There’s undoubtedly something special about this time of year in this part of the world, and with the right wines and the appropriate food, it becomes pure magic. One of the most perfect of those pairings? Smoked meat and Provence reds.
Situated in the far southeast corner of France, Provence straddles the Mediterranean and benefits both from mistral winds and intense sunlight. As a result, the grapes tend to ripen well and, depending on micro-terroirs, can produce reds to rival the best of the Rhône. It is the home of “garrigue,” and gives us red wines of power, grace, and so much earthy intensity that it’s getting harder and harder to ignore them.
These lands have been growing wine for over 2,500 years, and there is a staunch vein of traditionalism (without much of the accompanying bureaucratic tape that more prestigious regions often enact) running through their wines. With so much of the wine-producing area being situated in close proximity to the Mediterranean, and thus maritime cuisine, it seems almost counterintuitive that their best wines would be red.
Indeed, you probably know Provence for its rosés; the dry pink wines it is most famous for are often both dirt-cheap and exceptionally drinkable (especially with the right foods). Yet they are, by and large, “time and place” wines: When it’s hot outside, when you’re eating ceviche or mussels, Provence rosé is the wine of choice. The red wines of Provence, on the other hand, seem to call for fall, for cooler weather, for heartier dishes and the smoke of a fire pit wafting by.
Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Carignan comprise most of the red wines of Provence. Much like the Rhône to the north, these grapes tend to produce spicy, earthy, rustic wines with considerable backbone. Most of Provençal wine comes from the general areas of Cotes de Provence and Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. These wide-reaching areas allow for greater leeway in terms of style and quality, and are where the great values are usually discovered.
Bandol, a small coastal subregion between Marseille and Toulon, is the crown jewel of Provence. These are massive, dark wines comprised primarily of Mourvedre (not too many places in France can claim the same). They are often heavily tannic, brash, and in need of cellaring of a decade or more. That wait will almost always reward you greatly, though, as the brashness softens up and transforms the wines into a complex panoply of earthy, heady power.
So, that’s Provence. Now, about that smoked meat. Few foods seem to capture the spirit of this time of year better than those grilled/smoked. Smoked pork rests firmly atop that list, and while traditional pulled-pork BBQ is a classic, one dish that lends itself to purer flavors is the smoked pork chop. A thick-cut, bone-in chop, seasoned with merely salt, pepper, and oil, and smoked over low heat for 30 to 45 minutes, then seared quickly until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees, is a revelation. Paired with a eucalyptus-laden Provence red, it is irresistible.
The 2011 Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence (currently on the wine list at Bizou and l’étoile) pairs well with a smoked chop. It exhibits pure, gruff Grenache character, but is mature enough to have softened up considerably, thus allowing you to focus on its spicy, rich fruit and earthy, woodsy core. The smoke and spices from the pork will complement it well.
Lamb, on the other hand, was seemingly created solely to pair with Bandol. The earthy, gamey, spicy character of a generous boneless leg will stand up to Bandol’s herbal, meaty tendencies. Both the wine and the meat are naturally ostentatious and intense; the flavorful rendered fat from the lamb comes up against the jagged yet unwavering acidity of the wine to produce a true synergy. The lamb should be sourced well (locally if possible), rubbed with salt, pepper, mustard, and rosemary, and smoked or grilled until it reaches 135 degrees. Slice it thin, and serve it with its own juices alongside grilled, uncomplicated root vegetables.
The 2010 Restanques de Pibarnon Bandol ($32) is the more-affordable (and more-approachable-when-young) little brother of Chateau de Pibarnon’s flagship Bandol. It is, however, no slouch, and has perennially represented Bandol for drinking now. Dripping with eucalyptus, mint, stewed fruit, and cellar must, it benefits from 6-plus hours of decanting and pairs perfectly with pungent yet simple dishes like lamb leg.
Evan Williams is a co-founder of The Wine Guild of Charlottesville. Find out more at wineguildcville.com.