The Giant of Provence is well known by millions of people round the world as the fiercest climb in cycling and a bucket list event for many.
But the wines produced on its foothills are a lot less famous, and spreading the word about their quality credentials can be as tricky as cycling up the mountain for local producers.
The Ventoux appellation – half an hour directly east of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and twice the size – yielded 276,045hl in 2015, making it one of the largest players in the Rhone Valley, but it has been slightly dogged by a historical reputation for making high volume wine, as German native Corinna Faravel found after starting the 12ha Domaine Martinelle in the area in 2002. “My first experience, when I presented my 2004 wine to an American buyer/journalist, he said he liked the wines and thought it was a fair price, but he didn’t buy the wine because he said Ventoux is a dodgy appellation. After that I never said the appellation, I always said, try a southern Rhone wine.
“It really is changing now. It needs to change more. When I first started Ventoux was associated with fruit juice and alcohol, easy drinking, you drank a glass and afterwards you didn’t really remember what it was.
“I am not against co-operatives, but they can’t do the work a small domaine can, and there are more small domaines now and that is stimulating interest in the appellation. We have fantastic potential. It’s such a big appellation and there are so many facets, so it’s difficult to talk generally, but there are lots of people now focusing on the interesting terroir we have. The perception has improved a lot. I don’t hide the label any more. It’s a real alternative to Cotes du Rhone. It has a slightly different profile, but there is some really interesting, individual winemaking going on here.”
The appellation has attracted a fair few Brits in recent years, and James and Joanna King, who took over the 20ha Chateau Unang in 2001, have enjoyed strong UK sales after securing distribution through Justerini & Brooks and gaining listings at Oddbins and various independents. “Ventoux is on the way up,” says Joanna King. “Slowly people are discovering it and what good value it is and the freshness and acidity that we get, which you are starting to lose from other places in the south.
“We are higher and cooler but still get maximum heat in the day and the extremes of temperature. We are the new Chateauneuf-du-Pape.”
She adds: “Cotes du Rhone can be very good, but can be very filthy and still dine off the name. You can’t do that in Ventoux. We have a gang of around 50 private caves all very passionate about what they are doing. Not very many of them will charge a silly amount, because people don’t expect Ventoux to be expensive. Everybody has had their heads down and hasn’t done a lot of marketing, but now people are starting to notice it.”
Freshness and acidity are words you’ll hear a lot in the Ventoux appellation. It’s a mantra they chant. “We have cool nights, even in the summer, and we good have freshness and acidity,” says Anne-Sofie Bernard, director, AOC Ventoux We are south of France, so we have alcohol, of course, but this freshness and acidity brings specificity to the wines.
“The UK is a major goal for the Rhone Valley. It is close. We see the UK as a high value market, not like the Netherlands, which is a volume market.
“We have to get this appellation well known for its quality and not just for high volume. It’s a large challenge and there is a lot of work to do.
“Winemakers have invested a lot in quality. I started here nine years ago and I have seen crazy improvements in that time. There were difficulties in the 2000s as we were making huge volumes of inexpensive wine, but there have been major investments in technology and improvements in technique and we are now identified for having a good balance between quality and price.
“Quality has really increased and price is staying reasonable. We have supermarket wines and estates like Frondreche, Pesquie and Chene Bleu leading quality and helping get that message across, and everyone can find a place.”
The most important critic in the region is Jeb Dunnock, who writes for Robert Parket’s Wine Advocate, and he says that Domaine Frondreche and Chateau Pesquie are “really leading the charge for quality in the Ventoux appellation”, having given both scores in the mid-90s recently.
“It’s more fresh than the rest of the Rhone valley,” says Frondreche’s Sebastien Vincenti. “We have the same terroir but very different climactic conditions. It used to be difficult to sell Ventoux, but now it’s an advantage to be in the appellation.”
Frondreche is distributed by H2 Vin and Les Caves de Pyrenne among others in the UK, and makes 250,000 bottles a year. Pesquie makes more than double that from a 100ha estate, of which 75ha is organic and the rest is in transition. “Ventoux has a microclimate,” says Frederic Chaudiere, who owns the business with brother Alexandre. “The altitude enhances the cooler climate we have. Vines in the Ventoux are up to 550m. We are in a position where global warming is actually helping to bring better balance in the wines. Because we are the latest area to harvest we used to sometimes not get the maturity. That was the strength of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Now it’s a whole different ball game. Everyone gets the maturity. We have a lot of sun but we still manage to have freshness. That’s the essential nature of our terroir.”
Pesquie has traditionally focused on export markets because it has found them more willing to embrace wines from the region. “The French market is quite conservative,” says Chaudière. “The previous generation found comfort in buying Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy. The fact that the prices of these wines have been going up quite a bit has helped them broaden their minds. The Rhone Valley in general and Ventoux has grown to represent great value, along with the Loire and the Languedoc and Rousillon.
“Our parents had much more open minded customers in the UK, US and Germany from the early 1990s. People were willing to look at the price, taste, and say, this is something we would like to buy. That’s why we strongly focused on export markets.
“We export to 35 countries, including Colombia, Vietnam, Israel, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
“We want to raise the bar in cuvees that show the uniqueness of our terroir. Ventoux built a lot of its reputation as a good value wine and we don’t ever want to lose that.”
For anyone exporting to the UK, Brexit is a challenge on the horizon. “We aren’t particularly enthusiastic about Brexit,” says Chaudière. “We are strongly European so we are not happy, but we aren’t very worried either economically because we still feel we will represent very strong value for money for our Terasse range, and for our most expensive wines an extra £2 would not change too much.
“It’s likely that our sales will go down 10%-20% in the next three years. The UK is probably our sixth or seventh biggest market. It’s important but it’s not vital. The way our sales are spread it would not put us in too bad a place.”
The region’s reputation among UK buyers is another obstacle to overcome, according to another Brit, James Wood, winemaker at Domaine Vintur, which sells direct to the UK via its website but does not have a UK distributor. “I have lots of contacts among UK buyers and they still see Ventoux as a cheap go-to red wine area and they don’t really understand what’s going on here,” he says. “This area is so diverse and beautiful in terms of soil and altitude mix. But we are controlled by the historic [perception] of the big co-operatives and it’s hard to break that down. The USA is more exciting for Ventoux because there is no sensitivity around price.
“People in France see us as cheap for what we are producing but in the UK they say we are too expensive. That’s the hardest thing to change but we are not going to give up.
“Ventoux will come in below Cotes du Rhone and it’s better than most Cotes du Rhone. We do fresh, clean, lovely wine and we preserve the fruit and ripen it as much as possible, but we have this coat hanger of acidity coming through the wine.
I came here because I love the area and I love the Grenache. People need to take pride in Ventoux. There are some great people here making great wine.”
The number of individual growers that are independent of co-ops has grown from 40 to 140 in the Ventoux appellation in the past 10 years.
One of them, Daan van Dijkman, who owns the 22ha Domaine de Marrotte and is also seeking UK representation, agrees that overall standards in the appellation have improved greatly in recent times, and believes it could enjoy a further boost if it went 100% organic.
“The wines now have the potential for ageing,” he says. “Ventoux used to make easy drinking, vins de café, difficult to combine with food. Now everybody makes a wine for ageing. We have the potential but we all have to speak with our colleagues more and say forget about high volumes, we all benefit from making quality wines. You can pay your bills by making better wines and getting better prices. You earn more for less production.
“We have to convince our colleagues to work organically because we could be one of the first appellations to be completely organic. The young winemakers say yes, let’s go, but the older winemakers are more sceptical.”
The Ventoux ticks many boxes for UK consumers: a wealth of organic producers, big co-operatives targeting the supermarkets, superb small growers targeting independents and the on-trade, winemakers earning rave reviews from respected critics, food friendly wines, often a little lower in alcohol than the rest of the southern Rhone, good with food, an interesting story given the link to the Tour de France, and of course, the freshness and acidity. It might be time for British buyers to reappraise it.
Facts about the Ventoux:
- The appellation was founded in 1973
- Produced 276,045hl in 2015
- Twice the size of Chateauneuf-du-Pape
- 73% co-operatives, 27% independent producers
- 15 co-ops, ranging from 400hl production to 33,000hl production
- 140 individual estates not part of the co-ops
- Production was 63% red, 32% rosé, 5% white in 2015
- Second biggest Rhone appellation in volume after Cotes du Rhone
- Exports 33% of its wines
- The UK market represents around 15% of exports. It is the fourth largest market after Belgium, Germany and Canada