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The Luberon: A Source of Wine for Winter Fare
By Michael Apstein
Jan 20, 2015
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Those of us in New England are now in the heart of winter. The short cold days and long nights fairly scream for hearty fare, such as lamb shanks or other slow cooked “stick to your ribs” fare--as my mother used to call it. And of course, hearty red wines to accompany it. For those of you with deep cellars, it’s time to produce mature gems from the Northern Rhône, such as Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, or Cornas, or similar crus from the Southern Rhône, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas or Rasteau. Alternatively, turning to Italy, mature Barolo or well-aged Taurasi from Campania are perfect matches. But what about the vast majority of wine drinkers for whom pulling mature wines from a wine cellar is not an option? Where does one turn for hearty reds that offer something more than just a bright ripe fruitiness but lack the prominent--and sometimes astringent--tannins necessary for those grander wines to age gracefully?

Rhône or Provence?

I suggest you try the red wines from the Luberon, an overlooked part of the Rhône that supplies robust reds that are ready to drink and that sell for modest prices. (The most expensive one found in a quick inquiry at wine-searcher.com was $17). The Luberon is overlooked, in part, because it’s caught between two popular regions--the Rhône and Provence. Although it has affiliated itself with the Rhône Valley for promotional and marketing reasons, geographically it’s in the heart of Provence--and Provence is known for its zippy rosés, not hearty reds, right? Well, this part of Provence makes terrific, ready-to-drink affordable reds that are perfect for this time of the year. Sylvain Morey, who hails from Chassagne-Montrachet but moved to the Luberon after a family dispute and founded La Bastide du Claux, describes the wines as, “a mixture of Provence and the Rhône.”

The tradition of producers selling wine in bulk to négociants who then label it as a brand has contributed to the Luberon’s anonymity. For example, much of the wine contained in the Perrin brothers’ very popular and nicely priced red, La Vieille Ferme, comes from the Luberon. (The wine is today sold under the broad Vin de France appellation).

If U.S. consumers recognize the Luberon it’s probably because Peter Mayle’s hugely best-selling book, A Year in Provence, was set in Ménerbes, a village in the heart of the region. And also perhaps because the movie, A Good Year, starring Russell Crowe, was filmed largely at Château La Canorgue, one the area’s top producers. But the Luberon is on no one’s short list of famous wine areas. If it weren’t for a magnificent national park, many a French man or woman wouldn’t even recognize the name.

Syrah in the South

The vast majority of the red wines from the Luberon are “everyday” wines that have substantial weight but without substantial tannins. The intensity comes, in part, from the unusual--for the Southern Rhône--predominance of Syrah, in place of Grenache, in the blend. Syrah does well here because it likes cooler areas, which the elevated mountainous vineyards of the Luberon provide. The reds often convey a savory, meaty or peppery component, reminiscent of their cousins from the Northern Rhône that complements their dark fruit profile. Not flabby or sweet, they have sufficient structure without aggressive tannins and hence, they are immediately appealing. Morey emphasizes, “The Luberon indeed is cold. Though part of the Rhône, it’s not just another Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It has its own distinct climate.” Indeed, according to Alexis Rousset-Rouard, who runs the top-notch Domaine de la Citadelle in Ménerbes, “The Luberon is the coolest and latest ripening area in the southern Rhône even though it is south of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which would make you think it would be an earlier harvest. It’s why there’s a Syrah-accent to the wines.”

(The Luberon is also home to lovely rosé and whites, or as Morey puts it, “Rosés and whites will be the story here because they are fresh and lively.” But that’s another column.)

Sticking with One Appellation

Though growers in neighboring Gigondas (30 miles to the north and less than half the size of the Luberon) are studying a potential identification and classification of specific sites within their region, growers in the Luberon are not thinking of that kind of stratification despite the size of the region. Make no mistake, the Luberon is vast, a 30-mile-long expanse of mountains running from the Alps in the east to the Rhône Valley in the west and comprising about 7,500 acres of vineyards on both the north and south slopes of the mountain. Not surprisingly, given its expanse, there are many diverse terroirs. Anthony Taylor, Director of Public Relations for Gabriel Meffre, a notable Rhône Valley-based négociant, emphasizes, “dramatic differences between parcels on the north and south sides of the mountain.”

Sylvain Morey, with a Gallic shrug, adds, “We have specific terroirs, all the locals know them. The future does not lie in making village appellations, the way they do in Burgundy.” He believes that parcelization is too complicated and that government regulations are too difficult. Olivier Ravoire, the managing director of Lavoix et Fils, whose wines sadly are not yet available in the U.S., says with a smile, “There are too many rules as it is, so when we feel free we are happy.”

Morey believes that no one--not the consumer nor the producer--is ready for a proliferation of names. Rousset-Rouard echoes that sentiment when he says that highlighting differences in terroir “is a two-edged sword because it has the advantage of precision, but the disadvantage of confusing consumers.” Putting the region in perspective, Morey reflects, “Many estates are only 25-years-old (The region received AOC status only in 1988). Maybe in 100 years there will be a Luberon Premier Cru, but first we need to show people where the Luberon is. Then we need to convince them that we make wine there.”

The Wines Offer Excellent Value

Just as in other parts of the southern Rhône, the half-dozen producers recommended below--as well as others in the Luberon--are out-performing the perceived ceiling of their appellation and making impressive wines. These wines are a boon for consumers because they are still under-appreciated and their prices are constrained by the lowly Luberon appellation, which means that they deliver more than their prices suggest. After you taste some of the wines from the region you too will likely be convinced.

Recommended Producers

La Bastide du Claux: Sylvain Morey left the family’s domaine (his father is Jean Marc Morey and his uncle is Bernard Morey) in Chassagne-Montrachet and founded La Bastide du Claux in 2002. His 2010 Luberon red, a blend of old vine Syrah (60%) and Grenache labeled “Orientale” because the vineyards are on the eastern slopes, is particularly notable for its fresh spicy, peppery signature.

Château La Canorgue: It’s a family-owned and run domaine with just over 100 acres of organically farmed vineyards that’s known because much of the film, A Good Year, was filmed there. In truth, its wines are the stars.

Chapoutier: Chapoutier, one of the Rhone’s top producers and well-known for their fine Hermitage and Côte Rôtie from the northern Rhône, also acts as a négociant for wines from the Southern Rhône. Their 2012 La Ciboise from the Luberon, delivers attractive black fruit accented by peppery spice and, at $16, is a fine value.

Domaine de la Citadelle: Established in the 1980s, Domaine de la Citadelle is one of the region’s most established and leading producers. They’ve grown gradually from 20 acres of vineyards to their current 100 acres without sacrificing quality. They produce several tiers of wine from IGP and AOP Luberon designation, all of which are easy to recommend. You could close your eyes and point at their list and be very happy with your selection.

Domaine Faverot: It’s a small (15 acre) estate with some 100+ year-old Carignan vines recently purchased (April 2014) and upgraded by Patricia Alexandre and her husband. They’ve just hired a new winemaker so the verdict is still out, but judging from the meticulous renovations they’ve made to the property, they have very high ambitions and are clearly worth watching.

Marrenon: This massive cooperative--really an amalgamation of nine separate co-ops--accounts for an astonishing 10% of the Rhône’s total production. They sell much of their wine to many of the well-known Rhône Valley négociants, such as the Perrin brothers. But they also produce some easy-to-recommend wines from the Luberon under their own labels, such as Sépia Sélection Parcellaire, Grand Marrenon, and Gardarèm.

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January 20, 2015

E-mail me your thoughts about the Luberon at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein