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Friday read: Provence, Pernod and the rise of ‘pink gold’

Published:  25 August, 2023

Nicknamed ‘pink gold’ on the Cote d’Azur, Provence rosé continues to see a flood of investment into the category – most recently demonstrated by Pernod Ricard, which has acquired a majority share of Château Sainte Marguerite.

Here, Justin Keay catches up with CEO/winemaker Olivier Fayard, on his ambitious plans for what was already a fast-growing company, focused on making quality Provence wines with a difference (including some made with Vermintino).

What really strikes you about driving around Bormes les Mimosas/Le Lavandou after a few years absence – aside from the dire summer traffic – is the huge profusion of small wineries, each trumpeting their own take on the region’s iconic pink wine. For most, this means the paler, the better.

This explosion in winemaking reflects price rises of the key grapes Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Carignan and white Rolle, aka Vermintino, but mainly the astonishing rise in price and prominence of Provence rosé itself, which has encouraged growers to strike out on their own, rather than just sell to coops.

“Rosé really is the new gold around here,” says my driver as we pull up in front of Chateau Sainte Marguerite’s (CSM) new 5500 sq metre state of the art winery in La Londe.

Looking not unlike a Bond villain’s lair, this impressive architect-designed building processes an annual 1.4 million specially shaped bottles of organic wine, each stylishly embossed with CSM’s beautiful artwork, which sets them well apart from the competition.

“When my father first saw this, he said it was far too big. Now, my worry is it may be too small,” says Olivier Fayard, CEO and winemaker at CSM, who adds that it was designed to make you feel you are outside when you are inside, and inside when out.

“When the sun rises, the building is suffused in bright gold; at sunset, it looks completely red,” he says, standing next to an ancient olive tree which lies at the winery’s heart, and which could well be 1,000 years old.

The producer has come a long way since Fayard and his father started out, 46 years ago. Then, CSM made wine from just 4 ha. Today, that number is at 200 ha spread across the region. It makes four wines, including a pink, white and red Fantastique, most currently on the 2022 vintage. Then, there is the slightly cheaper Symphonie, which, for the past three years, Fayard has also sold as Porte Noir 2021, in cooperation with Idris Elba, who has also launched an own label Champagne. 70% of CSM’s production is pink and 15% a piece for white and red.

CSM’s prospects have always been good. It’s one of Provence’s original Cru-Classe producers, gaining that title in 1955. Since then, it has undergone a transformation, with Pernod-Ricard taking a majority stake late last year. The plan seems to be to build up the Fantastique Rosé wine and take on the likes of LVMH’s Minuty, Chateau d’Esclans’ Whispering Angel and Miraval, the latter of which is currently facing uncertainty amidst ownership disputes following the bitter Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie divorce.

Although the Fantastique is priced a little higher than these wines – around the mid to late £20 range – and sell mainly through the on-trade, the wines themselves are very different, definitely food-focused and quite distinctive in texture and style.

Fayard attributes this to the fact that alongside 80% Grenache, his Fantastique Rosé has 20% Vermintino, which gives the wine more acidity and a richer mouthfeel.

“On the palate, it adds pear to the peach of the Grenache, which is accompanied by a tiny bit of Cinsault, to give a rounded and complete wine,” he says.

The Fantastique white, made from Vermintino, is saline with a fine backbone of acidity, while the full bodied Fantastique red is surprisingly 60% Shiraz (not Syrah) and 40% Grenache. The nomenclature reflects Fayard’s desire for an uncomplicated modern red wine, rather than a more nuanced Rhône style red.

But with rosé sales taking off right now, and Provence still seen as the market leader, despite growing competition from Languedoc, Italy and other markets, this is a tough marketplace by any standards. New launches are happening all the time, including Alexis Cornu’s Racquet – a Cotes de Provence AOP wine from The Rochambeau Club (a fictitious club on the Côte d’Azur). The wine itself is made using most of the key varieties from the region and is an homage to the interwar heydays of the south of France (captured in Jonathan Miles’ recently released history of the region, Once Upon a Time World).

Fayard admits the arrival of the big drinks groups in the region – and the ongoing positioning of brands – has raised the ante. But he remains very confident about CSM’s future.

“Until quite recently, Provence rosé wasn’t a serious wine. Today, it is, but to make it well is incredibly difficult – much harder than red or white. We never crush the grapes, allowing the skins and pips to sour the wine. We press our grapes very gently, after picking mostly at night, so they come into the winery cool and un-distressed,” he says.

“The plan is that I develop and make the wines and Pernod-Ricard – the world’s second largest drink company – market and sell them,” he continues, adding that new wines are planned for launch early next year.

“However much we grow the business, the number one priority for me will always be quality, quality, quality.”