I have long had a soft spot for the wines of Domaine Vaquer. I first came across the estate when I was researching French Country Wines, published in 1990 by Faber & Faber, so that goes back a bit. We were in a hotel in the Pyrenees, and there was a vin de table on the list that was significantly more expensive than any of the wines from any of the nearby appellations. Curiosity was immediately aroused, and I subsequently visited Fernand Vaquer. From the point of view of gathering information, it was not the most informative of visits, as every question was countered by: ça dépend, but I tasted two extraordinary wines – he only made one cuvée of each colour – that were quite unlike anything else from Roussillon.
Fast forward to 2020 with an article to write and the need for some samples, as the planned visit to the estate last month was cancelled, thanks to the coronavirus. Domaine Vaquer has never had much of a presence on the British market so I was delighted when Fernand’s daughter-in-law, Frédérique, who now runs the estate, told me that she did have a UK importer, namely a relatively new wine company, Tiger Vines, run by James Thomas. I asked James for a couple of samples, but he generously offered other bottles. The prices are the retail prices on his website.
2016 Domaine Vaquer, Côtes du Roussillon, Cuvée Bernard - £20.00
This wine is made in memory of Bernard, Frédérique’s husband, who sadly died very suddenly in 2001. A blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. A deep colour, with quite firm, fresh fruit on the nose. And on the palate, the wine is youthful and peppery, with a streak of acidity as well as tannin, making for quite a firm backbone. I felt it was still quite young and would benefit from some bottle age.
2017 Carignan, Côtes Catalanes, L’Expression - £22.00
This wine amply demonstrates just why Carignan deserves a better reputation. In the hands of a talented winemaker, it is simply delicious. Medium colour. With ripe berry fruit on both the nose and palate. A supple backbone of tannin, with a note of freshness that is typical of Carignan. Lovely balance and a fresh finish. Roussillon has plenty of old Carignan vines, often planted together with Grenache Noir, as it balances the lighter colour and riper flavours of the Grenache.
2015 Côtes du Roussillon Villages, les Aspres, l’Exception - £27.00
Les Aspres is a relatively new appellation within the more established Côtes du Roussillon Villages, created in 2017. It covers 19 villages, mainly south-east of the small town of Thuir, including Tresserre, where Frédérique has her vines and cellar. The delimitation is by specific plot; by no means all the vineyards of each village are included. The blend is the usual trio of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah; Mourvèdre is also allowed. Deep colour, with lovely ripe spice on both nose and palate. The wine is drinking beautifully, with a rounded palate and some peppery notes, with some structure and tannin, and spicy red fruit, with notes of the garrigues. Satisfying depth of flavour and a wine that evolves gently in the glass.
Next came two bottles that show just how well these wines age.
1991 Blanc de Blancs, Macabeo, Vin de Pays Catalan - £40.00
A Vin de Pays Catalan, as Côtes Catalanes did not exist in 1991. I was initially a little alarmed by the colour, a light amber, which might imply oxidation, but do not be put off by the colour. The nose was initially quite reticent but developed some herbal notes, with a touch of salinity. And on the palate, it was quite delicious, rounded with rich herbal notes, with lovely satisfying texture and mouthfeel, and a salty finish, and a hint of fennel. There was a backbone, but not really much acidity. Wonderfully original and a shining example, not only of how good the white wines of Roussillon are, but also how well they can age.
1986 Fernand Vaquer Rouge, Vin de Pays Catalan - £40.00
The label says: Conservé dans les Pyrénées à 1300 mètres. This wine was made by Fernand, one of his last vintages, before his son Bernard, and Frédérique took over. He had a property high up in the Pyrenees where he could age his wines in very cool conditions. The colour is evolving, with medium depth, and a light brick red rim. The nose is elegantly mature, with dry cedary notes and the palate is also elegant, with silky tannins, and a balancing backbone. There was an underlying ripe sweetness, a certain fleshiness. I would defy anyone not to mistake it for a wine from northern Rhone. At 34 years old, it was definitely at cruising altitude, drinking beautifully, but certainly not fading yet. it would have been made by Fernand the year before my first visit; I tasted the 1984 vintage in 1987; he died in 2018 at the ripe age of 89.
Most of the older established estates in Roussillon make vin doux, and Domaine Vaquer is no exception.
1994 Préface, Rivesaltes Hors d’Age Ambré, 50 cls. - £48
Amber colour. A nutty nose, walnuts and hazelnuts, and quite rounded and softer than some, and on the palate ripe and nutty, with a bite on the finish, but quite full and rich, with a hint of orange.
Rivesaltes Hors d’Age Ambré, 30 years solera. - £35.00
The label tells you that it was bottled in January 2018.
Amber colour. Quite a rich nose, with firm nutty fruit, and a streak of acidity. Good bite, firm, dry and nutty with a long finish. Definitely what the Italians so charmingly call a vino da meditazione, a wine to linger over after dinner, and ideal to raise the spirits during these difficult days. At £35 it is ridiculously good value - where else would you find a wine that is 30 years old for that price? These old Rivesaltes deserve a much wider appreciation.