Featured Wine Producer: Domaine de Montvac
At the T Edward Fall Portfolio tasting a couple of months back, I had the opportunity to meet with Mme Cécile Dusserre, winemaker and proprietor for Domaine de Montvac in Vacqueryas. I attend these tastings primarily for such encounters, where one can learn about an appellation or an estate direct from the winemaker’s mouth and sample the evidence in one’s own mouth. It’s the next best thing to being able to visit the place.
Vacqueryas is something of a dark horse among the southern Rhône appellations. Promoted out of Côtes du Rhône Villages in 1990, its wines have never matched the acclaim of neighboring Gigondas, let alone nearby Châteauneuf du Pape, but at their best they can offer exceptional value for money, a notable improvement on Côtes du Rhônes and Côtes du Rhône Villages with barely a discernible difference in price. Many of them are ready to drink straight out the vintage and yet others are built to last a decade or so. The variety in winemaking ensures many options for the consumer – often, as in the case with Montvac, all from the same producer.
Domaine de Montvac owns 24 hectares scattered on different sites among the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail which, if you’ve ever seen them, you’ll know are among nature’s most dramatic rock croppings. They were formed by what one writer described eloquently as the “imperceptibly slow, yet violent collision of two large chunks of the earth’s crust.” The nature of this collision is a whole series of micro-climates, with soil ranging from black oxford clay to hard limestone, cretaceous marl, sandy silt, limestone soil and alluvial terraces. At the higher altitudes, especially in the Gigondas appellation, where the grapes are exposed to the harsh mistral winds and have to dig down deep for their water, this terroir makes for particularly intense wines with inherently low yields that are highly expressive of the rustic and rugged terroir, embodying the “garrigue” of the local herbs and flowers.
Cécile runs the estate with her father Jean, a former oenologist who decided to get his hands dirty and make his own wine, building a modern cellar that includes an analysis laboratory, something that surely gives the family a modernist edge over its neighbors. On the Montvac web site, the Dusserres describe their vineyards as being “situated on a particularly tormented geological site,” a wonderful term that bears repeating. Particularly tormented. (It also indicates that they employed a proper translator for their web site, rather than the usual pidgin English you get at French winery sites.) They continue that, “It alternates between the plateaux consisting of compact red clay with pebbles as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and the hills and slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail where the vines are planted on terraces bordered with pines and gorse bushes.” The vineyards are sustainably farmed, all treatments are stopped in July to ensure that “there are no remaining residues” when the grapes are picked in autumn, the vineyards are all gravity fed, and the cellar is large enough to allow three vintages to mature at once.
There is no white wine at all made in Gigondas, and in Vacqueryas it accounts for only 1% of production. This makes the Domaine de Montvac Vacqueryas blanc a must-taste curiosity. Dusserre has tried to fashion it in a Burgundian style, using 40% Roussanne for its “fine aromas,” 40% Clairette “for its structure” and 20% Bourboulenc for “aromas and acidity.” The grapes are harvested and vinified together, the lees stirred every two days to raise the yeast, the result then aged for 6-8 months in French oak, 20% of it new. The result, the 2005 Domaine de Montvac Vacqueryas blanc, is a very full and rich wine, certainly more aromatic and complex than many of your southern Côtes du Rhône white wines – I made the note “Viognier” which indicates a positive initial impression of perfume – but at the same time wearing the heavy weight of its grapes and their alcohol. Burgundian perhaps in style, but not necessarily in taste. Priced to sell around $25-$30 a bottle, it’s certainly a good – and rare – alternative to a white Châteauneuf du Pape, at a similar price.
Apparently, 95% of the the grapes that make up the Domaine de Montvac Côtes du Rhône 2005 come from declassified Vacqueryas and Gigondas, presumably because the Domaine wishes to have an entry level wine and is willing to downgrade some of its young vines from its better terroir to do so. 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah and 5% Mourvèdre (yep, that what they printed in the T Edward program!), fermented as per the winery’s Vacqueryas and Gigondas reds but with a shorter maceration period, it’s fruity, spicy, forward and juicy, with a very pure palate and a notably ripe finish. Priced to sell around $12-$15, this is an excellent Côtes du Rhône by any standards. (Montvac also makes a Côtes du Rhône rosé; it was not available at the tasting.)
The Domaine de Montvac Vacqueryas 2004, the first of three red Vacqueryas’ in the portfolio, is 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre, co-fermented in stainless steel, and aged in cement vats prior to bottling, an old-fashioned and straightforward approach still common in the southern Rhône. Priced around $15-$18, the wine was notably less fruity than the 2005 Côtes du Rhône but it carried more finesse. I got a lean, meaty, mineral note out of this wine that indicated the power of the Syrah and Mourvèdre over that of the Grenache.
The Domaine de Montvac Vacqueryas “Vincila” 2003 is 60% Grenache, and 40% Syrah, the grapes undergoing extended maceration and seeing 1-2 years in oak barrels. The Vincila is only made in “great” vintage years, and though some of us Rhône fans actually consider 2003 a nightmare due to the heatwave, I can understand the wine-makers fashioning a special cuvée from such conditions, especially when it’s built to last as per the Vincila. I did not get much at all in aromatics from this wine but soaked up some lovely fruit on the palate. It’s Dusserre’s belief that the Vincila will reach its full potential somewhere around 2010; priced around $25 a bottle.
I was ultimately more intrigued by the Domaine de Montvac Vacqueryas “Variation” 2004, 100% Grenache from a single plot of very old vines, bordered by pine trees that shelter it from the Mistral. What’s particularly attractive about this wine is that it’s all about the grapes and the terroir – or, as Dusserre would have it, “nature” – rather than the wine-maker or the cellar: there’s no oak involved whatsoever. I found it exceptional: ripe and jammy, with gingerbread notes on top of the dark fruit, a solid fruit core on the palate, tons of tannin, clearly very very ripe but well balanced in the process. Probably at its peak ten years after vintage, it’s an expensive Vacqueryas at $35 a bottle, but a relative bargain compared to similar 100% Grenache cuvées from neighboring Châteauneuf du Pape that frequently command two, even three times that price.
Finally, Domaine de Montvac owns just enough hectares across the Vacqueryas border in next-door Gigondas to fashion one wine; current release is the Domaine de Montvac Gigondas 2003. It’s 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 10% Mourvèdre, from steep hillside terraces on the Dentelles, set on southwest facing banks, with iron clay soils; the Syrah is grown up top, the Grenache and the Mourvèdre in the “sheltered dales.” These conditions plus low yields and oak ageing all ensure a concentrated wine; throw in the heat of the 2003 vintage and it’s no surprise that this was particularly powerful on the palate, the full-throttled Grenache fruit attack bordering on “harsh,” though there was some evident body and structure from the other grapes. Tannins seemed well balanced for the vintage, and I’d love to come back to this around the end of the decade (or even later), when it’s settled down more and hopefully entered a secondary phase. It should also be allowed that my tasting notes from an event like this, with so many wines to sample in such little time, are inherently generalized. The wine is priced to sell in the $25-$30 range, typical for a good Gigondas.
Cécile was bubbly, informative and clearly quite passionate about her wines. She was also quite astounded when I told her that Gigondas is one of my favorite appellations in the world. In fact, she made me repeat the statement and raised her eyebrows as if either I was mad or lying, or perhaps both! In return, I can only conjecture that she and her family slave away in their hillside vineyards on the eastern border of the Rhône (it can’t be easy farming grapes on the Dentelles), probably experiencing the occasional bout of inferiority complex over neighboring Châteauneuf du Pape, and perhaps presuming that Americans and Europeans alike have never heard of either Gigondas or Vacqueryas and couldn’t pick them out on a map even if told where to look for them. And then, at the T Edward tasting, having traveled across the Atlantic, Dusserre probably felt equally outshone by trendy 2005 Burgundies and elite Californian cult wines, which were certainly getting greater attention. And that, again, is why it’s so pleasurable to attend these industry events occasionally and meet with a wine-maker. We get to learn about the enormous hard work and skill that goes into the bottle, and they get to realize their efforts are appreciated as something more than a mere commodity. Hopefully in the near future I’ll get to buy some of these Montvac wines and report back on them from a more controlled tasting environment: in the mean time, it’s hard to think of a better Ambassador for the region, especially for Vacqueryas, than Cécile Dusserre and her Domaine de Montvac.