Vacqueyras is the Rhône’s newest appellation. With 97% red wine production, and a style similar to Gigondas next door, it is home to many good-value wines, says JAMES LAWTHER MW

VACQUEYRAS is the most recent of the Rhône’s crus, promoted from Côtes du Rhône Villages to full appellation status in 1990. Essentially a red wine region – although white and rosé are also permitted by decree – Vacqueyras was considered to have a recognised quality of wine, uniformity of good terroir and enough producers bottling to make the leap to a higher grade. If early vintages as a cru were a little indifferent, Vacqueyras, like much of the Rhône, has moved on and is now producing some seriously interesting wines at still reasonable prices.

Sitting in the shadow of the Dentelles de Montmirail in the southern Rhône, Vacqueyras rubs shoulders with another former Villages, Gigondas. The two have plenty in common: a rich, warm, full-bodied generosity in the wines, Grenache as the dominant grape variety, a Mediterranean climate and a similar geological composition. Both have greater weight and concentration than regular Côtes du Rhône Villages, with Gigondas adding an extra edge of power and volume to make it a more long-lived wine.

There are now 1,300ha (hectares) declared as AC Vacqueyras (2001 figures), the vineyards located on essentially three different types of soil. At the foot of the hills a stony, clay-limestone alluvial plateau, known locally as the garrigues, produces wines of a rich, robust nature. On the lower slopes around the village the soils are sandier and the wines have more finesse. Higher up the limestone hillslope at an altitude of some 250–400m the grapes ripen later and there is a greater percentage of clay, providing wines of additional intensity and volume (Gigondas has more of this type of terrain).

In terms of grape variety a minimum 50% Grenache and 25% Syrah and Mourvèdre are required in the wines. Thereafter a maximum 10% of any other Côtes du Rhône variety is permitted with the exception of Carignan. In reality Grenache more often than not represents a good 70% of the blend with an additional 20% Syrah and a little Mourvèdre and/or Cinsault. There is a fair amount of old-vine Grenache, some 50 years or more, and most recent plantings lean towards an augmentation of Syrah.

Changing the mindset

Yields are fixed at 35 hl/ha but can climb to 39 hl/ha with authorisation. This is one of the bones of contention among some of the leading growers who believe that to produce the best from Grenache it should be cropping under 35 hl/ha. The younger generation is coming to terms with this but for older members, who have already seen their crops reduced from 42 hl/ha when Vacqueyras was still a Villages, the bullet has been harder to bite. But there has been a general improvement in viticultural practices with a return to working the land, harvesting at optimum ripeness rather than alcohol degrees and a more reasoned approach to pest and disease control.

Vinification is traditional. Concrete tanks are the preferred method for
fermentation although stainless steel exists. The local coop, responsible for half the volume and plantings in Vacqueyras, has recently invested Euro4.5 million (£2.9 million) on a new hi-tech stainless steel facility.

Ageing takes place in vat or old, large-volume foudres. The use of new oak barrels has been relatively restrained but with the added concentration and limited volume of some top cuvées there has been a little experimentation with mixed results. Appropriate maturation, whether in better quality foudres or in barrique, could add greater finesse to some wines (or grape varieties) by rounding out the tannins, but for pure fruit expression the absence of new oak is a practice to be maintained.

One of the best examples of classical Vacqueyras is the family-owned Domaine La Garrigue, managed by syndicat president Maxime Bernard. The largest estate within the appellation, with some 60ha under production, the winemaking principals remain traditional to the core. ‘We try to produce wines with a firm tannic structure for longer ageing potential,’ says Bernard.

Other producers treading a more traditional line include Maison Arnoux & Fils and the cooperative. Maison Arnoux is an old family-run négociant house with a 40ha vineyard in Vacqueyras. The wines are aged for varying lengths of time in a mix of cement vats and foudres, depending on the cuvée and the bottling, and are generally robust in style. The cooperative offers a range of wines including a number from individual domaines which are vinified and aged apart. Carbonic maceration is used on 30% of production to provide fruitier, earlier drinking styles alongside the classic.

The domaines at the cutting edge of the appellation share a similar philosophy. Yields are rigorously maintained at or below 35 hl/ha, the vineyards meticulously cultivated, and selection provides a number of different cuvées. The method of ageing is still a point of discussion.

Domaine Les Amouriers is among the forward-looking domaines. Winemaker Patrick Gras’ wines are bottled unfiltered after ageing in cement tanks (oak barrels are reserved for a Syrah-based vin de pays). The Cuvée Signature, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, has a ready appeal and like the longer-ageing Cuvée Les Genestas a smooth, fleshy texture and feel.

At Domaine le Sang des Cailloux yields averaged 30 hl/ha in 2000 and 23 hl/ha in 2001. This helps produce rich, concentrated wines with a powerful tannic frame. Ageing takes place in cement tanks and foudres for the regular cuvée (Cuvée Azalaïs in 2000) and foudres and barrels for the top wine, Cuvée de Lopy, which is produced from the oldest vines and has longer staying power.

Yields are equally low at Domaine la Monardière. Martine and Christian Vache offer three expressions of Vacqueyras from three different terroirs. Las Calades from clay soils is sweet, warm and generous and drinks well young. Réserve des Deux Monardes demonstrates the freshness and finesse gained from sandier soils; while the Vieilles Vignes from the stony, clay-limestone plateau is rich and concentrated with a firm structure, and is aged in a mix of demi-muids (600 litres) and some new oak barrels. The others are aged in concrete vats.

A number of producers have vineyards in both Vacqueyras and Gigondas and it’s interesting to note the technical approach to both wines. Bernard Chauvet at Domaine du Grapillon d’Or has 9ha in Vacqueyras and 14ha in Gigondas. He is a traditional
winemaker and neither destems nor dabbles in oak barrels for either wine. His Gigondas, however, is aged in old oak foudres rather than cement vats. ‘The Gigondas has the matière to be vinified for longer ageing,’ he explains. The same applies at the more modern Domaine de Montvac where a percentage of destemming and barrel ageing are employed.

Vacqueyras’s white wines represent just 2% of production. Permitted grape
varieties are Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. Styles vary with the blend and method of vinification but in truth there’s a lack of identity and interest. Vacqueyras, like Gigondas, is big, bold and red.

James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.

JAMES LAWTHER’S TOP VACQUEYRAS FROM 2000

Clos du Joncuas, La Font de Papier ***
Deep colour. Reticent nose but plenty of dark fruit on the palate. Firm and robust with tannic bite. 3–6 years. £9.25; Vro

Domaine de l’Espigouette ***
Dark fruits with a touch of kirsch. Ample fruit on the palate with a fresh, clean finish. 3–5 years. £9.20; H&D

Domaine de Montvac ****
Deep, dark hue. Dark fruits with a touch of minerality and herbs. Ripe and sweet with a balancing freshness and length. 3–5 years. £11.50; Vig

Domaine des Amouriers, Cuvée Signature ****
Soft confit fruit, lovely texture, damsons with a hint of spice. 2–4 years. £8.95; Ell

Joseph Arnoux (Arnoux & Fils) ***
Medium to full bodied. Sweet, dark fruits with a minerally edge. Firm, grainy finish.
3–5 years. N/A UK. Tel: +33 4 90 65 84 18

Domaine du Grapillon d’Or ****
Full bodied and firm with plenty of extract. Good ageing potential. 3–8 years. £9.40; CTW

Domaine la Monardière, Réserve des 2 Monardes ****
Wonderful fruit expression, damson and dark cherry with a lively freshness. Grip on the finish. 3–5 years. £8.17; Loe

Domaine la Garrigue ****
Big, full, concentrated. Plenty of extract with a long, firm finish. 3–6 years.
N/A UK. Euro6.90; tel: +33 4 90 65 84 60

Domaine le Sang des Cailloux, Cuvée Azalaïs ****
Dark, almost black hue. Powerful wine with huge concentration and extract. Perfect for red meat and game. 3–6 years. £11.50; Pip

Domaine du Grand Montmirail ***
50/50 Grenache and Syrah. Expressive with dark fruits (cassis, cherry) to the fore. Rounded and harmonious. 3–6 years. £10.45 (1997) Yap

Domaine de la Charbonnière ***
Ripe, zesty and spicy (40% Syrah). Palate rich and succulent. 3–5 years. £9.95; Shf

Domaine le Clos des Cazaux, Cuvée des Templiers ****
Old, low-yielding Grenache and Syrah. Deep colour, expressive nose of spice, truffle and plummy fruit. Plenty of matière. 3–6 years. £8.95; J&B

Domaine Mas de Bouquet, Cave des Vignerons de Vacqueyras ***
Dark fruits, a little pepper and spice (35% Syrah), sweet but not overripe, fresh finish.
2–4 years. £8.99; Lai

Written by James Lawther