Enjoy wine in Provence

Wine-lovers will find nothing to whine about in the Provence region of France. The wines are magnifique and the tastings offered by vintners are part of the fun. After all, it’s not every day that you sip a glass of rose poured by someone whose family name has been on the label for two centuries.

Provence is the land of rich red wines and fresh, crisp, fruity roses – not like most of the insipid blush stuff found in the States. They’re a perfect match for the hot days and Mediterranean cuisine.

To make the most of a visit to a Provencal winery, keep in mind that vintners take their business very seriously. American wine tasting (like in Napa Valley or Washington’s wine regions) is generally informal, chatty and entrepreneurial – baseball caps and logo-branded golf shirts. Although Provencal vintners are welcoming and more easygoing than in other parts of France, it’s a more intense and wine-focused experience – without the distractions of the marketing at U.S. vineyards.

A tasting center represents many producers and has many wines, offering one-stop sipping. The superb La Maison des Vins Cotes de Provence, located halfway between Aix-en-Provence and Nice, has English-speaking staff and free tastings of up to 16 wines (www.caveaucp.fr). Drivers or cyclists can explore the Provencal countryside, stopping at mom-and-pop vineyards posting Degustation Gratuite (“Free Tasting”) signs.

Provencal vintners are happy to work with you – if they can figure out what you want. It’s a good idea to know what you like en francais. With just a few words, you’ll be able to easily communicate your preferences: dry (sec) or sweet (doux), light (leger) or full-bodied (robuste).

Consider when you’ll be drinking your wine. For reds, you’ll be asked if you want to taste a younger wine (that still needs maturing), or older wines, ready to drink now. (Whites and roses are always ready to drink.) The French like to sample younger wines and determine how they will taste in a few years, allowing them to buy at cheaper prices and stash them in their cellars. Americans want it now, for today’s picnic.

If you don’t buy, you may be asked to pay a minimal fee for the tasting (unless it’s promoted as being free). Vintners don’t expect to make a big sale, but they do hope you’ll buy a bottle or two to enjoy on your trip or at least take a souvenir label with you and look for their wines in wine shops when you get back home.

Custom regulations limit you to bringing back one liter (about one bottle) per traveler. You can usually even bring up to three or four bottles home if you declare it. Although you might have to pay a tariff, most customs officials will wave you through rather than go through the hassle of filling out the paperwork for a few extra bottles.

In many ways, it’s best to just enjoy the wine in France. It’s the quintessential travel experience: a jug of wine, a loaf of French bread, and your true amour beside you, picnicking in Provence.

Rick Steves of Edmonds (425-771-8303, www.ricksteves.com) is the author of 27 European travel guidebooks including “Europe Through the Back Door” (published by Avalon) and host of the public television series “Rick Steves Europe.” The new third season airs this week on KCTS (Channel 9), featuring the “Provence: Legendary Light, Wind and Wine” show. This week’s schedule:

Monday, 5 p.m.: Amsterdam and Holland

Tuesday, 5 p.m.: The Rhine and Mosel regions

Wednesday, 5 p.m.: Germany’s Romantic Road

Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.: Provence: Legendary Light, Wind and Wine

Thursday, 5 p.m.: Munich

Friday, 5 p.m.: Venice

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