The Perfect Rosé in Provence
At a family-run vineyard in the tiny town of Puyloubier, in Provence, hotelier and cookbook author Jennifer Rubell finds some wine worth bottling
Here was my fantasy: to create the perfect summer wine, something decent, light, and drinkable with anything, everything, or nothing. I wanted it to be inexpensive enough to keep around by the case, refreshing enough to hit the spot on a hot summer day, and attractive enough to put on the table at lunches that go on until sundown. I wanted it for myself and for my friends. I wanted to serve it at parties for my first book, Real Life Entertaining, which is all about doing things with plenty of style but no pretense or fuss. And in the end, I wanted it to be available to everyone else too. Since I’m already making it, I reasoned naïvely, I might as well sell it.
Over the past several months, my fantasy wine has come into being. Through a friend, I found a producer whose wine making I trusted (his Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine du Vieux Lazaret is reliably excellent) and who was also willing to do a 200-case batch for me (in the wine business, that’s minuscule). I procured an importer and a distributor. I sought—and gained—approval for the wine from the United States government, the French government, the state of New York (where I grew up), and the state of Florida (where my family’s hotel, the Albion, and art museum are located). I hired a company in New York to design the label (brilliant designers; no wine label experience), and slowly—it took many dozens of phone calls to various expediters, importers, and the winemaker himself—figured out all the necessary government-mandated wording. I discovered that printing wine labels to be used on a traditional bottling line is an art in itself, with plenty of its own rules (the grain must be horizontal; varnish is mandatory, for protection in shipping; self-adhesive and pressure-sensitive labels are newfangled no-no’s). All the while, the winemaker was creating the actual wine in France.
Now here I am at Domaine Houchart, a 220-acre vineyard with a tasting room and winery in the beautiful, tiny Provençal town of Puyloubier (population 1,319), walking through rows of vines with Jérôme Quiot, the man who has been making my wine.
At first, Quiot appears to be a Provençal cliché: dark hair, slightly crooked teeth, handsome, and friendly, with the sort-of-but-not-quite-American energy of a French pop song. Look a little closer, though, and there’s more to him than that. A fine red thread on the lapel of his cashmere jacket—the oh-so-subtle French symbol of knighthood in the Legion of Honor—is a clue that Quiot’s world is larger than this vineyard. As a matter of fact, his family is the largest landowner in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 60 miles to the northwest. (As Quiot tells it, his ancestors helped start the French Revolution because with the aristocracy in place, they’d never have gotten the choicest parcels of land.) But it was love—well, at least marriage—that brought Quiot to Puyloubier. His wife, Geneviève, née Houchart, was born and raised in these parts. Her family members are laced through this community on either side of the Route de Cézanne. Her father made a pact with God to build a church in nearby Palette if the town was spared during World War II, and there stands the church, on Place Houchard (the mayor’s office made a typo on the last letter). Mme. Quiot’s grandmother used to have Cézanne over for tea, but refused to buy his paintings, judging them to be of poor quality. Quiot’s son was married in town to a woman whose childhood home is just down the road. To this man, in this place, all geography is either biography or terroir. His land tells stories, and his land makes wine. And, though his land makes many different kinds of wine, I’m here for the rosé.
Yes, my search for the perfect summer wine has led me to Provençal rosé, one with that typical floral- and berry-infused bouquet and a dry, high-acid finish. After years of being pooh-poohed as the wine cooler of wines, and unaided by the ubiquity of sweet, flat, cloying white Zinfandel, dry rosé is starting to have its day. Serious restaurants, and seriously hip ones, across the country are putting it on their lists. Books are being written about it. And unlike the popularity of certain reds or whites, the newfound chic of rosé (proof: Sofia Coppola produces one) isn’t really about taste. It’s about a warm-weather way of life that’s easy, unpretentious, open, and ever-so-slightly tipsy. You don’t delicately sip a rosé and discuss the notes of fruit and leather. You pour it, drink it, eat something, drink some more, and then you take an afternoon nap. You can even drink it with a couple of ice cubes—heresy with other wines, fine with rosé.
In the vineyard, Quiot picks up a handful of earth and slowly lets it drop—is there some secret instructional video for winemakers that teaches them all to do this?—revealing the rich, dark, fertile soil where the grapes for my newly bottled rosé were grown. We walk for about a half-hour, with Quiot talking passionately about everything he does to ensure that these vines are happy. We start heading toward the winery, but Quiot suddenly stops. "Here," he says, waving dramatically at a smallish plot of land picturesquely dotted with trees, a small hut, and heavily scented ground cover, "is my petit bois."
I ask Quiot why he would sacrifice usable land for a little area of found nature, expecting an explanation about sustainable agriculture and the need to maintain unplanted areas for the good of the vines. Instead, he draws me this picture: "In the summer, I come here with my son, a pizza, and a couple of bottles of rosé. That is why we keep it. Sometimes we bring saucisson. Doesn’t matter." Quiot and his son, Jean-Baptiste, sit together having lunch on an old bench surrounded by rosemary, thyme, and lavender, real-life herbes de Provence. I can imagine the wood-handled pocket-knife Quiot the elder uses to cut the saucisson. I smell all the herbs in full bloom. Yes, I’d keep a petit bois too, if it meant having picnics on the grass with my daughter every summer. I like that this man is making my wine.
We arrive at the winery, a concrete-floored room so simple, it makes you feel as if you could become a winemaker yourself. There are two presses for harvested grapes ("They cost $200,000 and we use them a few days a year, but what can you do?" Quiot asks, in that charmingly defeated French way); some stainless-steel tanks where the juice and skins are subsequently held (this 10-hour maceration is what makes rosé pink) and some larger sealed cement tanks; a cooling system; and a massive, cathedral-ceilinged storage room, where, incidentally, Quiot’s son’s wedding reception was held.
It’s time to taste my wine. We mount a narrow metal staircase to a small yellow-walled tasting room with 360-degree views. After our 30-minute walk through the vineyard, the cool of the winery felt good, but up here the air is stifling. The room is filled with sunlight. Out the north window, there’s the petit bois, and beyond that, Mont Sainte-Victoire, best known as Cézanne’s favorite subject. To the west is Aix-en-Provence. To the east, just outside the window, are the vineyards of Domaine Houchart. In the room, there’s just Quiot; my boyfriend, Daniel Phillip Kim, a member of the Oxford Wine Circle’s winning 1999 Varsity Wine-Tasting team (an ’83 Margaux decided their fate in the final match against Cambridge); me; and a bottle of Real Life Rosé—my wine, my actual wine, not ready until now—sitting on the table surrounded by three glasses. The moment of truth.
Quiot pours a little wine into each of our glasses, and we hold them up to the Provençal light. Pink, but not too pink: perfect. We swirl the wine and put our noses in the glasses: strawberries, wildflowers, light cherries. Nice. Now, a sip each. Into the mouth, then a gurgle to aerate the wine. Quiot spits into the silver tasting spittoon; Daniel and I swallow. My first instinct is to take another sip. I’m overheated from our trek through the vineyard and the climb up to this aerie. I’m embarrassed to tell Quiot that this wine just simply hits the spot—no wine-tasting lingo comes to mind. Fortunately, Daniel pipes up: "Garden strawberries," he says, "And good acidity." I’m off the hook. But then Quiot looks at me, expectantly.
"It tastes like summer," I say, as I drink some more.
And there it is. This is, in fact, the wine I’d wanted all along. It’s fresh, bright, and easy to drink—especially on a hot day. It doesn’t have the complexity of a great Bordeaux or Burgundy, but you don’t want it to. It reveals itself quickly—berries, flowers, acidity, one, two, three—and then goes down easily. It is indeed a great wine for a picnic (Bring on the saucisson!) or a barbecue.
After the rosé tasting, we head to the nearby Relais de Saint Ser, a favorite lunch spot for local winemakers. At a few of the tables on the stone-walled terrace—including our own—people are passing around not-yet-labeled bottles of rosé they brought with them. After Quiot shakes a few hands, we sit down. A pile of croutons and some green-olive tapenade appear. The waitress brings us goat-cheese salads. I order the lamb chops. The food is simple, homemade. Mont Sainte-Victoire is behind us, and the view ahead, with Domaine Houchart in the distance to the left, is extraordinary. We drink my rosé. And it’s perfect.
WHEN TO GO
Provence is beautiful spring through fall. Harvest is mid-September—early October.
WHAT TO DO
The grounds at Puyloubier (12 Rte. Departementale; 33-4/42-66-34-44; www.jeromequiot.com) are open to the public. Houchart's main tasting room, an hour away in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (38 Ave. Baron Leroy; 33-4/90-83-73-55), is open by appointment April through October.
WHERE TO EAT
Auberge du Relais de Saint Ser 13114 Rte. de St.-Antonin, Puyloubier; 33-4/42-66-37-26; dinner for two $50.
For information on where to buy Real Life Rosé, see www.jenniferrubell.com.