No matter where you travel in the south of France, the fantastic undergrowth is omnipresent along winding small roads, in gardens and bordering plantations of all kinds. The mix of boxwood, lavender, Aleppo pine, rosemary, thyme, stone oak and sage among other species give rise to the seductively alluring and wonderfully herbal perfume of the region. This flora can be found almost everywhere where it is dry, where the soil is rich in lime and where it is warm enough all year round for this type of herbaceous, evergreen vegetation to survive. Above all it is in southern France we see this aromatic companion along each and every winding village road, but also in Majorca and along the coasts of north-eastern Spain and north-western Italy we can find this particular group of herbs and shrubs. But in the south of France, the bouquet is at its most fragrant, and here it goes by the name garrigue.
Thanks to, or because of, the oily leaves of these plants falling to the ground, nothing else grows on this earth; resulting then in the typical landscape with sandy paths between bushes and tufts of the tough-skinned plants. The oils penetrate so far down into the soil that the roots of vines nearby pick up the aromas the plants leave behind, a phenomenon that later manifests in the finished wine!
The French word "garrigue" appears in written form for the first time in 1546 but has appeared in various dialects and languages for a long time, as the sweeping term describes a type of vegetation that likes to grow among stones and rocks. The word itself is believed to be borrowed from the Provençal "garriga", which is synonymous with the older French "jarrie". The etymology further points back to the pre-Roman term "karrıka" from the Iberian Peninsula, which then gave rise to the Gascon word "carroc", which means rock or rock, and the Swiss "karren", which refers to a type of sedimentary rock. But regardless of origin, the name garrigue today refers to this type of beautifully scented vegetation that prefers stony, alkaline soil. Similar vegetation types can be found in Mexico and California under the name "chaparral", and in South Africa as "fynbos".
Back now to the south of France! In the regional cuisine, the spices used are predominately those offered freely by Mother Nature herself, which has led to French gastronomy fully embracing the concept of garrigue. A so-called "bouquet garni" is often used as a base in broths, soups and stews: a mix of fresh herbs are enclosed in a bag made of gauze which is then infused into the bouillon, here along the north-west coast of the Mediterranean rosemary, thyme, sage and laurel are most commonly used. Classic dishes such as rillette, ratatouille, bouillabaisse and ragout de lapin all contain garrigue and are staples on any southern French menu!
When it comes to wine, some producers have chosen to even advertise its presence with "garrigue" printed on the label; partly to point to what the consumer can expect in terms of taste, but also to map out where the wine comes from: from one of the wine-producing appellations of southern France.
But what is it really that make some wines remind you of a stroll in a spice garden or carry notes of an herbal rillette?
As we wrote about in a previous article about aroma and taste, esters are in charge of the aroma spectrum of a wine, and factors such as climate, soil, plant location and grape variety etc. determine what the wine will ultimately smell and taste like. Grenache and Syrah, two grape varieties that are cultivated extensively in this area, can generally be said to have a spiciness in their basic palette, and if we add to this the growing conditions found in the region: the oils that penetrate into the soil and are soaked up via the roots, the esters that make us perceive garrigue in both nose and mouth are propagated and hence come to expression in the finished wines.
A recommendation we always give when it comes to the combination of food and wine is to find out where the food comes from and what locals choose to drink alongside it. A region's wine styles are rarely sprung completely from the thin air but are usually based on locally rooted flavors and preferences; the tradition of winemaking historically began on a small scale for self-consumption. A ratatouille with butter-roasted duck breast pairs wonderfully with a Côtes-du-Rhône, or why not try a bouillabaisse together with a Clairette or Grenache Blanc.
Go forth and dare to experiment!
Video - Garrigue