Malcolm Swan, an Englishman Sparked a Revolution in Quality in the Ventoux, a Legacy That Merits a Tribute at the Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles in April.
Breaking: Seminar on Ventoux AOC wines at the Hospice du Rhône on April 25, led by Jeb Dunnuck. Opening Tasting on April 24, and Closing Tasting on April 25.
In those days and nights in 1973, his phone rang, incessantly. Their voices were scornful, menacing. They uttered threats to sabotage his vineyard. Their violent words conjured up physical harm. His supposed transgression: producing and bottling wine under his estate’s name.
This was not the dutiful winegrower, who toed the traditional line. It was not someone whose roots were in the region, some local farmer bereft of ambition.
He was a new breed, a foreigner, someone buoyed by freshness and animation, determined to make his mark in the wine world. Have no doubt about his courage. His character was defined by it.
His name: Malcolm Swam, a Brit. His winery: Domaine des Anges, which he purchased in 1973, in the AOC Côtes-du-Ventoux.
Malcolm Swan: Intrepid Trailblazer
I ran across Malcolm by a chance encounter in 2010, in Carpentras, at a vernissage for Ruth Middleton, an American artist, who was a neighbor of mine in the perched village of Venasque. I was keen on meeting local winegrowers, having harvested grapes the previous fall at Saint Jean du Barroux, the vineyard of Philippe Gimel.
It was mid-summer, the roads filled with tourists and cyclists. I made my way to the domaine, spread out over a hillside at 1200 feet near the village of Mormoiron, 50 miles northeast of Avignon.
From the main building, under a blemishless and wide sky, your eyes glide across country, as flat as a playing field, to the Olympian view of the southern flank of the majestic limestone-capped Mont Ventoux.
Atop the hill above the property, you make out the gauzy gray silhouette of a Chapel, the Notre Dames des Anges, from which the domaine takes its name.
Upon arrival at an apartment at the Domaine des Anges where he was living in retirement, I was unprepared for the riveting scenes that Malcom summoned up about his initiation to the region.
I thought I would hear the benign repetition of the daily acts of the wine grower, coupled with the unwelcome frustrations of storms, mildew, and ravaging sangliers. To my surprise, the first time we spoke it occurred to me that Malcom was like a revolutionary, having led a visionary existence by going all in for a cause.
Malcolm Swan, a lover of opera, had a bold Celtic charm. He possessed a calm reverence for the art of winemaking one only achieves from intimate tending to and treating of the vines.
The First Ventoux Estate
It was in 1973 that the Ventoux earned the designation as an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée). At that time, Mr. Swan explained, all the growers in the appellation sold their grapes to the caves coopératives. There were no estate-bottled wines carrying the name of the winery on the label.
Malcolm Swan had other ideas. As a newcomer to the region, he declared that he was going to produce wines as an independent producer, vinifying his wine in his own cellar.
Wine growers in the Ventoux treated him like an apostate, a traitor.
Malcolm said it was useless to try to explain his motives. He did not let the danger of their threatening phone calls distract him. He was more concerned with producing fine wines than with being rejected. After all, he said, he was already a foreigner, a Brit.
His response to the invective and the insults, he told me, was as simple as simple can: “Wait and see.”
In 1987, Robert M. Parker Jr. published an epic book, Wines of the Rhone Valley, that introduced drinkers to the pleasures of Rhone wines. Parker saluted the wines of the Domaine des Anges:
“Lastly, an Englishman, Malcolm Swan, has settled in France and makes one of the best Cotes du Ventoux at his property called Domaine des Anges. Recent vintages of this wine have exhibited exceptional charm and delicious fruit.”
Today, there are 158 independent producers in the AOC Ventoux, offering great variety and quality.
Malcolm Swan, an intrepid pioneer of Ventoux wine, passed away in September, 2017. He was aged 89. He had, always, the satisfaction of knowing, whatever the struggles, that he had made a distinguished name for himself and the Domaine des Anges.
Naked Grenache-Syrah dominant blends
As an appellation, the Ventoux, once known as Côtes du Ventoux before 2008, seems more like a concept due to its expansive reach across 15,000 acres of varying terrains and micro-climates.
There are three distinct regions in the AOC Ventoux: the basin of Malaucène east of Gigondas, the plains extending to the east from Carpentras, and an area southeast of Carpentras that borders the AOC Luberon in the northwest Luberon.
The Ventoux has been known as the land of caves coopératives (wine co-ops). There are 16 coopératives and 35 négociants that buy grapes directly from growers. Of total production, independent producers account for about only 20%.
The AOC Ventoux wines are dominated by the red grape varieties of Grenache and Syrah, with smaller portions of Mourvèdre, Cinsaut and Carignan in some blends. Growers have increased their production of rosé in the past ten years to meet increased demand. Today, the AOC produces 68% red, 26% rosé and 6% white.
From time to time, wine writers come out with an article touting the wines of Ventoux, premised on estates turning out quality vintages in the appellation. Spot on: there exists a plentitude of quality.
An exemplar is an article in the Financial Times by Jancis Robinson, who covered the Ventoux landscape in admirable fashion.
As Ms. Robinson notes, the higher elevation in the Ventoux, along with the winds flowing down from Mont Ventoux, contribute to lower nighttime temperatures. Thus, the growing season is longer and the harvest for the late-ripening Grenache a week to ten-days later in the Ventoux than at lower altitudes along the Rhône.
Furthermore, there is no vinification in new oak: you taste only the juice of the vines. As Robert M. Parker Jr. said, “I call them naked wines. There is no makeup.”
Ms. Robertson lists six AOC Ventoux estates for distinction:
Clos de Trias, Vieilles Vignes: Ch de Fondrèche, Divergente and Persia. Ch Juvenal, Les Ribes du Vallat and La Terre du Petit Homme, Ch Pesquié, Ascensio, Artemia and Quintessence, St-Jean du Barroux, La Pierre Noire, and Dom du Tix, Cuvée Bramefan.
By their vision, talent and dedication, these domaines, along with many others, are carrying out the legacy of Malcolm Swan in the Ventoux.