Southern Rhone Unknown: Welcome To The Luberon, Part I

27 08 2021

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

The fact that there are so many poorly known wine regions in France (at least to North American drinkers) is testament to just how deeply wine is ingrained into French culture. They make the stuff almost everywhere. We’ve all heard of, exalted, and perhaps even been oversaturated by (at times) the classics, but the south of France in particular makes up a hugely diverse patchwork quilt of wine regions, grape varieties, and winemaking regulations. The broad strokes are often familiar (e.g., the Rhone Valley, Provence, Languedoc), but the specific strands that make up the quilt can be rather arcane. For example: what, and where, is the Luberon? Well, intrepid reader, you are about to find out. Feel free to drink along too, if you can, as these four bottles are just hitting the Calgary market as I write this. I will explain the ins and outs of these regions, highlight a few mysterious grape varieties, and of course provide my usual brand of obsessively detailed tasting notes for the whole lot. To the south!

We’ve got three offerings from Aureto Vignoble Winery to tackle here, plus a bonus offering from Domaine des Peyre. Aureto means “a light breeze” in an ancient Provençal dialect, a name that is supposed the evoke the winery’s ethos of breathing new life into previously disregarded (or perhaps just untapped) vineyard sites. Their first vintage was 2007. The winery itself is situated a few kilometers away from the famous Ventoux mountain known as the ‘giant of Provence’, smack dab in the middle of the Luberon AOP wine region. Aureto produces wines that hail from the Ventoux and Luberon AOPs as well as the Vaucluse and Mediterranee protected geographical indications (or IGPs). The Aureto vineyards obviously cover a decent amount of ground, 36 hectares to be exact, with 20 hectares are located around La Coquillade near Gargas and the remainder near Gordes, Oppède and Bonnieux. I know, right? I hadn’t heard of any of those nouns either.

Although all these place names seem daunting, situated as they are in a lesser-known wine region, it is probably sufficient to understand that the Luberon occupies an extensive portion of the southeast corner of the Rhone Valley, with warm and sunny but not flagrantly hot weather due to moderating influences of cold air from the Alps. Interestingly, the Luberon makes more rose wines than reds, with Matt Walls describing the latter as sometimes “lack(ing) in ripeness, concentration, and character…[but] the best are unforced, with a charming aerial, free-spirited demeanour”. He describes the whites as “beginning to forge a distinctive character that marks them out from other Rhone whites. They have a zesty brightness that makes them really drinkable aperitif-style wines- not something the Rhone does terribly well as a general rule”. Aureto grows fifteen varieties of grape, both regional classics and more obscure crossings. One wonders how these guys avoid getting spread too thin, although we are reassured that this vinous diversity yields characterful wines of place, heedless of AOP or IGP designation. The largely calcareous-clay (or marl) soil lends a palpable delicacy even as the relatively warm Mediterranean climate guarantees a fruity richness. The claim is that the “delicate balance of these two elements makes the Aureto wines quite noble”. Let us see firsthand.

2016 Aureto Vignoble Winery Tramontane Red (~$38)

Check out the blend on this one: 45% Caladoc, 30% Marselan, and 25% Syrah. Not what I was expecting. No Grenache? Caladoc and Marselan?? Caladoc is a cross of Grenache (oh, there it is!) and Malbec created by viticulturalist Paul Truel in 1958, with the hopes of obtaining a grape that was less disease-prone than either of its parents. Laudable as it may be, this sort of motivation to cross grapes rarely yields winemaking magic, and indeed, Caladoc is not allowed in any French AOP as of this date. Fortunately, this has not dissuaded experiments as far afield as Bulgaria (!), and this darkly-coloured tannic grape (said to smell of loganberries, a rather specific epithet) would seem to have more potential than previously realized. Coincidently enough, the better-known but still far-from-famous Marselan was also produced by Paul Truel, three years after Caladoc came into existence, in 1961. A highly aromatic cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, this was intended to combine the quality and finesse of the former with the colour, high yields, and heat tolerance of the latter. Marselan does appear as a permitted variety in a few AOPs, and perhaps as a rather late-in-the-day culmination of Paul Truel’s origin vision, it recently became one of four new red grapes authorized in Bordeaux to combat climate change. Marselan may even have a future as a flagship variety for fine wine production in China. This wine is bottled as IGP Vacluse, a large heartland of the Southern Rhone that encompasses both Ventoux and the Luberon. Non-AOP wines designated as such are typically grown outside these boundaries, or use illicit varieties or blends. The latter is certainly the case here, given the inclusion of AOP-allergic Caladoc. The present offering is fermented in stainless steel, with portions of the Syrah and Caladoc components seeing ageing in oak barrels (totaling 40% of the final blend, with the remainder resting in steel). As Matt Walls mentions, it turns out that Vacluse can sometimes yield some choice sips.

This pours a largely dark ruby hue, with a few purple tints here and there. Rather pretty. The aromas open up in the glass after a few minutes, revealing a bounty of to-be-expected dark fruits (damson plums, black cherries, Saskatoon berries, blackcurrants), fennel seeds, absinthe, smoky vanilla beans, fresh pottery clay, chocolate milk, savoury pepperoni sticks, and dare I say… peanut butter (?!). The fruits are bright and sunny, slightly raisinated but not confected, with some date, fig bar, and blackstrap molasses notes emerging late on the midpalate. This is not lacking in character. And that finish!! Lovely, persistent, and largely unexpected notes of greengage, boysenberry, and currant leaf dazzle and delight. Loganberry, even (yes, I’ve actually tasted them – “black raspberry” might be a more utilitarian and accessible note). “Plummy” might be the best tie that binds all this together, yet it is as if this somehow needs to placate the drinker by providing a gentle aromatic caress after such a forceful structured start. I adore such complexity, the place where the expected suddenly shifts to the unexpected, a principle that also explains why I love jam bands and other forms of controlled chaos. The tannins are ripe and pliable, the acidity medium and nothing beyond that. This is basically a celestial fruit roll-up.

90+ points

2019 Aureto Vignoble Winery Tramontane White (~$36)

The Aureto Tramontane white carries an even broader designation than the red: IGP Mediterranee. This is a ridiculously huge territory that spans from the Rhone River all the way to Italy; the flexibility inherent in that much land explains why quite a bit of Provence rose carries this designation. I believe the reason for the expansive classification here is that this wine is 60% Viognier and 40% Rousanne, with the former grape disallowed as the majority constituent of any blend in both Ventoux and Luberon. The grape is allowed only as a minor blending component, so if you wanna make a Viognier-dominant wine here, you have to call it something generic. Although I find this legal stuff interesting, at the end of the day who really cares if the end result is intriguing and delicious. Both components of this blend are carefully pressed to avoid oxidation, with 55% of the final blend seeing new oak and aging on fine lees for 5 months. These guys clearly don’t fear intricate ninja-like blending approaches, and the results pay off in the drinking.

God, I love these huge tank-like Rhone glass bottles, although one wonders how environmentally (or commercially) defensible such packaging will be long-term. I will choose to enjoy them while they’re here. A pretty pale lemon hue in the glass, this readily yields juicy Asian pear and further fruity aromas of yellow peach grading into apricot, navel orange, honeydew melon rind and pineapple. Lovely, but I’m rather quickly drawn to the more subtle herbal and kitchen ingredient vibes: brioche, chamomile tea bag, slight rosewater, and a whole sachet of herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon), as well as a green balsam apple/cucumber vibe. The aromas are finessed and delicate in a way that belies the 13.5% ABV, and the body is just slick, oily and fleshy enough to past the predominant variety sanity test but not quite in heavy territory. The fresh but soft acidity coats the mouth, a caress rather than a poke, with the slightly buttery vibes carrying right through to the long woody pineapple skin and Meyer lemon finish. Just shy of opulent.

89+ points

2019 Aureto Vignoble Winery Autan White (~$32)

We now arrive in Ventoux, another extensive territory but this one a bona fide AOP, and one that has experienced a revolution of sorts. The region was once dominated by cooperatives making thin and tart bulk wines, but has now became a haunt for quality-minded producers who feel that parts of this area could be elevated to a genuine cru. The region is known for reds and has let to forge a specific white wine identity, although AOC rules stipulate that all whites must be a blend of at least two varieties, with the majority of the blend consisting of either Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, or Rousanne. Voila: this is 47% Rousanne, 37% Clairette, and 16% Grenache Blanc (at least according to the label). These grapes see only low-temperature oxygen-free winemaking techniques and stainless steel during fermentation and aging (the latter on the fine lees). It is probably safe to say this is supposed to be a fresher, lighter, earlier/easier drinking style than the Tremontane above.

This is a pale to medium lemon hue with slight greenish tints. As was the case for the Tramontane white, this seems engineered to delivered a rather precise, balanced fruity attack, with no real jagged edges or excessive baby fat, yet at the same time delivering enough supple full-bodied character to clearly point toward the wine’s origins. Light floral elements initially greet the nose, with acacia, tansy, apple blossom, and mountain-ash teasing at a fine-grained delicacy that rapidly gets inundated by crushed pineapple (complete with a pina colada-esque whiff of coconut flake), fragrant Korla pears, golden kiwi, white peach, and a low-key green that recalls snap peas and bottle gourds. A slight ghost of mangos and papayas lingers in the background. The bucolic, antiquarian quirkiness that Rousanne can offer is on display here, but buttressed by Clairette’s unashamed fine green apple and lime acid backbone and the plush stone fruit stylings of Grenache Blanc. The Tremontane white really presented each of its disparate elements separately in high definition, whereas this one provides a more blurry meld. Put differently, this is a blend with all components in lockstep.

89- points

2020 Domaine des Peyre L’Apostrophe (~$31)

We change wineries for this final bottle, which seems to come from a rather different spot ethos-wise, even just based on the appearance of the label. This winery is also situated within the Ventoux and Luberon AOCs, and was inactive for a time before being refurbished by Georges Antoun and Patricia Alexandre, the latter jumping from writing about wine to actually making it (now that notion speaks to me). Go check out the photos on the winery’s website: the place looks positively magical. This particular bottle doesn’t seem designed to wow with layer after layer of epic complexity, and nor should that be the expectation. What’s weird is a blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Viognier?!

The press materials state that “this is the same feeling as biting into a fresh apricot”. Kinda sorta maybe? The colour is a dullish lemon with a few green highlights. A punchy nose of classic gooseberry and green apple is admixed with more tropical guava or passionfruit, a pleasant combination that nods to Sauvignon’s traditional roots even as it spirals into this grape’s decidedly warm-climate future. Although the aromas are nuanced and far from coarse, the Sauvignon green aggression really leads the way: snap pea, Brussels sprouts, even a whiff of down home cat pee. But wait. The promised apricot does emerge, albeit meekly at first, with a gathering of steam as the wine warms in the glass. Lime margarita laced with shredded thistles meets peach and pear fruit cup. The acidity is full of jagged Sauvignon rip, just slightly softened via a matrix of Viognier-mediated oily richness. These two grapes should not play well together, and yet somehow taut and acidic on the one hand and voluptuous on the other do find a way to mesh. That said, by and large, the former elements trump the latter. I appreciate the rusticity of this wine, even if it is a tempered one that’s struggling to transcend.

88+ points

Cork Ratings: 6.5/10, 7.5/10 (the first rating is for the traditionals. This spiffy black recyclable job is something else.)


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