Provence: Life through rose-tinted glasses at the domaine de Barbebelle
Everyday words turn into a love song. As I think of Madeleine tending to her blossoming rosé in the small village of Rognes, near Aix-en-Provence, the lyrics of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” drift into my mind. Having savored that pink, note-perfect melody in one of Provence’s oldest vineyards, I was touched by it.
There I was, wondering how I would describe its color, without forgetting its nuances; recall its lightness but also its intensity; emphasize its delicate, yet not insipid, character; and paint a picture of innocent pleasure. Because Provence rosé has so much to say. My giddy musings were interrupted by the sobering voice of my sat-nav: “You have arrived at your destination.”
“Barbebelle”: now there’s a setting fit for a Perrault fairytale. A destination that sounds like an invitation to escape. The very name (barbe is French for beard, belle means beautiful) conjures up a world of fantasy and wonder. The sun is setting, and the land seems to be awakening from a deep sleep. The trees form a mysterious path, the leaves whisper and rustle, the shadows lengthen and soften, and twinkling motes dance in the air. A breathtaking sight brings my ramblings to a halt: a solemn company is gathered royally before me. The vines fan out across an otherwise unbroken horizon. The shy, aspiring bunches still hesitate beneath the bright green leaves. As quietly as my 90-horsepower engine will allow, I continue on before these branches laden with promise.
A 1200-acre realm
At the end of the central driveway, stand two majestic walnut trees. Peering into one of the two fountains, I discover they are inhabited by large, orange-colored creatures. No doubt the result of some spell (later, I learn that they are in fact Koi Carp). As the impressive house comes into view, its shutters closed and ivy climbing its walls, I imagine a young woman appearing, longing to escape and fulfill her dreams. “Hello, I’m Madeleine”. I turn around to discover my hostess emerging, not from an ivory tower but from a black 4x4. With her blond hair, fine features, and eyes like the ocean, she reminds me of the heroines in the books I loved as a child. But Madeleine is dressed in dusty jeans and New Balance sneakers: she isn’t on her way home from the ball. “I’ve been up since 5am for bottling”. Barbebelle is a realm spanning some 300 hectares, 50 of them planted with vines. Madeleine inherited it from her mother, whom she lost at a young age. Raised by her father, she grew up amongst the vines and was given the freedom to choose her path. She left the land to study business, at which she excelled, before continuing her professional adventures for some years amongst the bright lights of Paris. Finally, of course, she decided to return.
Syrah and Grenache
As I listen to her story, I am holding on tightly to the back of the pick-up, and to the fairytale forming in my mind. It’s all there: her childhood, growing up without a mother, the departure, the adventures and eventual return, even the marriage to a young man with blue eyes, answering to the name of Valentin. Whilst the path of this tale runs smooth in my imagination, in real life I am being tormented by wicked stones that seem to be out to get me. “The chalky soil makes a difference to the land”, explains Madeleine, who is unperturbed by all the jolts. “You’ll be able to see the fruit set, it’s amazing”. I can taste my good fortune. “This is the best view of the vineyards”, she tells me when we finally come to a stop. I don’t dare tell her that it makes me thirsty.
As we make for the cellars, Madeleine educates me on the secrets of rosé. No maceration, just direct pressing to prevent transfer between the pulp and the skin. The must is clarified for 36 hours (this is the settling process), during which time the particles sink to the bottom of the vat. The juice is then fermented for 10 to 14 days. Next comes the combining of different grape varieties – in this case Syrah and Grenache - to create cuvées, or vintages. When Madeleine took over the estate, she changed the ranges and kept just one blend: the one that bears her name. Strawberry aromas have made way for citrus and on the label, a hipster with a floral beard now keeps a watchful eye over wine lovers. “We wanted to go for younger packaging that was more in touch with today’s trends”. Rosé is trendy, fashionable, cool, and according to the New York Times, “an invitation to relax”. And Barbebelle is trending in the US. Not just there, either: Madeleine’s hipster is a hit in Denmark, Canada and Belgium. 60% of Barbebelle’s production is exported.
Which according to my calculations, leaves 40% for me to enjoy. Speaking of which... As dusk falls, Madeleine allows me a taste of her magic. Orangey pink, with a little intensity, delicately delicious, her wine is an invitation to relax, a reason to rejoice, and a celebration of Provence. At last, I’m drinking life in rose-tinted glasses.