Costières de Nîmes, Luberon, Ventoux – Three wine regions with a difference
By Florian Glemot DipWSET – Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 11 October 2022
Located in the southern Rhone, the Costières de Nîmes, Luberon and Ventoux appellations share an ancient tradition of winegrowing that dates back to Antiquity. Situated within wildlife sanctuaries where conservation of biodiversity is key, they offer visitors both spectacular scenery and a distinctly Mediterranean, laid-back lifestyle, all of which is generously encapsulated in their wines. We have selected six wineries that stand out for the quality of their wines in order to turn the spotlight on the common traits between the three appellations, but also what makes them unique.
Domaine Mourgues du Grès has created a fun tour of the vineyards so that visitors can get a better understanding of its history and diversity.
The Southern Rhone is internationally renowned for its full-bodied, generous, predominately Grenache noir-based red wines. Their flagship is without doubt Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with numerous other Rhone appellations in its wake. These include the most southerly of them all, Costières de Nîmes, which forms a bridge between the Provence side of the Rhone and Languedoc. The Luberon, flirting with northern Provence, stands out for its predominant share of fresh, delicate rosés whilst Ventoux, the most northern of the three appellations, produces twice the amount of wines as the first two. The three appellations bask, broadly speaking, in a Mediterranean climate, often buffeted by the dry and relatively cool Mistral wind, a welcome ally for combatting fungal diseases. At the same time, they are also home to specific micro-climates, from which stem some of their unique characteristics. Washed down by the Rhone from the Alps and the Massif Central during the Ice Age, the pebbles typical of the appellations lining the river allow the soil to store heat, promoting berry ripening. The pebbles, which are an iconic feature of the Rhone Valley, also provide drainage and help retain moisture deep in the subsoil, which is generally clay-limestone. This simplistic description, however, fails to do justice to the immense variety of soil types and textures, exposures and altitudes, formed by the countless geological upheavals that have shaped the landscape of the Rhone Valley. This undoubtedly diversifies the style of the wines. One last point is that, although the three appellations are geographically close, they each come with their own history and culture. From Provence to Languedoc and the Alpine foothills to the Mediterranean, this climatic, geological and cultural diversity has led each wine region to develop in a different way, mirroring their respective wine styles.
Romain and his parents Anne and François Collard, winegrowers at Château Mourgues du Grès.
COSTIÈRES DE NÎMES: THE MOST SOUTHERLY APPELLATION
Bordering the Rhone, between the garrigue and the Camargue, Costières de Nîmes is located at the very South of the Rhone wine region, just a few dozen kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea. This location lends it a marked maritime influence which makes it unique. “The rocky foothills and garrigue of the Cevennes just North heat up very quickly in summer, creating daily air convection which produces a sustained sea breeze on days when it is not outweighed by the Mistral”, explains François Collard, the winegrower at Château Mourgues du Grès. The result is an extremely windy appellation, providing natural ventilation for the vineyards and thus limiting the need for anti-fungal treatments. Consequently, the region is in the forefront of organic winegrowing. Château Mourgues du Grès is located just 5 kilometres from the Rhone, so quite naturally the soils are strewn with pebbles. François Collard explains further: “Pebbles provide great drainage and protect the more clayey sub-soils from evaporation. They form a reservoir that the vines can tap into, thereby making them more resilient during heat waves”. The 70-hectare vineyard, which has been certified biodynamic since 2019, is mainly located on a plateau clad with pebbles, but also has marl soils that provide good water reserves on the northern side of the plateau, and drier limestone soils on its southern side. This variety of soils paves the way for an impressive range of blend-worthy wines, which is crucial for crafting the end wines. Like most of the Southern Rhone, Costières de Nîmes is traditionally an appellation based on blending. “The soils also partly comprise fine earth stemming from pedogenesis, which are rich in mineral elements and promote remarkable minerality and freshness in our wines, particularly the whites”. Château Mourgues du Grès’ white wines account for a quarter of total production. The white Capitelle label is blended from old-vine Grenache blanc grown on limestone soils, with a dash of Roussanne and Viognier. Fermented with wild yeast and matured for a year in demi-muids, it delivers intense minerality, supported by gorgeous fruit and generous oak influence.
Cave de Pazac, between the Rhone and the Cevennes
A little farther North, between the garrigue and the Rhone, the Cave de Pazac is a unique co-operative winery. It groups together 9 winegrowers farming 280 ha of vines that have been certified HVE since 2020. Jean-Louis Boyer, its director, admits that he feels closer to Provencal traditions and culture than to those of Languedoc. Although the winery is located between the two Mediterranean appellations, “the traditional local language is Provençal, and we are only a few kilometres away from the Rhone. We are a full-fledged Rhone appellation”. Once again, the relative freshness of the wines comes as a surprise. The explanation lies in the Mistral wind and the maritime influence which help cool night time temperatures, thereby creating significant diurnal shift. This in turn enhances expression in the Syrah, which accounts for over half of the winery’s different blends. The Le Pigeonnier Rouge label illustrates the appellation’s marketing success. With a production run in excess of 100,000 bottles a year, it displays intense fruitiness and a full, generous mouthfeel. Of all the Rhone Valley appellations, Costières de Nîmes posted the highest increase in exports in 2021. More than 40% of its wines are shipped overseas, with Belgium, the United Kingdom, China and the United States their prime export destinations.
The many geological fractures across the vineyards of Château Isolette have created a significant range of vineyard sites which are essential for fully expressing the art of blending prized by Rhone appellations.
Olivier Rouquet matures his Syrah for over 18 months in used casks in order to slowly oxygenate them without concealing their full finesse with overly oaked wood aromas.
LUBERON, BETWEEN THE RHONE AND PROVENCE
Set in the heart of a national park, the Luberon wine region extends over the northern and southern slopes of its namesake hill range. Olivier Rouquet, who manages Château Isolette located on the northern slope, explains that the Luberon is actually home to two different areas with very different weather patterns: “The southern slopes, where the vineyards stretch down as far as the river Durance, has a much more marked Mediterranean influence, with higher temperatures both by day and night. In the northern part of the Luberon, the Mistral wind does not blow as strongly but the vineyards benefit more from the nightly downward flow of cool air from the Alps. This creates a significant diurnal shift that can reach 15 to 20°C. The cool nights help preserve acidity and slow down the ripening process of the grapes, so that budburst and harvesting occur two weeks later than on the plains”. The vineyards at Château Isolette cover 45 hectares surrounded by 200 hectares of woodland. They range between elevations of 300 to 400 metres, thus benefiting from cool temperatures that are dialled up due to the local topography. The Luberon wine region is dotted with myriad vineyard blocks, very often surrounded by forests. This sets the scene for highly developed natural biodiversity. Some blocks at Château Isolette are located lower down, along the banks of the river Calavon, which marks the border with AOC Ventoux country. The soils here are comprised of marl, which is more fertile than on the hillsides. They generally deliver supple wines, due to the nature of the soils and higher yields. On the northern foothills of the Luberon, the vineyards are mainly North-facing, at elevations of up to 400 metres. These poor soils contain stony scree. Rouquet has a categorical definition of the estate’s terroir, claiming it is more akin to the Northern than to the Southern Rhone. “Syrah thrives on these soils and develops characteristics on a par with those of the prestigious appellations located around Tain l'Hermitage. Tension, aromatic concentration and a fine tannin structure provide all the requisite ingredients for crafting fine wines from the varietal”. Every step is taken to ensure the grapes are processed properly and protected in the vineyard and the winery, from night time harvesting to the use of small tippers filled with inert dry ice. The maturation process is similarly meticulous so that the reductive side of Syrah can be enhanced, with the wines matured in used French oak barrels and demi-muids. Ageing lasts from 18 to 36 months depending on the wine. The aim is to promote slow, progressive micro-oxygenation, with very little wood. Château Isolette’s flagship Bohème label is complemented by a dash of Grenache to ensure compliance with the appellation’s blending rules, but Olivier Rouquet says, “If the AOC allowed me to do so, I would produce magnificent single varietal Syrahs”.
The Delay family facing the Mont Ventoux.
VENTOUX, AND ITS MOUNTAIN INFLUENCE
Forming a semi-circle South of the legendary Mont Ventoux, which peaks at 1,912 metres, the Ventoux wine region extends over 5,600 hectares, which is more than Costières de Nîmes and the Luberon combined. Ventoux also gets a generous amount of sunshine, and like Costières de Nîmes, it is also buffeted by the strong Mistral wind. The hilliest north-western area comes under the influence of Mont Ventoux, its cool mountain air rushing down the slopes by night. Domaine du Bon Remède, located in the foothills of Mont Ventoux, benefits from cool nights where temperatures can plummet to around 15°C in the summer, despite day time temperatures effortlessly exceeding 30°C. Vincent Delay, the estate’s fourth-generation winegrower who recently graduated in oenology, explains the variety of vineyard soils that form his 35-ha vineyard: “The sandy soils produce finesse in our whites and rosés, while the heavier clay and pebble-strewn soils instil power and concentration in our reds”. The Secret de Vincent label, made from Syrah with a hint of Grenache, comes from 40 to 50-year-old vines grown on pebble soils. It combines generous fruit with more complex mineral and garrigue notes. Its mouth-filling volume and finely defined tannins make it a superlative wine that will benefit from several years’ maturation to fully reveal its potential.
Patricia and Joël Jacquet craft authentic wines that have become ambassadors for their vineyard sites at the foot of Mont Ventoux.
Farmed biodynamically since 2008, Domain du Grand Jacquet's old vines are a mirror to their terroir.
Just a few kilometres away, Domaine du Grand Jacquet is a 15-hectare vineyard located on hillsides at elevations ranging from 250 to 400 metres. Grenache noir takes centre stage at this family estate, which has been run based on the premise of biodynamic winegrowing since 2008. “Syrah, which is more fragile, sometimes struggles to thrive on these stony soils, which are frequently buffeted by the strong Mistral wind. It is usually planted on sheltered plots farther down”, explains Joël Jacquet, who has been farming vines here since 1982. The red Les Planètes label, with its generous aromatics, its smooth, velvety palate and clear site-expressiveness, proved to be very convincing. The Grenache noir grapes, which make up 90% of the blend, come from a block of 45-year-old vines located at an altitude of 300 metres, on clay and gravel soils. Its deep roots make it extremely drought-resistant. The cooler, windier conditions than on the plains yield concentrated grapes with thick, light skins. The tannins are very supple and adding Syrah gives the wine the colour it lacks. Patricia and Joël Jacquet produce authentic, generous, balanced wines with a distinctive southern identity.
Fruit is picked late at Domaine de Tara to produce the Mi-figue mi-raisin label, a gorgeous illustration of its vineyard sites.
Farther South, near the Luberon, Domaine de Tara has 12 hectares of ochre soil, which is rich in nutrients and iron, in some of its vineyards. The estate is located in the village of Roussillon, once known as the ‘Village of Ochre’ when its ochre soil was exported to the Nordic countries to combat saltpetre. As a nod to the area’s history, Michèle and Patrick Folléa have named one of their ranges Terre d'Ocres. The vineyard soils lend finesse and delicacy to the wines in the range, which are designed for early-drinking. The rolling landscape is also home to some great clay-limestone hillside vineyards. The estate produces a high proportion of white wine compared to the rest of the appellation, with around 30% of its output white. Hautes Pierres, a blend of Roussanne and Grenache blanc, shows great finesse. The food-friendly white is fermented and matured in oak barrels with batonnage for several months, which gives it superb weight and complex, persistent aromas that are impeccably balanced by profound freshness.
The Folléa family is at the helm of Domaine de Tara.
A DYNAMIC TRIO WITH DIFFERING CHARACTERS
The Rhone is an extensive wine region which cannot easily be defined due to its multi-faceted make-up, each area displaying its own character. So defining what makes Costières de Nîmes, Ventoux and Luberon Rhone appellations may seem complex. The proximity of the Rhone and pebble-strewn vineyard sites dotted in many parts of Costières de Nîmes give it a fairly obvious Rhone identity. However, the occurrence of garrigue in the North-East, akin to the scrubland found in Languedoc, and the clear influence of the Mediterranean Sea on the appellation’s weather patterns, argue in favour of a unique Mediterranean identity, forming a bridge between Languedoc and Provence.
The Luberon, which is farther away from the Rhone and where the influence is more Alpine, does not seem to have a clear link to the Southern Rhone, except culturally through the way the industry is organised around co-operatives and its varietal range. Its lifestyle and culture are nevertheless distinctively Provencal, with rosé production accounting for over 50% of appellation output, following in the footsteps of neighbouring Provence. Despite this, the Luberon is multifaceted and, as evidenced by our testimonials, high-elevation stony vineyard sites on the northern slopes of the hills around Château Isolette produce extremely attractive Syrahs, in the same vein as wines from the southern reaches of the Northern Rhone.
Château Isolette is located in magnificent countryside with a distinctive Mediterranean feel.
Lastly, the Ventoux and its broad rolling plains has plenty of convincing arguments too. Its microclimate combines good air flow and significant diurnal shift to promote the emergence of fresh wines. There are many similarities with the more central southern Rhone, clearly lending it a Rhone identity. Nevertheless, its wines are often fresher than those of the Côtes du Rhône. Freshness is a common denominator across the three appellations, but for different reasons, ranging from maritime and alpine influence to elevation and exposure, soils and sub-soils.
Ultimately, the last noteworthy shared feature is the characteristic drive which fuels all three appellations, giving them good potential to continue to move upmarket. Less expensive than their more prestigious neighbours, the wines crafted by talented producers in these appellations, like those featured here, offer excellent value for money and deserve to be discovered without further ado!