Vacqueyras at the front of the class

France’s southern Rhone Valley has always been home to great values in wine, and still is. This is red wine country with only small amounts of white wine production. The wines from the region’s most famous town, Chateauneuf du Pape, just north of Avignon, have become extremely popular over the last 20 years, and quite predictably have increased in price, now often commanding more than $30 a bottle. The natural response to this sticker shock is to search for nearby villages whose wines are less well known and are priced the way Chateauneuf du Pape was priced a decade or two ago.

Vacqueyras, a sleepy Provencal hill town, had been lumped together with 16 other villages in the area and labeled as a Cotes du Rhone Villages wine until 1990. It was then “promoted” to its own appellation, which allows the wines to be labeled solely with the name of the village, because growers convinced government regulators that their wines were sufficiently distinctive. Wine makers in Vacqueyras (pronounced vac-key-ras) use the same basic blend of grapes, grenache, syrah, cinsault, and mourvedre as their colleagues do in Chateauneuf du Pape, just down the road. But wines from Vacqueyras are more rustic, less polished.

There are exceptions, as the Domaine Le Clos de Caveau proves with their classy Vacqueyras. They attribute the quality of their wine to the exclusive use of syrah and grenache for their blend, their organic grapes, and the location of their vineyard. All of their grapes come from their organic vineyards, which are located in the hills at a higher elevation where it is slightly cooler. As a result, the grapes ripen later, giving them more time to develop flavors. The higher elevation also means greater exposure to the cleansing winds of the mistral, which makes their job of having an organic vineyard easier.

The year 2000 was the third in a string of four great years for southern Rhone Valley wines. Not surprisingly, the 2000 Domaine Le Clos de Caveau is outstanding. Rich and intense, it is suave and balanced without aggressive tannins or a sense of heaviness. Have a glass or two with a winter roast and relax after work.

Domaine Le Clos de Caveau, Vacqueyras, 2000, about $18. 

April 1, 2004.