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, and you can find a surprising number of vineyards and significant 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 wines distinguished by its name, freshness, and balance.
“Sable de Camargue “is the name reserved for the vineyards covering the Camargue’s sandspits from Lion Gult and Sainte Maries del Mer to La Mer á Séte. The vineyards’ proximity to the sea, breezes, 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 the vines’ roots extend deep into the soil, adding a minerality and complexity to the wine. Also, vineyards in this region are mainly unaffected by phylloxera. This disease threatens wine growers today, and it 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 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 wind gusts and blowing sand. The use of organic, sustainable herbicides and fertilization is mandated.
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 are more readily accepted worldwide. Wines are similar to those traditionally found throughout France, although Grey (Gris) and Rosé comprise approximately 94% of the wine production.
A First Taste
The first time I sampled a wine from the Camargue, I was on a jeep safari tour. My mission was to see herds of black bulls and white horses, not visiting wineries. In that unexpected place, I discovered my new favorite summertime wine: Gris de Gris. Each time I’m served a glass, I think 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 want to try the wines, look for these brands.