Sébastien Vincenti often jokes that he is the first paysan in his family.
His road to becoming a “peasant” or farmer began in 1991, when he was starting business studies at the University of Montpelier and his mother’s midlife crisis overtook his plans for a white-collar life in the south of France.
At the time, his father was an attorney in the Provence town of Carpentras. His mother, Nanou Barthélemy, was a successful biologist with her own blood-testing lab.
“She said, ‘I am sick of working in a lab. I want to change my life,’” Vincenti recalls. “‘She said, ‘I want to buy some vines and make some wine.’”
And voilà! The lab sold and Barthélemy bought a farmhouse surrounded by about 50 acres of vineyards on the Fondrèche plateau in the foothills of the Southern Rhône’s landmark Mont Ventoux.
In 1993, Vincenti arrived to lend a hand to his mother. But with no cellar, “I didn’t know where we were going to make wine,” he remembers.
Family friend André Brunel of Domaine Les Cailloux in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, some 15 miles west, offered to rent out part of his cellar.
“I made the wine with André and really liked it. And I said, ‘OK, I am going to make wine too,” says Vincenti.
Vincenti switched his studies to enology, though he says Brunel taught him most everything he knows about wine. By 1997, he had graduated and built a cellar to make wine at Domaine de Fondrèche.
Now, 20 vintages later, at 46, Vincenti is a leader of the Ventoux AOC’s new wave of terroir-driven wines. (See “Waking the Rhône's Sleeping Giant,” about the appellation’s evolution and Château Pesquié.)
“There’s a strong identity on Ventoux,” says Vincenti, a rail-thin amateur cyclist who regularly makes the grueling trek up Mont Ventoux, famous as a regular stage in the Tour de France. “There are more and more young people buying vines here.”
Vincenti, who now makes more than 16,500 cases a year, has doubled the area of Fondrèche’s vineyards. More important is the way he has divided them: “I adapt the wines to the color of the soils,” he explains.
Vincenti makes Roussanne-based whites from chalky sites in nearby hills, where the plants struggle to get enough iron from the soil, and a pair of rosés from vineyards in light sandy soils.
His main focus, however, is on reds from the Fondrèche plateau, with its reddish-brown, silty-clay soils laced with limestone and flint. This mix, he says, brings character and nuance to Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
“The particularity of Fondrèche is that we get mature fruit, but there’s always a thread of freshness and minerality,” he says.
Vincenti is an obsessively fastidious grower and winemaker. In his 100 acres of vineyards, dead vines are replaced one by one every spring. His vineyards were certified organic until 2013, the year French authorities mandated treatment against the leafhoppers spreading bacterial grapevine yellows—an infection that reduces vine growth, yields and fruit quality—in his area. Rather than using a general organic insecticide, he chose to use a synthetic one that only targets leafhoppers, which he considered more ecological.
His spic-and-span winery is full of the large Austrian-made oak casks, along with cement eggs for his old-vine Grenache, that he has been using in place of barriques for aging most wines.
Prior to 2005, Vincenti says, he was “happy to make wines that were concentrated, ripe and powerful—wines I can’t drink anymore.”
But in the past decade, he has focused on gentler extractions, less oak influence on the wines, and a style that he believes is more adapted to Ventoux’s cooler terroirs.
“We have a terroir that is fresh; why try to make wines like Châteauneuf? It made no sense,” he says.
His entry-level red blend (2015, 89 points $20)—half Grenache, with Syrah and Mourvèdre—is aged for 18 months in a mix of casks, vats and concrete. There’s also a no-sulfite-added blend, with a touch of Cinsault, called Nature. “It sells in big cities, not around here,” he says.
On top of those, Vincenti makes up to three red cuvées per year. Persia (2016, 90 points, $30) comes from old-vine Syrah and Mourvèdre. The nearly all-Syrah Divergente (2016, 92 points, $50) is his richest wine. And the complex Il Était Une Fois (2016, 92 points $40) is sourced from the estate’s oldest Grenache vines, planted in 1936, blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre.
In a telling sign of how times have changed, half his production is now sold in France and the rest is exported. That’s a far cry from his early vintages, when nearly all his production went abroad, chiefly to the United States.
“In France, the Ventoux appellation wasn’t well-known and was not highly considered,” he says. “Elsewhere there was not this preconception.”
Thankfully for Rhône lovers, no such preconception stopped Vincenti from becoming a paysan.