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The Wines of the Lubéron
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 19, 2013
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When discussing the wines of the Lubéron AOC district, the most obvious question to address is, “Where is the Lubéron?”  Okay, it is in France, but where?  That question does not have an easy answer.  If you think it’s in the Rhône Valley, you’re right…sort of.  But if you think it’s in Provence, you are also right.

A map of the wine regions of France reveals that the Lubéron AOC area (known as the Côtes de Lubéron before the 2010 vintage) is in the extreme southeast corner of the Rhône Valley.  When I co-wrote French Wine for Dummies about a decade ago, I placed Lubéron in the Rhône Valley chapter.  But the travel brochures will tell you that Lubéron is in the northern part of Provence, north of Provence’s capital, Aix-en-Provence.  The area was made famous by Peter Mayle’s best-selling book, A Year in Provence.  The beautiful, balmy climate of Lubéron, only 20 miles from the Mediterranean, attracts lots of French, British, and lately, American tourists every summer.  In addition to Aix-en-Provence, the nearest major city to the Lubéron is Avignon, in the Southern Rhône (just south of the Chatauneuf-du-Pape district).

The Lubéron wine district begins on the hillsides of the Vaucluse Mountain range--directly south of the Rhône Valley’s Côtes de Ventoux district--and extends south into Provence.  The northern Lubéron wine district is in fact surrounded almost entirely by Provence.  The vineyards are located in the Regional Natural Reserve of Lubéron, which legally protects them, at least for now, from the urban sprawl that threatens many parts of southern Provence.

Long, warm days with very little rainfall characterize the growing season in this part of France.  The Lubéron district averages 320 sunny days each year.  But because of the high altitude of the hillside vineyards, in some places up to 2,000 feet, nights are considerably cooler in the Lubéron, compared to the rest of the Rhône Valley.  This high diurnal temperature variation helps to produce crisp, lively white wines which I particularly like, wines which one would normally not expect from a wine district this far south in France.  The cool nights also slow down the ripening process, a beneficial factor for wine grapes in a warm-climate region.

Much of the soil in Lubéron’s vineyards resembles that of Chateauneuf-du-Pape: rather large stones (referred to locally as “pebbles”) cover a major part of the growing area.  These stones, deposits from rivers and seas that once covered the area, have proven to work well in the vineyards; Syrah and Grenache, for example, thrive in these soils.

The Côtes de Lubéron AOC appellation was created in 1988. One of the regulations for the appellation enforced what had been the practice for the wines of this district: all of the wines must be blends; no varietal wines are allowed.  Any producer wishing to make a varietal wine, such as Syrah, must label such a wine Vins de Pays du Vaucluse, a lesser appellation, meaning “country wine from Vaucluse.”  Vaucluse is the name of this mountainous départment in southeast France.

Lubéron’s wines are a cross between Southern Rhône and Provence wines in style. They are easy-drinking, accessible, and mainly inexpensive (most retail in the $11 to $20 range). Syrah and Grenache are the dominant grape varieties for both red and rosé wines.  Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan can also be used.

For its white wines, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Vermentino (often called Rolle in France), Ugni Blanc (Italy’s Trebbiano), and Bourboulenc are  the varieties, with occasional use of Marsanne and Roussanne. Lubéron’s rosé wines are allowed to use up to 20 percent white varieties in the blend.

True to Lubéron’s Provençal roots, rosé wines still dominate in this wine district; over 40 percent are rosé.  But red wines are becoming more popular--now comprising more than 30 percent--while whites make up 26 percent of all Lubéron wines.

Typical of many wine districts in France and Italy, the Lubéron is dominated by small farmers, most of whom do not make their own wine; and so wine co-operatives rule here.  In 1965, a collective of nine co-operatives, called Marrenon, was formed.  Marrenon now has 1200 wine growers in its group, and today accounts for 85 percent of all wines made in the Lubéron.  But you also can find many other Lubéron wines from small producers and even a few large négociants such as Chapoutier in the U.S.; Wine-searcher.com features well over 100 Lubéron wines available on its site.

Marrenon’s red grape vineyards are dominated by Syrah and Grenache; up to 90 percent of its red wines come from these two varieties.  Marrenon is also a champion of Vermentino (normally more popular in Italy) for its white wine blends, and undoubtedly uses this variety more than any other producer in France.  When I asked Philippe Tolleret, the Director-General of Marrenon why the co-operative uses Vermentino so extensively, he replied that the winemakers like the liveliness and the minerality that the variety gives to its white wines.

I recently attended a tasting of Marrenon wines, mainly from the Lubéron, with one wine from the Côtes du Ventoux AOC, Luberon’s northern neighbor. The tasting started with one of Marrenon’s largest-selling wines, its 2012 Petula Rosé, AOC Lubéron, made from 95 percent Syrah, with 5 percent Grenache.  The Petula Rosé is light, racy, and dry, an easy wine to quaff as an apéritif.  It sells for about $12.

Marrenon’s basic line of wines in the U.S. is its Grand Toque AOC Lubéron, which is made as a white, rosé, and red wine.  I tasted the 2011 Grand Toque white, made from 70 percent Vermentino and 30 percent Grenache Blanc.  The grapes come from vineyards more than 1,000 feet in altitude, and they are night-harvested (as are all of Marrenon’s white grapes).  The wine is made in stainless steel tanks, with no wood aging.  I was surprised by the freshness, liveliness, and minerality of this wine, which retails in the $10 to $12 range.  It goes really well with seafood.  It’s a wine that’s easy to drink, and at this price, a great value.

Two other white wines followed; the second, Marrenon’s 2011 Doria, AOC Lubéron, is made from 60 percent Vermentino, 30 percent Grenache blanc, and 10 percent Roussanne.  20 percent of this wine ages for six months in oak barrels, one-third of which are new.  It is more rounded and honeyed than the Grand Toque white, with more body and concentration.  The 2011 Doria retails for $14.  A good wine, but I preferred the Grand Toque white.

The final white I tasted was the star, for me, of the entire tasting, the 2010 Grand Marrenon white.  The Grand Marrenon line, both white and red, retail for $18-$19.  The 2010 Grand Marrenon white, made from 45 percent Vermentino, 45 percent Grenache Blanc, and a 10 percent blend of Roussanne, Clairette, and Bourboulenc, comes from specially selected vineyards.  Sixty percent of the Grand Marrenon white matures for six months in oak barrels, half of which are new. It is a lively wine that exhibits floral aromas and fruity flavors, especially peaches.  It is delicious right now, and shows no signs of aging.  Just an excellent wine.
The Grand Marrenon red, made from 70 percent Syrah and 30 percent Grenache, ages for 12 months in barriques, 30 percent new.  It has soft tannins, with ripe, fruity flavors; and at 14.5,° is fairly high in alcohol. It should age nicely for several years.  A good red wine, but not the standout that the Grand Marrenon white is.

Marrenon’s premium red, Orca, AOC Ventoux, is made primarily from more than 60-year old Grenache vines--with some more than 100 years old--and is grown on the southern slopes of Mount Ventoux, with 10 percent Syrah added.  The 2010 is intensely powerful, and definitely will be even better with a few years of aging.  The 2007 Orca, still available, is soft, rich, and concentrated, and showing beautifully now.  Orca, which retails in the $20 to $22 range, is clearly Marrenon’s most impressive red wine, and a great value.

The Marrenon tasting ended with its exquisite dessert red, the 2009 Gardarèm, AOC Lubéron.  Only a small quantity of this wine is produced, from late-picked grapes, 85 percent Syrah and 15 percent Grenache.  The Gardarèm, about $50, has an intense, lingering finish; it can be paired with chocolate, but it is wonderful on its own.
While almost 60 percent of Lubéron’s wines are consumed in France, exports are increasing worldwide.  In Marrenon’s case, for example, at one point, the UK received the lion’s share of its exports, but that has drastically changed.  Fed up by the UK market’s ongoing demand for very low-priced wines, Marrenon no longer sells its wines to the UK.  The company has turned to the U.S., Canada, China, Japan, and other parts of Europe as markets for its wines.  The States will be seeing more of these attractively-priced, well-made wines.  Marrenon’s wines have been in U.S. markets for only a few years, primarily beginning with the 2009 vintage.