The Coopérative of Vacqueyas in the Côtes du Rhône was built in 1956/1957 by a well-named architect, Mr Henri Enjouvin (sounds like Anjou Vin in French), Mr Enjouvin having also taken part in the planning and construction of many other coops in southern France and Provence before and after WW2. Named initially Coopérative Vinicole les Vins du Troubadour, it was renamed in a more modern way a few years ago as Vignerons de Caractère and it has also gone through a major growth and modernization. This report is coincidently again about the Vacqueyras appellation but I was actually invited there for a press tour by another communication agency, Pain Vin & Company, along with 5 other journalists. I thought it was interesting to report on what looks like a dynamic coopérative with a commercial edge, something very different from the old-style coops where I like to buy wine in bulk in summer.
Today, this coop vinifies the grapes from a 1000-hectare surface, making it a major producer of the area. 80 growers are behind the coop, all giving 100 % of their grapes except 2 of them. To be precise, 20 producers make more than half of the volume, the rest of the growers having smaller surfaces, some even having another job somewhere and tending their vineyard in their free time. This story shows that the coopératives are very diverse, some being a long way from the familiar village coop of grandpa.
Sylvain Decoster who is the environmental quality manager at the coop showed us around during this visit.
This tasting room is very user friendly with a very pro-active staff and __very important __ all the wines are being poured for free at the tasting bar, except one top cuvée which is understandable. People can also taste the bib wines and the bulk cuvées (there are still a few of them). Free tasting is still the norm all over France and it doesn't seem to yield excesses in consumption, like, you know, people dropping just to get free booze and leave. As a consumer, I would have trouble to have to pay for a tasting anyway, considering that most wineries can afford this loss with the volumes they make. It's part of our culture and I'd even say that this simple treat may turn into more purchases from the visitors than if they were compelled into paying something. Visitors here at the coop are not only locals but also out-of-towners and foreigners, at least in summer, I saw a few people from Belgium and Holland in there who seemed to know the place. This region like most of the south and Provence has a large number of foreign residents from northern Europe including the U.K. who either bought a second home there or stay in accommodations during their vacations.
__ a red Vin de Pays de Vaucluse at 1,7 €/liter
__ a rosé Vin de Pays de Vaucluse at 1,7 €/liter
__ a Côtes du Rhône rosé at 2,8 €/liter
__ a Côtes du Rhône rouge at 2,8 €/liter
__ a Côtes du Rhône Vacqueyras at 5,9 €/liter
The Vignerons de Caractère also has several bibs available :
__ Vin de Pays de Méditerranée "Petit Caprice" in red, rosé or white and costing 13,6 € for 5 liters.
__ Côtes du Rhône "A L'Ombre des Fontaines" in red or rosé at 20,6 € for 5 liters.
__ Vacqueyras, Seigneur de Fontimple red at 30,6 € for 5 liters.
Considering the volumes and truck loads of grapes arriving at the winery during the harvest peak, this system helps the coop check if the quality of the delivered grapes is correct, and adapt the price paid to the grower. We're not speaking of the same terroirs or know-how of course, but these docks and grape corer made me think to this large winery that I visited in southern Russia, Chateau Tamagne, which was working on an even larger surface, 1600 hectares.
On this picture you can see the efficient ergonomy of this upper floor as a workplace, the conveyor belt on the right bringing the whole clusters when needed for the carbonic-maceration cuvées. the two resin vats in the far are used to make a sudden délestage-remontage of the juice over the cap in the fermenters : the juice is pumped into the 2 mobile vat after they've been positionned over the upper opening of the fermenter, and when it's full, the 4 valves (2 per resin vat) are swung wide open to provide a flush remontage flowing powerfully through the cap. These resin vats are very easy to move around when empty and they can do this flush remontage very comfortably on any fementer they select
.The two 30-hectoliter stainless-steel vats on the side (pic on left) are used for their new upper cuvée. These Della Toffola vats are temperature controlled.
When the juice has been racked to another vat or to the barrels in the cellar and it's time to empty the remaining must and hard sediments, a forklift receptor is positionned under the opening and the large blades in the conic bottom of the vat begin to turn and push the must out into the mobile receiving container. Of course, the carbonic-maceration grapes don't follow the same procedure and they are pumped to one of the presses nearby. Sylvain says that everything is recycled here, like the must is going to the distillery with the stems, and at the distillery they put apart the grape seed to make oil and use the last-end must for compost. He adds that for the cleaning of these vats they work with a service company that will recover the tartar on the vat walls and recycle the tartaric acid, shipping it to an enology-products company which will sell it as winemaking additive. I asked later Pascal Duconget (he is the directeur général of the coop) if they re-acidified their wines but he said no.
The coop hired a vineyard technician (a young woman) whose job is to check the maturity and health condition of the grapes, she goes to every parcel making the 1000 hectares and also checks the number of clusters per vine for example. They try now to check the grapes not only when they arrive at the winery but well before so that they can give advice to the grower in time. Also, during the three weeks prior to the harvest, the grower bring grapes samples from their parcels to the enologist for tasting and analysis so that he can determine if it's fine enough to begin picking or machine-harvesting. The grower wouldn't benefit from bringing intentionally samples which are riper than the average of his parcel because the trick would be discovered when the harvest load reaches the unloading docks. In short, the grower can only begin to harvest when he got the green light from the coop enologist, and then he has to proceed quickly. In the past, the grower would more or less decide of the harvest schedule, which could yield a harvest of low quality. This precise harvest decision control was put in place around 2007.
Speaking of the growers deciding to turn organic, there's an incitement in terms of a higher price paid for the grapes : 7 % more during the conversion years (3 years), and 20 % more (compared to the non-organic) when they reach the fully-organic stage. Farming organic meaning more workforce and possibly smaller yields, it's not sure from my point of view that the price difference is sufficiently attractive to compel the growers to change their farming practice.
__ Vacqueyras Blanc (white) Seigneur de Fontimple 2011. Made fromthe equivalent of 10 hectares, a volume of 300 hectoliters. This cuvée is sourced from:the parcels of several growers. 7 white varieties here with a majority of Viognier and Bouboulenc. Cold pressing, very early in the morning, then a débourbage with a rotative filter separating the thick parts. The picking was made in 2 times, the Bourboulenc having a late maturity. 10 % of the wine spends time in wood. The wine sports 13 ° of alcohol on the label, it has aromas of dry fruits and ripe fruits. Costs 13 €.
__ Vacqueyras Blanc (white) Eternité 2011. From the "Grands Vins de Création" range, an upper cuvée priced at 25 €. This wine is vinified and raised in wood. Made from Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Bourboulenc & Viognier. This cuvée makes a volume of 3000 bottles. The coop makes right now 4 cuvées in the upper range category (Grands Vins de Création). Very oaky wine, at least for the first mouth, the second minutes later being more moderate. Rather fresh wine, with ripe aromas. I asked Pascal Duconget (the director of the coop) if they used to re-acidify their wines, and he toold me that they don't do that. They instead choose carefully the harvest date because it's particularly important for the whites, he says. We ask about the chief enologist and chai master Stéphane Cardona, he works there since 2006, when the previous enologist retired. He worked in Bergerac and also in New Zealand among other places and he has a good experience with the whites.
__ Petit Caprice Rosé [2011 I guess], Vin de Pays de la Méditerranée. I didn't take any notes about this wine but I liked it. Made from Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and bottled in colorless glass. I'll need to try it again (subliminal message to get some more). Price : 5,8 €. The reason I didn't take notes was that we spoke of the one-man, one-vote, which was the rule in the early coops but has evolved in a pragmatic way to be more efficient and quality driven. There's a weighting of the vote system, especially that as said above, 20 % of the growers make more than 50 % of the surface load here. One thing interesting we're told too is that in Vacqueyras, there a monoculture tradition with grapes, the farmers have always been growing grapes only, no other crops on the side. Also, this coop began to bottle its wine very early, in 1958, which at the time was not so common.
__ Seigneur de Fontimple Rouge (red) 2010. Quite powerful wine. Ample mouth, a bit burning though. Made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre on a terroir thick with cobble stones (galets roulés). Costs 13 €. We're speaking of carbonic maceration (I think this wine went through one) and our hosts say that the coop was the first to introduce carbonic maceration in the Rhone region in the 1970s'. The conversation switches to the Carignan, and we learn that until 1990 the INAO used dubious ways to force growers to uproot this variety under the pretext that its yields were too high. The vignerons has a 10-year ultimatum and for every hectare of Carignan that a given grower didn't uproot, he saw 3 of his other hectares downgraded in terms of appellation status. With this bullying method, they had many growers getting rid of beautiful vines. Since then some growers succeeded to convince the INAO to backtrack on this issue, because with the right pruning, Carignan gives very beautiful results in the wine.
__ Vacqueyras L'Absolu d'Eternité 2010, a red. This is a new cuvée, not yet on the market. The bottle by the way bears the number 0004. This will be the top wine among the Grands Vins de Création range. Beautiful nose of cooked fruits and candied fruits. The glass shows nice legs on its inside. The tannins are refined and elegant, without asperities. There are notes of liquorice, that's a nice wine. The whole thing is well blended. 14,5 ° in alcohol. The wine will be sold in individual bottles packaged in a canister. Price : 49,5 €.
Speaking of bottles, the coop managed to reduce the weight of the bottles by 20 % whilst still keeping the nice feeling of a solid bottle when you hold an empty one. Working on the issue with the bottle maker Verallia, they brought down the weight from 620 grams to 390 grams, making a 130-gram reduction. Another halo for their save-the-planet sanctity...
The winery sells 20 % of its wine direct, through the Internet or in the visitor center. It exports in around 30 countries internationally. The export rate is about 50 %, in northern Europe, the U.S.A., Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Dubai and Brasil (the latter being their new export destination).