A Broader Look at the Southern Rhône
Values abound in the French region's three far-flung appellations of Ventoux, Luberon and Costières de Nîmes.
As the Rhône flows southward, the walls of its valley, so tight and steep around Ampuis and Tain l’Hermitage, soften and widen, revealing broad expanses of vineyards, at times extending as far as the eye can see. These are the Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages and the crus of the Southern Rhône, from newly promoted Rasteau to the best known and oldest of them all, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Prices for Châteauneuf-du-Pape have trended upward over the past decade, with prices for the other crus steadily following suit. Even in the Côtes du Rhône, which encompasses a huge territory that produces a vast amount of wine at the most basic level of France’s appellation contrôlée system, prices have begun to creep up. Good cuvées now reach the high teens at retail, with some getting into the low $20s.
Thankfully for budget-minded drinkers willing to experiment with lesser-known appellations, a growing number of wines from Ventoux, Luberon and Costières de Nîmes are finding their way into the United States. Increasingly, these are the regions where value can be found in the Southern Rhône—and not just at $15 or less. The top-end, luxury cuvées rarely exceed $30 per bottle, even though the quality can be excellent.
In the main, these wines are based on the traditional red grape varieties of the Rhône, blends of Grenache and Syrah, with smaller proportions of Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. With the exception of the top cuvées, very little oak is used, allowing the unadulterated flavors of grape variety and terroir to shine.
The Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape was an early proponent of the Luberon and Ventoux, as it launched its La Vieille Ferme brand in 1970. Although originally sourced from Côtes du Rhône, the family soon turned to Luberon (for the white) and Ventoux (for the red and rosé) “to maintain price and style,” explains Marc Perrin. From the 2010 vintage, there are 3.5 million bottles of La Vieille Ferme, in red, white and rosé.
Both the 2009 and 2010 vintages look to be superb in the Southern Rhône, although 2009 may be more variable. It was a hot, dry year, which favored big, plush red wines, but some are overly alcoholic, and others are slightly tough in texture. In contrast, 2010 was more moderate, and the wines—white, red and rosé—show great verve and freshness. Wines from both vintages are in the market now, and should provide excellent introductions to these three regions.
Thanks to its inhospitable white limestone summit, Mont Ventoux always looks snowcapped, even when the sun is shining and the Tour de France peloton is struggling its way to the top. Yet the surrounding areas produce a wide array of produce; grapes are just one facet of the Ventoux.
Located to the east of the Rhône Valley proper, Ventoux’s identity is inextricably linked to its namesake mountain. “The difference is the climate,” says Jean Marot of Vindemio, a small domaine of just under 50 acres divided among 14 different vineyard parcels. “Each night, there is a cold wind from the top of Ventoux.”
“We’re cooler than the Rhône Valley by far,” confirms Frédéric Chaudière, whose family owns Château Pesquié, one of the region’s largest estates. “What brings unity to the appellation is the microclimate.” Temperatures often dip 15–20°C overnight during the growing season, which gives the wines a crisp edge compared to those from warmer parts of the Rhône.
Because of this, Syrah is widely planted, and is an important part of most blends. As Chaudière puts it, “The Syrah provides structure and Grenache, the roundness, the supple tannins.”
At lower altitudes further away from the mountain, Grenache dominates. At Domaine de Fondreche, energetic young proprietor Sébastien Vincenti made a special cuvée in 2009 to showcase the quality of his oldest Grenache vines, planted in 1936. Il Etait Une Fois, as it is called, was terrific when tasted at the domaine earlier this year (it has not yet been formally reviewed).
The splintered nature of most vineyard holdings means the region’s largest producers are the caves coopératives in the region: Cave Saint Marc, Cave TerraVentoux and Les Vignerons du Mont Ventoux. For the most part, they are producing basic, inexpensive wines intended for immediate consumption, while the private estates are aiming higher.
Costières de Nîmes
The vineyards of Costières de Nîmes spread out south and east of the city of Nîmes, far away from its bustling college scene and well-preserved Roman amphitheater (Les Arènes), temple (Maison Carrée) and nearby Pont du Gard. The arena is still in use, often for the region’s nonlethal bullfights in which toreadors vie for trophies attached to the bull’s horns.
The small, dusty villages in the Costières de Nîmes often have their own arenas and host their own ferias, says Michel Gassier, one of the region’s largest wine producers, and a local who proudly admits to getting in the ring.
That strength is evident in the land itself. “Classic Costières terroir,” Gassier says, “is about 85% stones.” These rounded stones, deposited by the Rhône tens of thousands of years ago, resist compaction, leading to welldrained soils ideally suited for grape growing.
Those same soils were what originally caught American importer Robert Kacher’s eye, but according to Kacher, “the Camargue is the key to the Costières.” This vast salt marsh, famous for its horses, bulls, rice and mosquitoes, helps moderate the climate. Together with the abundant groundwater in the Costières, this allows grapes to continue ripening even during the dry periods of summer.
Syrah is the dominant variety, although Grenache is common. Mourvèdre is becoming more popular, as it ripens at lower alcohol levels and retains higher acidity than the other two main varieties. Most reds remain classic Rhône blends, with very few of them marked by oak.
Traditionally, rosés were produced by the saignée method, which involves removing a portion of the juice after limited contact with the skins. But increasingly, vines are being specifically grown for rosé production, and the grapes undergo direct pressing. So consumers can find two very different styles of rosés from Costières de Nîmes, one around 14% abv and darkly colored, the other at 13% abv or less and quite pale. Both have their attractions.
White wines account for only 5% of the production here, says Gassier, but are increasingly popular, often based on Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Rolle (Vermentino). Depending on the producer, they range from broad and fleshy to lean and minerally, but nearly always retaining refreshing acidity.
Just to the south of Ventoux, the Luberon is the heart of upland Provence. The hillsides are dotted with truffle oaks and garrigue—that blend of wild herbs and scrubby growth unique to southern France that lends its lavender-bay thyme scent mélange to so many of the region’s wines. Fields of lavender, sunflowers and grapevines splash across the landscape like the purple, yellow and green strokes of a painter’s brush.
This is the Provence made famous by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence as well as A Good Year, made into a feature film directed by Ridley Scott. Scott owns a home in the region, just down the road from Château La Canorgue, where much of the movie was filmed.
At La Canorgue, owner Jean-Pierre Margan has been farming the estate organically since he arrived via marriage in 1977. Production is split between white, rosé and red wines, mirroring the diversity of the region, although winemakers agree that different parts of Luberon are better suited for one than the other.
Marrenon, a joint venture uniting nine cooperatives and their 1,700 growers, sources its fresh, attractive whites—including varietally labeled IGP Méditerranée Chardonnay, Viognier and Vermentino—primarily from the north side, while the company’s reds come from the warmer south side or from Ventoux.
“I think you’ll find better whites on the north side,” says Brice Doan de Champassak, whose Château Saint-Pierre de Mejans is housed in a 12th-century priory. “Here [on the south side], it is much sunnier and warmer, giving stronger red wines.”
Of course, there are always exceptions. Despite being in the far south of the region, Château de Clapier is located near the gap of Mirabeau, which allows cool breezes to penetrate what would otherwise be a heat trap. As a result, proprietor Thomas Montagne is able to cultivate five acres of Pinot Noir, which he blends with his Grenache and Syrah to help refine the texture and add complexity.
Despite the region’s idyllic Provençal landscapes and undeniably laid-back way of life, winemakers in the region haven’t been afraid to innovate, which makes the Luberon a fascinating place to explore.
90 Cascavel 2009 Le Cascavel.
This blend of 50% Grenache, 30% Carignan and 20% Syrah was aged in cement tanks for eight months prior to bottling, but retains bold, fresh fruit notes of black cherry tinged with hints of licorice and coffee. Drink this muscular red over the next five years. Bourgeois Family Selections.
abv: 14.5% Price: $16
89 Delas Frères 2009 Rouge.
Aged exclusively in stainlesssteel tanks prior to bottling, this blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah is a chunky, medium-bodied red ideal for drinking over the next few years. Subtle plum and black cherry notes pick up hints of leather, earth and spice, with an ample dusting of tannin on the finish. Maisons Marques & Domaines USA. Best Buy.
abv: 14.1% Price: $11
90 Martinelle 2009 Rouge.
This is a lovely example of Ventoux Grenache (80%), with 15% Syrah and 5% a blend of Mourvèdre, Cinsaut and Carignan. It’s slightly warm in style and supple in structure, but with hints of dried flowers and licorice to give verve and dimension to the black cherry fruit. Drink now and over the next few years. Dionysos Imports Inc.
abv: 14.5% Price: $18
90 Château La Canorgue 2009 Rouge.
From organically farmed vineyards and 50-yearold vines, this is a velvety-textured blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan aged in foudres and demi muids. Combine blackberry fruit, peppery spice and a soft, lingering finish, and the result is a winner. Drink now–2015. Beaune Imports.
abv: 14% Price: $18
90 Domaine de Fontenille 2009 Rouge.
This blend of 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah displays a complex array of aromas and flavors, ranging from black cherry to black olive and from clove to licorice. It’s richly structured, yet juicy, with a velvety feel. Drink now–2018. Weygandt-Metzler. Best Buy.
abv: 14% Price: $15
91 Guillaume Gros 2007 Côté Terroir.
Expertly combines fruity and savory, resulting in a complex and intriguing wine. Leather, coffee and meat notes balance raspberry, plum and spice in this medium-bodied red that should drink well through 2015. It’s long, silky and mouthwatering on the finish. Sherbrooke Cellars. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 15% Price: $35
90 Château Beaubois 2009 Harmonie.
Château Beaubois’s top cuvée, this blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache is aged in 450-liter casks for 14 months prior to bottling, yet it doesn’t seem oaky at all. Instead, it’s herbal, jammy and savory all at once, with lovely spice notes and substantial tannins on the finish. Drink 2013–2020. Demontoux Fine Wines. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14% Price: $25
91 Mas des Bressades 2010 Cuvée Tradition.
Flinty at first, then becoming more perfumed, with hints of herbs and berries. This lovely rosé is round and ample in the mouth, delivering a blend of fruit, herb and mineral flavors. Nicely balanced spice notes mark the finish. Drink now. Robert Kacher Imports. Best Buy.
abv: 13.5% Price: $12
88 Michel Gassier 2010 Nostre Païs.
This well-ripened white is mainly Grenache Blanc, part of which is matured in oak for six months. The melon flavors hint at vanilla and peach, and although it’s a rich, moderately oaky wine, it remains crisp on the finish. Drink through the end of 2012. European Cellars.
abv: 14.5% Price: $18