JANCIS ROBINSON- A Provençal vision of the future

by Richard Hemming

Rural Provence has a certain timelessness: the fields of lavender, crumbling villages and rolling vineyards are an echo of a France frozen from a distant generation. Encountering the cutting edge of wine-thinking here could hardly be more surprising.
Predicting the future of anything is often the road to ridicule, and it is far easier to lampoon those who do have a go than to formulate better ideas, so credit is due to Gilles Masson of the world’s only Rosé Research Centre for his forward thinking. He and his team are devoted to the advancement of all things pink, which in Provence is around 88% of the region’s output, and much of their work is concerned with future developments.

Concerned they might well be, since the recent sharp increase in sales for rosé wine now appears to be levelling off. French rosé production has ballooned by 62% since 2001, and now just under 10% of the world’s wine is pink. The team at the Research Centre account for these gains by improvements in quality combined with the un-intimidating appeal that rosé enjoys. To keep the trend on the up, the Centre du Rosé is keeping very busy.
Thiols are a type of flavour compound whose role is being closely scrutinised in the make-up of rosé (see also Julia on Sauvignon Blanc – methoxypryrazines v thiols). In high concentration, thiols can betray winemaking faults, via the sulphurous stink of reduction. In controlled conditions, however, they lend rosé a grapefruit flavour which is much sought after, and every red Provençal variety, excluding Cinsault, has been found to be rich in the precursors of these compounds. Maximising their effect on the wine requires anaerobic winemaking, which has led to the adoption of nitrogen-filled presses.
These new machines are filled with the gas, then the fruit is added. The displaced gas is fed back into the large brown sacks you can see suspended from the roof. Brief maceration can then take place in an oxygen-free atmosphere before pressing and fermentation. Length of maceration depends on the variety – from as little as two hours for Syrah to as much as 18 hours for Cinsault. The anti-oxidation mission is continued by then using peristaltic pumps (as below), a common feature of Provençal cellars. These pumps are more gentle and anaerobic than the standard centrifugal kind.
Producers are also seeking complexity without resorting to overt oak influence. When handled properly, some oaked rosés can be supremely good, and are definitely among the best cuvées of the region – the barrels below, with a temperature probe and internal cooling system, were pictured at the famous Ch d’Esclans (confusingly, there are five properties, all neighbouring, that appropriate the name Esclans). Most rosé, however, stays free from oak contact, and discovering how to increase complexity from the fruit alone is one of Masson’s primary concerns.
One such way is to aspire to perfect grape selection. The machine below, the Delta Vistalys by Bucher Vaslin, claims to offer exactly that: it continuously videos a conveyor of fruit and will reject anything that doesn’t reach the standards set by the operator by blasting it off the table with targeted air jets. In practice, this means that anything green will be discarded, or perhaps that only grapes below a certain density (and thus potential alcohol) are accepted. Ch d’Esclans, using it for the first time in 2010, estimate that this machine rejects about 3% of total volume. Measly amounts maybe, but minutiae are all important in the pursuit of excellence.