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Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise
Nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote "The Muscat grape has been grown for a long time in Beaumes and its wine is remarkable." Clearly the vineyards on the windswept slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail in the southern Rhone Valley have been around for some time. Today's Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is an AOC that produces a single wine of the same name. Made entierly from the small-berried Muscat de Frontignan, the wines are modestly sweet and carry a minimum alcohol level of 15%, achieved by the addition of neutral spirits during fermentation.

One might not generally expect the Beaumes de Venise appellation to be full of young, outward looking, modernist producers. It is, after all, one of the most traditional suppliers of Vin Doux Naturel. However, in a tasting of Beaumes de Venise this spring such a producer came to light. A new name to me, Domaine de Pigeade, is clearly the best sweet wine of the appellation, and also strikingly modern in style—in the best sense of the word.

Most examples of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise that consumers have seen will bear the name of one of the large Northern Rhône négociants such as Jaboulet or Chapoutier, who between them account for most exports of this sweet wine. While decent efforts, they are rarely exciting. However, Thierry Vaute, aged 50, of Domaine de Pigeade is determined to create a name for his estate-bottled version of the southern Rhône’s best-known sweet wine.

Vaute moved to the region 15 years ago with his family, after getting a New World perspective during a stint with Navarro Vineyards in California. (Navarro itself makes a very good late harvest Riesling). After building a winery, he threw away the appellation rulebook for winemaking. Stainless steel vessels, cool fermentation, destemming, rigorous sorting of grapes, and a gentle press are not exactly the normal approaches in this backwater of the Côtes du Rhône. The end result is a fragrant and strikingly pure, fruity wine. At 15-percent alcohol his wines have lower alcohol levels than normal for the appellation, and this also makes them less fatiguing on the palate.

So different and appealing are Vaute’s efforts that one wishes that more estates would take this approach. If they did, Beaumes de Venise as an estate-bottled product could be put back on the map. (Wine/Appellations)