Soil, sun and soul:
the collective memory of a label
- Susanna Danieli
So last week we went to Provence.
As you known, Unisg study trips are not just about tourism: in fact they are not touristic at all. Instead, they are an extraordinary opportunity to get in touch with a different culture, letting students to merge with the local dimension of food productions, agricultural practices, traditions and values of a given place. For us, to know is to participate: that’s why we spend a lot of time tasting food and drinks, meeting local people and sharing our experiences and beliefs. Before going, we always study a bit about our destination and, more often than not, we may have our own prejudices: for sure we have expectations and this time for me, for us, the trip to Provence has been pretty surprising. I mean, we expected the clear houses with pastel-colored doors and windows (checked ✓), the extremely slow-cooked bouillabaisse (checked ✓), the wind Mistral blowing us away (literally, checked ✓) and many other features of the French region synonymous with Mediterranean bien-être.
What we really didn’t expect was a trip almost entirely focused on wine, with the support of producers, technicians and even a geologist who showed us the peculiarity of different terroirs: who knew there was such a lot to learn? Let’s set the context: Provence is the southeastern region of France, it is partially surrounded by the Alps in the north while facing the sea in the south. Climate is Mediterranean but the presence of the mountains ensures a good temperature excursion.
Generally speaking, Provençal wine features two main elements which are very unusual for us coming from Italy: first, the great majority of production consists of rosé; second, the wine, even in its white and red versions, nearly always results from a blend of grapes or wines.
This is more or less the premise of this story: as you’ve been knowing me from some time, you may have noticed that I prefer to talk about the exception rather than the majority; I like to tell anecdotes in a personal perspective and it would be really difficult for me to describe a situation I didn’t physically experience. That said, I would like to point out that this time the story will be not only personal but collective: since I have the feeling that we, as a group, shared the same thoughts and expectations. From this moment on what you will read will be an extraction of our common perception about a particular moment of our trip.
Back to the story: the very first day we were taken aback by the technical nature of Provençal wine. At that moment we were visiting the AOC Bandol, which comprises 8 communes and whose reds and rosés are characterized by a blend with prevalence of mourvèdre (R), usually followed by different percentages of grénache (R), cinsault (R), clairette (W) and ugni blanc (W). The climate and terroir are absolutely unique: given the powerful blow of mistral, the vines are shaped in the form of gobelet, a kind of short and knobby stump; the soil mainly consists of clay and limestone, providing structure and freshness to the wine. The landscape is simply breathtaking: imagine being surrounded by the blue of the sea, always visible in the distance, the green of aromatic herbs and olive trees , the yellow of dandelions and the red of the soil.
That day we had already visited two wineries, already drank a lot of good but not outstanding (should I say forgettable?) wine and well, to be honest we were looking forward to dinner. “Just a quick hello and we go” was what Maddalena, our tutor, told us before approaching Domaine de La Tour du Bon, our last visit of the day. That quick hello lasted about two hours.
Domaine de la Tour du Bon takes its name after a tower that used to be nearby in the past. The winery is located near Le Castellet, an enchanting village on top of a hill and one of Bandol lieux-dits. The owner is Agnès Henri: how to describe her? Let’s try with labels, since a label is actually going to be our object of analysis: woman, vigneron, farmer, philosopher, dreamer. She nurtures her vines as she would nurture a son: there is no use of synthetic products and everything is natural, dancing and evolving according to its own rhythm, following the moon, the sun, the wind. The regime in the vineyard is biodynamic, while it is up to the grapes to decide their evolution in the cellar. No rush, she says. Indeed, since time magically passed by while we were there.
Why the label? As we were coming from multiple tastings of various blends (remember the peculiarity of Provençal wines), our attention was captured by Agnès’ most iconic product, En-Sol. It is a red consisting of 100% mourvèdre and for this reason it cannot be included in the AOC. It comes from the single plot “L’Ensoleillade”, set on clay soil: we find clay again in the second step, since it ferments in tinajas (amphoras produced in Spain) for at least six months, whenever it’s ready. The label tells a story on its own: En-Sol represents the link between the sky and the earth, being Sol both “soil” and “sun” (soleil in French). The dash between the words does more than merely connecting them: it is actually a sign featured in the Gregorian music, representing a sigh, hence a breath. This breath means life, in this case a soul – again the label guides us on the semiotic and evocative level – but which one? The grapes, molded by the action of air and sun, become alive, grow and transform into wine, which in turn intertwines with us and becomes something else again: the soul of the grape becomes our own.
For sure Agnès gave us material to reflect upon but most importantly she let us taste something (finally!) outstanding and unforgettable. A wine simple in the making, honest in its single-variety expression, consistent in the mouth. Clay is present both in the smell and taste, giving a touch of earthy and mineral complexity to extremely pleasant notes of cherry and pomegranate. En-Sol conveys love and brings to life, literally: suddenly fifteen people, fed up with a long day of gulped-down rosés, cheered up and let themselves be guided by the magic of Agnès’ words, their souls connected to all the elements that made this wine possible.
This was for sure one of the most interesting tasting we had. Want to know more?
Check out our Instagram account soigne_en_provence: meet all the producers,
read their stories and plan your next trip to Provence!
Photos by Andrea Boccardo, Ruth Von Strauss, Susanna Danieli