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Beaumes-de-Venise Wine Region
Discover the Hidden Gems of Beaumes-de-Venise: Beyond Reds to Rare Finds
Last updated: December 9, 2023
First-time visitors to the southern Rhône anticipate a plethora of concentrated reds: unctuous wines baked under the Provençal sun and picked at optimum ripeness. In some instances, that is precisely what the region delivers. Yet there is a world of variety to discover here, with excellent white, rosé, and even dessert styles being produced. Beaumes-de-Venise, a hitherto unknown part of the viticultural landscape, is one such region that wears its chameleon colors with pride.
Indeed, Beaumes-de-Venise was marketing delicious, sweet wines long before dry reds became the height of fashion. But consumers rejected this venerable style en masse in the 20th century, so the appellation had to evolve. It has redefined itself as a source of exceptional reds that boast all of the perfume and potency of its far larger neighbor. Make no mistake: this is a region in the ascendant. It merits a closer inspection.
Winemaking and regional classifications
Beaumes-de-Venise offers two very distinct styles of wine. The sweet Muscat (promoted under a separate appellation) has been made since the 1300s, an aromatic blend of Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, and Muscat Noir. Like Port and Madeira, the grape spirit is added during fermentation, halting the yeast from turning all the sugar in the must into alcohol. As a result, only very ripe bunches are picked in the late fall, while the appellation rules insist upon a minimum sugar level of 252 grams per liter in the juice. Sold with a minimum abv of 15%, the wines can rival Sauternes in complexity and longevity. Older bottles, in particular, are dazzling, infused with aromas of acacia honey, stone fruit, and quince.
Stylistically, the reds borrow from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas: a good example has the former’s concentration and the latter’s freshness and poise. Grenache must contribute at least 50% of the final blend according to the appellation framework, with Syrah potentially finalizing the cuvée. However, Rhône grape varieties like Cinsault and Terret Noir can also be incorporated, providing they do not exceed 25%. Mono-varietal styles are rare in the region, as growers prefer to blend for complexity.
Today, Beaumes-de-Venise can bring exceptional value to your table. The appellation lacks the global renown of its neighbors, which has kept prices very reasonable. But the wines can soar – imagine a magnificently complex and velvety example of Grenache, complemented by Syrah’s grip and acidity. The wines are typically fruit-forward, with red berries, white pepper, and garrigue aromas. With age, you can expect leather, tobacco, and gamey notes on the palate. A quintessential Rhône wine experience!
Geography and terroir
Beaumes-de-Venise is undoubtedly the most “recherché” of the Rhône’s wine villages. The area under vine is situated east of Orange, a few kilometers from the river. The most iconic landmark is the Canal du Carpentras, which runs its course to the town of Carpentras in the south, passing through Beaumes-de-Venise in the process. It was built to allow growers to irrigate their crops in particularly dry years, conditions that are unfortunately occurring with greater frequency.
Indeed, only robust grape varieties can thrive in this sweltering Mediterranean climate – temperatures in July and August will often exceed 95 degrees. How do producers maintain freshness and acidity in their wines? The secret is elevation and aspect; the best climats (vineyard sites) are planted at higher altitudes, with a south-facing aspect. This facilitates exposure to the morning sunlight while avoiding the harsher UV rays of the afternoon. Winegrowers are also careful to select the coldest soils in the region: late Jurassic limestone that is both porous and permeable. Warmer alluvial soils dominate lower-lying vineyards, producing wines with less acidity and weight.
Mirroring the situation in the northern Rhône, the authorities have never undertaken a hierarchical classification of the best soils and sites found south of Montelimar. Nevertheless, there is an unofficial list of top-performing climats in every appellation. Beaumes-de-Venise is no exception: the fetishization of single-site wines has become widespread in the zone as growers look to Burgundy for inspiration.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the star of the southern Rhône, needs little introduction. Located in southeastern France, it has produced superlative and heady red wines for centuries. However, what is less commonly known is that the appellation is surrounded by a network of communes to the east and west, all offering a unique interpretation of the local soils and climate. Beaumes-de-Venise has become one of the most important of these up-and-coming vineyards for several reasons.
Chief among these is the level of investment that has poured into the zone in recent years, raising the quality bar to unprecedented heights. Long regarded as France’s best dessert Muscat, Beaumes-de-Venise was nonetheless regarded as a humdrum producer of Grenache-based red wines. But that is no longer the case: top blends can be linear or voluptuous, overtly concentrated, or very subtle. Yet there are remarkably few poor wines being made today, certainly compared to 20 years ago. They have a lovely brightness of flavor and depth of fruit that makes them stand out.
Meanwhile, the organic and sustainable movement is now big business in the southern Rhône. Organic viticulture eschews all (synthetic) vine treatments, emphasizing practicing agriculture in harmony with natural rhythms. Does that sound a bit wishy-washy? It is nothing of the sort: many of the region’s best reds and whites have been produced this way for over a decade. Moreover, the number of conversions increases yearly as growers realize that sustainable wine is a marketable commodity.
Yet, even today, naysayers will still insist that Beaumes-de-Venise is a decent value facsimile of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, using much the same red grapes. But they’re wrong: the appellation has become one of the Rhône’s superstars, exporting classical dessert wines and seductive reds. It’s the intelligent choice for the anti-wine snob.
Exceptional restaurants – informal and chic – abound in the Vaucluse. Indeed, Provence’s food culture has no equal in the Mediterranean, and top chefs always source their ingredients from the area’s rich selection of open-air markets. Walking around these bustling centers of commerce and gastronomy is a feast for the senses: vendors hawk all manner of organic fruit and vegetables, in addition to fresh herbs, lavender, seafood, and meat from the Camargue. Meanwhile, you must book ahead to secure a table at one of Avignon’s best destination restaurants, particularly in the summer. Our top choice? A bottle of Beaumes-de-Venise red with slow-cooked Provençal lamb shoulder. Arrive hungry.
A Gastronomic Guide to the Provençal Cuisine: Read more
The great expanse of land south of Montelimar, including the area now known as the southern Rhône Valley, has been colonized since the days of ancient Greece. Historians believe that after Greek mariners founded Marseille in 600 BC, they developed Beaumes-de-Venise – and neighboring settlements – as spa resorts for wealthy clientele. They were also responsible for introducing the star white grape of the appellation Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains. Meanwhile, they continued establishing trading ports along the Mediterranean, including St-Tropez, Nice, and Antibes. Yet a rising power in central Italy was about to redefine Europe’s geopolitical map for the next 600 years.
In 125 BC, ambitious Roman generals seized their chance to conquer Gaul’s southern Mediterranean region. The catalyst was the siege of Marseille (known as Massalia), threatened by a rival force of Celto-Ligurians; the Romans were, ironically enough, invited into the region to fight alongside the Greeks. However, after the Romans pushed the Ligurians out of southern France, they quickly subjugated the entire province. The remaining Greek settlers either fled or became part of Provincia Romana, ruled over by Rome’s administrators as part of the Western Empire. During this era, the sweet wines of Beaumes-de-Venise were celebrated across the land. However, they would horrify modern-day consumers; the Romans would adulterate their wines with seawater and herbs, heating this potent concoction over flames to maderize the alcohol. The result could best be described as ‘Muscat Fumé.’
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, the Vandals, Burgundians, and Visigoths all passed through southern France before it came under Frankish control. Several centuries later, the papacy relocated to Avignon after huge schisms in Rome. Seven successive popes built lavish monuments to Catholicism, including the papal palace in Avignon. According to legend, the French king Louis IX requested supplies of Beaumes-de-Venise to aid his journey to the Holy Land during the 7th Crusade. Under the stewardship of Pope Clement V, the acreage in Beaumes-de-Venise increased dramatically to satisfy the demand of the pope’s inner circle at Avignon. The city remained a papal city-state until 1791 – the aftermath of the French Revolution saw a great intolerance for self-governing territories within France.
Beaumes-de-Venise, meanwhile, was awarded appellation status in 1945. For most of the 20th century, the zone staked its reputation on powerful and aromatic Muscat Vin Doux Naturel: a potent concoction of acidity and sweetness. But recently, red blends from Beaumes-de-Venise have also come to the fore as growers continue to exploit their superior soils and the trend for quality labels that show a sense of place. But more importantly, the market for dessert wines, sadly, remains minute.
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