Two former Côtes-de-Rhône Villages have been granted their own appellations. John Livingstone-Learmonth looks at what makes them so special

The promotion of Beaumes-de-Venise and Vinsobres to stand-alone appellation status is the first such event in the Rhône since Vacqueyras in 1990. But the first vintage, 2004, hits the market at a time when even well-known Châteauneuf domaines are struggling to sell all their wine. So what are the prospects for the new boys?

The two newcomers bring a different shape to the Southern Rhône reds line-up. Lirac is led by forward fruit and often rounded textures. Gigondas is a muscled wine, often very dense, but sometimes elegant when largely composed of Grenache from the older zones. Vacqueyras is full and peppery, with a hot blast of the stony plateau to drive it along. Châteauneuf is the king for elegance and fleshy, warm appeal, backed up by thorough, sustained flavours.

Both new crus are from a more reserved and, for Beaumes, upright school, their character less immediately obvious and less punchy than the other wines. Their composition is determined by altitude and local climate. At Beaumes, the red grape vineyards are spread across four communes, and total around 550ha (hectares). These stand in rugged country, mostly out of sight of the main Rhône corridor, skewed behind the Dentelles de Montmirails above Gigondas. The only vegetation beyond the vine is scrub or olives. Curiously, the commune with the fewest red grape vineyards is Beaumes itself, as most of its Muscat grows there.

In any tasting of neighbouring Rhône Village wines, Beaumes would stand out for its leathery, sinewed textures, and a fine-boned thread through the wine, meaning it can require two to three years to emerge into a rounder shape. The 2003 vintage was a rare occasion when the wines from fresh, high-altitude vineyards achieved more heart and richness. Beaumes-de-Venise is thus an appellation where hot summers can be helpful.

The villages of Lafare, Suzette and La Roque Alric are the main contributors to the Beaumes red, their soil also distinct from the main plain area. The Dentelles formation is based on limestone, its influence making the wines robust. This is very evident with the ochre-coloured Trias soil near Suzette, from where the wines can be high in alcohol. As well as limestone, which is up to 25%, clay is the other important factor.

The highest vineyards stand at around 500m at Suzette, where several domaines have started up in the past 25 years – Etienne de Menthon at Château Redortier led the way in 1981 after leaving the cooperative, with the Wallut family moving into the highest estate, Domaine St-Amant, in 1993. Jacques Wallut finds the altitude helps to enrich the aromas in his wines, and frees him from treatments in the vineyards: ‘up here, we don’t have the same amount of bugs as they do lower down,’ he says.

Most growers circle around the 65% Grenache, 35% Syrah combination, although de Menthon also works with some Counoise that he planted in the mid-1950s. ‘With its thick skin, it is well suited to late picking and also handles drought well,’ he observes. Its pepperiness adds extra kick to the high altitude wines.

Much of the Beaumes red is vat-raised for around a year, with the recent development of oak casks for both fermentation and raising the wine. St-Amant uses these, while Redortier casks the Syrah for four months. The coop also oaks certain more expensive cuvées.

Beaumes is dominated by its cooperative, which makes 70% of the wine. This has re-branded itself recently, opting for the frankly obscure name, Balma Venitia – another sign of the desperation coops feel in the face of a rising wine lake. Balma Venitia offers several different wines, with location a deciding factor – the best two, the Terres de Trias and the Terres des Farisiens, coming from Suzette and Lafare respectively. Both these wines are hunky and full-on, the Trias weighing in at times around the 16% mark.

The leading names among the 15 or so domaines already have footholds in export markets, with Domaine de Cassan and Château Redortier also known for their Gigondas, as is the case with

Jean-Pierre Cartier at Domaine Les Goubert. Both the first two have high-altitude, late-ripening vineyards, and their wines take a year or two to integrate.

From the Muscat de Beaumes corner come three of its practitioners, Domaine de Durban, Domaine de Fenouillet and Domaine des Bernardins. Durban’s old vines cuvée is a good, meaty wine – a shade fuller than some of its peers. The high-altitude, limestone-based Terres Blanches of Fenouillet is punchy, with its sinewed, leathery start followed by a softer black fruit finish. The Bernardins is also a Grenache-dominated wine, with an easy, approachable style.

2005 Beaumes-de-Venise reds are more dense and complete than the 2004s, a refrain from all over the southern Rhône. Chunky, hunky wines, they show good Grenache depth, and are less ‘airy’ than the peppery, sinuous 2004s, with flavours such as chocolate even in evidence.

Vinsobres is a relatively younger set-up than Beaumes. Bulk sales still form a regular part of many domaines’ activity, and the Nyons region’s olive heritage is strong. The Château de Rouanne, for example, was mainly an olive estate from the 1960s onwards, and its first bottling was as recent as 1998. Few producers export. With domestic French sales a struggle, domaines such as the very competent Le Puy de Maupas run bed and breakfast rooms as well.

The switch to cru demanded some precise delineation of the vineyards, with the main clay-marne, sticky poudingue soil of the south-facing slope of Les Côtes and the clay-chalk plateau above favoured. Lower land and that near St-Maurice in the west was moved down to Villages or Côtes du Rhône status. In all, about a third of the vineyard was ruled out. The valley of the Aigues is north of Mont Ventoux, and is cooled by a local wind, Le Pontias, named after the pre-Alpine mountain near Nyons. This funnels through a narrow gap between two mountains and blows for around four hours after sunrise on days when there is no Mistral. The effect is to dry morning dew, and to protect against frost. In turn, less spraying is needed, and acidity in the grapes is given a helping hand beyond the effect of the altitude. The Pontias tapers and peters out before St-Maurice.

The village stands at 280m, and the cru vineyards are in four zones: the lower part of terracing near the road from Bollène to Nyons; the prime south-facing slope that runs mostly to the west of the village; the dips and hollows area called Les Collines towards Nyons; and lastly, the generally flat and stony plateau above the village. Here, the highest vineyards are those of the Jaume family at 470m; the oldest vineyards date only from the early 1980s.

Another local feature is the woods, which cover about a quarter of the commune’s surface. With lavender, apricots, olives and some truffle oaks thrown in, there is a mixed ecosystem, with the bonus of some shelter and protection against erosion.

By the rules, the red Vinsobres must contain a minimum of 50% Grenache, and 25% Syrah and/or Mourvèdre. With its fresh local climate and its altitude, Vinsobres attracts outside Syrah hunters. Jean-Louis Chave of Hermitage buys some of the Syrah for his Côtes du Rhône Mon Coeur wine at Vinsobres, and says: ‘I call Vinsobres the north of the south. The plateau holds Syrah that can be cropped quite late and ripe, so you avoid the rather coarse ‘Syrah of the south’ aspect, and achieve a finer, more elegant wine without a clumsy over-ripeness.’

Most domaines make three to five cuvées to appeal to different tastes – from fruit-forward up to casked, keeping wines. The first word in the publicity slogan is ‘elegant’, and it is hard to argue with that. 2004 was a vintage that showed a series of very precise wines, carrying a clear set of fruit, acidity and tannin. Red fruits lay at their heart, and the tannins were less robust than at neighbours such as Rasteau and Cairanne. In the bigger 2005 vintage, the fruit sensation shifted towards darker, black berries, and more alcohol and a meatier tone were also apparent. The local cool texture still came through, with clear-cut finishes in many of the wines.

Prominent domaines include Chaume-Arnaud, the Cave Jaume, Domaine du Moulin, Domaine du Coriançon, the Château de Rouanne and the Perrin family’s Bicarelle estate. The first two are known overseas, the Jaumes having started in the 1970s. The most traditional, what I call STGT (Soil to Glass Transfer) domaine of the group is Denis Vinson’s Domaine du Moulin. The unhurried winemaking here brings wines of an earthy appeal, with refined fruit textures. Grenache and Syrah are relied on, whereas the Jaume brothers follow a more recent style in their half Grenache, half mid-1960s Mourvèdre Clos des Echelas; this is raised in new oak and Pascal Jaume acknowledges that the 2001 took about four years to come together.

The core producer is, of course, the coop, La Vinsobraise. This is well run, with a bright oenologist-winemaker Sébastien Fraychet moving the wines to greater elegance, even if they have been micro-oxygenated since as far back as 1998. The coop is changing the names of its wines, but the Emeraude, formerly the Terra Rustica, is a good, consistent Grenache-Syrah wine that receives a year in oak. It also makes a pure Syrah from mid-1970s vines: the Cuvée Therapius is raised for eight months in new oak.

Beaumes-de-Venise Fact Box

550 hectares

Red wine: full appellation cru

Basic Yield: 38 hl/ha

Production red wine: 18–20,000 hl a year

White wine: Côtes du Rhône

Rosé wine: Côtes du Rhône

Coopérative de Beaumes-de-Venise: 70% of production

15 private domaines: 30% of production

LEADING BEAUMES-de-VENISE DOMAINES

Domaine de Cassan

Gérard Paillet is an ex marine engineer drawn into winemaking through his wife Marie-Odile Croset’s family. Cassan is at the top of the Dentelles mountains, and its 17ha of Beaumes-de-Venise are high up. The classic red Cuvée Tradition used to be a more extracted, robust wine, but is now showing good Grenache virtues – ‘I’ve moved towards wines expressing more fruit and finesse,’ he says. 80% Grenache, 18% Syrah and 2% Mourvèdre, it is vat-raised for a year.

This is good, benchmark Beaumes, that drinks very well around three to six years old. Cassan is an STGT domaine in principle. Stockists: Ame, BFV, Sat, Swg

Château Redortier

Etienne de Menthon, son of a French politician, set up this estate in 1956 in then lonely terrain 350m up the free-draining hills at Suzette. His 25ha of Beaumes are at the northern end of the appellation, and harvesting is later than most. The red is 60% Grenache, 35% Syrah and 5% Counoise and Carignan. It is vat-raised for two years, and the aim is for harmonious wines – ‘we don’t like heavy wines,’ he says. The typical Redortier style is a wine of sinew, with leather and prune, although 2003’s mulberry-plum jam flavours were round and appealing. It is a genuine, carefully made wine, its restraint in keeping with the outlook of the owner and his daughters Isabelle and Sabine. Ageing up to around eight years is possible. Stockist: Rbs

Domaine de Fenouillet Brothers

Patrick and Vincent Soard work 8ha of Beaumes-de-Venise, along with Muscat and Côtes du Ventoux. Their Terres Blanches red is taken from the limestone-influenced terraces of Suzette at 300m, meaning cropping can often run into early October. 60% Grenache, 25% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre, it is vat-raised for two years. Its character is defined by its soil and location, with a sometimes heady, black stone fruit core with plenty of live tannic trimming. It needs about three years to integrate so its fruit is expressed in a shapely way. Stockist: Bib

Domaine de Beaumalric

When Isabelle and Daniel Begouaussel married, she contributed Muscat vines, he Grenache and Syrah. The domaine’s 6ha of Beaumes red are at La Roque Alric, which ripens quite early. The red is 75% 1960s Grenache, 25% Syrah, and is vinified to obtain a maximum of fruit for a wine that can be drunk young. The Syrah influence comes through, its tannins softened by some oxygenation right after its fermentation. In a crisp vintage such as 2004, this carries very clear fruit. The 2005 shows plenty of ripe promise, and can drink well over 6–8 years. With its supple style, the Beaumalric red goes well with white meats rather than sauced or peppered dishes. There is a sound Muscat as well. Stockist: Ell

LEADING VINSOBRES DOMAINES

Domaine du Moulin

For its classic Vinsobres, this is a prototype STGT domaine. Denis Vinson’s Vinsobres vineyard was cut from 20ha to 15ha with the new appellation zone. His wines are traditionally and softly made, with the Vieilles Vignes Jean Vinson composed of 70% Grenache, 30% Syrah that are over 30 years old. Raised for 12 months in used casks, this delivers warm plum fruit flavours, and a good earthy kick. The crop has been crushed less since 2004, and this is a domaine to follow. The mainly Syrah Cuvée Charles Joseph is broad, savoury and new oak-tinged, while there is also a good 60% Viognier, 40% Clairette white.

N/A UK; +33 4 75 27 65 59

Domaine Jaume

Claude and Nicole Jaume were pacesetters when I first met them in 1973, with a commitment to careful winemaking and an emphasis on decisive fruit that took many local domaines decades to achieve. Sons Pascal and Richard have continued the good work on their 70ha domaine. The range of wines is accomplished, the 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah Altitude 420 carrying stylish red fruits in a clean manner. The Clos des Echelas, half Grenache, half Mourvèdre, handles the new oak if given time – after four years it settles into a firm, black-fruited, peppery ensemble. The Référence red (50% Syrah, 40% Grenache, 10% Mourvèdre) comes from the Les Côtes slope, and is led by red fruits and sound tannic support with some oak hints. All the wines here last. Stockist: WSo

Domaine

Chaume-Arnaud

Valérie Arnaud started on the 24ha family domaine in 1987. Her father had been a coopérateur, and her first cellar equipment was very basic – ‘only what was strictly necessary’. With the cellar just as she wants it from 1999, the wines are more tender and less extracted than they used to be. The 2005, from 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 20% Cinsault/Mourvèdre/1930s Carignan, promises to be a cracking wine. It will be vat-raised for two years, following Valérie’s belief that her wines require two winters to come together. Husband Philippe is now vinifying the wine with her, and the domaine is due to hold organic status from 2007. Stockist: BBR

wines to try

n Domaine de Cassan,

Cuvée Tradition, Beaumes-de-Venise 2004 ????

Mineral, herbal aromas. Clear-cut blackberry flavour, good life in the fruit. Good example of local tannins, and end richness. 2007–15.

£7.90–8.95; Ame, BFV, Sat, Swg

n Domaine des Garances, Cuvée La Treille, Beaumes-de-Venise 2004 ????

This has a local feel, blackberry flavour with peppery tannins. Harmonious. 2008–15.

N/A UK; +33 4 90 65 07 91

n Balma Venitia, Terres du Trias, Beaumes-de-Venise 2005 ???

Vat sample: earthy, black fruit aroma, its fruit mixes a sleek veneer with core power. From 2008. N/A UK; +33 4 90 12 41 00

n Château Redortier, Beaumes-de-Venise 2004 ???

Spice, red jam aroma. Clear fruit on palate, holds a round shape and some late richness, tannins are ripe. Mid-2007–15. £10; Rbs

n Domaine de Durban, Cuvée Prestige, Beaumes-de-Venise 2004 ???

Raspberry/mint, understated bouquet. Soft texture until tannins appear on cue; tar aftertaste, good length. Up to 2010. N/A UK; +33 4 90 62 95 61

n Domaine de Fenouillet,

Terres Blanches, Beaumes-de-Venise 2004 ???

Brewed bouquet, is potent and shows raisin, simmered fruits. Prune flavours round out with a few hours’ air. Liquorice, leathery finale. From 2007. N/A UK; +33 4 90 62 95 61

n Cave La Vinsobraise, Vinsobres Emeraude 2004 ????

Blackcurrant, raspberry jam aroma. Some richness and width towards finish, fruit is well set, lasts well. Sleek texture. 2007–14.

N/A UK; +33 4 75 27 01 20

n Domaine du Coriançon, Vinsobres 2004 ???

Coffee, brewed and nicely wild set of aromas. Solid red fruits attack, then mineral-peppery finale. Good punch in this, and sound richness too. From 2007. N/A UK; +33 4 75 26 03 24

n Domaine du Moulin, Jean Vinson, Vieilles Vignes, Vinsobres 2004 ????

Lurking red fruit aroma, a little meatiness. Wide, structured and cleanly styled wine. 2007–13.

N/A UK; +33 4 75 27 65 59

n Domaine Jaume, Altitude 420, Vinsobres 2005 ????

Full, tea/black fruits aroma. Juicy, prune flavour on attack, tannins prominent but rounded, leather/mineral finish. Proper structure.

2008–18. N/A UK; +33 4 75 27 61 01

n Domaine Peysson, Vinsobres 2004 ????

Peppered red fruits aroma, clean-cut fruit. Nice chewy finish, length good, modern style. Up to 2011–12. N/A UK; +33 4 75 27 67 33

n Perrin et Fils, Les Hauts de Julien, Vinsobres 2004 ????

Cool, cherry/milk chocolate aroma. Oak restrains the palate’s red fruits, but interior is quite rich. Good potential. 2008–15. £22.95 (2003); Ave

For a full list of UK stockists, see p115.

John Livingstone-Learmonth is the author of The Wines of the Rhône (£7.99, Mitchell Beazley)

Written by John Livingstone-Learmonth