Wait, a small, neurotic voice in my brain complains. We are sophisticated wine consumers! Are we really still rhapsodizing over the sunburned beauty of another Provençal landscape? A wiser voice within answers: Oh shut up.
Rosé is kryptonite to clichés. Rosé is all, like, whatèvre. Tell it that’s not even a real word, and rosé just shrugs and pours another glass for its hot girlfriend. Let the wine nerds wrestle with one another. Rosé rolls its eyes and says: Relax, pass the aioli, take a swim, have another glass and maybe another.
About half of the Rosé made in France comes from Provence. Much of this is vacuous stuff, produced in quantity to be drunk too cold to notice by masses of French holidaymakers seduced equally by summer visions of blue sky, white sand, and pretty pink plonk. The good stuff, though, is something altogether different: natural, elegant, and encouraging of a summery sense of slowed time. Some of the best rosés come out of the Mourvèdre-dense terraced hills above Bandol.
Just a hundred miles separate the proudly still-gritty port of Marseilles from St.-Tropez and the beginnings of the French Riviera, with its glitz and gridlock and manifold ooh-la-la enchantments. Just a hundred miles but, man, is it a rich and varied terrain, this in-between place: twisty coastal roads, empty islands, and wild, craggy calanques to hike and climb and rest atop. This is not the soft-focus, landlocked Provence of quaint market towns and sweet fields of lavender and thyme. (Or gift shops selling soaps made to smell like sweet fields of lavender and thyme.) It is ragged, rocky, less-traveled country, more Pagnol than Peter Mayle.
If I had a mission when I started my rosé road trip it was to ask why: Why does the texture, color, and taste of rosé complement and transport us to this season? What’s so special about the stuff?
After lunch one day in Cassis, I set out on foot from the port. The narrow lanes are laid with buttercream paving stones, polished by wear to the point of being shiny in the shade and slippery when dry. After a short walk, I came to the gate of Clos Sainte Magdeleine. I knocked, then explained to someone who did not exude an excessive eagerness to believe me that I indeed had an appointment with François Sack, the owner of the domaine. The entrance to Clos Sainte Magdeleine may look like a normal door, but it acts as a portal to a hidden, better planet. Stepping through it, you gain access to a privileged compound: 30 lushly planted acres of high peninsula running down to the sparkly sea.
“It’s a good job, eh?” François Sack said, leading me on a wandering tour around the grounds. We passed stately, colorful mansions and cute grandkids and a gigantic cat named Pushkin. The prismatic light coming through the trees and the green shoulder of the cliff and radiant blueness of the Mediterranean all left me in a kind of dizzy state. I wanted to stretch out in the hammock and never go back out that gate.
I was forgetting my plan. What had I come for? Ah—my rosé inquiry! Talk to me about these vines—Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre—planted so close to the sea. What was the secret of great rosé?
“Because, well, I don’t know,” Sack said. “The earth. The sun. It’s enough. It’s a very good reason.” He laughed. We followed one of his big, slobbering, golden dogs out under the high pine branches to the end of the property where you could see sailboats ahead and sunbathers on the rocks below. His sunglasses were big, his hair wispy and white in the breeze. He reminded me a little of Woody Allen if Woody Allen were French and immensely suave. Therapy would be unnecessary here in the salt air.
“It’s true. There’s something about rosé in the south, under the sun, on the beach,” Sack said. “They go together. It’s a habit, a pleasure. There is this pink color and you just want to…taste this.”