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The Two Faces of Ventoux

by Roger Morris

In many ways, Ventoux is a state of mind as well as a re-emerging wine region.

Although it has a long history as a producer of Rhône Valley wines—it was especially prominent during the Avignon Papacy—Ventoux has mostly been somewhat quiet and relatively ignored in recent centuries.

Mount Ventoux is the Rhône’s most prominent landmark. Photo claud007 via Thinkstock.

Draped around the western and southern slopes and the foothills of the Rhône’s most prominent landmark, the towering Mount Ventoux, this wine region could be considered the Rhône Valley’s version of the Languedoc, but as Languedoc existed a generation ago. Even though their topographies are different, both regions share an air of wildness of terrain, a somewhat sparse population and a definite attitude of rebelliousness.

So it is not surprising that the winemakers of Ventoux, located east of Avignon, are proceeding along two very different tracks. One is to improve the quality of basic everyday wines and move up the organized ladder of recognition, as it did in 1953 when it was granted VDQS status as Côtes de Ventoux, and 20 years later received Ventoux AOC recognition in 1973.

The other track is the insurgent one, as a few of the top producers have taken their cue from Tuscany’s rebels from the last quarter of the previous century. Their path is to ignore Ventoux’s winemaking regulations to create what they are calling “Super Rhônes” but which are officially labeled IGT Vaucluse. Although Ventoux’s wines are considered to be Rhônes, administratively it is a part of the Vaucluse department and, like Luberon and Provence, is located within a different French administrative region from the rest of the Rhône Valley.

AOC Ventoux is a part of the Vaucluse department. Map via Wikimedia.

For winemakers, Ventoux is an attractive mix of Mediterranean and mountain climates, in some areas more like Provence, while in others more like Gigondas. Its 15,000 acres (about 6,000 hectares) of vines produce mainly red (60%) and rosé (36%) wines, with only 4% white. Total production is about 226,000 hectoliters or about 250,000 cases. About a third is sold outside France.

The area was covered by the sea in the Tertiary Period, resulting in a limestone base of Mount Ventoux, which is technically a part of the Alps. The three principal soil types are:
        red soils from the breakdown of the limestone,
        soils with a mixture of red clay and sand and
        ▪ detrital (fragmented) soils overlaid with pebbles and limestone debris.

Primary grape varieties for the reds and rosés are Grenache Noir, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Carignan. Secondary varieties, including those used for the whites, are Bourboulenc, Clairette, Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Marsellan, Picpoul Noir, Roussanne, Vermentino and Viognier. These may not exceed 20% of the blend, and Marsellan and Vermentino may not exceed10%.

Climate change seems to be working in the favor of Ventoux producers. “Twenty years ago, the weather was cooler and nothing ripened easily,” says James King, owner of Château Unang. “Now it’s warmed up, and the wines are better and easier to produce.” That’s also important to Frédéric Chaudière, a proprietor of Château Pesquié near Bedoin at the base of the mountain.

James King of Château Unang.

 “We’re located in the last area of Ventoux for grapes to ripen,” he says, “but the altitude and the cool weather aids in acidity and balance for our wines.” Chaudière notes that his vineyards trail those of Châteauneuf-du-Pape by two weeks in picking. Syrah is gradually become more important in the Grenache-dominant Southern Rhône, and Chaudière touts Ventoux as the best place to make it.

Ventoux wines first became known in the United States several years ago largely because one negociant, the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, started substituting Côtes de Ventoux wines in its familiar La Vieille Ferme brand of Côtes du Rhône.

Ventoux wines from Vidal-Fleury and La Vieille Ferme.

Anthony Cohen, Senior Brand Manager of French and European Estates Wines for Frederick Wildman & Sons, says he had previously handled a Ventoux, but it sold very little because the producer didn’t promote it. “With our recent addition of Vidal-Fleury, we are starting to focus on a wine from Ventoux appellation,” Cohen says, “a wine which, by the way, we all find very pleasant, delicious and an absolute value!”

“They fit into our Rhône portfolio as the entry level priced just below Côtes du Rhône,” he adds. “They are natural choices for wines by-the-glass and for retail promotion around $10 a bottle as ‘best buys.’”

Christophe Tassan is Wine Director at The Battery in San Francisco and also serves as an occasional wine ambassador for Ventoux wines. “Ventoux is still an affordable appellation that allows us to focus on the wine and not the ‘brand,’” Tassan says. “I would compare it to, in Burgundy, drinking a Saint Véran instead of a Meursault, or drinking a Gigondas instead of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhône.”

A Super Rhône Manifesto

But some of the high-quality, well-financed wineries in the region are rebelling against that restrictive view of the marketplace. Nicole Rolet, who was educated in the U.S. but has worked around the world as a banker, has become the face and voice of the Super Rhône movement as owner (with financier husband Xavier Rolet) of Chêne Bleu, a relatively new winery near Crestet in the mountains west of Mount Ventoux and at the northern edge of the appellation.

Rolet is quick to give credit to Eloi Dürrbach at Domaine de Trévallon in Provence, as well as Mas de Daumas Gassac and Granges des Pères, both in Languedoc, for pioneering work in making expensive wines that they declassified. But it is Rolet who has written what might be considered to be the Super Rhône Manifesto, following a recent Super Rhône tour to Asia. She posted it in February to the Chêne Bleu site.

“The purpose of the Super Rhône tour was to showcase the producers from the Rhône Valley,” she wrote, “who are not (or who are no longer) completely affiliated with the appellation system, at least not for their top wines, but who are nonetheless perceived as punching above their weight.”

The rationale, Rolet argues, is similar to the one that started the Super Tuscan movement several decades ago: “[The] mismatch between terroir and appellation, more frequent in the South of France than in carefully thought-through and delineated areas such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, has frustrated certain winemakers, convinced, for objective and/or subjective reasons, that their terroir is best suited for other things in terms of quality or style. It has led a handful or two of us to take matters into our own hands and step out of the appellation when we feel our whole vineyard, single plot or individual cuvée would benefit.”

Rolet cites a personal example. “In the case of Héloise [a red blend that sells in the U.S. for $95], things came to a head early on with our decision to include a splash of Viognier in the blend, as in Côte-Rôtie, despite that it’s not allowed in any of the appellations on, or contiguous to, our property,” she writes.

“There was just no question that [it] made a better wine: more fragrant, more complex aromatically, and benefitting from nice lift from that elegant, intoxicating hint of perfume that one associates with Northern Rhône, Condrieu-style Viognier,” Rolet contends. “That empirical epiphany, rather than an ideological stance, was the evidence that put us at a fork in the road and led us to leave the appellation.”

Chêne Bleu wines carry the IGT Vaucluse appellation.

Rolet’s Chêne Bleu wines, imported by Wilson Daniels, now carry the IGT Vaucluse appellation on their labels, although it remains located within the Ventoux appellation.

Tassan and other appellation proponents, while recognizing the quality and economic arguments, are opposed to the Super Rhône movement. “I’m not in favor of it,” he says, “because they are selling the wine, not the appellation.”

A similar occurrence is taking place in the northern Rhône at Seyssuel, not yet formally recognized, where winemakers, chiefly from Côte Rotie, are producing high-priced wines under the IGP Collines Rhodaniennes label in accordance with Rhône regulations. However, they plan to go through the lockstep progression of getting recognition, first as a simple Rhône village and then working up the appellation ladder.

It could be argued that the Ventoux winemakers who see themselves as Super Rhône producers will, if they continue to be successful artistically and commercially, actually draw more attention to Ventoux rather than detract from it. “See,” they can say, “great Rhône wines can be made here, and consumers are buying them.”

This would also be in keeping with what happened with Super Tuscans. The various appellations of Chianti really didn’t suffer in the long run from the breakaway, and there is no doubt that the Super Tuscans being made in the province’s once-sleepy Maremma region raised its standing in the wine world.

Perhaps somewhere in the mists of Mount Ventoux, Janus, a god in this once-Roman outpost, is still dwelling, looking both into the past and the future of this ancient wine region.

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