In his tour guide, Rick Steve describes Provence as the, “land of light and wine,” and I would have to say that is a very good description. Painters like van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne have all come to paint landscapes here, and then never left. It was a cloudy day with showers when I visited, but when they broke and the sun came out the scenery was strikingly surreal.
My tour guide used the word “garigue.” The word describes the character of the land; parched, low rolling limestone hills covered in dry scrub and tough, resiny plants, wild rosemary, wild thyme, lavender, and short oak trees. It was amazing. During the tour there was a box of earth at a vineyard, and when you opened the box and took in a breath, then went to a wine made on the land where the dirt was from, the perfumes of both were the same.
The Romans called this region “nostra provincial,” our province, hence Provence. The area is vast, ranging from the beaches of the France Riviera north inland to the southern Rhone river valley. Even the French are not sure where it ends; when I asked my guide she shrugged her shoulders and just said where the Garigue ends.
Another phenomenon that has to be mention is the wind. Provence experiences a persistent, and sometimes violent, wind from the north called, “la mistral.” Wind speeds can exceed 100 mph which explains why most of the grape vines are located in protected south-facing pockets, with the hills to their backs. Not surprisingly, so are the towns and houses.
I visited the land between Toulon and Marseille, with the epicenter being Bandol. Bandol is the top appellation in Provence. My humble bottle came from a supermarket shelf, a Rose, which is what most of the wines from this region are. The color was a pleasing pink and clear. The nose contained a vibrant strawberry, with a taste that was powerful and earthy. I definitely got the garigue, and you guessed it, full of strawberries. I enjoyed the wine with a Marseille bouillabaisse (fish soup) and Griffy was ready to get an easel and go paint. It was wonderful despite the rain.
My guide told me that as good as the roses are, the real deal here are the reds. Deep red wines, which I was told were leathery on the palate. I have always wondered, who’s ever eaten a shoe to know what “leathery” is? By law a red produced in Bandol must contain at least 50% Mourvedre and most are 100%.
Again, I implore you, those who look down on Rose, rethink your position, and try the roses from the Rhone and Provence. These are bold and fruity, substantial in body, and are downright great with big flavor. I’m talking about generous amounts of olive oil, garlic, herbs and spices, fish and poultry dishes. Foods where a white wine would run screaming from the table, try a rose from this region, you’ll thank me.
Okay, one last thing I have to tell you about, Pastis. If you come to Provence, and you meet up with a local, like I did, they will insist you try Pastis. This is the most well-loved aperitif in Provence. It’s weird! It’s a greenish-yellow, licorice-flavored liqueur served with a carafe of water. You add the water to the pastis, the water immediately turns cloudy and as you raise the glass to your lips the last though you have is, “Oh my God, I hope this doesn’t kill me.”
And back in the day before the French Government got involved it might have. The original drink was absinthe and was outlawed in 1915 because the wormwood leaves used to make it were toxic. That’s why you have the carafe of water, to cut down the toxicity. Today, the drink is made by infusing either licorice or aniseed in a distilled spirit. I had one, sip!