Beaumes-de-Venise, Cairanne, Gigondas, Rasteau and Vinsobres, five southern jewels in the Rhone Valley crown
By Jean-Paul Burias – Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 04 December 2023
In 2022, the Rhone Valley marketed 329 million bottles and shipped wines to 186 countries, making it one of France’s premier wine regions. Amidst a galaxy of legendary appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côte-Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage, five less publicised southern growths each offer some incredible pours.
Amidst stunning scenery, the tranquil waters of the Rhone flow towards the South and the Mediterranean Sea where extensive swathes of vineyards sit amidst garrigue, lavender fields and olive groves. The bountiful, powerful river cuts through the entire Rhone Valley, shaping both its character and its vineyard sites. The region’s reputation is fuelled by top appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côte-Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage and it has successfully overcome its image as a purveyor of easy-drinking, robust, crowd-pleasing, entry-level wines. For many years now, this simplistic equation has been quashed by a quantum leap in quality stemming from impeccable control over crop yields. The 17 Côtes du Rhône growths now also showcase more under-the-radar appellations including Beaumes-de-Venise, Cairanne, Gigondas, Rasteau and Vinsobres, where we headed to meet some of the winegrowers. The results lived up to our expectations, offering a wide variety of genuine, elegant treasures which fully epitomise the quintessential qualities of their vineyard sites, climate and remarkable craftsmanship.
Eloïse Nosworthy, Brigitte, Dorothée and Simon heading off to harvest through the vineyards
Domaine Saint Amant : a winery that takes the high road
At the foot of a mountain range where the picturesque Dentelles de Montmirail soar towards the sky, Beaumes-de-Venise stands like an enclave in the heart of Provence. This lush oasis is seemingly buoyed by its flowers, olive groves and vineyards that produce unique wines. Founded by Jacques Wallut in 1995, the family-run Saint Amant winery is managed by a dynamic mother-sister duo, namely Camille and Eloïse Nosworthy. Nestled amidst the mountains, at 600 metres above sea level on the south-eastern slopes of mount Saint-Amand, its peak, the 13 hectares under vine are dotted across small terraces. These are lined with banks that are home to broom, almond trees, rock roses, thyme and rosemary, and surrounded by woodland, fruit trees and pines, all of them living in perfect harmony with abundant biodiversity. “Our vines benefit from the coolness stemming from the elevation and contrasting temperatures between day and night which promote slower ripening and slightly more pronounced acidity”, explains Camille Nosworthy. “Our aim is to showcase the coolness of altitude whose defining feature is a complex terroir, often with a dash of salinity”. High-elevation sites play a pivotal role, with very forward freshness, appetising fruit, and very supple tannins in the red wines which flirt with the best. “It is impossible, and unthinkable, to rival Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is a sacrosanct institution”, adds Eloïse Nosworthy. “Beaumes-de-Venise is a full-fledged growth in the southern Rhone Valley, with a distinctive rooting in the Dentelles de Montmirail. Sometimes we struggle to emerge from the shadows of our two neighbours, Vacqueyras and Gigondas. But we are convinced that Beaumes-de-Venise will successfully find its place among the top wine regions in the South of France”.
Camille Nosworthy harvesting at Domaine Saint Amant
A surprise in the tanks at Domaine Saint Amant
Domaine Lucien Tramier : a century of excellence
Domaine Lucien Tramier is a remarkable 100-year-old winery which has been growing vines in unique Rhone Valley sites since 1912. The variety of soils and range of aspects of the vineyard blocks promotes production of prized signature wines. As the heir to this authentic legacy, fourth-generation winegrower Max Thomas has been running the winery since 2007. “The clay-limestone soils enable us to produce wines with finesse that stay fresh, despite the hot summer weather”, he explains. “At every level of our ranges, including our Cairanne, we focus primarily on ‘palatability’ when our wines are young. Right from the first few months, our wines are enjoyable, and you don’t necessarily have to wait several years for them to be ready to drink”. The grapes are picked at peak ripeness, without extended hang times, so that the sugars and acids are balanced. Finesse, elegance and freshness are the guiding principles at the winery, with variations depending on the sites, but invariably the best value for money possible. “Since Cairanne became a Cru in 2015, we have witnessed increased interest in the appellation”, stresses Benjamin Laigle, the winery’s sales manager. “Depending on the markets, being able to provide Cairanne is a definite plus point. It is an upcoming appellation where every parameter is progressing in leaps and bounds, both in terms of awareness and quality, with a high proportion of independent and young winegrowers who want to push the boundaries”.
Max Thomas and Lucien Tramier, passing skills down through the family
Gigondas La Cave : a major player
Tradition often creates a virtuous circle. For over sixty years, the co-operative winery in Gigondas has been a major player in the Gigondas appellation, bordering on the neighbouring appellation areas of Vacqueyras and Beaumes-de-Venise. Its members show great respect for their outstanding vineyard sites and farm them with passion so that they can take high-quality fruit to the winery. “We are not really in competition with the other Rhone Valley growths”, claims the director Christophe Esclangon. “I think we’re complementary. The vineyards of Gigondas produce finer, more delicate wines. They are highly prized by our customers, our aim being to seek out complexity without the wines being overly powerful. Drinkability is increasingly prioritised and it’s a criteria that we focus on”. The Gigondas appellation is renowned and recognised, offering consistent quality at competitive prices. And that is undeniably a real bonus in export markets.
Harvesting in Gigondas
Vineyards belonging to the Gigondas co-operative winery
Famille Cheron : genuine pleasure
The Chéron family continues to build upon the achievements of five generations of winemakers who, over the years, have established a distinctive signature style through outstanding wines. Crafting wine implies making a pledge to arouse emotions and act as a catalyst for enjoyable occasions and shared happiness, whilst also safeguarding the rich and varied legacy of vineyard sites. As a fifth-generation winegrower, Elisa Cheron has left her own personal stamp on winemaking, maturation and bottling, ultimately leading to great finesse in the wines. “We are convinced that only natural balance can shape authentic, meaningful and flavourful wines”, she claims. “We seek out the most genuine, purest expression of our vineyard sites. We humbly try and understand the specific features of our soils and vineyard blocks. Although the desire for balance is the guiding principle behind our blends, our daily focus is on achieving site-expressiveness in its most natural state”. The result is quite simply stunning wines brimming with harmony and finesse that offer great pleasure for consumers.
Yves Cheron and his daughter Elisa
Marty Echerei, Elisa Cheron’s husband, who joined the estate in 2020
The Chéron family
Maison Safranier : a fusion of two like-minded people
Maison Safranier encapsulates the encounter between two passionate wine enthusiasts who have created an entirely new concept that is elegant, focused and pure. Seasoned winegrower Claude Hilt founded Villa Safranier in 2010. Land was painstakingly acquired in some of France’s finest vineyard sites, primarily in Rasteau and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When Isabelle Thomas Moine joined him as consultant winemaker in 2014, it marked a new turning point for the estate. Her meticulous work throughout the winemaking and blending process paved the way for Villa Safranier to secure unanimous recognition for its outstanding quality and faithful rendition of the original vineyard sites. In 2020, Claude Hilt and Isabelle Thomas Moine embarked on a new challenge and created Maison Safranier with the ambition of developing mould-breaking, enterprising wines. “The countryside around Rasteau has distinctive rolling hills”, explains Thomas Moine. “The location creates a range of microclimates offering the opportunity to choose the best aspect for each grape variety, based on their specific needs in terms of sunshine and airflow”. Rasteau is home to substantial biodiversity with an array of flora and fauna that contribute to environmental balance in the vineyards and have a positive impact on vine health and the quality of the fruit. “We don’t feel that there is any rivalry, but rather complementarity between us and appellations like, say, Châteauneuf-du-Pape”, says Hilt. “The two growths offer outstanding showcases for the variety of vineyard sites in the Rhone Valley. Rasteau displays distinctive generosity and power, whereas Châteauneuf-du-Pape is valued for its finesse and freshness. Rasteau is a renowned appellation, boasting a long-standing history and established reputation for quality which facilitates sales in international markets”. Maison Safranier produces a wide selection of wines, ranging from powerful, complex reds to generous sweet dessert wines. This variety helps it match the differing tastes and preferences of consumers globally from the heart of a region replete with internationally renowned, top appellations.
Claude Hilt, the original driving force behind Maison Safranier and Isabelle Thomas Moine
Maison Lumian & Bonnefoy : a winning combination
Organic winegrowers Gilles Phétisson and Caroline Bonnefoy have been working together since 2005. They make their wines separately, from the 35-hectare Lumian vineyard for Phétisson and at Bonnefoy for her. On sites located between 360 and 380 metres above sea level with clay and brown limestone pebble-strewn soils facing South, Maison Lumian & Bonnefoy covers 45 hectares under vine straddling four appellations - Valréas, Beaumes-de-Venise, Ventoux and Rasteau. “We strive to offer the finest rendition of our vineyard sites”, says Bonnefoy. “The cool subsoil and elevation of 210 to 260 metres for the hillsides make this one of the latest-ripening parts of the appellation area. We can wait for phenolic ripeness without generating excessive alcohol content”. The southern aspect of the hillside sites, sheltered from the Mistral wind by the state-owned forest to the North, along with the brown limestone pebbles on the surface, promote ripening in the Grenache vines. The earlier-ripening Syrah benefits from cooler temperatures due to a nearby spring.
Caroline Bonnefoy in her vineyards
Domaine Le Mirabeau : scaling the heights
Facing the Mont Ventoux, Vinsobres is the first Rhone Valley Cru in the Provence part of Drôme, the most southerly part of the Auvergne-Rhônes-Alpes region. Located thirty or so kilometres from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it produces rich, ample wines due to its terroir and remarkable exposure. The reds display minerality which lends them specific characters and ageability. Philippe Wallon and his son Sébastien farm 5 hectares of vineyards and limit production at Domaine Le Mirabeau to 10,000 bottles blended from 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah – the wines have been awarded a Gilbert & Gaillard gold medal. “The uniqueness of our vineyard sites stems from the appellation’s location”, explains Philippe Wallon. Set at 400 metres above sea level, Vinsobres is the highest Cru in the entire Rhone Valley. “On top of this is the nearby Mont Ventoux which creates a hot climate during the day and cool temperatures overnight”. The resultant wines benefit from these outstanding conditions and show distinctive fresh fruit notes and silky, elegant tannins that guarantee good cellaring capacity.
Philippe Wallon, the owner of Domaine Le Mirabeau, in his vineyards
Domaine Saint Vincent : unique northern characters
Domaine Saint Vincent was established in 1920 but reached a turning point in its history in 2012. After being owned by three generations of the same family, this outstanding winery was bought by the Lescoche family whose ambition was to build on previous achievements and continue to promote its quality and prestige. The 50-hectare vineyard is mostly planted to Grenache and Syrah, the region’s iconic grape varieties. The vines are lovingly farmed in a way that honours ancient traditions. “Vinsobres is a village and a hilltop appellation which boasts 1,375 hectares of terraced vineyards located between 200 and 450 metres above sea level”, comments owner Philippe Lescoche. The appellation is sheltered by a microclimate and its vineyards in the shape of an amphitheatre. Its felicitous, and unique location make it a southern growth with a northern accent – the wines are fruity and generous. Its high elevation vineyard sites and upfront freshness are its defining features. “Our vineyards promote wines that are less driven by alcohol and are fresher on the palate”, claims Ludivine Lescoche, the owner’s daughter and head of sales. “Vinsobres wines are also very age-worthy and will usually keep for up to ten years. Winemaking and maturation techniques bring out their full aromatic potential. Unfortunately, though, they are still very much under the radar in export markets. Depending on the country, trade customers sometimes do not differentiate between a generic Côtes-du-Rhône and a Rhone Valley growth”. Domaine Saint Vincent turns the spotlight on the typicity and identity of Cru Vinsobres. The Grenache-Syrah blends display great aromatic profiles. The wines are supple and balanced with silky tannins lending structure and superb elegance.
Philippe Lescoche, the winegrower and owner at Domaine Saint Vincent in the cellar door facilities.
Ludivine Lescoche, daughter of the owner at Domaine Saint Vincent with her partner Guillaume Coin, the sales manager.
Vibrant growths bursting with vitality
Set at the pinnacle of the top French wine regions, the Rhone Valley is home to a remarkable 17 Crus, several of which are internationally renowned. Behind the major names, these southern appellations appeal for their remarkable quality. Winegrowers in Beaumes-de-Venise, Cairanne, Gigondas, Rasteau and Vinsobres have successfully leveraged their prime location, terroir, exceptional sunshine and iconic grape varieties. Grenache ensures high alcohol potential, whilst Syrah displays abundant aromatics and Mourvèdre instils refined spicy notes in the wines. For a majority of wineries, the results are stunning with fruit-forward wines that express very elegant roundness. Also, and this is an important cue for the end consumer, their very attractive price point is an undeniable bonus. In a highly competitive marketplace replete with wine, these five growths produce a constellation of great wines that fully deserved to be discovered and enjoyed.
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