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

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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.

Stars align

‘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

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