High-quality French wines stand on two key pillars, both related to where the grapes originate:
- The notion of terroir
- The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system.
These two factors assure consumers of the wine's integrirty, uniformity, and consistency.
What Is Terroir?
Terroir is a French concept that arose through centuries of winemaking based on vintners' observations of why wines from different regions and vineyards are so different from one another in style and personality.
Today the term terroir (pronounced tehr-WAHR) generally refers to the geographic characteristics of a given place that shape and influence the wine made from grapes grown there. These characteristics include soil type, topography, climate, and vegetation.
While terroir is sometimes loosely used to indicate "a sense of place," in the context of Provençal wines it means something more specific – that the land where the vines grow makes its mark on the wine, conveying a quality unique to that place. The flavors and scents found in the wine mirror those found in the local terrain; the wine reflects its place of origin.
The concept of terroir is a key to the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system, described below.
Geology/soil in Provence
Provence is home to two main types of geological structures, one limestone and the other crystalline. The hills and ranges along the northern and western boundaries of the region are made up primarily of limestone and clay, while the eastern parts of the region contain crystalline ranges.
Vegetation typical of the Mediterranean basin corresponds to these soil types. Throughout Provence, plant life consists primarily of shrubs and herbs – such as lavender, rosemary, and thyme – none of which contribute much organic matter to the soil. As a rule, the soil in Provençal vineyards is well-drained and often sensitive to erosion. This dry land is well suited for Mediterranean vines.
Climate in Provence
Provence receives an exceptional amount of sunshine – up to 2,900 hours per year (compared to approximately 2,040 hours in Los Angeles and Miami). Summers are dry and hot, though the Mediterranean Sea has a moderating influence on temperatures along the coast. As is typical of the Mediterranean region, rainfall can be heavy in spring and fall.
Wind plays an integral role in the regional climate. The strongest and best-known is the mistral. Usually accompanied by clear skies, the mistral is a dry wind that blows in from the north after crossing the Alps. It's at its strongest in winter and spring; in summer it brings cool relief ... and incredibly blue skies. The mistral benefits the vines of Provence by cooling and drying the grapes, protecting them from pests and diseases related to humidity.
Thus, the rosés of Provence are a direct expression of the terroir – though they have great aromatic diversity, they all reflect the Mediterranean sun, soil, climate, and landscape that are uniquely Provence.
What is the AOC System?
Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which means "controlled area of origin," is the official French certification granted to a winemaking region. The appellation designation on a wine label indicates at least three things:
- Where the grapes were grown
- That the wine was produced under the tightest regulations in the French system
- That the wine is classified as the highest-quality wine in the French system (AOC wines are at the top of four levels in French wine classification).
The vineyards in Provence stretch across an area 150 miles wide, from the Rhone River valley in the west to the Côte d'Azur in the east. This broad region encompasses six of these state-recognized wine-producing areas – three main regions and three sub-appellations. Together, these three appellations produce about 95 percent of the rosés made in Provence. By far the largest appellation is the Côtes de Provence.
The appellation system was created in 1935 within the French Ministry of Agriculture to manage wine production and ensure a standard of quality typical to each region. The system's managing body, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), requires AOC wines to hold to a strict set of clearly defined criteria that govern:
- Place of origin of ingredients; location of producers
- Grape varieties that may be grown in each appellation
- Production parameters and winemaking practices
For example, the appellation system puts limits on the production of grapes to prevent overcropping. The idea is that vines that bear too many grapes will produce wines short on flavor.
The AOC system was the first of its kind in the world and has become the model for similar geographically based wine regulations. Yet, the French system still maintains stricter standards of quality than other countries, the United States included. When you buy an AOC rosé from Provence, you can be confident you're getting consistent, uniform quality informed by centuries of winemaking tradition. This puts Vins de Provence in a unique category.