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Long read: Ventoux…young blood, cool wines

Published:  15 July, 2021

Known worldwide as the ultimate back-breaker of the Tour de France, Mount Ventoux’s reputation has been growing in other ways in recent years, gradually sprouting a reputation as the place to watch for interesting cool climate wines from the Southern Rhône.

Coming up to its 50-year anniversary as an AOC, the vineyards of Ventoux have plenty of unique tools at their disposal.

Situated on the mountain’s lower slopes, Ventoux AOC’s 5,600 ha of vines benefit from the mountain’s cooling winds, limestone soils and elevation of currently up to 500m, all of which has made the region fertile ground for young winemakers looking to cut their teeth making interesting and increasingly terroir-driven wines.

The wines themselves were re-brought to the attention of UK trade recently thanks to an aerial tasting at the O2 Arena. London in the Sky has become a popular attraction in the age of social distancing, offering plucky punters the opportunity to take in views of Greenwich and the city skyline in serious al fresco style.

The wines didn’t quite reach the 2,000m elevation of Mount Ventoux itself. They did however, get across the AOC’s lofty ambitions when it comes to overcoming a heavy focus on supermarket rosé and also red, while spreading a growing appreciation of its whites.

For many years, Ventoux has had to compete with famous neighbour Châteauneuf Du Pape particularly for its reds, which account for 54% of production, mainly Grenache / Syrah blends, and a coop-driven reliance on rosé (41%) which are popular supermarché staples.

Ventoux’s history in France’s wine law dates back to 1950s, when it was known as the Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS). It became an AOC in 1973 and since then has undergone significant consolidation of its vineyard area, with coop mergers and vineyard reassessments making headway in stripping out sub-quality plots.

Since 2000, the number of coops has fallen from 15 to 13 today, while hectarage has dropped from 8,500 ha, to almost 5,700 ha. While two-thirds of wine production still hails from the coop system, leading names like VNV Vignerons du Mont Ventoux based in the agricultural village of Bedouin, and Sylla, a hundred or so winegrowers spread over the Luberon, Ventoux and Vins de Pays de Vaucluse PGI PDO production areas, have helped feed into a value-meets-quality dynamic. 

Despite all this, the individual wineries remain the greatest engines of quality growth. These are wineries like Château Pesquié and Cave de Lumieres, which presented some fantastic Clairette-backed wines at the tasting, as well as the likes of Château Unang and Chene Bleu.

Frédéric Chaudière, president of the Ventoux AOP and winemaker/owner at Château Pesquié, sees the area as a relatively young AOC with great potential.

“When my parents created the winery in 1990, we were only a handful of independent wineries, maybe 15. Nowadays, we’re more than 120. There’s been really so much new talent settling in the Ventoux, and they have been accelerating the dynamic to really explore.”

Helena Nicklin of The Three Drinkers gives the lowdown on the Ventoux AOC

Climate evolution 

Ventoux has also benefitted significantly from climate change in recent years. Warmer daytime temperatures have helped the region to make more robust wines compared to the light, often flimsier iterations of previous years, while cool night-time temperatures help the wines in their enduring struggle to hold onto acidity and maintain good balance.

As one of the wineries at the forefront of the region, Château Pesquié is currently spearheading several climate studies via the National Institute for Agronomic Research where they are looking to the future of the region.

“We have some of the coolest temperatures in the Southern Rhône, particularly when it comes to the difference of temperatures between day and night, which are defining in the fact that we do pick a little bit later,” says Chaudière.

“Over the next 50 years, we expect to see a convergence between the later terroir and the earlier ones. So in a way, the terroir in the Ventoux is warming slightly faster than our neighbours, which are already a bit warmer. But we have an incredible chance in the Ventoux in that we can actually keep on climbing slightly higher. So I am not too worried in for the future of our AOC in the sense that we’ll probably have new plots in 20, 30 or 40 years being planted at 600, 700 or 800m, and we have a little bit of reserve of land on the east side where currently lavender is cultivated.”

Aside from the challenges of climate change, it is the cooling influence of the mountain, as well as the limestone soils, rather than the elevation, which winemakers believe accounts for the true DNA of the region.

“It’s like air conditioning,” says Chaudière. “That’s what really makes it a cooler climate.”

Varietal diversity is also being explored in order to maintain balance in the region’s blends, another core part of its DNA.

“Cinsault is probably the most interesting in the short term,” says Chaudière. “Planted in the right types of soils and limited in volume, it is something like a Gammy of the South. You can have a great freshness, not too much alcohol at all and not too much colour either.

“Mourvèdre as a late ripening variety is also probably going to be very helpful for blends. Like our benchmark neighbour Châteauneuf Du Pape over the last two decades, we have seen the percentages go up in the blends of the more ambitious cuvees.”

He also foresees making greater use of the Rhône Valley rules which permit the adding of white varieties to red blends to retain freshness, while simultaneously putting greater focusing on standalone whites.

“Currently, only 6% of production is white. But 12% of the vines that are planted in the AOC are white varieties. Currently, half of whites are used to make rosés and a little bit of red, but I think this is going to change and that we’re going to see an increase in the production of white.”

As a winemaker, he adds, “It makes less sense to me to try to make terroir rosé when we have amazing possibilities of course for red, but for whites also.”

For a whiter future, Chaudière is pinning his hopes on Clairette: “It’s a fabulous grape indigenous to our area that has tremendous freshness. It’s also later ripening and I think it will remain relatively late, not super late, but much later than Viognier or Rousanne. It has amazing potential to produce great crisp mineral salty white wines with our limestone and cool climate.”

A more fresh blood joins the region, Ventoux is making its mark as the place to watch, with a growing stable of young winemakers helping to inject life into the region which is also set between two national parks and UNESCO Biosphere reserves, benefitting from 30,000 ha of surrounding forest.

From here, the sky is quite literally the limit.

Ventoux AOC at a glance (2020 figures):

• 5,675 ha in production

• 256,950 hl with 54% red, 41% rosé and 6% white

• Exports represent 24% of total volumes, with the leading export markets being Canada, Belgium and Germany

• Traditionally these were known as Côtes du Ventoux. Gianed AOC status in 1973

• Permitted varieties also include Marsanne and Bourboulenc for whites and Marselan for reds