Whether a Grenache blend from Châteauneuf–du-Pape, a Bandol Mourvédre or a rosé from Pic Saint-Loup, classic wines from the Southern Rhône, Provence or Languedoc are often described as having notes of garrigue.
In wine, the term garrigue suggests distinctly herbaceous, peppery or smoky tones reminiscent of the low-lying vegetation that grows wild in sun-scorched limestone soils along the Mediterranean, particularly the South of France.
Rather than a single plant or scent, garrigue refers to a variety of aromatic, resinous herbs like rosemary, sage, bay leaves and thyme. It also includes shrubs like juniper and artemisia as well as lavender and mint.
Throughout Southern France and especially in its vineyards, the heady perfume of garrigue permeates the air. It’s a scent familiar to anyone who’s opened a fresh jar of herbes de Provence.
Garrigue is a classic example of terroir, the notion that aromas and flavors in wine are influenced by the environment in which wine is produced. More than just a romantic idea, it’s increasingly believed to be a matter of organic chemistry. The scents we identify to garrigue can be attributed to aromatic compounds found in both plants and wine called terpenes. Alpha-pinene, the terpene most associated with garrigue, is linked to coniferous plants like pine trees, but also juniper, rosemary, sage, lavender and other plants common to Mediterranean climates.
Alpha-pinenes are highly volatile aromatic compounds that can become airborne, transferring from vegetation onto the waxy surface of grapes growing nearby. Fermentation and maceration of the grapes during red and sometime rosé winemaking allows alcohol to extract aroma compounds from the grape skins and into the wine.
Aromatic compounds can also be transferred directly into wine from pieces of vegetation that are harvested alongside grapes and unintentionally incorporated into winemaking.
While the term garrigue is used most specifically for wines originating from the limestone soils of Southern France, is it a mistake, then, to identify notes of garrigue in a Nero d’Avola from Sicily or a Carmenère from Chile? Absolutely not! Those spicy, peppery aromas of wild herbs and underbrush can be found in wines from around the world.
Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, similar vegetation is known as garig in Croatia, maquis in Corsica or macchia in Italy. In regions of the New World with similarly arid Mediterranean climates, garrigue-like notes are associated with wines from California (where it’s known as chapparal), Chile (matorral), South Africa (fynbos) or Australia (mallee).