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Discovering Ventoux, Provence

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

Like many wine lovers the Rhône valley, and it's wines, intrigues me and has done ever since I became interested in the subject. One of my earliest wine memories involved a bottle (or two) of Côtes du Rhône, a rather large chunk of Stilton cheese and a wonderful raucous evening spent with great friends.

Bizarrely since I moved to the Pyrénées from Canada 7 years ago I haven't managed to make the time to explore the region at all. Business, and life, got in the way along with a million great places to visit in Southwest France.

Now, with our business sold we're about to start a new venture across country in the French Alps. While house hunting is fun, it's no fun in peak winter season with sky high rental prices, houses half buried in snow so you can't see them, and sketchy mountain roads made sketchier by crazy locals who drive like they are on a rally circuit. So we've decided to "tough" it out just south of the Alps in Provence until the end of winter and things become a little more accessible.

What better excuse to check out the region that has captivated me for years.

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

For now I'm talking about the area, once known as Côtes du Ventoux, now known simply as AOC Ventoux. It's here that we have made our home for the next 4 months, in a small hamlet just outside of Carpentras, the truffle center of Provence.

In terms of wine, the Ventoux area has always been a bit of a poor cousin to the Rhône proper which lies just to the north and the Luberon which lies just to the south. Distance wise "just" means kilometers, and not many: The Rhône Crus of Beaumes de Venise and Vacqueyras are 6 and 13 km away and the boundary of the Luberon is roughly 45km south of us.

The landscape here is rugged and almost every view dominated by the giant mountain of Ventoux, Mont Ventoux. The area is less manicured than it's southern Luberon cousin and property a fraction of the price but by no means less stunning and picturesque.

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

I have included some links here about the location and proximity of Ventoux to the other regions along with some interesting articles on this beautiful part of France - there is so much written already that it seems a shame not to include some of it.

Here's a great article from Decanter about Ventoux Travel

A good comprehensive guide to Provence

A quick and simple read about Ventoux gastronomy and wine

Of course who better to get Rhône information from than Jancis Robinson

and finally Wine Spectator

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

Arriving in any wine region over stimulates the senses, well mine anyway. There is row upon row of vines, multiple vineyard signs at every turn, lots of small skinny vineyard tractors driving at full 35km per hour tilt and a plethora of wine choices in every store, none of which you are familiar with. 

Ventoux didn't disappoint in stimulating the senses at all, bringing beautiful vistas at every turn to be met with a gob-smacked "wow" at every turn. 

Beautiful doesn't even begin to describe it. Even in January when the leaves have fallen, the vines look skeletal and the mistral wind blows hard and cold there is an underlying richness to the landscape. I can only imagine how beautiful this place is in the summer with vibrant purple and blue lavender fields sharing the landscape with lush green vines and rolling Tuscan style hills - definitely worthy of it's reputation. 

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

Unsurprisingly, as a summer destination, Provence shuts in January. Open restaurants are hard to find, markets are sparse and many shops have pulled down their shutters not to be open again until the end of March. Vineyard workers tough it out among the vines spending cold days winter pruning and roads once teeming with tourist traffic are quiet and empty. 

All this hasn't bothered us though, in fact we like it, for us the region is shown in a more beautiful light. It's not every day you can drive through La Gorges de la Nesque, one of the busiest roads in Ventoux, stop the car in the middle of the road, let the dog out, take a bunch of photos and with never a whiff of another vehicle along the whole route. 

Provence may be shut but we are, of course, in France where there is always a boulangerie open with fresh baked breads and pastries and a local bar for a coffee or a different wine to try...no problem in my book!

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

The wines of Ventoux have been, and still are for the most part, a gamble as to what you are going to get in your glass certainly with the reds. This used to be mainly due to lack of investment and the fact that most wines were made to be sold as bulk or cheap "table" wine, leaving the prestigious neighbors of the Rhône to produce the world renowned wines we are all familiar with. 

Most peoples experience of Ventoux wine will be of rosé. Provence excels at rosé, the epiphany of summer wine drinking which I think should be renamed "summer happiness in a bottle".

The salmon pink elixir is ideally drank sitting outside by a pool on a hot day, under the shade of a vine or tree, bowl of olives and a slice of juicy melon to nibble on while something sizzles on a BBQ.

Can you hear the deep sigh?

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

Outside of rosé it's the cheap reds that you may know; 4 - 6 euros is the norm although 6 is a bit on the expensive side!

Of course it's not summer right now so rosé's are off the menu making way for winter warmer reds. 

76% of Ventoux wine production is red. Grenache based red wine blends which range from light and fruity to deep, dark and herbaceous and everything in between. 

I have made it my mission to try as many as is healthily possible in a quest to find a wine that truly blows my socks off.

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

I get the impression that things have changed a bit in AOC Ventoux, especially since researching some of the produce. Sure you have to sift through a lot of different wines to find one of note but the more memorable wines are easier to find than before.

I've been pleasantly surprised and the socks are definitely off!

There's lots to play with here - in terms of terroir it's a veritable herb garden from the abundant mountain garrigue, rosemary and thyme to fragrant lavender on the flatter lands. Mix all that in with a ton of sunshine, heat and soils ranging from clay and limestone and you're looking at some sunny, warm, fruity, herby loveliness in a bottle. 

Of course I'd be struck down if I ever described it like that to a wine maker. We all know that so much goes into making a great wine but that's the guts of it and I have to say they ARE rather drinkable!

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

The climate in Provence brings out the best in the classic Mediterranean grapes that thrive here - dusty, spicy Grenache, dark fruity Syrah, tannic Mourvèdre - the main grape varieties along with acidic Carignan and a dash of perfumed Cinsault for finesse, all blended in different (but AOC controlled) percentages to the winemakers preference. 

There in lies the key to great new wines from Ventoux, Provence.

The Ventoux AOC allows flexibility in terms of the blend which must be between 50% - 80% Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre depending on where the site is located but leaves the rest at the discretion of the winemaker. It's a playground for those wanting to make different and exciting new style wines of the region.

Discovering Ventoux, Provence

There is land to be had here too and by the sound of it, at a fair price. There are many unattended vineyards waiting for an injection of life and new innovative winemakers are moving to the region, rejuvenating land and are starting to make great wines.

Here are a few links to producers that I have come across and who's wines have made an impression on me so far:

The Perrin Family who make incredible wines in the Côtes du Rhône have bought land in Ventoux and produce a range of wines that is starting to gather popularity.

Domaine de Fondrèche is one to watch. I visited and tasted their incredible wines and love their philosophy. Hard work, dedication and a new approach has resulted in superb ageworthy wines that blew the socks off!

Chateau Pesquie is probably the most expensive bottle I found (€25) and it was well worth the splurge.

and finally, for a cheaper option there is a good co-operative called Les Vignerons du Mont Ventoux who produce some pretty good every day wine so if you see their logo or name on a label it's generally a pretty good quaffer.

It's a time of change in AOC Ventoux and exciting times are ahead for those winemakers striving to produce great terroir driven wines - definitely a place to watch. Unfortunately, those wines don't all come in at the €4-6 price range, more like €15-30 but they are worthy and a treat to try...watch this space and AOC Ventoux!

For now i'll continue with my quest in finding out what I can about the Ventoux area of Provence. It's truffle season so i'm going truffle hunting which should be interesting, then there's the Luberon to experience and of course the Rhône Valley. I get the imprerssion that 4 months is no where near long enough and i'd better go out and buy some more socks!

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