Wine has been made in this region for at least 2600 years since the ancient Greeks founded the city of Marseille in 600 BC. Throughout the region's history, viticulture and winemaking has been influenced by the cultures that have been present in Provence, from the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Catalans, and Savoyards. This diverse influence has left a legacy in the large variety of grapes that are used to make Provençal wine, which include local varieties of Greek and Roman origins as well as Spanish, Italian and traditional French wine grapes.
Today the region is known predominately for its rosé wine, though wine critics such as Tom Stevenson believe that region's best wines are the spicy, full flavoured red wines. Rosé wine currently accounts for more than half of the production of Provençal wine with red wine accounting for about a third of the region's production. Unlike the 'blush' wines like White Zinfandel known in the US, Provençal rosés are rarely sweet and almost always dry. White wine is also produced in small quantities throughout the region with the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) region of Cassis specializing in white wine production. The Côtes de Provence is the largest AOC followed by the Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence. The Bandol region near Toulon is one of the more internationally recognized Provençal wine regions.
The exact time that viticulture was begun in Provence is difficult to calculate, with the possibility of early inhabitants using indigenous vines to produce wine before the Phocaean Greeks settled Massalia in 600 BC. Archaeological evidence, in the form of amphora fragments indicate that the Greeks were producing wine in the region soon after they settled. By the time that the Romans reached the area in 125 BC, the wine produced there had a reputation across the Mediterranean for high quality. Over time Provence would come under the influence and rule of a vast range of cultures from the Saracens, Carolingians, Holy Roman Empire, the Counts of Toulouse, the Catalans, René I of Naples, House of Savoy to the Kingdom of Sardinia. This diverse spectrum of influences has shaped the viticulture and winemaking styles of Provence.
At the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic reached Provence and devastated the region's viticulture. Many vineyards were slow to replant and some turned to the high yielding, but lower quality Carignan grape. The arrival of the railroad system opened up new markets in the north such as Paris. In the 20th century, as the region's tourism industry grew around resorts in the French Riviera, production rosé increased as a compliment to the region's characteristic cuisine that feature such dishes as bouillabaisse and aioli.
Provence has a classic Mediterranean climate, with the large sea forming its southern border. Mild winters are followed by very warm summers with little rainfall. Sunshine is found in abundance in this region with the grapevines receiving more than 3000 hours, twice the amount needed to ripen grapes fully. This abundance does have the adverse affect of potentially over ripening grapes if vineyard owners are not cautious. The mistral wind provides both a positive and negative influence on viticulture in Provence. The strong wind coming from the north can cool the grapes down from the heat and also dry the grapes after rain, providing some protection against rot and grape diseases. It can also damage vines that are not securely trained and protected by hillside landforms. In areas where the wine is particularly strong, the most ideal vineyard locations are on hillsides facing south towards the sea with the hill providing some shelter from the mistral's strength. In those areas, the type of grape varieties planted will also play a role since south facing slopes receive the most sunshine and in the warm climate can easily over expose delicate and early ripening varieties which would be better suited on north facing slopes.
The soil across Provence is varied, lacking uniformity and generalization. In isolated areas, such as the Cassis AOC and near the Mediterranean coastline, are deposits of limestone and shale. These area tend to be planted with white wine grapes that perform better in those soil types. Along other coastal regions can be found soils with more schist and quartz composition. Further inland there is more clay and sandstone.
Provence has eight major wine regions with AOC designations. The Côtes de Provence is the largest followed by Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence. Other significant wine regions include Les Baux-de-Provence, Coteaux Varois, Coteaux de Pierrevert, Bandol, Cassis, Bellet and Palette. Unofficial sub-appellations include the Fréjus, La Londe and Montagne Sainte-Victoire regions. The Côtes du Luberon AOC in the nearby Vaucluse département is occasionally cited by some sources with Provence due to some similarities in wine style; the appellation is however officially part of the Rhône wine region and its typicity more closely approaches that of its neighbour on its northern border, Côtes de Ventoux AOC, also a Rhône wine. The region has several vin de pays designations with Bouches-du-Rhône, near Aix-en-Provence, being one of the most common designation seen abroad.
In recent years, there has been more experimentation in the elevage (winemaking methods) used with a new generation of winemakers beginning to incorporate non-traditional methods of rosé production including the use oak barrels for aging and fermentation. There has begun a renewed focus in white wine production with more winemakers using temperature controlled tanks that allow a cooler fermentation process that is better suited to white wine production. There are still remnants of traditional winemaking in the Côtes de Provence and some producers still use the traditional packaging of their wine in the distinctive wine bottle known as a skittle which has a shape that is between an amphora vessel and a bowling pin.
Within the Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence is the smaller Les Baux-de-Provence region which was granted AOC status in 1995. The climate of the region is very hot with the surrounding valley known as the Val d'Enfer (Valley of Hell). Vineyards are centered around the hilltop village of Les Baux-de-Provence and are dominated by red wine grape varieties (nearly 80%). There is very little white wine production with the remaining production being dry rosé. The leading grape varieties of this region are Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah. AOC requirements dictate that no two grapes can compose more than 90% of the blend with Carignan, Cinsaut and Counoise permitted but at a maximize usage of 30%. The use of Cabernet Sauvignon is growing in prevalence but it limited to composing no more than 20% of the blend. The rosés of Les Baux-de-Provence are composed of a minimum 60% of Cinsaut, Grenache and Syrah with similar requirement as the AOC red wine that no two grapes varieties composed more than 90% of the blend. The Les Baux-de-Provence AOC was the first French wine region to regulate that all vineyards be farmed biodynamically. The moved came after most vineyard owners had already converted to organic viticulture, eliminating the use of chemicals that could easily spread from the vines due to the strong mistral winds.
The Bandol wine region, located near the coast east of Marseille and Cassis, is one of Provence most internationally recognized wine regions. Based around the fishing village of Bandol, west of Toulon, the Bandol AOC covers the production of 8 communes with silicon & limestone soils. Those soils and the warm, coastal climate is ideally suited for the late ripening Mourvedre grape which is the major variety of the region. For both the red and rosé wines, Mourvedre must account for at least 50% of the blend, though most producers will use significantly more, with Grenache & Cinsaut usually filling out the rest of the wine's composition. Syrah and Carignan are restricted in Bandol to no composing no more than 15% of the blend or 10% individually. Nearly 70% of the region's production is red wine with rosé wine filling out the rest of Bandol's production accompanied by a small amount of white production. Red Bandol wine is characterized by its dark color with rich flavors of black fruit, vanilla, cinnamon and leather that usually require at least 10 years of aging before they fully develop. Though examples are made that can be approachable in three years. Prior to release, the wine is required to spend at least 18 months aging in oak. The white wines of Bandol are composed primarily of Clairette, Bourboulenc and Ugni blanc. Previously Sauvignon blanc was used but it is not prohibited from the AOC wines. The rosés of Bandol are characterized by spicy and earthy flavors that can resemble the Rhône rosés from Tavel AOC, with some having strawberry notes.
Bandol is the only French wine region that is dominated by the Mourvedre grape, which performed differently depending on the particular terroir of the region. The soils in the northwest region, from the communes of La Brûlat to Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, the soil is composed of small pebbles and produces lighter, more delicate wines. On the red clay soil that is scattered throughout the region, the wine produced is very tannic and must be tempered with increased blending of Cinsaut and Grenache. The Grenache grape itself, it typically planted on cooler north facing slopes to prevent the grape was over ripening and making the wine highly alcoholic. The relative infertility of the soil throughout the region helps to keep yields low with the Bandol region having some the lowest yields throughout France. The use of mechanical harvesting is prohibited throughout the region but its use is impractical due to the style of terracing used on the hillsides throughout the region.
The Coteaux Varois AOC covers the central region of Provence, in the Var département from where the region's name is derived, between the Côtes de Provence and Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence AOCs. The region is partially sheltered by the surrounding Sainte-Baume mountains which have tempering effect on the Mediterranean influences that is common throughout Provence. This is most evident in the vineyards around Brignoles where the cooler climate pushes harvest till early November several weeks after most Provençal wine region have harvested in early September. This unique terroir has encouraged interest from Burgundy wine producers like Louis Latour to experiment with planting Pinot noir. The region started out as a vin de pays till it was upgraded to Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) status in 1985, followed by AOC status in 1993. Over 60% of the region's production is rosé with around 33% red wine production and small amount of white wine production. The leading grape varieties of the region are Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Mourvedre, Syrah and Carignan.
The main grape variety throughout Provence is Mourvedre which is the primary component in many red wines and rosés. It is often blended with Grenache and Cinsaut, with the later being used as a significant component in most rosé. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are rising in prominence though some traditional Provençal wine makers view those grapes with suspicion and a sign of globalization and appeal to international tastes. For the last century, Carignan has been a major grape but as more producer aim for improved quality the use of this high yielding grape has decreased. Other significant grape varieties, used primarily in blending, include Braquet, Calitor, Folle and Tibouren. The major white wine grapes of Provence include the Rhône varieties of Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Marsanne and Viognier as well as Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Rolle and Ugni blanc.