Insiders Abroad published an article I was asked to submit about French wine and vineyards. It’s a subject I’m happily researching! My knowledge is very basic, I admit, but writing this piece brought back some fun memories of visits to one of my favorite places — the Camargue.
Flamingos and Tidewater: A Most Unusual Place for a French Vineyard
There’s a most unusual place in the south of France, where white horses, bulls and flamingos roam, that you can find a surprising number of vineyards and major wine producers.The Camargue, in the southernmost region of France, spreads over more than 360 square miles of pastureland and wetlands formed by the two branches of the River Rhône and the Mediterranean Sea. It creates the largest river delta in Europe. Between its lagoons, reed beds, dunes and pine forests that provide a habitat for hundreds of species of birds and animals, the unique soil of the Camargue produces an exceptional variety of wine distinquished by its name, its freshness and its balance.
“Sable de Camargue “ is the name reserved for the vineyards that cover the sandspits of the Camargue from Lion Gult and Sainte Maries del Mer to La Mer á Séte. The vineyards’ proximity to the sea, its breezes, its tidewaters and low amounts of rainfall during the growing season bring freshness to the vines and a certain balance of acidity and ripeness to the fruit’s skin, seeds and stems. Some vines literally spend time wading in the tide.
While the mineral sands and tides might seem harmful to the growth of high-quality wines, the conditions also mean roots of the vines extend deep into the soil, adding a minerality and complexity to the wine. Also, vineyards in this region are largely unaffected by phylloxera, a disease that threatens wine growers today and that took out the entire French wine industry at the end of the nineteenth century.
The Sable de Camargue
Sable de Camargue, seemingly unknown, dates back to the early 1400’s during the reign of Charles VI. In 1897 Sable de Camargue wines were introduced to Paris where they were given the “Sand Vineyard” award during a “General Farming Competition.”
Sable de Carmargue wines are titled and regulated according to strict French standards. They hold a “Vin de Pays” title — a classification for “wine of the land’ or “country wine” — that focuses on the geographical origin of the vineyards rather than style and tradition. (The European equivalent of Vin de Pays or “VDP” is “IGP” or Indication Géographique Protégée.) The Sable de Carmargue VDP category covers wines made in three departments of Languedoc — Herault, Gard and Bouches-du-Rhone.
While the VDP classification in France gives winemakers a certain degree of freedom in a highly regulated industry, some “freedoms” are restricted because of the very nature of the Camargue, its cultural practices and environmental regulations. The bio-diversity of the land, with its delicate balance of wildlife, tourism and agriculture, means drainage and cleaning of the salty and regularly flooded crop-producing area is mandatory. Channels carved through the area for centuries ago surround the vineyards and manage water flow. In winter wine growers must fix dry rushes into the grassy marsh weeds to protect vines from gusts of wind and blowing sand. The use of organic, sustainable herbicides and fertilization is mandated.
A First Taste
Grape and Wine Varieties
Recent changes in wine classifications have benefited the industry in the Camargue and have driven up sales, especially outside Europe. Products named and labeled according to the grape variety, rather than the growing region, is more readily accepted worldwide. Wines are similar to those traditionally found throughout France, although Grey (Gris) and Rosé make up approximately 94% of the wine production.
The first time I sampled a wine from the Camargue I was on a jeep safari tour. Seeing herds of black bulls and white horses was my trip mission, not visiting wineries. It was in that unexpected place that I discovered my new favorite summertime wine: Gris de Gris. Now each time I’m served a glass, I think back about that day and the whole adventure. The crisp, light wine with a fresh, elegant mouthfeel reminds me of the purity of the white sands and shallow marshes where it originated.
If you would like to try the wines yourself, look for these brands.