They’re like buses and policemen… you wait an eternity to hear about a wine from Luberon, as we did with Les Quelles de la Coste, and then a week later everyone’s talking about them. Geoffrey Dean travels to this sunny corner of France made famous by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and discovers why the wines of AOC Luberon have got everything going for them. Dean visits Château La Canorgue, which inspired the film A Good Year and also the domains of two individuals responsible for raising the profile of the area – Fabrice Monod at Château Fontvert and Paul Dubrule at La Cavale.
Oenotourism is important in the Luberon – La Cavale had over 2,000 visitors in August alone with 40% of their annual production being sold via the cellar door.
Mention of the Luberon conjures up evocative images of Peter Mayle’s life as an expatriate in the fabled centre of Provence. His books, notably A Year in Provence and a romantic novel that was made into the cult film, A Good Year, starring Russell Crowe, painted memorable scenes of mountain ranges, idyllic villages, imposing old chateaux and stunning valleys. There were vineyards too, of course, with Crowe’s character forsaking a corporate career to manage his own ‘vignoble.’.
The vineyard scenes were shot in the region at Château La Canorgue, which has been making excellent wine for a long time, but only recently have the Luberon’s wines started to receive the full recognition they deserve.
Instrumental in raising the profile of the Luberon appellation (the AOC having been created in 1988) has been the role played by two individuals: Fabrice Monod and Paul Dubrule. Monod has followed in the footsteps of Crowe’s character, forsaking a career in television in Paris to manage his family’s winery at Lourmarin, Château Fontvert. Meanwhile, Dubrule, the billionaire co-founder of Accor Hotel Group, has invested in a new multi-million euro cellar door at La Cavale that is attracting a legion of new wine tourists to the area.
Fabrice Monod and Château Fontvert
Monod’s story is an interesting one. Hailing from a prominent Parisian family with a long history of governmental ministerial involvement, he worked in New York on Wall Street in the 1990s before returning home in the new millennium to start a TV production company. He presented a weekly programme on economics as well as making documentaries on life in China, where he spent considerable time.
“It was very tiring, and TV stations were paying less and less, so it was not worth the time or money,” he told The Buyer at his winery. “My family had owned the estate since the 1950s, but I came here very gradually. After doing a couple of winters here, I made the move permanently in 2013 and felt much better down here.”
Living in the 17th century chateau with his American girlfriend, and leaving the winemaking to the capable Yoann Malandain, Monod takes care of the business side of things. He has increased cellar door sales to 20% of the annual 150,000-bottle capacity, while direct-to-consumer sales are 10%. Around 8% of production is exported to 12 markets, with Totem Imports acting as his UK distributor.
Chateau Fonvert’s wines showed particularly well. An appealing pair of rosés was complemented by two excellent whites (one a blend of Rolle and Grenache Blanc; the other a single varietal version of the latter grape). The four reds offered value and good quality at different price points: Les Restanques 2018being a Syrah-based everyday drinker; Fonvert Rouge 2017, an appealing mid-market GSM; Le Collet 2017, a fine lower premium Syrah from ultra low-yielding 50-year old vines (only 12 hl/ha); Mourre Negre 2018, a beguiling Mourvedre with a dollop of Syrah from similarly low-yielding vines. These last two, at €25 and €34 respectively, were something of a steal, given their complexity and length. Both are on the wine list at a 2-star Michelin restaurant in nearby Bonnieux, although Monod’s ambition is to get them into a 3-star one in Japan, one of his 12 export markets.
Paul Dubrule and La Cavale
Not far from Château Fonvert, near the village of Cadenet, can be found La Cavale and Dubrule’s futuristic but tasteful cellar door. In 2005, Dubrule was asked to do a study on wine tourism by the French government, and the lessons he learnt from it have been incorporated into this striking building, which was designed by leading French architect, Jean-Michel Wilmotte.
Opened in 2017, it has proved a spectacular success, having received 2,000 visitors alone in August according to Corinne Conroy, La Cavale’s director of marketing and oenotourism.
“We’ve had a 20% increase in visitors this year,” she told The Buyer. “Apart from the tasting, we have concerts on the roof and musical evenings every Thursday. We want this place to be a magnet for people to enjoy the terrace and the views.”
Cellar door sales are outstanding at La Cavale, with 40% of the annual production of around 200,000 bottles selling there. Only a small amount is exported, with none as yet to the UK apart from mail order. Highly experienced winemaker, Jean-Paul Aubert, and consultant Alain Graillot, the celebrated Crozes-Hermitage producer, have crafted an impressive range of rosé, white and red wines.
Some stunning photographs of the winery and vineyards adorn a glossy coffee-table publication (written by Dubrule himself) entitled La Cavale en Luberon, which won best French drinks book of the year at the annual World Gourmand awards in Macau. On sale in the cellar door shop, it encapsulates the feel and heart of the Luberon.
Château La Canorgue
La Cavale will gain organic certification next year, but Château La Canorgue, just north of Bonnieux, has been farmed biodynamically since 1970. Some of the 40 hectares of vines there are over 100 years old, although winemaker Nathalie Margan-Libourel says the average age is around 40 years. It is very much a family affair, with ownership going back five generations and her father, Jean-Pierre Margan, acting as viticulturalist. Yapp Brothers, the well-known west country merchant based in Mere, have been importing La Canorgue’s wines for over 30 years. As many as 15 varieties feature on the estate, which was immortalised inA Good Year.
If this triumvirate of contrasting but excellent wineries is leading the way for the appellation, other Luberon estates such as Château La Dorgonne and Domaine de la Citadelle are also producing wines of similar personality and quality. It should not be a surprise, for wine has been made in the region since Roman times and conditions for viticulture are highly favourable.
Being a mountain appellation, with vines growing at an altitude of 200-450 metres, nights are fresh, helping to retain acidity. Indeed, all of the winemakers I met seldom add tartaric acid. Soils include Miocene sands, limestone scree and red clay, while the climate, a mix of Rhône influences and the cooler temperatures of the high Provençal plateau, is enhanced by one of the highest amounts of sun hours in France – over 2600 hours. In short, the wines of AOC Luberon have everything going for them.