than in other years, though the summer heat produced grapes highly concentrated in sugars, which will potentially yield high-alcohol wines. Needless to say, global weather patterns are changing, and with such a big stake in small parcels, Palette grape growers are keeping a close eye on them.
Grapes in mid-August – look how dry the soil is
We can’t talk about Palette without mentioning Château Simone, whose beautiful estate comprises 57 acres of vines, representing just over half of the entire AOC. This winery is world renowned for the top quality of its wine in a region generally known for easy-drinking rosés. With its stately reds and rich whites, this domaine has put Palette on the world map. In fact, 10% of their production is exported to North America. You can even occasionally find their wines at the SAQ!
Aerial shot of Château Simone (c/o justeacote.com)
The grounds are beautifully maintained
On the day of my visit, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of where the winemaking magic happens. That day’s job was transferring red wines from large stainless steel tanks (called cuves) to smaller barrels called foudres and barriques, whose oak then imparts its vanilla, toast and smoky qualities to the wine while it ages, not to mention the tannins which contribute structure and age-worthiness. After watching this process, I was led through room after room of tanks, hoses and barrels of all sizes, inhaling the tell-tale aromas of fermentation. The highlight of the day was discovering the tunnels that have been painstakingly dug out by hand by the Rougier family over the generations, adding to the system of caves originally made by monks in the 16th century.
Barriques in the cellar
Barriques that have just been filled with wine for aging
The Rougier family acquired the estate in 1830 and has since maintained its traditional winemaking practices, including hand harvesting, the use of indigenous yeasts and organic agricultural practices. The result is exceptional wines, year after year. The winery’s reputation is such that there is no public tasting room on the estate, just a lovely stone room off the inner courtyard that serves as a sales office. There I met Florence Rougier, a powerhouse of a woman who runs the business side of things, including exports. She ships Château Simone’s wines all over the world, from Japan to the US, and yet I got quite an earful about how difficult it is to get wines into Ontario (don’t I know it!). During our conversation, there was a steady stream of people coming in to buy wine by the case (because that’s what the French do on Friday mornings). Clearly the lack of tasting room is no deterrent — people know the name of Château Simone and the prestige of its wine, and want to get their hands on it.
Fountain on the estate
Former mode of barrel transportation
Château Simone wines and estate c/o 1jour1vin.com
Congratulations – you have now been inducted into the elite group of wine lovers who have heard of Palette. This Provence AOC that may not have the highest production numbers, but as the saying goes, good things come in small…parcels!