- Monday 1 September 2003
It's easy to fall behind. The wine world changes so quickly these days that long-held assumptions can rapidly become ludicrously out of date. Take, for instance, the Côtes de Ventoux. Until recently, 'simple country red' would have been my reaction to any mention of these wines. But a tasting of 2001 Rhônes organised by the region's promotional body, Inter-Rhône, showed me how out of touch I had become. Many of the wines had far more depth of fruit and structure than I anticipated.
Although the Côtes du Ventoux became an AC in 1973, it remained until recently a producer of rustic wines, often with no higher pretension than to be served in local cafés. Over the last decade or so, however, the nature of the wines has changed dramatically, as new producers have arrived, and existing ones have decided to become more ambitious. Ten years ago there were 40 independent producers. Today there are 100.
'The mentality is changing,' says Christian Gely of Domaine Champ-Long in Entrechaux, where he is president of the appellation. 'Over the last 10 years, producers have moved away from the coops,' he explains. 'We are recognising that there are different terroirs and climates within the AC and we're becoming a région viticole. In the past the best terroir was planted with cherry trees.'
With 7,500ha (hectares) planted, producing between 250,000/300,000 hl a year, the Côtes du Ventoux is one of the larger appellations in the southern Rhône (although it is dwarfed by the 42,000ha of the Côtes du Rhône). Most wines are red, with whites accounting for only 3% of production and rosés 17%. The main permitted red varieties are Grenache Noir, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Carignan, while the whites are chiefly made from Clairette, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc and some Roussanne.
There are still plenty of easy-drinking wines that fit the traditional image of the Côtes du Ventoux, though they are now better made, with more fruit than in the past. But producers, especially those with high-altitude vineyards, now recognise that the cooler climate allows them to make more elegant wines than those from the valley floor.
'It is 330m at the winery, and our highest vineyard is at 450m,' explains Ciaràn Rooney, winemaker at Domaine des Anges in Mormoiron. 'Generally we don't harvest until the first week of October.' Les Vignerons du Mont Ventoux, the cooperative in Bedoins, emphasises the height of its vineyards with its cuvée, Altitude 500.
The cooperatives still dominate here, producing more than 80% of all Côtes du Ventoux. Here too, the emphasis is now more on quality and terroir. In 1998, the Cave de Canteperdrix in Mazan began an ambitious study of the terroir of its 250 members' 1,150ha of vines. Some 4,000 parcels of Grenache, which make up 70% of the production, have been classified into four types of terroir. All this information has been computerised, helping the cooperative's technicians to give detailed viticultural advice to their members. The heavy storms of 8–9 September meant 2002 was a difficult vintage in the southern Rhône. Some areas, however, were more affected than others. The Ventoux got off relatively lightly. More than 600mm of rain fell around Uzès in the Gard, provoking flash floods. Châteauneuf had about 350mm while further east towards Bedoin, around 150mm fell. Fortunately for the Ventoux producers, the torrential downpour was followed by several days of wind that helped to prevent the rot from spreading.
In most years, however, the higher altitude, lower summer temperatures and cooling winds off the mountain mean the area is arguably better adapted to growing Syrah than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is certainly the view of Paul Jeune of Domaines de la Croze and Montpertuis in Châteauneuf, who bought Château Valcombe in Saint-Pierre-de-Vassols a couple of years ago. 'It is often too hot at Châteauneuf for Syrah,' says Paul Jeune, 'and so the stones are not an advantage. But in the Ventoux, you can push Syrah's maturity.'
Certainly the intense colour and fruit of the Valcombe 2002 Syrah, although barely more than a new-born babe when I visited, was impressive. The structure of his Ventoux means Jeune can use new barrels here and use them later for his Châteauneuf, which is not well adapted to new wood, he says. As well as having an impressive range of reds, Valcombe and nearby Domaine Fondrèche also make complex barrique whites from Grenache Blanc and Rousanne.
With its elegant 18th-century Provençal house, the show estate of the Ventoux is Paul Chaudière's Château Pesquié in Mormoiron, about 10km east of Carpentras. There are 72ha of vines spread across seven properties all within 5km of the château, with 7.5ha used for vin de pays.
The wines live up to the image of the château. The principal varieties are Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Chardonnay, Roussanne and Viognier. Pesquié's top wine is Quintessence – a blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache.
Yet with the exception of the coops, the Ventoux appears not to be fully explored by the UK wine trade. The biggest-selling Ventoux in the UK is Paul Boutinot's Old Git brand, which only mentions the Ventoux appellation on the back label. The brand's success is obviously good news for the coop north of Carpentras which is the chief supplier, but the appellation's profile is barely raised.
Unfortunately, there are a number of good, interesting producers whose wines are not available in the UK. These include the 22ha Domaine de la Bastidonne in the southwesterly Cabrières d'Avignon, the organic wines from Domaine Terre de Solence in Mazan, and Lionel Bourgne's Domaine des Hautes-Roches. Bourgne only started up in 1999 but looks set to be recognised as a star before long.
Even more frustrating for devotees of the region, Ventoux wines are generally fairly priced. An exception to this are the top wines from Domaine de Chantegrillet in Roussillon at the southeastern end of the appellation. This estate was set up in 1994 with the aim of concentrating on quality and breaking away from the notion that the Ventoux produces poor quality wines at a low price. It succeeds with the Cuvée Vieux Pressoir, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. But the commemorative Cuvée l'An 2000, from the 1997 vintage, is grotesquely overpriced at t30 a bottle.
Overall, however, Ventoux is an area on the up. And as the appellation's cooler-climate Rhône wines continue to establish their own personality, expect to see more and more of them on the shelves.
Jim Budd is the author of Appreciating Fine Wines, (Grange Books, £18).