A response to Jon Bonné’s article on Provence rosé

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Well respected US author John Bonné has just written an article on Provence rosé for Punch. He’s a clever writer, and understands how to construct an article, but I felt on this occasion he’d just got it very wrong. So I thought I’d write a response.

According to Bonné, the success of Provence rosé is a problem. He’s struggling to find the real heart of Provence, as expressed in its wines, and feels that the huge momentum behind rosé is leading to a standard product winning out over more authentic wines that have a better connection to the soul of the place.

It’s a familiar narrative to any American wine lover who has grown up with Kermit Lynch, whose excellent book Adventures on the Wine Route has been hugely influential for a generation of US wine people (indeed, Bonné quotes Lynch in his piece). The narrative? Idealistic American (Lynch, in this case) travels to France looking to source wines. ‘Discovers’ (of course, they didn’t exist before they were discovered by said earnest American) amazing producers making wines traditionally. But they are in grave peril! Modernity is on the march! Stainless steel, cultured yeasts, filtration: all these things are looking to destroy the amazing wines that the American has discovered. But relax: the American will save the French from themselves.

Early in his piece, Bonné acknowledges the way that rosé seems to capture the essence of Provence quite well:

Its pink wines are an easily accessible totem of the Provençal good life—pure Mediterranean idyll in a bottle.

But, to him, this is a problem.

The net effect of the surging popularity is that Provence now represents little more than a lifestyle (or a simplified interpretation of a lifestyle). It’s not just that the wines have become boring; it’s that rosé’s deeper cultural relevance there has been whittled down to a vague fashionability.

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This is surprising, because when I visit Provence, I see one of the wine world’s few success stories. Provence has taken, whether deliberately or not, the wise choice to do one thing well, and to lead with this on export markets. There’s a wonderful concordance between the product – pink wine – and the ‘brand’ image of Provence, as Bonné points out above. This resonates with export markets. When we drink a bottle or Provence rosé, we are transported to this magical place of sun, sea, blue skies, large yachts, fashionable people, al fresco dining and glamour. And this is a problem?

And rosé is now much better than it used to be. Advances in pressing techniques, better vineyard work, and the fact that this is now a profitable wine so there’s a premium to be had for better quality, have resulted in much nicer wines. I’ve been visiting Provence since I was a child, and this new wave of rosé isn’t supplanting artisinally made authentic wine; it’s replacing cheap plonk.

Bonné complains:

A bowl of saffroned, garlicky fish stew or a tranche of the onion tart known as pissaladière, plus a glass of salmon-hued wine, used to be the sort of simple pleasure that transported foreigners. But 40 years of fetishization, then a final shove from the rosé craze, have pushed Provence into cliché territory.

But surely Bonné is fetishizing himself, trying to fit each wine region into his Lynchian narrative? Provence just won’t fit, so there must be something wrong here, right?

Americans like Bonné travel to France looking for a great, authentic cultural experience. They are looking to validate their aesthetic sensibilities by experiencing this connection between gastronomy and culture. They want to participate in the good life of the modestly poor people of southern Europe; eat where they eat, avoid fellow tourists, and immerse themselves in a rich culture of food and wine. They arrive, and are affronted when they find that things have changed. They are somewhat distressed when they find winegrowers driving expensive German cars rather than a beaten up 2CV.

Of course, this isn’t so much a piece about Provence wine, as it is about Bonné and his expectations. It is a lament that he can’t indulge his fantasy. He is at the center of this piece as much as he is in some of his other work, and I think this is a weakness. He’s clearly a very talented writer. He would be stronger if he could remove himself a little. The New California was a brave and important book, but he can give the impression that he thinks he was instrumental in bringing about a shift (in some small pockets of Californian wine) to more balanced styles, rather than chronicling this shift. In this sense, he seems like a surfer trying to take credit for a remarkable wave.

I’ve written this response, because I think that those of us in the wine world should be celebrating (and learning from) the great success of Provence rosé, instead of lamenting it. This is a region where innovation is welcomed. Rather than knock the producers who toy with unusual bottle shapes, we should be applauding them. Normal people are responding to these wines, and are prepared to pay good money for them. In a context where large swathes of the wine industry struggle to be profitable, this is something that needs to be welcomed.

15 comments to A response to Jon Bonné’s article on Provence rosé

  • Thought-provoking stuff! Not really sure what I think.

    It is good that rosé is on the up and can be regarded as a serious wine. I wonder if Provence rosé might be a bit of a bubble, bit like Marlborough Sauv Blanc after 2008 / Aussie critter wines in the US / Rueda in Spain? In all cases a rush to cash in on a huge market caused a deterioration in the product which then seriously damaged the brand as a whole. If this then meant that Provence had undercut itself (the Grenache replacing Mourvèdre etc. that Bonné fears) then that would be dangerous. But happily you instead believe that there is a virtuous circle emerging.

    I’ve no idea how things will turn out. I’d like to think that any producer who focuses on value (ie quality / price) and authenticity will do well in the long run, though of course marketing and image can trump that and there are few places with a more glamorous image than the Côte d’Azur. I think you are right to back a wine success-story and you’ve made some good points about Bonné’s article, I just hope that the Provence rosé boom is built on solid foundations.

  • Jamie
    I love a good fight and there is some on both sides here to like. First, I think Jon is one of the best writers out there today and, of course, he has strong opinions. Maybe that’s why he is as good as he is. Perhaps he does insert himself into the narrative a bit too much but he’s not making markets like some in the past have done. Ahem, RP.

    Second, Kermit is not just an American given to petty insistence that things be done his way. He has been recognized by the French government and awarded its highest honor precisely because he has recognized and shared with the world the best that France has to offer. He takes note when things go off-track and is appropriately critical of it. I think he deserves more respect than you appear willing to give.

    I will agree with you that people should get what they want and that anyone making a buck in the wine business is good for the economy and the people who work in it. I worry about a rose crash and what that does to a region now devoid of authentic and traditional products. Indeed, Jon sites a couple of Bandol producers who express just such a concern. What happens to the area when rose dies away. Who pays for the damage done to a region that must now rebuild its reputation and change its direction.

    I think Jon is pointing out some of these consequences, and more; certainly better than I can skilfully express.

    Anyway, I appreciate your ear.

    Respectfully,
    Dennis Lapuyade

  • Bob Rossi

    I was in great agreement with Jon Bonne’s piece, and I think some of the author’s criticism of it is unfair. Based on the many 2015 roses I’ve tried so far this year, I’d say that there’s more bad French rose than ever, particularly Provencal rose, at least in the US. Not that rose producers are getting worse, but maybe that more bad stuff that used to go no further than the winery’s shed now makes it to America, because rose sells.

  • Bob Parsons Alberta

    Whoa, this could be an interesting thread!! Me..I will stick to my Houchart.

  • Maybe I’m just weird, but except when I’m in Provence in hot weather, about 95% of the wine from the region that I consume is red, and I love it.. That said, there has been great progress made with standard rosé in the region, and nothing goes down on a hot day like a dry rosé (except beer).

    Anyway, Jamie, thanks for taking the time to respond to Bonné and I am in agreement with you. Additionally, I wish that Bonné had scratched the surface a bit more instead of just sticking with the biggest names.

    The one concern that I have is his allegation that Mourvèdre is in decline in favor of Grenache. That would be a shame.

  • Damien

    Does it matter if it is a “bubble”, given we’re talking about rose here?

    After all, without any need to grub up and replant, same growers could simply change to red wines couldn’t they?

    And even if that wasn’t the case, why shouldn’t wine pander to the fashion of the moment. If the average life of a grapevine is 25 years or so, and you’ve got what for many epitomises the very best of rose wine, then why not cash in on that while you can.

    The critical point Jamie made IMO is “this new wave of rosé isn’t supplanting artisinally made authentic wine; it’s replacing cheap plonk”.

    That’s got to be a good thing. One of the few wine regions to find a new path to success that still reflects where it comes from.

  • Patrick

    As VS Naipaul said, all travel writing can be reduced to ‘This is me here’

  • Paul Dove

    Both articles make good points. Jamie is right that we should applaud the overall improvement and consistent quality of Provence’s rosé producers who have learned “to do one thing well”.

    But then it’s hard, speaking as a predominantly red wine drinker, not to lament the rooting up of red grape varietals as reported by Bonné. Provence reds based on Mourvedre and Syrah, but also often blended with Cabernet, have a grip and structure unusual in southern France. Juicy and characterful without being jammy.

    Perhaps their somewhat rugged and food-friendly taste profile are no longer considered to be sufficiently “commercial” or “accessible” in today’s dumbed-down marketplace. But that somewhere like Bandol, as Bonné says in his article, has now shifted from making 80 percent red wine to 80 percent rosé is very depressing.

  • Bob Rossi

    Paul’s comment about Bandol really struck a chord with me. While I really like rose, I’m not a big fan of Bandol rose. But Bandol red; that’s a different story. So the shift from red to rose is unfortunate.

  • Jason Carey DWS

    My response is that this is complicated. One thing I can say is that the predominance of a certain style of production that makes it little different than a very very bland same same product, albeit from a bunch of different producers pisses me off. The taste of a certain yeast, and a certain very cold fermentation method, combined with who knows what other industrial production methods, makes for something that for the most part tastes like watermelon and strawberry punch.
    BTW the fetishistc worship of the “authentic” Provence was created by the English.

  • Jason Carey DWS

    I have to make one more quick pt. Listen I understand the marketing brain that wants to create a succesful “Brand Provence Rose”, and yes the wines are cleaner and more drinkable then they once were, but maybe there is room for real wine there as well. Jamie, the worldview that everything should be a brand to me is as cynical and depressing as what you are complaining about.

  • william beavington

    Interested to know your favourite Provence roses? And on the subject of Garrus (clearly very different and “not what one expects from a Provence rose”) but – what do you guys think? Is it “genius” to lightly oak a rose? Or is it a bit “crazy” ?

  • Boat Drinker

    I, too, generally like Bonne’s writing. This one, not so much. After reading, I simply had the feeling that Jon showed his ass, a bit. It read as a product of a deadline, or needing a new piece…and much red faced squeezing. Or, perhaps it is just a function of a smart guy buried to deep in a subject matter, finding himself getting a bit too clever.

  • I’m constantly inspired by Provence winemakers…for many reasons, particularly due to all I’ve learned from them (I’m not just a consumer/traveler, but a wine writer).

    The 2015 rosé holds interest & scope…I hope everyone writes about the vintage all they want, as long as they experience the reds in a year or two.

    Want to “discover” something meaningful, terroir-driven and tasty: Provençal reds,baby…

  • How patronizing it is, as you point out, for anyone to criticize winemakers for following a trend that is clearly led by consumer demand.

    As for a bubble about to burst, I think it’s unlikely given the overall product is better than it was and Provence can continue to take market share while raising the bar for all makers of Rose. This isn’t Beaujolais Nouveau, which was an accident waiting to happen.

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