Four recently created appellations in the southern Rhône are coming out with fantastic value, exciting wines – with clearly distinctive styles. JIM BUDD introduces the newcomers.
Everyone loves the Rhône – the exquisite climate, the wonderful scenery, the relaxed lifestyle that is so quintessentially French. But it is the wines that bring people to the Valley over and over again. The region offers something for everyone. While the Northern Rhône is home to the finest – and most expensive – Syrahs and Viogniers in the world, the Rhône as a whole produces some of the most deliciously affordable reds in France.
When you think of more affordable Rhône wines there are various appellations that spring to mind – Crozes-Hermitage, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Gigondas, Vacqueyras. But there are four appellations seldom mentioned in the same breath and, though millions of bottles of their wine are drunk in the UK alone every year, many people haven’t heard of them. These are four diverse appellations, linked more by culture than by the character of the wines they produce, though the grapes they use are broadly similar. They are relatively new creations – Tricastin and Ventoux gained AC status in 1973, while Costieres de Nîmes and the Luberon were not promoted until 1986 and 1988 respectively. All are keen to escape from the long shadow of their better-known neighbours to the north and to be recognised as respected wine-producing regions in their own right. And they are working at it. Producers like Jean Marot of Domaine de Murmurium in Côtes du Ventoux have reduced yields by half and are becoming more organic every season.
In nearby Luberon, Anne Hugues was one of the first privately owned domaines in the region when she produced her first vintage in 1988; the number has since risen to 30. Hugues stresses the importance of indigenous varieties – Syrah, Grenache, Carignan. Merlot doesn’t get a look in. The results are wines brimming with local character: intense, savoury Syrahs full of fruit and gripping tannins, luscious summer-quaffing rosés, and powerful Grenaches that echo the power and fruit of the more famous appellations to the north. The new southern appellations have work to do to convince the world of their quality. But there is one great advantage of not having a high profile – except for the top cuvées of a few individual estates, these fresh, young-drinking wines are all eminently affordable.
So if you’re in love with the Rhône but can’t afford Côte Rotie, or you just want to try something new and exciting, you might search out some of the fantastic bargains that can be found in the four new appellations of the south.
COTEAUX DU TRICASTIN
Tricastin is perhaps the only one of the four appellations that is unequivocally in the Rhône valley itself and marks the beginning of the southern Rhône. There are 2,000 hectares (ha) planted in Tricastin, on the eastern bank. Tricastin was made a VDQS (Vin délimité de qualité supérieure) in 1964 and promoted to full appellation status in 1973. Geographically it is quite a diverse appellation: the climate and soil in Saint-Paul-Trois-Château in the Rhône is quite different to that around Grignan only 20 kilometres to the north east but away from the valley. Instead of the sandy alluvial soil overlaid with galets roulés found at St Paul, at Grignan there is a mix of clay and limestone. The temperature is several degrees lower, which means that the harvest is around 15 days later. The mistral blows less fiercely here than it does further down the valley where it has picked up greater speed as it funnels southwards. Growers refer to it as ‘our antiseptic’ because its dryness stops problems such as mildew and rot.
Reds account for 85% of Tricastin produced with 10% rosé and 5% white. Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier are the principal varieties. At present, Tricastin is the only one of the four appellations permitted to use Viognier, which reflects its proximity to the northern Rhône.
‘We are now better equipped in Tricastin to make white wines,’ says Ludovic Cornillon of Domaine St Luc in la Baume de Transit. Elsewhere the proportion of Syrah is increasing. ‘Syrah is well suited to Tricastin,’ says Cornillon, ‘while Grenache isn’t as well adapted because this is at the northern limits for ripening.’ ‘In general, the wines of the Tricastin are to drink young, in the first two or three years,’ says Michel Bourdarel, director of Cave la Suzienne in Suze-la-Rousse. ‘They are not for long ageing. The Syrah wines are very soft – quite unlike those of the northern Rhône which are more tannic and need ageing to soften.’
In the 1960s it was the influx of settlers into the area from Algeria, where they had lost their estates following the Algerian war, that created the modern Tricastin. Back then there were few vines planted here, so it was possible to buy land but this still involved much hard work to clear the area of scrub before they could start the vine planting.
Families such as Bour (Domaine de Grangeneuve), Seroin (Château la Decelle) and Vergobbi (Domaine de Vieux Micocoulier) who settled in the region in the 1960s and early 1970s, are still today the area’s leading wine producers.
COTES DU LUBERON
The vineyards are planted on the northern and southern Rhône flanks of the Luberon hills in this, the most easterly of the appellations. Parts of the Luberon are closer to Marseille and the Mediterranean than they are to Avignon. However, the River Durance that marks the southern limit of the appellation is a tributary to the Rhône.
Of the four appellations, the Luberon makes easily the most significant amount of white wine – this accounts for 20% of some 190,000 hectolitres (hl) of wine produced in the appellation.
This is the youngest of the four appellations. Although it was made a VDQS in 1951, the Luberon was only promoted to AC status in February 1988. There are just over 4,000ha planted on the north and south slopes of the hills. The area’s cooler climate explains why white wine is much more important here than in other southern Rhône appellations. ‘The harvest here is ten to fifteen days later than in Châteauneuf-du-Pape,’ says Alexis Rousset-Rouard of Domaine de la Citadelle, ‘the nights are fresher.’
There is a difference in the soils and climate between the vineyards on the northern and southern slopes of the Luberon. ‘The northern slopes are limestone,’ explains Robert Oustric, deputy export manager for Cellier de Marrenon, ‘and it is colder with more wind, so the wines are more structured. In the south the soils are lighter and the wines are typically light, fruity and easy drinking.
On the whole, wines from the Luberon have less body than those of the Ventoux.’ This does not always hold true for all wines, however, as the top cuvées from the individual estates are becoming increasing deep coloured and powerful.
As in the other appellations, the whole spectrum of Rhône varieties is used in Luberon. The red wines are made from Grenache and Syrah, while Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Ugni Blanc are used for the whites. Cinsault is mainly used to make rosé. The region’s 15 cooperatives account for a sizeable 85% of the production. Of these, 12 are grouped together under the marketing banner of the Cellier de Marrenon, which accounts for three-quarters of the Luberon’s production. Visit the area and you will come across these wines often.
Although there are only 30 independent producers, some have succeeded in achieving a high profile because the Luberon famously attracts both artists and celebrities. Domaine de la Citadelle is one such example. Film producer Yves Rousset-Rouard (his films include Good-bye, Emmanuelle) invested much of his fortune into creating a showcase estate that includes a corkscrew museum which attracts some 15,000 visitors a year.
Other leading individual producers include the recently established Domaine de Marie and Château la Canorgue. The latter was set up in 1978 just to the north of the attractive small hillside town of Bonnieux. The estate is now farmed biodynamically by the Margan family.
The largest and best-known estate in the Luberon must, however, be the 180ha Château Val-Joanis where reconstruction and planting started back in 1977, before even Anne Hugues arrived in the area.
COSTIERES DE NIMES
This appellation marks the border between the southern Rhône and the Languedoc. At the eastern border is the Rhône river as it enters the delta that takes it into the Mediterranean, while the western border is close to the eastern end of the Coteaux du Languedoc. Costières de Nîmes stretches southwards from the old Roman city of Nîmes towards the wild and strange Camargue area. As this is one of the hottest areas in France, the wines of Nîmes are full bodied and richly fruited. Just 4% of the 265,000hl of wine produced here is white.
Formerly called Costières de Gard, the name was changed in 1989 to avoid confusion with the Vin de pays de Gard. It became a VDQS in 1950 and was promoted to appellation in 1986. In common with much of the Languedoc, the area historically produced large quantities of thin, red vin de table. This has changed over the past 30 years as the market for bulk wine disappeared and producers have since switched to focusing on quality wine instead. The pace of change has quickened over the past 10 to 15 years.
The appellation has both a fairly homogeneous climate and soil type. Much of the vineyard area is covered with the round galets roulés found in parts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Walk among the vines and you will see that some of the land here is extraordinarily stony, with hardly a trace of soil. Compared with the other three appellations, the vineyards are low lying – 80 metres above sea level is a high-altitude vineyard here. ‘The homogeneity of the terroir means that in the Costières de Nîmes differences between vignerons and their approach are more important than differences of terroir,’ says Michel Gassier of Château de Nages. During the summer, which is hot and dry, this area is often the hottest part of France. Of the 4,850ha of vines planted, the principal grape variety is Grenache, with an increasing amount of Syrah plus some Carignan and a small amount of Mourvèdre. For the limited production of white, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne are used. Reflecting the hotter climate, the wines of the Costières de Nîmes are rounder and softer than the other three appellations with a lower level of acidity. Leading producers include the 70ha Château de la Tuilerie, which has long been run by Chantal Comte. La Tuilerie produces a range of well-made modern wines, as well as selling fine imported rums. Nearby, Michel Gassier runs the impressive 100ha Château de Nages, which makes some of the most complex and elegant wines of the appellation. Also on a par are François Collard of Château Mourgue du Grès and Laurent and Benoit Darde at Château Grande Cassagne. Also worth watching is Gabriel Meffre, the leading grower and négociant in Gigondas, who bought the 40ha Grand Escalion estate in 2001. As for cooperatives, the small Cave de la Jonquière Saint Vincent is one of the best in the region.
COTES DU VENTOUX
The 1,912m-high Mont Ventoux is the defining feature of this appellation. Once known solely for its light, easy drinking wines, producers in the Ventoux are now busy exploring the possibilities of this ‘cooler climate’ appellation where some of the vineyards are planted at altitudes as high as 500m.
With 7,450ha planted, Côtes du Ventoux is the largest of the four appellations. Made a VDQS in 1952, it was promoted to appellation contrôlée in 1973 – the same year as Tricastin.
The area is considerably cooler than the vineyards around Nîmes and those on the floor of the Rhône valley around Orange and Avignon. The difference between day and night temperatures is more marked than on the plains of the Rhône Valley. There is quite a diversity of soils – from the clay and limestone close to the Ventoux to the pockets of red sandstone around Roussillon.
Once known for light, easy-drinking wines, the focus has changed in the past decade as producers have become ambitious. Many are now making wines with considerable body and structure. Higher levels of natural acidity make the wines less heady than in Châteauneuf. 80% of production is red, 17% rosé and 3% white.
Côtes du Ventoux is probably more suited climatically – especially its higher vineyards – to Syrah and Carignan than Grenache. However, Grenache is at home in the warm, red clay around the village of Roussillon. ‘The red sandstone here is perfect for Grenache,’ says Lionnel Bourgue of Domaine des Hautes Roches. ‘With this type of soil it is impossible to exceed 30hl/ha, while Syrah just doesn’t ripen here.’
Cinsault is mainly used for making rosé, while the main white varieties are Clairette, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc, and an increasing amount of Roussanne. As the Ventoux and Luberon appellations are contiguous it is not surprising that the wines are often similar in style, especially the more structured wines from the northern slopes of the Lubéron mountains.
There are more independent producers in the Ventoux than in the Luberon. The 18th-century Château Pesquie with 72ha of vines is the appellation’s showcase estate. Its top wine, Quintessence, made only in good years, shows some Ventoux wines can benefit from ageing in new oak and also improve with bottle age. Other leading estates include Château de Valcombe, now owned by Châteauneuf producer Paul Jeune but originally set up by Claude Fonquerle, as well as the neighbouring Domaine de Fondrèche. Both Valcombe and Fondrèche make more modern-style wines than Pesquie. The Ventoux has also attracted foreigners: Domaine des Anges is owned by Irishman Gay McGuinness from Kilkenny with Dubliner Ciaràn Rooney running the estate, while Domaine de Marotte is run by the van Dykman family from Holland.
Wines to try from the new south
COTEAUX DU TRICASTIN
Domaine la Decelle, Cuvée Spéciale 2001 ***
Soft, spicy fruit and some length. Drink 2003-2005.
Domaine de Grangeneuve, Cuvée Tradition 2000 ***
Mid-weight with attractively soft, plummy herbal fruit. Ready to drink now.
Domaine de Grangeneuve, Cuvée Vieilles Vignes 2000 ***
Warm plum and spicy aromas. Mouthfilling fruit but a touch soupy. Drink now.
Domaine St Luc, Selection Syrah 2001 ***
Quite deep, dense coloured, still youthful with complex, spicy notes developing. Drink 2004–2007.
N/A UK. Tel: +33 4 75 98 11 51
Domaine du Vieux Micocoulier 1998 *****
Sweet ripe fruit on the palate; good length and balance. Ready to drink but will keep three to four years. £6.72; ChW
Les Vignerons Ardéchois, Le Grand Deves 2001 ***
Easy and light fruit with refreshing acidity in the finish. Ready to drink now.
COTES DU LUBERON
Domaine Chasson 1999 ***
Soft plummy, pruney, easy drinking fruit with marked acidity on finish. Drink now.
Domaine de Gerbaut 2001 ***
Dense, youthful colour and blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. Drink 2003–2005.
Domaine de Marie, Bastide de Marie 2000 ***
Soft plum and prune fruit. Drink 2003–2004.
N/A UK. Tel: +33 4 90 72 30 20
Cellier de Marrenon Vieilles Vignes, Grand Lubéron 2000 ***
Spicy, soft fruit with some toastiness. Drink 2003–2004.
Cellier de Marrenon 2000, Château la Tour d’Aigues 2000 ****
This is top of the coop’s range. Good concentration of rich figgy fruit and a touch of wood spice. Drink 2003–2006.
COSTIERES DE NIMES
Chateau Font Barrière 2001 (Cave coopérative de la Jonquière, Saint Vincent) *****
Made from 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache with 80% aged in barriques. Impressive deep-coloured wine with a toasty, spicy nose and mouthfilling fruit flavours. Decant to drink now but will improve over next three to four years.
N/A UK. Tel: +33 (0)4 66 74 50 07
Château Mourgues du Gres, Galets Rouges 2001 ****
The estate’s ‘basic’ red is impressive: dense fruit (plum, blackberry, black cherry) and spice, plus some liquorice, in the long finish. Drink 2003– 2005. The top red Capitelles des Mourgues 2001, (£8.99), is also excellent value but needs several years cellaring.
Château de Campuget, Tradition de Campuget 2001 (white) ***
Quite a rich, straw-coloured wine with aromas and flavours of apricot and exotic fruit. Ready to drink now but will evolve over the next couple of years.
Château la Tuilerie, Cuvée Eole 2000 (white) ***
Made from Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Rolle and barrel fermented. This is a rich, full white that needs to be drunk with food. The 2000 needs time for the oak to integrate. Drink 2004–2007.
Domaine des Armassons 2000 (Cave coopérative de la Jonquière, Saint Vincent) ***
Has quite a high proportion of Syrah (65%) and has red cherry flavours with some gamey overtones and good length. Ready to drink now but could be kept until 2005.
Château St Elizabeth 2001 ***
With a mid-plum colour and soft, round plummy fruit flavours, this is a good-value, attractive and easy drinking wine. Drink now.
£4.49; DBy, Nob
Château de Nages, Joseph Torres 1998 ****
Deep coloured, spicy and powerful wine with a good length, from a very good vintage. The 1999 gets a five-star rating. Drink 2003–2008.
COTES DU VENTOUX
La Vieille Ferme 2000 ***
Warm red cherry and plum nose and soft, easy fruit with a touch of acidity on the finish to give freshness. Drink now.
Domaine des Anges, Clos de l’Archange 2000 ****
Soft, mouthfilling rich fruit with enough structure for ageing. Drink 2004–2009.
Les Vignerons du Mont Ventoux, Altitude 500 Parcelles St Nicolas 2001 ***
From vines at 500m up on Mont Ventoux, this is 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah. Bright cherry fruit and a refreshing finish. Drink now.
N/A UK. Tel:+ 33 4 90 65 95 72
Château Pesquie, Cuvée Prestige 1997 ****
Now a touch bricky, this has good round herbal fruit with just a hint of earthiness. Drink 2003–2004.
Château Valcombe, Signature 2001 (white) ***
Made from Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc and Grenache Blanc, this is a light, floral wine with nectarine flavours. Drink now.
Château Valcombe, Signature 2000 (red) ***
Soft and easy drinking with a touch of plum and violets on the nose. Drink now.