Southern Rhone Unknown: Welcome To The Luberon, Part II

6 10 2021

By Peter Vetsch

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

A common tactic you’ll hear about value hunting in the world of wine is to take a highly exalted and pedigreed region whose wines always sell at a premium — and then see what grows next door, which is quite often similar grapes in similar (albeit never identical) conditions, for a fraction of the price. So if you like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, you should check out Gigondas and Vacqueyras just to the east, which produce reasonable facsimiles of the region’s top dog (absent religious uprisings) without breaking the bank. Of course, when too many people start to follow this advice, the region next door starts to gain its own cachet, and its own prices start to increase, leading value hunters to look even further afield. In part, the Luberon is the region next door the region next door (Ventoux) the region next door (Gigondas / Vacqueyras) the region next door (Chateauneuf), one of the last untouched frontiers of the Southern Rhone on the global export market. However, it is equally a lesser-known mirror of the name region on its other side: Provence. This helps explain its focus on rose, as Ray noted in his introductory post on the area, as well as the need to separate it slightly from its Rhone Valley neighbours.

After a 35+ year wait, the Luberon was established as a formal wine region in 1988, although winemaking has existed in the area for two millennia. It was initially known as the Cotes du Luberon until changing its name to the much-snappier Luberon AOC in 2009. One thing it seems to have in common with both the Southern Rhone and Provence is an affinity for blending: ONLY blended wines are permitted to hold the formal Luberon AOC classification, with any single-varietal offerings forced to bear the inferior IGP Vaucluse designation. The specific blending rules are labyrinthine to the point of being exhausting. For reds, the primary red grapes of the region, Grenache and Syrah, must collectively make up at least 60% of any blend, with Syrah accounting for at least 20%. Other permitted grapes in the red blend include Cinsault (20% or less allowed), Carignan (20% or less), Marselan (10% or less), white grapes (! – 10% or less), Mourvedre and Counoise. Rose rules mirror the red blending rules but allow up to 20% of white grapes to be used. For whites, Ugni Blanc can make up no more than 50% of the blend and can be paired up with Roussanne/Marsanne (20% or less), Viognier (10% or less), Clairette, Bourboulenc, Vermentino and Grenache Blanc. The people who care enough about the tradition and the legacy of the Luberon to comply with these blending rules clearly deserve to have their stories told.

La Cavale fits into that category. Founded in 1986 by successful businessman-turned-senator Paul Dubrule, the estate sits within a UNESCO-protected Regional Natural Park, and is currently reflecting the hallowed designation placed on its lands by auditing its soils and converting to fully organic viticulture. Over the last decade, famed Rhone winemaker Alain Graillot has taken on a consulting advisory role at the winery to enhance the end product, and La Cavale has designed and constructed a massive no-expense-spared facility to plant its flag as the centre of wine tourism in the Luberon. Dubrule’s goal is clearly to embed the Luberon permanently in the global wine consciousness, but for this to succeed, the wine itself has to speak the truth of the region. Let’s see if it does.

2020 Petite Cavale Rose (~$29)

The first La Cavale offering out of the gate immediately makes me question my tentative understanding of the Luberon’s blending rules above. The tech sheet (which you can conveniently access by scanning a QR code on the bottle) says that it’s a blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Cinsault. The former satisfies the at-least-60% rule for the principal grapes of the Luberon blend, but the latter seems to violate the suggestion that Cinsault must be 20% or less of the final wine. Maybe they’re more like guidelines anyway. This wine hails from three different plots of organic vines, harvested at dawn to maintain freshness and then vinified and briefly matured in stainless steel tanks.

The bright sharp coral colour snaps anyone still lost in arcane blending laws back to attention, which is good, because focus is required to pull reluctant aromas of tart pink grapefruit, blood orange, Thai basil, rock salt and warm copper out of a tight, muted nose. But the true show begins once the wine hits your tongue. There is lots of “there” there, swarming the tastebuds: a highly tactile, fleshy, mouthfilling texture; notable powdery tannin; coiled springs of fearsome acidity; and a prominent sense of tension from start to finish. Meek and dilute rose this is not. It is not fruit-driven but equally not lacking in flavour, assembling a focused floral and mineral mix of sweet pea, lemon zest, potpourri, seashells and chalk, its commanding steely presence a fascinating contrast from its precise delicacy. Price could be a barrier to exploration in the value-driven world of pink wine, but this is a worthwhile journey.

89+ points

2020 La Cavale Blanc (~$35)

OK, no blending violations here. Mostly avoiding any capped-quantity blending components, La Cavale’s estate white effortlessly meets appellation requirements in its combination of 42% Grenache Blanc, 40% Ugni Blanc/Clairette (I’m not sure why these are combined like this – maybe a field blend harvest?) and 18% Vermentino, which has to be one of the most unique AOC-approved grape mixes I have ever seen. The fun does not stop there, however, as this fascinating blend is fermented and aged in large acacia barrels, which provide enhanced roundness and texture and less flavour transference as compared to the standard oak. Only 2000 bottles (166 cases) of this white were made, making its presence on our side of the pond even more remarkable.

In contrast to the rose above which continually alternated between bold and shy, this is a subtlety play through and through. The wine’s lemon hue is so pale that it’s almost silver, its aromatic profile never getting more assertive than limeade and yellow Gatorgum (best gum ever), accented by mellower notes of hemp, hay, plantain and white peach. The lighter body almost tiptoes, leaving impressions in traces rather than craters. Predominantly grassy and leafy at its core, it combines chlorophyll, parchment, celery stalks and fennel in feathery fashion, accented by equally cautious salted lemon and quartz dust. The acidity seems mild until a sudden and visceral crescendo at the finish, mirroring a personality that takes a while to fully emerge. This is an introverted, understated offering that encourages (and almost requires) you to linger and is at its best and most haunting immediately post-swallow.

Cork Ratings: 2/10 (Mis en Bouteille), 6.5/10 (DIAM Cavale), 6/10 (Non-DIAM Cavale). Standardize, people!

88- points

2017 La Cavale Rouge (~$35)

First things first: why the different cork? The other two Cavales feature the cork-taint-protected DIAM closure, but this red does not, rocking the traditional cork stopper instead. Maybe the DIAM was a more recent change that was not implemented when this wine was bottled, three years before the others? Either way, it stands out. This blend yet again makes me question everything I know about the Luberon’s blending laws: it is 45% Syrah, 45% Carignan and 10% Grenache, and yet is stated to be an AOC Luberon wine. There seem to be at least two things wrong with that picture: it’s not at least 60% Syrah/Grenache, and there is more than 20% Carignan involved in the blend. (If I ever create my own wine region, there will be no blending proportion ceilings to be found, anywhere.) The Carignan is from decades-old vines, though, and I love Carignan, so what the AOC doesn’t know won’t hurt it. Interestingly, while the source vines for this bottling are now organically certified, they weren’t in 2017, but were only in the first year of the process of organic conversion. More intriguing aging vessels, this time 3000L Austrian oak casks, help mould the wine’s identity over a 12-14 month maturation period pre-blending and bottling, and significant bottle age pre-release takes care of the rest.

If the 90% Syrah/Carignan components did not anchor the suggestion that this would be a brawny wine, the dense semi-opaque ruby colour surely does. This makes the immediate aromatic impression of emphatic freshness all the more startling. Pure, crisp, crystalline blackberry, grape and raspberry fruit predominate, like you’re biting into a berry straight off the vine at daybreak as you smell. Depths of pen ink, granite/lava rock, rosemary and freshly tilled wet earth lend dimension but do not detract from the impressive sense of life within the wine. It grows more calm and measured on the palate, absent the innate drive found in the rose or the near-paralyzing introspection of the white, just existing in the moment with a quiet confidence. Structure takes a back seat to presence, activity replaced by stillness, a record scratch in a good way. Hologram notes of blackcurrant, hot rocks, peppercorn, asphalt and bouillon echo and linger on a large still pond, present but waiting. Meditative and contemplative, with a finish that takes many breaths to settle, this is an out-of-body experience of a wine, and a spectral hint of the treasures that can await in the region next door.

90+ points


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