Domaine le Clos des Cazaux

In the village of Vacqueyras, just beyond the center of town, there is a winery that we have visited several times when we have been in the Southern Rhône.  The first time, it was highly recommended by the hotel where we were staying so we headed there after lunch in the village.  The rest of the story belongs in the Experiences section of Power Tasting as much as in Wineries, but it is also instructive about Clos des Cazaux.

The vines of Clos de Cazaux, just outside the village of Vacqueyras.  Photo courtesy of Kysela Pere et Fils.

Over 20 years ago…as we parked, a petite elderly woman came out to greet us.

Elderly Woman: Bonjour, Monsieur.  Bonjour, Madame.

All the rest of the conversation was also in French, so we’ll translate from here on.

EW: A taste of my wines, perhaps?

Power Tasting: Of course, that’s why we’re here.

EW: Please enter my cave.

The cave was little more than a shed.  Inside was a shelf with four bottles of red wine.  Clos de Cazaux makes more wines than that today.

EW: There are two Vacqueyras and two Gigondas.

This is a relevant point.  Many of the Vacqueyras wineries own parcels of land both in that village and in the neighboring hamlet of Gigondas.  Although they are as close together as uptown and downtown in a city, the elevation and soil conditions in the two are substantially different.

EW: The two Vacqueyras wines and one of the Gigondas are traditional, a blend of Grenache and Syrah.  The other is pure Syrah, pour les anglais (for the English).

PT: (to ourselves) Oh, she means us!

And that says a lot about Clos de Cazaux and the Vacqueyras vignerons in general.  While they can be innovative in their winemaking, the winemakers of Vacqueyras are tightly wedded to tradition.  Still, they try to please, even us anglais.

A Templar, with the Dentelles de Montmirail in the background.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

That wine that was made just for us was and is called the Cuvée des Templiers (or Templars, in English, who were freebooting soldiers who fought for and occupied the Holy Lands during the Crusades.  It is no longer just Syrah, but having tasted it again in ensuing years, it’s still our favorite from this winery.

The Clos des Cazaux vineyards. Photo courtesy of the winery.

As then, Clos des Cazaux makes wine from grapes of both Vacqueyras and Gigondas.  There are whites and a few rosés, but most of their wines are reds.  The whites are predominantly Clairette from vines the elderly woman might have planted in her youth.  The reds are mostly Grenache, Syrah and some Mourvèdre.  There are a few interesting exceptions, including a pure Grenache from Gigondas (maybe the anglais have changed their tastes).  There’s also a wine they call Grenat Noble, which is a Grenache, with 30% of the grapes having been infected with botrytis, the Noble Rot, that is the base of Sauternes dessert wines.  It’s not quite a dessert wine, not quite a table wine.  It’s just unique.

We’re sure that the elderly woman has long since passed on, but there is an interesting coda to this story.  Years later we were at the tourist information office in Rasteau, village near Vacqueyras, and we related the story above to the young woman who was helping us.  She looked at us, amazed, and said, “That woman is my grandmother!”


In the center of the Southern Rhône winemaking region lies a rather sleepy little Provençal village called Vacqueyras (pronounced VA-kay-rass).  [Yes, in Provence they often pronounce the final “s”.  One might think it’s just to confuse the Anglophones.]  It wouldn’t exist, at least as it is in our times, if it were not for wine.  The Gauls made wine there; so did the Romans; winemaking was documented in the 15th century; and the wines of Vacqueyras were recognized as an AOC in 1990.

The village of Vacqueyras.  Photo courtesy of Vaucluse-Visites-Virtuel.

So why visit a sleepy little village?  There are a number of reasons.  For one, nearly all the little villages in this Côte du Rhône region are rather somnolent.  You need to go to the nearby cities of Avignon or Orange to get a little action.  But you don’t come to this sector of France for action; the attraction is the good life: blue skies, sunshine, gorgeous scenery, friendly people, superb food and, oh yes, wine.  What Vacqueyras lacks in liveliness it makes up in charm.

There are a little more than 1,000 people living in Vacqueyras, while there are 100 wineries, and heaven only knows how many small vineyards that supply their grapes to the four cooperatives within the village’s borders.  That’s a very high vines-to-people ratio.  Considering that some of those folks staff the inns and cafés, there are even fewer to tend the grapes.

Those cafés are another reason to visit Vacqueyras.  There just aren’t that many other places to go for a meal in the area.  We’ve found only one restaurant and a snack bar in nearby Gigondas.  There are more in Beaumes de Venise down the road and maybe one or two in Seguret.  Appetite will take you to Vacqueyras.  And you will be well rewarded with local fare, including fish and seafood, lamb, fresh vegetables and fruits, and if you like an omelette aux truffes (truffle omelet).

“Downtown” Vacqueyras.  Photo courtesy of Horizon Provence.

The streets are lined with homes made from local beige stone, under shady trees.  In good weather you can sit at a café with some wine that may have been made within walking distance and just take in the views.  Those views include the Dentelles de Montmirail to the east, the alpine foothills that seem to Vacqueyrasiens like lace.  In the other direction are the seemingly endless high plains of the Terraces des Garrigues.  Garrigues are the wild hillside herbs that abound in southern France and which add a distinctive, if hard to describe, character to the wines made there.

And that wine you might be sipping is most likely to be a powerful red, with Grenache and Syrah as the dominant grapes, with Mourvèdre and Cinsault used for blending.  (See the accompanying article in this issue on one of our favorite Vacqueyras wineries.)  Yes there are whites and rosés, but the name “Vacqueyras” inspires thoughts of deep red velvet.  Unfairly, some of the other Côte du Rhône villages have grander reputations than does Vacqueyras, which enables you to buy desirable wines at lower prices than, say, Châteauneuf du Pape.

If you are wine tasting in the Southern Rhône – and at some point, you ought to – make sure that Vacqueyras is a stop on your route.


New Wines, Old Memories

One of the great pleasures of tasting wine during our travels to many faraway places is the discovery of a fabulous wine that we’d never tasted before.  But that experience is often mixed with a little sadness, because we realize at the time that we will probably never taste this wine again unless we happen to pass that way another time.  There was the cooperative wine at a hilltop restaurant in Valpolicella.  The Rhône blend poured by the winemaker in a shed near Saint-Chinian.  And that Volnay in Burgundy that we couldn’t even find in the local shops.

Photo courtesy of Open Table.

And then, by pure happenstance, we have spied one of these memorable wines on a store shelf or a restaurant wine list.  We hasten to buy it and then one of two things happens.  We realize that our memories had played tricks on us and we couldn’t figure out what we had liked so much all those years ago.  Or, more happily, we are instantly transported back at the first sip.

The salt flats near Marsala, Sicily

Maybe it was a wine, for instance, that we had drunk at an outdoor café on the Italian coast.  We can once again smell the maritime breezes, even in a restaurant near home.  The sky becomes bright blue and we can see the flats where sea salt was drying.  (By the way, the wine was Donnafugata Anthilia.)  There are many other examples we could cite, but they all have the same theme: wines, the good ones at least, imprint themselves on our minds not only for their smells and tastes but also for the circumstances in which we tasted them.

That is one of the prime reasons to make wine tasting a part of our travel plans.  If we could find them, we could taste all those wines in our own homes, but having them there is even better.  Power Tasting is all about the experience of wine tasting and at wineries, but elsewhere as well.  Wine has the power to refresh memories of wonderful times past, not just of the wine in question but also the region, the particular place it was tasted, the time of year and the people who we met along the way to that glass.

Why wine in particular?  Why not chocolate bars?  Pickles?  Steaks?  We might remember one particular steak as being the best we had ever eaten, but one steak is not that differentiated from another.  Wine is different, at least for enthusiasts such as ourselves and, we presume, our readers.  We bring a level of concentration to tasting wine, thinking about what we smell, what we taste, what it reminds us of, how long we can taste it.  That very particularity brings with it mental souvenirs that encompass where we are and what we are doing at the time.  A simple sip can recreate the entire experience.

So when you next order a glass or a bottle in some out of the way spot, on a glorious afternoon in a piazza or a château or even at a picnic, drink it all in – the wine and the smells and the sunlight too.  You may enjoy it all again out of another glass in the future.

Strange Grapes

In the United States, we drink a lot of wine produced domestically, more from California than from the other states.  For the most part the wines we drink are made from grapes brought over from France.  The Bordeaux and Burgundy grapes are the most popular, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  But the borders of Wine Country are far more extensive, even within Europe.

The Georgians age their wines in amphorae, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans did.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In recent years, Americans have been eager to try wines from new places.  Of course, Italy and Spain have always been a part of American wine drinking, but German Riesling and Austrian Grüner Veltliner have increasingly been appearing on wine lists and on store shelves.  But what about Saperavi from Georgia in the Caucasus?  Or Feteasca Neagra (or the “Dark Maiden”) from Romania?  Hungarian Kékfrankos, anyone?

We recently had the opportunity to taste a lot of wines from countries where we didn’t know that wine was made, from grapes we never heard of, including those just mentioned.  It forced us to think about how to deal with such unique tastings.

  • Start with an open mind. Just because we hadn’t heard of these wines shouldn’t have made us presuppose anything about them.  The producers of many of them were eager to inform us that wine had been produced in their country for thousands of years, so if it was good enough for the Romans, why not us, too?  And indeed many had distinctive aromas and tastes that weren’t quite like anything we’d tasted before.
  • Consider the history. Yes, there was wine in these parts of Wine Country a millennium ago, but what about recently?  In a number of cases we were told that after World War II, their entire export market was to Russia, where wine drinkers prefer sweetness in their glasses.  Accordingly, most native vines – not all – were pulled up and replaced with more familiar grapes that were left to over-ripen.  Post Cold War, the local grapes were replanted, so that what is now available on the market is made from relatively young vines.
  • Judge the wines on their own merits. Not everything was great; a few were awful; and most were interesting but not on a par, to our tastes, with better Californian and Western European wines.  But so what?  Okay, we’d never tasted Saperavi, so these were the best we ever had.  And they were quite pleasant, something we’d like to try again with, say, stuffed peppers such as distant Romanian relatives once made for us.
  • Quietly compare these grapes with what you know. We found a great deal of similarity of some of these wines with those from grapes we were more familiar with, especially Syrah.  Syrah is a very adaptable grape, producing very different tastes depending on the terroir, so maybe that connection was only in our minds.  Or was it some deep-seated ancestry?  We certainly don’t know, but this reference did enable us to think of the kinds of food that each strange grape would go well with, i.e., the same ones we would choose to go with Syrah.