Château Unang, Ventoux
|Country & Region||France, Rhône Valley|
|Producer||James and Joanna King|
|Founded||An exceedingly long time ago. In recent history, purchased by James and Joanna King in 2001.|
In 867, the Bishop of Venasque was given Château Unang, then known as Villa Unango. The estate was almost certainly already old in 867. It may well have once been a Roman villa, for the Romans were in the neighboring village of Methamis. One could speculate further and suggest that if it were once a Roman villa, then it may have been built upon a former Greek villa—for the Greeks first came to the Rhone Valley in the mid 7th century BC and Unango, a most unFrench word, bears an interesting resemblance to the ancient Greek word for…wine vessel.
The bishop was given the estate because the nearby village of Venasque was the capital of the Comtat Venaissin until 1320, when the seat of government moved to Carpentras. The Venaissin state (comtat) was an independent enclave within France that came to house the Roman Curia and eventually gave rise to the Wine of the Pope, i.e., Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For over 800 years Unang was passed down from one bishop to another, until it was sold at the end of the 17th century (while Papal control of the Comtat continued until 1791, when France absorbed the enclave following the Revolution). Presumably, since the 9th century, a cross has stood on top of Unang’s hill.
In the late 18th century, an Italian aristocrat married into the family that owned Unang. Subsequently, the château was spruced up with a facelift, and a formal garden was designed to step down the hillside, following the path of a natural spring. Three terraced gardens were planted, each anchored by a fountain fed from the spring. In 1882 a six-meter wooden cross was mounted on a stone plinth on the hilltop, a restoration of an earlier cross. Frustratingly, the original date of the cross and other inscriptions in the stone have weathered away; much of that history, along with the origins of the name Unang, has been lost.
The property sits on its hillside deep in the tail end of the Nesque Valley, named after the Nesque River that flows out of the high Vaucluse Plateau to the east and runs through a rugged limestone gorge. This is part and parcel of the true Ventoux appellation, which purists define as that half moon of hills that wrap around the plain of Carpentras from the north to the south to form an amphitheater facing west. Unang and the Nesque is at the southern end of this arc, and south of it the appellation legally continues to slope down to the Luberon Valley. Had they the power, Ventoux’s cognoscenti would strike the plain of Carpentras and the slope going down to the Luberon from the appellation in a heartbeat.
The domain is isolated and self-contained with, interestingly enough, its own geological category: les sables d’Unang. This refers to a particular type of sandy soil that lies overtop limestone. Apart from Unang’s hillside, pockets of the sands of Unang are also found in the Gigondas AOC.
Unang’s vineyards all grow on site, facing east and south between 220 and 320 meters above sea level, and are completely surrounded by forest. It’s cooler here than many other parts of the Ventoux appellation, and certainly cooler than the Rhône Valley floor to the west. The Giant of Provence, Mount Ventoux, stands guard to the north, its bald dome of white limestone lending it all the gravitas a guardian needs. In 1990, UNESCO recognized the mountain as a World Heritage Site.
When James and Joanna King bought Unang in 2001, there were twenty hectares (49 acres) of vines in various parcels up and down the hillside, and in varying degrees of health. Six hectares (15 acres) of poorly sited and/or diseased vines were torn out, and a new cellar was put in. In 2003, James slowly began to replant, and he plans to grow to eighteen hectares of vines, or a little more than forty-four acres. The white varieties grow farthest down the hillside in the coolest zone, while the reds occupy the mid and upper slopes. What James likes in wine is elegance and depth, and his site enables him to make such wines par excellence. These are high-altitude wines of superb freshness, vigor, and minerality.
All grapes are hand-harvested at Unang, and the farming is certified organic.
Photos of Unang and of James in winter courtesy of Jeff Bramwell.
|Ventoux rosé||Cinsault (roughly 40%), Grenache (30%+/-) and Syrah (30%+/-)||A classically dry and elegant rosé via direct press (ie, not saignée method). Unfortunately, James only makes about 5,000 bottles in a given year, so get this while you can!|
|Ventoux rouge||Based roughly on 60% Grenache, then 30% Syrah, and the rest Cinsault||A wine of terrific character, particularly for its price. Depending on the year, the fruit tends to be in the blacker spectrum, and the aromatics tend to be strongly mineral. Annual production averages 1,650 cases.|
|Ventoux "La Croix"||Blend is similar to the classique above, but with less Grenache and more Syrah||The flagship of the domain, this is made only in the best years from a vineyard selection of less than five acres. These are the highest plantings, just under the summit of the hill, where the topsoil can be a mere eight inches in depth on the limestone bedrock. The wine is deep and long, with a marked overlay of stone in the aromatics that underpins the finish. Around 80% is aged in large demi-muid barrels, 20% or so new and the rest of various ages. Annual production averages 400 cases.|