Most famous for the mountain that dominates the landscape, this Provence region is also worth visiting for its increasingly good wines, says Mary Dowey...
Planted area 5,632ha
Total production 286,951hl
Main grapes Red: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre
White: Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, Viognier, Bourboulenc
Producers 150, Co-ops 15
Further information www.rhone-wines.com
Ventoux travel guide
I bet you can picture the sloping, whitecapped mass of Mont Ventoux without having to look at a single photograph. Thanks to the Tour de France, which punishes cyclists on its merciless inclines, it has become one of the most familiar mountains in the world. Yet the wine region which it influences so strongly is a more nebulous entity – as indistinct, in many minds, as the famous summit wreathed in morning mist.
Tucked under one arm of the southern Rhône, the sprawling appellation of the Ventoux is less well known than its neighbours, the Côtes du Rhône on its western flank and the Luberon to the south. This means it is less clogged with tourists – splendid news for visitors who want uninterrupted views of some of the wildest, most dramatic scenery in Provence. Vineyards, forests, olive groves and lavender fields tumble across 81,000 hectares of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
As for the wines, many are stamped with welcome freshness. Rising to almost 2,000m, Mont Ventoux acts like an outsize chilling device, ensuring the cool nights that slow down ripening and seal in vibrant flavours. The craggy Dentelles de Montmirail and the Monts de Vaucluse play their part too, in preventing the Ventoux from overheating. The environment suits northern and southern Rhône varieties, so a higher proportion of Syrah than is usual in the south tempers warm Grenache, while a treasure chest of mineralrich terroirs ensures vigour on the palate.
Only in recent years have factors like these been widely enough understood to unleash the potential of a region previously oriented towards bulk production. Pioneering estates have been joined by newer ventures – many led by revved-up winemakers from other backgrounds or other countries. The result? A storm of exciting wines, mostly at prices that won’t wreck your holiday budget.
To get a feel for this evolution, start by visiting one of the estates that have helped to drive the Ventoux forward. The frontrunner is the sizeable Château Pesquié at Mormoiron, set on a quality path by the Chaudière family in the 1980s and run by the current generation, brothers Frédéric and Alexandre. Not far away at Domaine de Fondrèche, serious-minded Sébastien Vincenti has made sophisticated wines for more than two decades; he began to blaze a trail as a 20-year-old.
Domaine des Anges near Montmoiron is also well established. Owned by Irishman Gay McGuinness since the 1990s, this hilltop estate delivers striking proof that an appellation dominated by juicy rosé and rich reds can also produce memorable whites like the compelling Archange based on barrel-fermented Roussanne.
For a very different story, travel along quiet roads to Château Unang, reinvigorated by Scots James and Joanna King since 2003. The challenges posed by the sheer size and rundown state of this grand old property have been overcome, to judge from their increasingly suave reds.
Further north in wilder territory, Ventoux vineyards have attracted such a potent injection of new blood that it is worth seeing at least one or two – but plan ahead: visits up here are usually by appointment only. Near Le Barroux, Californian winemaker Even Bakke of Clos de Trias says he was won over by Triassic soils which enhance minerality. But perhaps, after high-tech Napa, the notion of an individualistic approach was equally appealing. Bakke gives his wines whatever time they need to develop silky, savoury allure.
A neighbouring terroir fanatic is Philippe Gimel of St-Jean-du-Barroux – a Lorraine chemist who fell for wine in the Coteaux du Layon and moved south. With countless parcels of old vines on 12 rugged hectares, he makes richly concentrated, attention-grabbing wines. Closer to the Dentelles at Lafare lies Martinelle, a newish estate noted for finely textured reds crafted by former German Riesling queen Corinna Kruse.
This selection of small, low-key domaines could hardly be more different from Chêne Bleu, the immensely ambitious and exquisitely beautiful estate set high on a ridge in the Dentelles developed by Xavier Rolet, the current CEO of the London Stock Exchange, and his American wife Nicole. The wines – ever more impressive – may be among the region’s most expensive but they reflect a commitment to the Ventoux on a heroic scale.
Although wine tourism here is still underdeveloped (only a handful of producers offer cellar tours, vineyard walks etc), wine education is flourishing. The Auberge du Vin and La Madelène – delightful B&Bs owned by WSET-qualified tutors – run courses and visits, while Chêne Bleu is renowned for its WSET-accredited Extreme Wine Experience.
While some visitors swot, many more will go exploring. History buffs should delve into Carpentras or Venasque, key towns of the Comtat Venaissin, a pontifical state from 1229 until 1791. Sportier types can hike, cycle or rock-climb amid ravishing scenery all year round, maybe keeping one eye out for the rare Orsini’s viper.
The other recommended activity is eating. As the marvellous Friday market in Carpentras attests, the Ventoux is famous for goats cheese, honey, strawberries, saffron, Sault lamb, the spelt-like grain petit épeautre and black truffles. Find yourself a seat on a terrace with wide views and twirl a well-selected glass while you order up a feast.
How to get there
Marseille International Airport is an hour’s drive from the Ventoux vineyards. Nîmes and Avignon airports are under an hour’s drive. In summer the EuroStar operates a direct route between London St Restaurant Jérôme Blanchet Pancras and Avignon.
Mary Dowey has written about the wines and foods of the Southern Rhône for more than a decade.