Today I have another lesser-known AOC in the southern Rhone Valley – AOC Ventoux. You may be very familiar with one of the wineries from AOC Ventoux, Château Pesquié. Their wine labels in solid blocks of colour should be very familiar to you when you check on the shelves in the BC Liquor Stores and elsewhere across Canada. I have been enjoying their wines since the mid-1990s. I was privileged to speak with one of the owners of Château Pesquié, Monsieur Frédéric Chaudière about this wine, their family winery, what makes AOC special, and climate change. Enjoy!
My Interview with Frédéric Chaudière from Château Pesquié
Karl: I see you are the president of the AOC Ventoux. What makes Ventoux wines different or distinct from surrounding AOCs?
Frédéric: That is an easy answer. What really makes it different is our mountain. Our mountain gave us our own name. Why our mountain makes our AOC different from our neighbours? Mostly because it has a strong effect on climate. What really defines the terroir of Ventoux is the cooler climate. The Ventoux is 2000m approx. There is a cool air current from the mountain at night. We have the same amount of sun and warmth during the day but during the night we have much cooler nights. It is like the cool fog on the California coast. There is a discrepancy between day and night temp. This helps us be a later ripening AOC. Overall it brings freshness, balance, quaffability of the wines. The easiest answer is mountain – cooler climate – later ripening – great natural acidity and freshness in the wines. That is what gives Ventoux its identity.
What is the history of your family in the Ventoux?
It is a funny thing. My grandparents came to the Ventoux in 1971. this is the moment, two years before the AOC became into effect. It was Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS), a step before AOC. Our AOC will be 50 years old in two years. In an odd way, 3 generations ago, my family arrived when the area was going to become an AOC. 20 years my grandparents and parents were cooperators growing grapes, not making wine, and the independent winery was created in 1990. We are 31 years old. At that time there were only 10-15 independent wineries, while today there are around 150. So we are one of the historical independent wineries despite our relatively young age.
Are many family-run wineries?
It depends. Definitely, the viticulture is family-run overall. Today we still have 13 cooperatives. The cooperative system produces around 70% of the AOC harvest. But we have less than 150 independent wineries producing 30%. Between the independent and coop models, there are families behind. Behind these, the producers are at a family scale. You have it across the board across all production.
Are there any particular vintages for AOC Ventoux that you think are exceptional and what makes them exceptional?
A good question. We have been relatively lucky in the last vintages. My favourite probably in the last 6 vintages would be 2019. I am not saying that because I know you tasted this vintage. It is a vintage that had the freshness and acidity that you find in 2017 and 2018, but has a level of maturity and sun overall and thus concentration. That is very rare. You usually have vintages more on the concentration and other less powerful but more balanced. With 2019 a level of freshness and acidity is quite high that gives tremendous balance to the very rich and concentrated side that has been brought by the sunny vintage. 2019 is probably the most interesting lately… 2016 was also particularly similar to 2019 with acidity and balance. After that, we would have to go back to 2009 and 2010 were also great vintages. This is what we are trying to achieve, at least for the reds, a great level of maturity and concentration, but with that freshness and balance and natural acidity, that brings the identity of our terroir.
I noticed that your wines are vegan. Have they always been vegan, or at what point did you convert over to that?
We have pretty much been vegan forever. But it is only lately 2019 that we went for official certification. We had an increasing demand from the market. At first, we were yes this is vegan, as there could be some treatments of animal origins which we would never use. It wasn’t to be fair a big gap to jump. We just had to be proactive to find a serious certification institute. We started to work with the Vegan Society, which basically is one of the oldest players in vegan commitment. It wasn’t a game-changer in our practices as we were more or less vegan.
I see your winery is biodynamic. Are there many wineries in the Ventoux that have converted from organic to biodynamic or have gone straight to biodynamic? Have you seen any major changes in your vineyard with vine health, or the aromas and flavours of your wines/grapes after converting to biodynamic viticulture?
For us it has been a natural progression. I took over the winery with my brother Alex in the early 2000s. Before our parents were already sustainable. One of the first things that we thought made sense at that time was to start the certification to organic. In 2007 we started. It took 3 years and has been a gradual process. We realized there was another tool to get more freshness in the wine, and of course there are all the environmental questions that come with it. And so we certified the whole estate organically in the following years. We started to go biodynamic in 2015. We went first with 20% of the estate as an experiment to see if there is an evolution in the density of the root stalks, the verticality of the vines, in the balance of the grapes and as a result a deeper expression of the terroir in the wines. We wanted in the first place to try biodynamic because we tasted so many wines we liked from winemakers we like from Corsica, Alsace, the Loire, and Burgundy. Biodynamic was a common link between them. We were kind of convinced before starting but wanted to have an experimental phase to move forward. It is also relatively new in our region. In 2019 we had our first DEMETER global audit. That certified the estate and our cultural practices. Now it is part of the new normal for us.
What about organic and biodynamic in Ventoux? At the scale of the AOC, about 15% are certified organic and is growing fast. On the biodynamic side were are between 2-3 % I think. Somewhere in that range, but is growing. I focused on the cooler climate that defines our terroir, but the truth is we have great climatic conditions to be organic or biodynamic. I foresee a strong increase in both organic and biodynamic in the coming years.
Do you have a favourite red and white grape to work with and why do you like them so much?
That is a very difficult question in an area that specializes in blending. I am going to allow myself a multiple answer to your question. If there was to be only one for reds it has to be Grenache. The Ventoux is very much in the south of the Rhone but we have a cooler climate and altitude. And so in many ways we like to portray ourselves as the crossroad between north and south Rhone. Northern Rhone is pretty much Syrah for reds and Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne for whites. I deeply believe that the Ventoux is a rare area where these varieties find a great balance still in the southern Rhone. But our king variety is Grenache. From our winery there is a wine that is difficult to find in BC called Silica, which is 90% Grenache and 10% Cinsault. This is really for me one of the epitome of the beauty of Grenache you can get. It is very clear in colour and at the same time dense and concentrated. It has some floral, spice, and earthiness coming from the sandy soil. If I had to pick one of the varieties for the future, it is probably Cinsault. Cinsault brings a lot of acidity, has low alcohol, indigenous to the area or grown for many years through history, and was a grape despised in the past as it produces a lot of grapes. If you manage to take it to the right level of concentration, Grenache could be the Pinot Noir of the south and Cinsault is the Gamay of the south. I also have a passion for Pinot Noir and Gamay. For the whites, I think Clairette is an incredible variety. It is being rediscovered in the past decade. Grenache Blanc and Clairette are the two most planted white grapes in the Ventoux. It used to be Clairette was much more ahead but I believe we will have more Clairette in the future.
We do not get much Clairette in BC at all.
Quite rare. It typically comes as a support element in a blend, but wines that are 50+% Clairette are rare, but can be absolutely incredible.
Is global warming affecting the Ventoux? Is it changing the percentages of grape varieties in blends? Do you harvest sooner or change your viticultural practices?
In many ways, my answer about Cinsault and Clairette has been driven by climate change. Climate is the core of our identity. We have a cooler climate. For our AOC as a whole, trying to understand what is specific about our climate has been at the very core of all our thoughts in the last years. We have driven 2 studies with INRAE, France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, which does have an operation in Avignon, near us. Our AOC has requested 2 studies to understand what is specific about our climate in the last 50 years, and what is going to come in the next 50 years. Of course, when we look at speculation, it is more or less pessimistic. In the last 30 years we can see that the start of the harvest date has moved backward by around two weeks. In the early 80s we would start the harvest 20-25 Sept. Now we start between 5-10 Sept. We are a late-ripening area, and that is still true, but the reality from the physiology of the vines, in the 70s and 80s it was hard to reach maturity, but the change is we don’t have to worry about maturity but we still need acidity. If we look at the last decade, climate change has oddly helped the Ventoux make better wines. Is it going to be true in 50 years? I have to be slightly less optimistic about it, but as an AOC we have a chance to plant slightly higher as we do have 700-900 m above us. I am not afraid of the future of the Ventoux but some vineyards lower in the warmer areas of the AOC might be jeopardized by what is happening. There is a limit to the benefits of climate change. We are working on how to adapt, with Cinsault Clairette, and other varieties, other pruning methods, how to look at the density of the plots, some terroir that were not appreciated may be good now. There is a long list of adaptions that we are now working on. We are also starting to try to be carbon neutral by 2030. There are lots of strategies that we are doing to reach that goal.
We talked about the future, but how about a look back at history. Do you use of concrete eggs and vats more?
At Chateau Pesquié we enlarged the winery in 2010. At that moment we questioned the general structure, barrel types, vats, etc. We still use stainless steel for most wines, roses, and lighter reds. Raw concrete has become the norm for our higher-end wines. We find that it is the best way to tame the tannins. We don’t have amphora but are developing more the use of concrete eggs that is taking us quite close to how we can consume the lees and get a broader mid-palate and a longer length. Building a fresher finish. In terms of aging, we barrel age less than how much was by my parents. We do longer ageing in concrete. One of our single vineyards called Ascencio, is basically seeing no oak. It is aged 3 years in raw concrete tank. If we look at barrel ageing, we still believe that the use of wood is important especially to build the final flavours and underline the fruit. We use 225 litre barrels for Syrah. We hardly put Grenache in small barrels anymore, we use 600 litre demi-muid. We are very careful to have a light toasting that will have a great impact, not aromatically, but to build and underline the fruit and freshness in the wine.
Is there anything else you would like to cover?
First of all, I would like to invite you to the Ventoux. It is an exceptionally beautiful area with a beautiful mountain, hills, and change of terroir. The emergence of the mountain has created a mosaic of soils and makes a scenic area, landscapes are quite breathtaking. If we can finally travel, get your first plane ticket to come to visit the Ventoux.
Thank you for your time.