Wine Geo: The Camargue

The largest river delta in Europe—the Rhône River Delta—lies just south of the town of Arles, France. Known as the Camargue, this area—located within the aptly named Bouches-du-Rhône (Mouths of the Rhône) Department—is a vast plain dotted with brine lagoons (étangs), sandbars, and marshlands surrounded by a large area of rich agricultural cultivation.

The Camargue is tucked between the two arms of the Rhône River Delta—the Grande Rhône (on the eastern edge), and the smaller Petite Rhône (along the west). A large portion (as much as a third of the total area) is a protected nature reserve and part of the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue. The area is one of the few European habitats for the Greater Flamingo and home to hundreds of species of unique flora and fauna, including the beautiful, white-grey, semi-wild breed of Camargue Horses.

Aside from the protected areas, ranching and agriculture rule the Camargue. The region is one of the largest producers of rice in Europe and has achieved a protected geographical indication (PGI/IGP) for Riz de Camargue, cultivated since the 1600s.  The rice fields in the area provide most of the rice consumed in France and also allow for the other main crops of the Camargue—including cereal gains and grapevines—by desalinating the water and soil.

The best-known wine of the region is bottled under the Sable de Camargue PGI. As befits the area’s location—on the Mediterranean Coast and tucked between Provence, the southern Rhône Valley, and the eastern reaches of the Languedoc—94% of the wine produced is rosé. Vin gris (a very pale pink style of rosé produced via direct press followed by little-to-no maceration time on the grape skins) and gris de gris (an ultra-pale vin gris made from lighter/thinner-skinned grapes) are regional specialties. Whites, reds, and sparkling wines mare made in small amounts; and all of the wines are meant to be delicate, fresh, and reflective of the ethereal landscape and sable (sand)-based soils of the area.

  • The wines of the Sable de Camargue PGI may be produced using the following grape varieties:
    • Rosé/vin gris (may be still or sparkling): minimum 70% Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, Merlot, and/or Syrah; up to 30% Aubun, Marselan, Tempranillo, and/or any of the grapes allowed for white wines
    • Gris de Gris (still/non-sparkling only): Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, Carignan, and/or Cinsaut
    • Rouge/red (may be still or sparkling): minimum 70% Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache Noir, Merlot, Marselan, Syrah, and/or Petit Verdot; up to 30% Alicante Bouschet, Aubun, Carignan, and/or Tempranillo
    • Blanc/white (may be still or sparkling): minimum 70% Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Muscat à Petits Grains, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and/or Viognier; up to 30% Carignan Blanc, Colombard, and/or Rolle (Vermentino)

The Camargue is also known for its fleur de sel (salt). Salt has been harvested in the marshlands since the Middle Ages, when several religious orders (including the Benedictines and the Cistercians) settled in the area and established several “salt abbeys,” made wealthy through the extraction of salt.  The remains of one—the Benedictine Abbey of Psalmody—was declared a Monument Historique in 1984.

The black cattle of the area—Raço di Biòu—are spread over dozens of ranches and tended to by the gardians (herders). The bulls are the stars of the Course Camarguaise—a type of bloodless bullfight where the object of the raseteur is to grab a rosette from between the horns of the bull. The cattle are also bred for beef and the meat of the young bull—a protected product known as Taureau du Camargue AOC—is bright red, ultra-lean, tender, and meant to be consumed extra-rare.

Note of intrigue: France, it seems, is looking to promote the wines of the Sable de Camargue from PGI to PDO status. Witness the action taken on May 31, 2022, when France simultaneously submitted an application to the EU for a Sable de Camargue PDO and requested cancellation of the Sable de Camargue PGI. Who know how long this will take, and if it even ends up being successful, but we be watching for an update!

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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