New Releases: Walking the Underdog
BY NICOLAS GREINACHER | NOVEMBER 09, 2023
heart of the Southern Rhône Valley, where sprawling vineyards bask in the
Mediterranean sun, lies a hidden gem - Vacqueyras. This unassuming appellation,
often overshadowed by its illustrious neighbor, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, has
quietly been making waves in the world of wine. Since its AOC recognition in
1990, Vacqueyras has been trying to prove its worth. As wine connoisseurs
whisper tales of its affordability and quality, one question inevitably emerges:
can Vacqueyras truly hold its own against the nearby titan of Châteauneuf-du-Pape?
A touch of Hollywood in Vacqueyras.
consumers often draw comparisons to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Vacqueyras aficionados
widely find that these wines can offer the quality of Châteauneuf-du-Pape but
at a fraction of the price. Indeed, while most red Vacqueyras in the United
States retail for around $22 to $35, Châteauneuf-du-Pape prices only start at around
$35. Some rare bottlings even soar above the $200 mark. Aside from the
exceptional and pricy Château des Tours, Vacqueyras rarely exceeds $60 in
price. Whether Vacqueyras can genuinely rival and potentially surpass
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a legitimate question. Before sharing my personal view,
let’s take a closer look at some of the appellation specifics, the wide range
of grape growing techniques and winemaking styles, as well as the latest four vintages:
2022, 2021, 2020 and 2019.
Vacqueyras in a Nutshell
hectares (3,650 acres) of vineyards are less than half the size of neighboring
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with its approximately 3,130 hectares (7,734 acres). Two
hundred thirty grape-growing families and 110 individual wine producers set the
tone, with four major co-operatives, such as Rhonéa, also crafting substantial
amounts of wines. Approximately six million bottles are produced annually, of
which roughly 94% are red, 5% white and the remainder Rosé. Lastly, Vacqueyras is
also home to a handful of outstanding producers, starting with the iconic
Château des Tours, complemented by leading domains such as Le Sang des Cailloux,
La Ligière or Montirius, whose wines consistently deliver.
Out of the
1,477 hectares, 1,391 are currently planted with red varieties. Grenache leads
the pack at 867 hectares, followed by Syrah and Mourvèdre at 378 and 102
hectares respectively. This only leaves 86 hectares planted with white varieties.
Here, Clairette Blanc comes out on top with 25 hectares, followed by Roussanne
(21 hectares), Grenache Blanc (19 hectares), Viognier (13 hectares) and
Marsanne (8 hectares). Except for Picardan, Piquepoul Blanc and Piquepoul Gris,
Vacqueyras permits the same grapes that Châteauneuf-du-Pape allows. But, in
addition to Viognier and Marsanne, which are both not allowed in
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras also authorizes the use of Carignan. Let’s
establish what each of those three varieties can contribute to Vacqueyras
Marsanne in Vacqueyras is always blended
with other grapes and is never made as a single varietal. If made into white
wine, the AOC regulations say that none of the permitted grapes can exceed 80% in
a blend with other varieties. Marsanne shares some similarities with Roussanne,
such as moderate levels of soft acidity, while it is generally more viscously
textured, age-worthy and less aromatic than Roussanne.
Benoit Reynaud recently took a leading role at the iconic Château des Tours.
Viognier regularly contributes its
distinctive aromatic complexities to white Vacqueyras. The floral nuances
(blossom), stone (apricot, peach, tangerine) and tropical fruit (mango) notes found
in the whites often come from the Viognier in the blend. Like Marsanne,
Viognier contributes soft acidity and some textural viscosity. Still applicable
here, AOC regulations do not allow any white Vacqueyras to contain more than 80%
Viognier, so any single varietal Viognier would need to be bottled as
Carignan is frequently planted in the south
of France and northern Spain. It is pretty popular as a blending partner,
contributing acidity, color and tannic grip and a black fruit-driven, spicy,
earthy aromatic profile. The potential contribution of Carignan to a red is
strongly limited to 10%, according to the AOC regulations. Carignan in
Vacqueyras is only 1% of the red varieties planted, so its contribution to the
wines is relatively small.
Grenache must make up at least 50% of any
red Vacqueyras, while Syrah and/or Mourvèdre must represent a minimum
of 20%. All three varieties combined must amount to at least 90%. The so-called
accessory varieties represent only up to 10% of red Vacqueyras. That being
said, white grapes are also allowed in red blends but are limited to a maximum of
5% of the total.
blending laws illustrate one of the major differences between
Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Vacqueyras. In the former appellation, single-varietal
wines are allowed from any of the permitted grape varieties. Winemakers wishing
to craft a pure Grenache, Mourvèdre or Clairette Rosé can do so in
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but not in Vacqueyras. The same flexibility is allowed for
blends. Making a wine that, for example, consists of all the 18 permitted
varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is not only allowed but also practiced. In
contrast, in Vacqueyras, red wines must consist of at least half Grenache, and
90% must be achieved with Grenache, Mourvèdre and/or Syrah. These restrictions
seem to confine the stylistic expression of the reds. The ultimate goal here was
to establish a consistent identity for the wines throughout the range.
Something that makes people say: “That’s Vacqueyras!” From a marketing
perspective, this makes total sense.
Now, to set
Vacqueyras apart from other Southern Rhône appellations, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape,
the AOC ruled mandatory additions of Mourvèdre and/or Syrah. This leads to
wines with more upfront structure and earthy undertones, especially in their
youth. However, that structure deteriorates quite soon, usually around age six
to eight. For the whites, instead, the answer heavily depends on the use of
Viognier in the blend. A white containing substantial amounts of Viognier could
raise savvy tasters’ eyebrows, pointing them away from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Lastly,
while Rosé is prohibited in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in Vacqueyras, it represents 1%
of the entire production.
Elisabeth and Philippe Bernard represent the fifth generation at Domaine la Ligière.
Vacqueyras Embraces Diversity
relatively tight blending regulations, winemakers do not shy away from diversity.
That starts in the vineyard. While some domaines farm their grapes
conventionally, wineries like Domaine La Ligière have switched to organic grape
growing. Others, such as Saurel-family-owned Domaine Montirius, are
biodynamically certified. Harvesting times also vary significantly: Frédéri
Férigoule of Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux doesn’t care much about phenolic
ripeness these days and harvests his grapes relatively early, while the Reynaud
family takes their time at Château des Tours and harvest late in the season as
they do with Château Rayas. Destemming is another hot topic. When I arrived at
Domaine Montirius this year, the freshly sorted grapes were carried right into
a de-stemmer, as they always undergo full égrappage. On the other hand,
Benjamin Gras of Domaine Santa Duc regularly uses large amounts of whole
clusters, 75% in his delicious 2022 Vacqueyras Les Aubes, for example.
comes to fermentation and aging vessels, expect a full range, too. The wines of
Domaine Montirius never see any wood. While Domaine Santa Duc plays around with
Austrian oak foudres and terracotta amphorae, others use French oak in various
old and new sizes that are becoming relatively rare. Looking for a
blockbuster-new-oak style? Check out the reds of Domaine de la Verde and Domaine
La Garrigue. Some of these wines have seen nothing but new oak. Regrettably,
instances of overpowering oak elements that entirely subdue any fruit nuances
can still be found in Vacqueyras, but fortunately, they are uncommon.
of maturation also differs significantly. While the whites are usually released
in the spring following harvest, the reds can age for a few months, up to two
years, before being bottled. Longer aging does not automatically guarantee
higher quality, but you’ll often find that the more interesting Vacqueyras spent
at least one year in some sort of vessel, which has given them more substance.
In essence, a wide range of wine styles and qualities is available from
Vacqueyras. I make references in the tasting notes where the above-mentioned
factors contributed to a wine’s quality or style. This should assist readers in
picking out favorites that match their own stylistic preferences.
Juicy Grenache berries maturing in the Mediterranean sun.
Exploring the Recent Vintages
trip, I tasted 200 Vacqueyras wines from 65 different producers across nine vintages.
That being said, the focus was set on the 2022-barrel samples and the recently
released 2021 vintage, which have started to hit the markets. In order to
complete the Vinous database, I also tasted quite a few wines from 2020 and 2019,
two highly recommended vintages. The qualitative and stylistic differences
between those four latest vintages are significant. Regarding quality, 2021 is
a vintage that should be approached with caution. Many wines lack substance and
complexity, unable to get past the simple and easy-drinking category. Some of
them are flat-out disappointing. Yet, there are a few promising 2021s out
The winter of 2021 to
2022 was cold and dry. Budbreak began in mid-April, with warm, dry and
windless weather. Flowering started in the early days of May, benefitting from
ideal conditions with temperatures around 32°C and little wind until the end of
the month. During June through mid-July and until August 15, rainfall was
minimal, accompanied by intense heat and little diurnal range. Two summer
showers in mid-July and mid-August aided in berry ripening. By September, many
vines had retained their protective green foliage. Growth had decelerated, and
grape clusters were well-protected from the sun, resulting in juicy berries and
favorable phenolic ripeness. September introduced morning mists, warmth and only
mild winds. The grapes were generally healthy during harvest, which proceeded
under largely favorable conditions.
Two thousand twenty-two generally exhibits
characteristics of both red and black fruits, often accompanied by classic notes
of licorice, dried herbs and sometimes even peppery nuances. These wines vary
in body and structure. Some are more medium-bodied and approachable, while
others are fuller-bodied, more structured and more powerful. Most of the wines
tasted were well-balanced, displaying good concentration and a clean,
refreshing finish. Alcohol levels for the reds are higher than in 2021 and range
between 13 and 15.5%, but generally are well-integrated. Also, the tannins are
rounder and more appealing in 2022 compared to 2021, where I’ve encountered
more wines with bothersome tannin quality. One of the advantages of the 2022
vintage is that most wines can be enjoyed upon release while still profiting from
a bit of aging to develop further complexity. At this early stage, 2022 suggests a range of styles,
from fruit-laden, elegant and polished to more structured and bold expressions.
Medium toasting French oak barrique at Domaine Fontaine du Clos.
In 2021, winter
temperatures remained close to the seasonal norms, except for a
milder-than-usual February. Despite a notable heatwave in late March and early
April, spring remained quite cool. In April, there were several exceptionally cold nights
with heavy frosts. The frost on April 8th broke temperature records dating back
more than 30 years. Temperatures ranged from -2 to -5°C (28.4°F to 23°F), even
plummeting to -10°C (14°F). This climatic event affected nearly the entire appellation
area, resulting in substantial damage and a decrease in yields of about 25%. In
addition, flowering was delayed, commencing around mid-May 2021. May and June
brought successive fogs, while July saw a combination of rain and heat,
elevating the risk of mildew. August, on the other hand, was generally
characterized by hot and dry conditions. September was colder and rainier,
often accompanied by morning mists.
Sandwiched between the
very good 2020 and the promising 2022, 2021 is in a challenging position. While 2021 may not reach the
heights of its neighboring vintages, it's still a far cry from being a
write-off vintage, akin to the disappointing 2002, for example. As for the reds,
2021 leans towards the lighter side, containing lower alcohol levels than 2020
and 2022. The fruit profile often solely veers to the red spectrum, and the fresh
and bright acidity contributes to a sense of balance and an elegant overall
profile. Tannin levels are on the low or moderate end of the spectrum, and
their texture ranges from chalky and grippy all the way to smooth and silky. It's
worth pointing out that the 2021 reds are generally not built for extended
bottle aging. Depending on the producer, the 2021s are best enjoyed soon after
release, typically within five to eight years. While not reaching the heights
of other recent vintages, generally, the 2021 reds offer a fresh and
fruit-driven experience. Setting realistic expectations and not anticipating
too much from this vintage is vital, which goes hand in hand with my conservative
ratings. That being said, the 2021 whites are more promising than their red
Two thousand twenty is a very
good vintage in Vacqueyras. Like in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the wines are often well-structured,
aromatically complex and have a remarkable sense of harmony. Perhaps less
flamboyant and more classic than 2019, 2020 strikes the perfect balance between 2019 and 2021. They have what
so many 2021s lack (concentration, presence, complexity) and show a less dark
and brooding personality than in 2019. Many of these wines are medium to
full-bodied, offering moderate to elevated flavor concentration and structured
profiles, often framed by firm yet ripe and well-integrated tannins. Bright
acidity was a recurring feature, contributing to a great sense of freshness.
Some bottles already display tertiary aromatic complexity, while others have
more youthful and fruit-driven profiles. The alcohol content varies across these
reds but generally falls within the typical 14 to 15% range.
Former commercial head Marie Carmen and proprietor Serge Férigoule add a quirky element to the cellars at Le Sang des Cailloux.
The few 2019 reds I’ve
tasted offer a snapshot with regard to general quality and how these wines have
developed over the past few years. What most of them had in common was a strong
lean towards ripe black fruits in their aromatic profile, more so than in the
three vintages that followed. Some wines stood out for their complexity, with
intricate flavor profiles and seamless integration of tannins and acidity. In
contrast, others tilted more towards opulence and power, showcasing expressive
ripe fruit and firm tannic structures. Alcohol levels are similar, if not a
little bit above those of 2020. While some wines had the alcohol neatly
integrated, even at 16%, others revealed it through various degrees of heat on
the finish. Overall, the 2019 Vacqueyras reds are a testament to the region's
ability to produce wines that balance elevated fruit concentration, structure
and character, offering a wide array of options for fine wine lovers to explore
and enjoy. If spotted on a restaurant wine list at an attractive price, I recommend
trying these Southern Rhône gems.
Vacqueyras vs. Châteauneuf-du-Pape
So, can Vacqueyras
really go toe-to-toe with, and sometimes even outshine, the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape?
The resounding answer is an unequivocal yes, with a caveat. This yes is
reserved for a select group of producers who have consistently demonstrated
their mastery in translating their unique terroir into wines of depth,
complexity and aging potential. From my 20 years of Rhône tasting experience, I
can confidently assert that the finest Vacqueyras easily surpass the simpler
Châteauneuf-du-Pape counterparts in any given vintage.
It's important to note
that the crème de la crème of Châteauneuf-du-Pape will still come out on top. However,
in Vacqueyras, you'll discover plenty of wines that capture the essence of this
storied region without the heftier Châteauneuf-du-Pape price tag. This makes
them a true treasure trove for any wine aficionado. And with the three recent and
solid vintages, 2022, 2020 and 2019, plenty of interesting wines are up for
Workers at Domaine Montirius sorting grapes from the 2023 vintage.
Looking at the Markets
About two-thirds of
the entire Vacqueyras production is sold domestically, with the remainder being
exported worldwide. Boasting a significant export share of 28%, Belgium imports
most Vacqueyras by volume, far more than any other country. Next up is the
United States with a 12% share, closely followed by the Irish with 11%. As a
result, those three countries represent half of the combined Vacqueyras
exports. As I mentioned in my
recent Châteauneuf-du-Pape article, there is a noticeable shift in consumer
preferences in major markets like the United States and Europe. Wine drinkers
look for fresher and leaner wines with lower alcohol levels. This creates a
challenging environment for the sales of Southern Rhône wines. Price increases
in Vacqueyras are a challenge; at most, appreciation will not exceed current
I tasted all the wines
from this report in Vacqueyras during August and September 2023.
© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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