Sainte-Victoire – a Gem of the Côte de Provence
Part 4 of the Provence wine series
There is no doubt in my mind that the Côte de Provence produces some of the best Rosés in the world especially this sub-appellation of Sainte-Victoire where the Mountain of Sainte-Victoire (over 1000m in height) provides a sort of rain shelter for the vines.
This tiny appellation of 203 hectares is between the mountain of Sainte-Victoire and Mont Aurélien. The mountain is a special feature of the appellation which allowed for the creation of this sub-appellation in 2005. The mountain also reduces the full strength of the cold Mistral winds from the North. The results are winds that are strong enough to blow insects away and dry the vines but not damage them. Another mountain – Sainte-Baume – plays a strong role in not only minimising the effects of the sea to create continental conditions.
Most importantly, the soils here are unique from the rest of the Côte de Provence. The soils are limestone and clayish-sandstone, creating wines which are elegant, high in acid and flavourful. Only rosés and reds are recognised here in Sainte-Victoire with 89% of the production belonging to rosés. Some whites which are 100% Vermentino are produced here but they are permitted to have Côte de Provence on the label and not Sainte-Victoire. The principal grapes are Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah with secondary varietals being a combination of white and red grapes. It is the only sub-appellation apart from La Londe and Fréjus in the Côte de Provence whose rosés and reds have similar principal grapes. The blending proportions of Sainte-Victoire are specific but length. Basically, the rules are that 50% or more of the blend has to contain Grenache and/or Syrah. At least two of the principal grapes have to be in the blend and 10% or less of the white grapes can be part of the blend. For the red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon can be part of the blend at 10% or less.
Mas de Cadenet
This is one of the best wineries of the region which I can personally attest after looking at their winery processes and tasting their wines. I was received by Matthieu Négrel, son of the proprietor. The property has been under the Négrel family for close to 200 years and Matthieu is the 7th generation. The winery started in 1813 but the family knows that the domain is older than 200 years when they found fragments of amphorae dating back to roman times on the property. The vineyard is 45 hectares with a south exposition at 250 meters above sea level. Out of the 45 hectares, 5 hectares are in the Côte de Provence AOC. The vines are at an average age of 35 years old with the oldest being 70. Yields are 45 to 48 hl/ha of the permitted yields of 50hl/ha. The proportion of the wines produced are 50% rosé, 40% red and 10% white. Production is less than 200 000 bottles per year.
The vine training used here are cordon, goblet-style and appellation rules permit machine-picking. Here, harvesting is done in the night by machines. Typical dimensions of the vines are 3 ft high with 4 ft vine spacing. The vines are pruned to about 3 buds per arm (4-5 for some). The vines are trained high (60 to 80 cm above the ground) so as to allow the vines to bend and form a bush to protect the grapes against the hot sun. The high-training also allows aeration so as to prevent diseases. Other disease prevention measures taken are the cutting back of grass to prevent a build-up of moisture and not ploughing the soil after rain.
Matthieu pointed out to me that the St-victoire Mountain was created by an earthquake during the Jurassic period and deposited most of the stony soil in the appellation today. The soil created good drainage and air for the vine roots. The limestone comes from the sea and the red stones came from a lake. Some of the red stone provides iron to the vines and makes the acid in the grapes low at 3.5 g/l. Every day at 4 pm, the Mistral wind can be felt and the other wind from the East brings the necessary rain needed to sustain the vines.
Phenolic maturation plays a vital role in making quality rosés. This maturation is greatly affected by the type of soil the vines are planted in. Sandy and stony soils are avoided as the nature of the soil imparts heat at night to the vines, potentially increasing the alcohol of the grapes to 13%. This is not the ideal potential alcohol that Matthieu favours.
Organic viticulture is employed. Chick peas are fed into the soil to provide nitrogen in order to strengthen the leaves and the woody parts of the vines. Sheep manure is also used to provide potash. Although S-E row planting are used to obtain more sun, it is a question of the plot of the land. The old vines are pruned to 5 buds generating about 30hl/ha of yield while the young vines are pruned to 4, producing 45-50 hl/ha. The wine trellis is now being implemented in the vineyard to make it easier for the machines to plough the vineyard and to make spraying efficient. Moreover, VSP helps the vines get better exposure to the sun and the amount of leaves can be easily hedged to control photosynthesis.
“It is hard to change the pruning once you have decided to do it for 70 years,” says Matthieu, who is referring the old vines that the trellis system has not been implemented. “You can only do the best in what you believe is the best.”
In the winery, all the grapes are destemmed. Crushing takes place next with the exception of grapes meant for red wines. The red grapes are cooled through a heat exchanger and go through carbonic maceration. Mas de Cadenet uses whole grapes for the reds as they believe with the grapes being intact; there will be minimum extraction of seed tannins. The good tannins will be extracted at the end of the fermentation.
As for the rosés, lots of care is taken to prevent the grapes from oxidizing by harvesting the grapes from 3 a.m to 11 a.m. The different varietals are harvested separately with Grenache first, then Cinsault and then Syrah. Lab analyses as well as tastings are being done to determine the picking date. During the pressing stage, nitrogen gas is used to cover the grapes in the press. The estate uses the saignée method on the Grenache and Cinsault but direct pressing on the Syrah. The saignée is done in the press itself so as to minimise movement that will cause oxidation and also to extract more flavour from the maceration.
One of the reasons as to why the grapes are harvested early in the morning is so that there would be little morning dew on the grapes which would dilute flavour and also, with the grapes coming in cold, less colour will be extracted during the maceration phase (remember the French love their rosés with as little colour as possible). The free run and pressing are separated. The stainless steel tanks for fermentation are filled with nitrogen to prevent oxidation. Finally, the different varietals are blended to form their rosés.
I queried Matthieu about the use of nitrogen as I thought that the carbon gas produced during fermentation would be enough to create a protective environment against oxygen. According to him, when CO2 mixes with the Sulphur added to the wines, the level of protection decreasesand that would mean that more sulphur would have to be added.
Different barrels are used during the aging process such as Seguin Moreau and Radox.
Mas de Cadenet range is their mid-tier range and all bottles are at €10:
Vermentino, Côtes de Provence (but fruit from St-Victoire) 2010, 12.5% (white wine)
Pale green. Fresh citrus and squeezed-lemon, a light sweet smell. The palate is high acid and medium alcohol. Citrus lemon flavours, fresh and bright, long length and a grapefruit finish.
Packet yeast used.
Rosé, Saint-Victoire, 2010, 13%, 40% Grenache, 40% Cinsault, 20% Syrah
Pale pink colour. The nose is beautiful fruit and intact, fresh, layered red fruit coating the outside of a delectable biscuit, medium intensity. The palate is a ripe grapefruit, bright acid at med(+) intensity, beautiful complexity on the mouth, long length. A fresh and juicy style.
The rosés are usually aged on fine lees with a 16-18 degrees Celsius ferment over 14 days to preserve terrior. The wines are filtered at the end of December, blended in January and sold in February
*Red 2009 13.5%, 45% Syrah, 45% Grenache, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon
Deep purple colour. Complex nose with aromas of blackcurrant, pastis, turmeric and Arabic herbs, Indian spices, light pepper, med(+) intensity. On the palate, med(+) alcohol, acid and tannins, dusty texture, garrigue, thyme, wild berries, spices, blackberry, long length and so delicate. Fresh herbs and olives in the background.
This wine has seen 8 months in old oak, both of big and small sizes. Pumping over is done 2 times a day and one delestage per day. There are a 5 plus days of post-ferment maceration at 30 degrees.
Mas Négrel Cadenet is the top range from the domain. 35-70 year old vines are used and the wines are aged in younger barrels of 1 to 4 years of age for 12-14 months. Usually it is a period of one year aging and one year maturation. The wines in this range cost €20:
*Rosé 2010 13%, 40% Grenache, 40% Cinsault, 20% Syrah
Pale salmon colour. Beautiful cedar, biscuit, lacquered fruit, vanilla, floral and fragrant with hints of cinnamon, med(+) intensity. On the palate, beautiful texture, complex, a zingy mouth feel with med(+) acid, light cedar, smoke and spice with long length, light tannins, med(+) alcohol, fruit cake flavours and a very long length. A light toast finish.
This wine has been opened for 2 hours before tasting. It has seen 8 months in barrels and is barrel-fermented. 1 to 5 year old barrels are used. Very good acid considering MLF took place in the barrel. In my opinion, this is a highly value for money wine. I have tasted the stuff coming out from Château d’Esclans that makes oaked rosés sold at a premium price. In my humble opinion, MNC rosé is not only two times cheaper, but the quality is comparable. MNC has gotten the oak regime spot-on while maintaining the integrity of a mouth-watering rosé. Who would have guessed rosé could be so complex? Matthieu claims that his family was the first to create the oaked rosé style back in 1986.
Red 2007 13.5%, 45% Syrah, 45% Grenache, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon
Deep purple colour. Animal nose with coffee, musty, liquorice, cloves, ground pepper and charcoal, med(+) intensity. On the palate, med(+) tannins, pluckery texture, med(+) alcohol, charcoal, long length, black plums, ink, lots of herb flavour.
Domaine de Saint Ser
Visiting Domaine de Saint Ser was a real treat for me. Not only is 33 hectares of its vineyards are located on the rocky, poor argilo-calcereous soil, it is located at the foot of the Saint-Victoire mountain at an elevation of 400 metres. The average age of the vines is 25 years old and the exposition of the vineyard is south. If you ever have a chance of visiting this place, you will be spirited away with the beautiful backdrop of the foot of the mountain.
The special characteristic of this vineyard that its proximity is close to the mountain; almost next to it. There are no cold days because of the sun’s reflection off the rocks of the mountain base. The mountain acts as a heat reserve that prevents frost. Yields at the Domaine are 45hl/ha but decreases as the vines go higher up the mountain. There are 10-13 shoots per vine but less than 20 bunches are produced yearly due to the dropping of fruit. The rows are planted in E-W direction. No Mourvèdre is planted as the Domaine believes that without the sea influence, the quality of Mourvèdre is not to their expectations.
In years where the summer is dry, authority can be obtained to irrigate between June to August. Any shoots or woody parts of the vines that are unnecessary to the development of the vine and the fruit are removed twice in May. De-suckering (Ebourgeonnage in French) is also done.
In the winery, the domaine uses François Frères barrels for their red and Vernou (a combination of Charentes and Allier oak) for their whites. Each varietal is fermented separately and blended back to save space. Ambient yeast is used but sometimes they are also added. All the fruit is handpicked and pressed with the Defranceschi press. There are also plots which are machine picked. The Domaine claims that they do not need to spray as the Mistral winds control disease pressure.
The rosés and whites are fermented at less than 15 degrees Celsius while the reds are at 22 to 25 degrees. Pumping over is done twice a day and the ferment and maceration period for the reds can last for a month. MLF is carried out in tanks.
Rosé, Saint ser Prestige, 2010, Cinsault, Syrah, Grenache, Rolle, 13% €5.45
Pale pink colour. Light intensity, light red fruits. High acid on the palate, med(+) alcohol, juicy, med(+) length, lots of acid on the backpalate.
White, Cuvée tradition, Vermentino, Côtes de Provence (100% St-Victoire fruit), 13%€4.50
Pale green colour. Straw, pear, light intensity on the nose. On the palate, Nashi pear, high acid, medium alcohol, lots of freshness but less than the rosé, slight cucumber, light finish, slight minerality.
White, Saint ser Prestige, Côtes de Provence (100% St-Victoire fruit), 2010, 13%€5.95
Pale green colour. Med(-) intensity on the nose, light cedar, light pears and a slight banana smell. High acid on the palate with lots to offer on the mid-palate, stonefruit, light mineral, medium alcohol, med(+) length, light stonefruit and cedar on the back. 20% has been fermented in oak and the rest in steel vats.
Red, Saint ser Prestige, St-Victoire, 2006, 13%, Syrah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Grenache €6.20
Semi-opaque ruby colour. Light lavender, cinnamon, vanilla, med(+) intensity on the nose, a dominant sweet oak smell, light mushrooms. On the palate, high tannins, chalk texture, good mid-palate fruit, high alcohol, med acid, long length, licorice finish, a strange chicken soy sauce stock flavour. Interesting.
Les Hauts de Saint-Ser, Côtes de Provence, 2006, 13%, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Syrah (red wine)€11
Semi-opaque dark ruby colour. Candy floss aromas, a sweet nose, punchy, lots of blackberry fruit, cassis, fruit-forward. On the palate, mineral, Med(+) acid and alcohol, balanced, good mid-weight palate, cassis, fresh fruits, light leather and some stalkiness, long length, a mineral and light chocolate finish.