Regional profile: Ventoux
With its mountain vineyards and long winemaking history, this large appellation is now home to experimental producers who are leading a Rhône revolution. Matt Walls takes us on a tour
This under-the-radar Rhône region is bubbling with potential, says Matt Walls
AT ThE END of a meal with wine-loving friends, do you ever play that game? You know: ‘If you could make wine anywhere in the world, where would it be?’ Of course you do. We all do. My answer (well my current answer) is Ventoux.
I would choose this mountainous area 30km to the east of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for a multitude of reasons. For a start, land is some of the cheapest in the region. The wines of Ventoux are identifiably Rhône in style, but with a distinctive lifted freshness. You can successfully make red, white or rosé. You can experiment here – it’s not so well known that you’d feel yourself forced into making a ‘classic’ style for fear of being unable to sell it. And there are pockets of outstanding terroir ripe for discovery.
A handful of prospectors recognised this 20 years ago and had the courage to take the plunge. Today, they’re responsible for making Ventoux the most exciting appellation in the Rhône Valley. In the words of Sébastien Vincenti of Domaine de Fondrèche: ‘The revolution is coming!’
From co-ops to domaines
Ventoux hasn’t always been quite so thrilling. Much of it still isn’t. In fact, only 20 years ago, ‘Ventoux’ was synonymous with ‘insipid’.
But winemaking in Ventoux goes back much further than that – more than 2,000 years further, with winemaking in the region traced back to 100 BC. It remained an important industry through the Middle Ages. The first mention of Château Unang ( below)
was in 867 AD when the local landowner presented the ‘Unango’ estate – its woods, fields, vines and slaves – to the bishop of the nearby town of Venasque.
During the last century, as in much of the Rhône, mixed farming was widespread. Alongside cherries and olives, farmers grew grapes and delivered them to the local cooperatives. But the climate in this corner of the Rhône was relatively cool, making it difficult to ripen red grapes reliably, particularly at high yields. So Ventoux gained a reputation for thin, light wines that kept prices low and progress slow.
It was only in the 1990s that a handful of winemakers began to see the potential, and in response, certain co-ops and their growers began to raise their game.
The Giant of Provence
The hulking Mont Ventoux, the ‘Giant of Provence’, rises to a height of 1,912m. It’s best known for destroying cyclists during the annual Tour de France, but it can be kind too – particularly to vines. The Ventoux appellation is one of the biggest in France, nearly 6,000ha of vines spreading far into the plains. But the best wines come from the slopes, a patchwork of limestone, sand, clay, marl and gravelly scree.
There are two main parts to the appellation. The northern part is a vast bowl surrounded by mountains on three sides: the Dentelles de Montmirail to the north, Mont Ventoux to the east and the mountains of the Vaucluse to the south. The warmer, flatter, southern section lies to the south of Mont Ventoux in the Luberon Valley.
The foothills of Mont Ventoux help to lift vineyards out of the heat of the valley floor,
the highest rising to an altitude of 700m. Vincenti at Fondrèche explains that although heat builds during the day, cold air flows down the mountain at night, which cools the vines, and this temperature differential contributes to the telltale aromatic freshness and high acidity in Ventoux wines.
The cooler climate isn’t always beneficial. In 2017, nearby Château Pesquié lost 60% of its grapes due to frost. ‘It’s the first time that’s happened,’ says co-owner Fred Chaudière. ‘It’s a new way to show that we’re cooler than the rest – but not our favourite way!’
Grape varieties in Ventoux are classic Rhône, and although Grenache makes up the bulk of red plantings, Syrah is notably successful here. It produces sleek wines with clean lines, somewhere between northern and southern Rhône in style. Rosé accounts for one third of production and can be very good, particularly when made with Cinsault.
Thanks to the innate freshness and acidity in the wines, I can’t help but think Ventoux should make more exceptional whites. There are several stand-out examples, but currently the results are qualitatively and stylistically inconsistent. The best exponents, such as St Jean du Barroux, Clos de Trias, Domaine Vintur and Château Pesquié, however, demonstrate the huge potential.
‘Ventoux is going through quite a revolution,’ says Even Bakke at Clos de Trias, and he’s not just talking about his uncompromising wines. But what has changed? There are several aspects, but according to James King of Château Unang the most important factor is the gradually warming climate. ‘Now nature is on our side,’ he says. And as wine lovers around the world begin to favour freshness and drinkability over power and scale, Ventoux wines naturally fit the brief.
The region’s close links to co-ops has proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it hasn’t encouraged meticulous wine-growing, meaning Ventoux has been late to discover its true potential. But this has kept land prices low, leading to an influx of ambitious outsider winemakers with vision but little capital. James and Joanna King at Unang are Scottish, Bakke at Clos de Trias is Norwegian-American, Graham Shore at Domaine Vintur is English. Philippe Gimel at St Jean du Barroux was a pharmacist in Lorraine before he devoted himself to wine. ‘Sometimes it’s only when you come from outside that you realise how great somewhere can be,’ he says. ‘And when you change your life, you want to produce something great.’
The Ventoux revolution
In an appellation as extensive and varied as this, not all the output is equally exciting. The name Ventoux in itself is not a guarantee of quality. A further classification of the terroir into smaller plots would make sense, but don’t expect it any time soon. In the meantime, small domaines are uncovering pockets of exceptional potential and joining the band of dynamic, headstrong and creative new estates that have made Ventoux the Swartland of the Rhône. So, I have to disagree with Vincenti. The revolution isn’t coming – it’s here.
Below: Château Pesquié’s entrance
Matt Walls is a contributing editor for Decanter and Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for the Rhône Below: Ventoux vineyards rise up the flanks of the Dentelles mountain range