Thank you for reading my posts on wine and places. Sometimes they are completely to the point, sometimes they are meandering. It’s summer, it’s the time of COVID, so be forewarned, this post is a meandering one, but hopefully you will get some wine travel ideas, wine ideas or some insight into wine study.
Managing COVID Stress – Cycle and Study Wine
I have been lucky to live in Chicago. We are one of the few places in the United States that has a mayor, Lori Lightfoot and a Governor JB Pritzker, who actually use common sense and not politics to manage the COVID pandemic. Chicago has gradually been opening but it has taken a toll on the hospitality industry that I am a part of. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more those establishments which were not as well capitalized or purely dependent on bodies shopping at the store or dining in, are closing. This environment continues to be highly stressful. My solution for managing the stress, is long bike rides by Lake Michigan and diving into wine study and wine hunting at local stores for COVID price point wines that are high quality. Immersing myself in learning about cool places that I would love to visit, is on the top of the de-stress list as well. The department of the Vaucluse in the southern Rhone, is one of those places that I would love to visit.
I have 2 tests ahead for the WSET Diploma, a retake of the Fortified exam, Unit 6 and the 50% of your grade for the entire course, Unit 3, Still Wines of the World. My strategy during COVID confinement has been to do activities where I will assimilate the material into long term memory. Writing blog posts is helpful in retaining information on places. One place that has stirred my curiosity has been the fortified wine Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise and the still wine Beaumes-de-Venise that is found in the Vaucluse Department. It is a small appellation, but the wines have been made, since at least the 14th century. I love the name Beaumes-de-Venise, it is hard to forget. Scroll down for the history and details of the appellation. Whenever I read about the commune, Beaumes-de-Venise, the jagged, Dentelles de Montmirail , are mentioned as the identifying landmark of the area and on whose slopes the grapes are grown. The pictures of the Dentelles are gorgeous and they look like a hiking and climbing paradise which plays to the hiker and climber in me.
Tour de France
This time of year I usually write about the famous French cycling race, The Tour de France, as the Tour de French Wine since France has such diversity in topology and wine. Visually, the race is so fun to watch because it is like a travelogue of France. The Vaucluse is always a department that is visually enticing when the cyclists swing through the area.
The Vaucluse Department
The Vaucluse is one of 96 departments, administrative divisions, within mainland France. You can kind of consider them super-counties. When studying wine, particularly France, the names brought up most often are the communes associated with the AOCs, like Gigondas, Beaumes-de-Venise and Ventoux AOC and the department name is left out to keep things simple. The department of the Vaucluse is in the very southern part of the Rhone wine region bordering Provence.
In researching this post, many times, Mount Ventoux, the highest mountain (6,263 ft) in the region, and a legend of the Tour de France, was referred to as being in Provence. It gets kind of grey in terms of the southern Rhone and Provence. But the wine region boundaries are very well defined and are all found within the Vaucluse Department. I am going to focus specifically on the origins of Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise AOC and on Mount Ventoux in regards to the Tour de France and for visiting.
The Rhone AOCS A Brief Detour
To dig up information on the Rhone and review the Rhone AOCS I pulled out my French Wine Scholar manual. As you can see there are a ton of wine appellations, I am focusing on a few of them. I cannot recommend the FWS program enough, it is part of the Wine Scholar Guild curriculum. The FWS program covers all the main wine regions of France and at the end of each chapter, local cheeses and traditional foods are included, as well and serve as a reminder of what you will see and eat when you visit. The curriculum covers all the technical wine detail but at the same time you learn some of the historical and cultural background of each place. The FWS Manual, is one of those resources for me, that I refer back to often. The Rhone can be confusing on many levels.
First off, when the right or left bank of the Rhone is referenced, it is referred to from the direction the river flows, north to south. So if you are looking at the map of the wine regions and reading, what is your right is referred to as the left bank. This is not the case in a region like Bordeaux, where the left bank is from the readers perspective and the left is the same as you, the reader’s left. Besides reorienting yourself in terms of north/south there are AOCs embedded with AOCs.
There is the overall Les Côtes du Rhône region and a specific overall regional AOC called Côtes du Rhône . Within the Côtes du Rhône regional AOC there are CDR Village wines, the CDR Village-named wines and then 17 “Cru” AOCs (north and south) which include the 2 wines I am studying for my fortified exam Muscat de Beaumes de Venise AOC and Rasteau AOC. There are other AOCs within Les Côtes du Rhône overall region but not within the specific regional AOC. One of these is Ventoux AOC, found within the Vaucluse. Yes, there are others. For wine students you need to know these. For wine travel, it is helpful to be aware because it puts the different communes into perspective and what wines are made where. For wine buyers it is good to know because you can get some great value in wine if you are aware of the differences of the AOCs. I am just covering Ventoux because of its significance in the Tour de France and the 2 fortified AOCS, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and Rasteau AOC which can be still or fortified.
Mount Ventoux and the Tour de France
From this map, you can see that Mount Ventoux is located in the upper center right and Beaumes de Venise is below it to the left. Probably the most familiar wine and village name,Chateauneuf-du-Pape is middle-left. Mount Ventoux is the highest peak in the area and the stuff of legends in the Tour de France. It has its own, Ventoux AOC, 60% red, 36% rosé and 4% white. The reds and rosés are mainly the grapes Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan. It is the largest of the “other” AOCs outside of the regional Côtes du Rhône AOC. However, it is most famous for the Tour de France. It is on my “to do” list to cycle up, slowly, probably stopping a lot. The Mistral wind which is the key weather phenomenon important to grape growing in the southern Rhone and in Provence has been known to blow over 100mph at the summit of Ventoux. Most recently in the TDF, a major crash took place in the 2016 race, cyclist Chris Froome collided into a motorcycle and the extended drama that ensued in that race. For any visitor to the area, I hope you drive to the top at least. It is on my bucket list to cycle up, no matter how slowly or how many times I stop.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise
Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (wine-searcher does a great job describing the AOC at the link) is a VDN, a vins doux naturels, a fortified sweet wine , made with the noble Muscat Petit à Grains grape, grown in vineyards on the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail in the commune of Beaumes de Venise.
The name Beaumes-de-Venise is derived from Beaumes meaning cave or grotto. It is hard to wrap your mind around, but people were living in caves in these hills as far back as the Bronze Age 500 BC. Venise is a dialect word for clergy. Dating back to the 14th century when the Avignon popes had their headquarters at Avignon and the origins of the most famous wine AOC in the area, Chateauneuf du Pape. Today there is a dry wine Beaumes-de-Venise AOC that is a fantastic bargain, a grenache/syrah dominant blend and a wine to search for. But back in the 14th century, the sweet wine dominated because of the sugar content and cruder winemaking techniques. I could do a whole other post on the significance and value of sugar and sweet wines in the Middle Ages and Renaissance where it was a precious commodity and treated like gold. Many of the sweet wines in existence today date their origins back to these times. It is hard to fathom this, in the 21st century, where sugar is in almost everything we eat and drink in some form and these sweet wines have somewhat fallen by the wayside.
The commune of Beaumes-de-Venise is tucked between the communes of Gigondas to the north and Vacqueyras to the west. The harvest yields are quite low, 30hl/ha and this is the same for the fortified and the still wine. Low harvest yields means the vine can focus its resources on fewer grapes and so produces higher quality fruit. For the fortified wine, the grapes can macerate on skins for 6-24 hours, then fortified with neutral grape spirit (95-96%ABV) which results in a less spirity wine, to an ABV around 15% which is low for a fortified wine. The resulting sugar for the muscat wines tends to be between 100-125G/l about half that for an american soda. The resulting wine is pale lemon, aromas of rose, lychee, peach and orange and as they age they take on a honeyed character. In researching this wine, I found an article in Decanter from 2007 in which Fiona Beckett wrote about the 25 best food and wine pairings. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise with strawberries and cream was one of them. So my “to do list” since blueberries and strawberries are in season in the midwest is to make a berry cake and pair it with Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. I have found Domaine de Durban’s Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise in Chicago. 95% of the AOC is white and 5% is red made with the Muscat à Petit Grains Rouge which is the same as the Brown Muscat grown in Australia. When I make the berry cake I will update this post and add it.
To touch base on Rasteau briefly since it is included in my syllabus for Fortified wines. Rasteau is just north of Gigondas. The AOC includes still as well as fortified. Most of the fortified is red and must be made with a minimum of Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc can be blended in. The red VDNs can be produced in a fresh, grenat (reductive style) or an oxidative, tuilé style. Wines can ,also, be labeled “hors d’age” when aged oxidatively for at least 5 years. To add to these style “rancio” wines can be produced when wine is aged for at least 12 months in barrels or bonbommes (glass jars) in the sun. You find these styles of fortified wines predominantly in the Roussillon bordering Spain.
The Vaucluse is such a picturesque area and on the top of my “to visit” list. This has been a very meandering post as I mentioned at the beginning but it is so much fun to delve into areas like this than to read the awful headlines of the terrible situation the world is in and particularly in the US. I can’t wait for things to change!
In the meantime, search out a bottle of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and pair it with berry cake and whipped cream (in the US) or find a bottle of the dry red Beaumes de Venise. Get on a bike and go explore the outside and think of the all those procyclists and their fitness level to be able to climb at the speeds they do a mountain like Ventoux. Either way, I hope your wine glass will always be filled! Cheers!
French Wine Scholar Manual – Wine Scholar Guild
Other resources are linked within the body