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Provence: Its Transportive Rosé Wine

The Clos Sainte Magdeleine vineyards; rosé with Parmesan and goat cheeses at Château de Cassis.

Photo: Ditte Isager

Some details about the date in question remain more in question than others. For instance: the day of the week.

Could it have been a Friday? Definitely possible. It wasn’t a Monday because Restaurant Nino is closed on that day, and so I wouldn’t have observed the German couple who arrived for dinner carrying their bewildered cat in a traveling box. This stands out because it struck me then that people who’d bring a cat into a place known for platters of moules à la provençale and steaming tureens of bourride (the garlicky fish-stew cousin to bouillabaisse) are either uncommonly kind pet-lovers or ingenious sadists. Nino overlooks the pretty port of Cassis; the fish is fresh and simply prepared; and, once you’ve met and fallen under the spell of its dapper, unstoppably convivial proprietor, Bruno Brezzo, it’s hard to eat anywhere else in town.

And the season? The baking heat of midsummer had passed. But the days were long and warm still and occasionally one of the pink bodies on the pebbly beach would rise up and slip, peacefully as a sleepwalker, into the surf. It wasn’t November yet. That’s the month the little tables appear at the port, set up by fishermen bearing local oursin (sea urchin), freshly plucked from cooling waters. “Oh my God, yes!” Brezzo had exclaimed. (Brezzo tends to exclaim things rather than just say them, the colorful pronouncements popping up like the collar of his pink polo shirt from his lavender cashmere sweater.)

“We have the best oursin here.” Brezzo said. “I have a guy. He dives with helium. He brings them back this big.” He stretched his fingers as far apart as credibility would allow. But I would have to wait until November for that.

Brezzo shrugged and sat down at my table. He lit a smoke for himself and poured more rosé for me. All was not lost. “Every season is perfect,” he said. “The rest of France sees how we live and they are jealous.”

The point about the day in question is that the details are unimportant. What happened that day always happens here. The sun came up and turned the limestone cliffs shades of purplish green, blinding white, and ocherous red. The late-season flock, mostly French, arrived and fought for parking spaces. Old men swore and played pétanque on a public square marked Boulodrome Municipal. Pointus, the painted-wood fishing boats with their notably phallic bow posts, swayed at the docks.

The sun started to turn back for the day. The beach-sitters sat up, shook off their drowsiness, paced back to their cars in towels. The portside bars filled up. Under striped awnings, men with pastel sweaters around their shoulders held milky glasses of infrequently exported brands of pastis: Janot; Casanis; Berger Blanc.

I chose a bar next door to Restaurant Nino and settled into a red canvas-backed chair outside. Every table on the promenade now had on it a glass or a bottle of rosé. A little more sun seeped out of the day, like air slowly let out of a balloon. The postcard view of the port is dominated on the left by Cap Canaille, a monumental rock that runs like a rampart high above the village then falls sharply into the sea. Finally, as if in deference to the hour and the wine of choice, the last of the light fell off the cliff and the sky above the sea settled into an uncannily familiar shade of perfect pale pink.

I’d come to Provence for exactly this—for rosé and its context. Rosé is not a Deep Thoughts wine. Which is not to say it’s a frivolous drink. Happiness is serious business—ask your doctor. Some wines invite you to reflect on their expression of goût de terroir, to burrow deep into the crunchy mineral earth from whence they were squeezed and ponder what message is delivered to the palate by this alignment of place and soil and vines. Another wine might ask special consideration for the refining artistry of its vintner or the noble lineage of its grand château. Rosé makes no such demands.

Summer in a bottle, it beckons. Rosé says: Follow me to the south of France. A table by the sea. A simple lunch. Tapenade. Grilled sardines. Sweet tomato salad. Ripe green figs and goat cheese for dessert. Wine chilling in a plastic bucket of slushy ice.…

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