Head for the Hills

Better late than never, I guess. I visited the Vacqueyras/Beaumes de Venise wine fair in mid-December, the day after my trip to Cornas (you can read that blog here), but what with one thing and another – Christmas, New Year, decorating the house, even a bit of work – it kind of got left behind. My brief write-up follows in all its glory, but first a bit of background.

Looking across the vineyards to the Dentelles de Montmirail, near the village of Lafare.

Looking across the vineyards of Beaumes-de-Venise to the Dentelles de Montmirail

The villages of Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise are just a few kilometres apart and, along with next-door-neighbour Gigondas, form a chain of southern Rhône wine regions (appellations) nestled into the sheltering hills of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Because the three villages are so close, and because it’s common for estates here to have their vineyards spread over a number of plots, it’s not unusual to see winemakers making both Vacqueyras and Gigondas or Vacqueyras and Beaumes-de-Venise, or … well you get the idea. (Just a short aside here – when I’m touring with clients I’m often asked how an estate with a winery in the village of, say, Rasteau can be allowed to make Rasteau wine and a wine labelled under the name of its neighbour Cairanne. The reason is that the physical location of the winery is irrelevant, it’s where the vines are growing that counts. So Domaine La Fourmone in Vacqueyras, can sell you wines from its home village as well as Gigondas and BdV.)

Looking towards the Dentelles from the Vacqueyras side. Notice the stony soils.

Looking towards the Dentelles from the Vacqueyras side. Notice the stony soils.

Although white and rosé Vacqueyras exist, about 97% of all the wine made under the name is red. Beaumes-de-Venise is a dry red while Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is a sweet white wine (see my review of those here) – any dry whites or rosés from vineyards within the BdV appellation boundary are sold not under the village name but as Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Rhône Villages, the general catch-all appellations for the region as a whole. Don’t ask why unless you want an explanation that may be longer than the whole of this blog.

So what makes a Vacqueyras red different to a BdV red, or a Gigondas red for that matter, given that all three villages adopt the southern Rhône grape trinity of grenache, syrah and mourvedre (aka GSM). Well if you believe the winemakers, and I do, it’s all about the “terroir”, that magic combination of climate, micro-climate and soil.

Being so close to each other, the three can’t but share the same Mediterranean climate. And while the higher parts of the Beaumes-de-Venise appellation, up in the hills, have a slightly cooler micro-climate, the real difference is the soil. Clearly that doesn’t change precisely at the village boundaries – the shift is more gradual – and equally obviously, within a single region there will be differences in soil composition from one sector to another, even from one plot of vines to another (something gardeners will understand well), but in general Gigondas has more clay, Vacqueyras is stonier with more sand in the mix, while Beaumes-de-Venise has three distinct soil types with limestone being important in the higher vineyards and sand playing a major role around the village itself. The end result is that Gigondas makes the fullest-bodied reds, BdV the lightest. (That’s not to say that heavier is intrinsically better than lighter. And anyway, as 14+% alcohol isn’t uncommon in a red BdV, all things are relative.)

So what about the wines? Around 20 or so Vacqueyras and Beaumes-de-Venise producers turned up for this mini wine fair, although my tasting was skewed towards those that had also (against the rules) brought along their Gigondas. Here’s what I thought:

Chateau Redortier

Isabelle and Sabine de Menthon and their Chateau Redortier wines.

Isabelle and Sabine de Menthon and their Chateau Redortier wines.

The estate is high up (500m/1600ft) in the Dentelles near the tiny village of Suzette. The Beaumes de Venise “Tradition” 2011 (60% grenache, 40% syrah) comes from vineyards with clay/limestone soils. Typically 2011 – soft, warm, round – it mixes dark fruit, blood and chocolate and is expertly made. Their Gigondas 2011 comes from a parcel of vines close to the border with BdV, a west-facing slope at the far north of the appellation. The style is similar to the BdV but richer, with black pepper spice, cherry, roast beetroot and frangipane. Beaumes de Venise “Monsieur le Comte” 2010 was left until the end, and for good reason. The grapes were harvested very ripe, the wine is robust, almost black and the fruit leans that way too with lots of bramble and blackcurrant. What’s great is that the wine isn’t just big and burly, there’s some style too.

Mas des Restanques

Mas des Restanques

Jean-Luc Faraud, Mas des Restanques

The first thing to say is how nice it is to see a French estate using modern, clean label design. Believe me, as a former wine merchant I know how important visual appeal is. The wine doesn’t quite live up to it, sadly – fine, ok, yes, but not exciting. The Vacqueyras 2012 is a relatively straightforward chocolate/bramble jelly glugger. The Gigondas 2012 has a 3€ premium, but doesn’t justify the step in price. Very similar in style to the Vacqueyras, with a bit of fruit cake thrown into the mix.

Domaine le Sang des Cailloux

Serge Ferigoule (with the moustache, and what a moustache)

Serge Férigoule (with the moustache, and what a moustache)

In Vacqueyras terms, these wines are expensive (15€-21€ a bottle for the two I tasted). But that’s nothing compared to many other great wines, and, believe me, these wines are exceptional. Azalaïs 2012 (grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvedre) has concentration with freshness – great balance. The palate is macerated cherry. Cuvée de Lopy 2011 is the old vine blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre. It’s in a darker, more bloody style. Tannins are present, but ripe and fine. There’s an impression of sweet fruit, dried orange peel and warm clay.

 Domaine les Semelles de Vent (previously Montagne Vieille)

Yu Yen Galon, Domaine les Semelles de Vent

Yu Yen Galon, Domaine les Semelles de Vent

The change in name occurred in time for the 2012 vintage, so you will see both labels on the market. Vacqueyras Vieilles Vignes 2010 had a dusty, chalky nose, like warm earth on a hot day. Gigondas 2011 is soft, almost sweet, and smells of dark fruits and coffee, but I got no sense of real concentration. The Gigondas 2012 was by far the best of the three, with its ripe fruit intensity. Chocolate and rose petals are followed by black cherry.

Clos des Cazaux

Clos des Cazeaux

Clos des Cazaux

The Vacqueyras 2012 was made in a relatively simple but easy to enjoy style. The syrah vines (60% of blend) are 80 years old – so one could argue that there should be greater concentration – but it’s friendly and easy-going. Gigondas “La Tour Sarrasine” 2011 has the same relaxed style but far more depth. Red fruits with pepper and clove spice. Gigondas “Cuvée Prestige” 2012 is, unusually for a wine from that village, dominated by syrah (60%, plus 40% grenache). It doesn’t taste very traditional either. The vines are up in the hills and give the wine a cool, fresh, almost medicinal nose. Distinctive and really quite classy.

Domaine de la Colline St. Jean

Neither the Vacqueyras “Tradition” 2012 nor the Gigondas 2012 did it for me – both reminded me of fermenting apples.

Domaine la Garrigue

David Bernard, Domaine la Garrigue

David Bernard, Domaine la Garrigue

I think you get more for your money here lower down the range. Vacqueyras “Traditionelle” 2012 is soft, ripe, very tasty. Vacqueyras “Cuvée de l’Hostellerie” 2012 is riper still but the chewy tannins make it harder work. Leave it a year to help soften it. The Gigondas 2013 was lighter but had similarly mouth-drying tannins, which stood out even more due to the relative lack of stuffing. There was, however, a nice touch of violet running through the wine.

Domaine Montvac

Domaine Montvac

Domaine Montvac

Vacqueyras Cuvée Arabesque 2012 is ripe but blurred around the edges and lacks definition. I also find the raspberry fruit one-dimensional. Gigondas Cuvée Adage 2011 is starting to brown a bit at the rim, which surprised me given its relative youth. And it doesn’t hide its alcohol that well either.

Domaine l’Arche des Garances

Claude Pleindoux, L'Arche des Garances

Claude Pleindoux, L’Arche des Garances

Rhône Wine Tours faithful Claude Pleindoux was there, too. I know Claude’s wines well enough not to have had to taste them again, but I did sneak a taste of his delicious Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2013 to finish off the day. Fresh, bright and floral on the nose, it’s sweet and rich on the palate (but not so much that it tastes cloying). If anything with so much sugar and 15% alcohol can be said to be refreshing, this is it. His regular, un-oaked Beaumes de Venise 2013 red would put many of the more famous Gigondas and Vacqueyras to shame, and I have to admit that I prefer it to the oaked version.

Summary

It has become relatively easy to find Vacqueyras and, especially, Gigondas in specialist wine merchants, even some supermarkets. If you don’t already know the wines but you like Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape then you should certainly give them a try – you should find a wine that’s a big step up from the one but without the price tag of the other. I find Beaumes-de-Venise reds harder to recommend – production is dominated by the local “Balma Venitia” co-operative that makes a range of resolutely dull wines. But there are some good and very good independent producers worth discovering – Claude Pleindoux’s L’Arche des Garances estate is still very young and doesn’t export as of yet, but Chateau Redortier’s wines are available in the UK and USA. I’d also suggest looking out for Domaine de Cassan (UK and, for some reason, Colorado-only according to wine-searcher) and Domaine de Fenouillet (USA only). Happy hunting.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. The clue’s in the name. As well as the blog and the website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – there’s also a Facebook page where we post snaps and shorter comments. Though we say so ourselves, it’s a damn fine source of independent advice about Rhone wine and food. Apart from the bias towards our winemakers, of course.

 

 

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