Time to break away from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and head into the hills, starting first with Gigondas. Arguably the prettiest village in the Southern Rhône, Gigondas sits on a dramatic hillside, below the striking Dentelles de Montmirail rock formation. These jagged, soaring limestone outcroppings always reflect the weather—a gray, cloudy day like today and they look like Austin Powers' ragged grill—before he gets it redone, yeah baby! But on a sunny day, they take on a more Erik Estrada appearance.
The center of town features the excellent restaurant L'Oustalet, as well as several vignerons' tasting rooms and the Caveau de Gigondas, a retail shop run by the growers' syndicate that has all of the appellation's wines in stock at the same price as if you bought directly from the domaine. Up the road from town, past Château St.-Cosme, is Les Florets, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a classic old school French restaurant and hotel which sits below the Dentelles (The terrace is better on a spring day than on a mistral-filled autumn one for sure).
If you're adventurous, you can hike into the Dentelles, where some of the most stunning vineyards sit on terraced slopes. Get to Gigondas early though—parking here is minimal at best. And probably best to wait until spring as well, because the town is basically closed between now and January as a major sewer system renovation is about to cause all the main streets to be ripped up.
For background on this appellation's wines, you can reference my feature story from Oct. 15, 2008, as well as blog entries on previous visits to some of the vignerons in the appellation, including Pierre Amadieu, where I started today.
The Pierre Amadieu operation combines négociant and estate sides of the business that currently produce 50,000 cases annually. With 135 hectares of vines in Gigondas, Amadieu is the largest landholder in the AOC. There's a burgeoning portfolio of wines here that covers the rest of the Southern Rhône as well (with a little Northern Rhône production too), offering excellent typicity and strong value. Vinifications here are generally in cement vat and élevage is typically in foudre, with only one wine seeing a touch of new oak
The Côtes du Rhône Roulepierre 2009 (a blend of 80/20 Grenache and Syrah) is sourced from vineyards in Plan de Dieu and the Ardèche, the former giving flesh and roundness, the latter giving good acidity and freshness. They combine to deliver good juicy black cherry, herb and mineral notes with a pebbly hint on the finish that gives it textbook typicity for the area. The Côtes du Rhône Grande Réserve 2009 is a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Syrah that spends 12 months in foudre, a fuller élevage as the grapes are sourced from older vines in the Ardèche.
"It's a petit cru," said Amadieu of the wine.
It is fuller and rounder than the Roulepierre, with more mouthfilling blackberry and fig notes and a nice smoky tobacco hint that weaves in on the finish.
A few fountains can be found around town. Better stick to drinking the wine though.
The lone northern Rhône bottling tasted today is the Crozes-Hermitage Les Caladières 2009, which was bottled just last week. It includes juice purchased from the Philippe Jaboulet estate, and shows open, very fresh violet and red cherry notes and a clean, polished feel through the finish.
Back to the Southern Rhône wines, the Vinsobres Les Piallats 2009 is a debut for this wine, sourced from clay soils in the lieu-dit of the same name. Also bottled just last week, the blend of 65/35 Grenache and Syrah shows the appellation's telltale strong violet aroma, with sweet plum and blackberry fruit and lightly firm, graphite-tinged tannins. There are just 14,000 bottles of the wine, which has racy acidity and should develop nicely in the bottle over three to five years. The Vacqueyras La Grangelière 2009 includes some old vine Grenache from the northern edge of the appellation, just bordering Gigondas, with sandier soils that lend the wine a racy minerality, perfumed raspberry and red cherry aromas and flavors and a long, elegant finish, as opposed to the rounder, fuller style typical of most Vacqueyras. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Paillousse 2009 is another négoce wine, sourced from lots vinified by the Laurent Brotte operation. It's in a more elegant style, with red cherry, currant, garrigue and mineral notes framed by lightly firm structure that is accessible now, and will hold for a couple of years in bottle.
The backbone of the portfolio here of course are the Gigondas cuvées, starting first with the Gigondas Romane Machotte 2009. It contains some of the young vines of the estate—"the 30-year-old young vines," said Amadieu with a half laugh, as most of the estate was planted in the 1950s and 1960s by Amadieu's grandfather. The blend is made from 85 percent Grenache and the rest Syrah, aged primarily in foudre with some older barrels as well and slated to be bottled in the spring. It's compact now, with a core of red licorice and pastis wrapped by stony grip and woven with extra lavender and perfumy tea notes. This usually checks in at retail under $30, and is an ideal introduction to the appellation, aging well for three to five years as well.
"The fermentations for the '09s were full of bay, lavender and garrigue notes," said Amadieu. "The wines are tannic, but very typical in aroma of Gigondas."
The Gigondas Domaine Grand Romane 2009 is a 65/20/15 blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah from mostly 50- to 60-year-old vines. All of the Mourvèdre and some of Grenache underwent whole-cluster ferment, while the rest was destemmed and fermented normally. The result is a wine with a super friendly core of plum and black cherry pie notes, but still backed by lightly firm grip that lets additional tobacco, mulled spice and fig hints fill in on the backend. Amadieu said he likes this wine with about five years of age as well, "when a hint of animal starts to come in," he said.
The Gigondas Le Pas de l'Aigle 2009 is sourced from a single plot of the same name and is not made in every year. The first vintage for this label was 2006 as it was first bottled as Grande Réserve in 2003 and 2005.
"It's not meant to be the best cuvée. It's meant to be a separate part of Grand Romane in certain years," said Amadieu.
The 85/15 blend of Grenache and Syrah spends 24 months in foudre, and then 12 months in bottle before release. It's very pure and racy, with a lovely beam of raspberry ganache and red licorice woven with hints of Maduro tobacco and spice cake. The finish is long and grippy, but well-integrated. It's got the drive and acidity to perhaps outlast the other two bottlings, stretching for maybe eight years of cellaring after release.
The energetic Amadieu has a very solid lineup of 2009s in the works here. His prominent and well-located tasting room, just on the road up into town is open to the public seven days a week. It provides the perfect spot to get an introduction to the wines of Gigondas.
Pierre Amadieu is young, but seems focused on his specific style, which leans on traditional techniques. In contrast, Yves Gras is from the previous generation (he's now 49), yet he seems abuzz with new ideas and the desire to constantly change and evolve. He started at the family-owned domaine in 1982 and took over from his parents by 1985, so he now has 25 vintages at the helm under his belt here.
Gras' Domaine Santa Duc is located on plateau below the town, where a new storage cave and tasting room are being constructed (and the spiffy, modern building is the talk of the vignerons in town, "you'll see it" they say with a wink). Gras has a lightly weathered face, steely light blue eyes and close-cropped hair. He bursts with energy, moving and talking quickly and gesturing often with his hands. He starts to answer your questions before you've finished asking them, anxious to get to the answer in an ebullient, engaging manner.
Among the changes here, he's moving his élevage to all foudres, transitioning out of barrels. And he's not using French oak, but rather wood sourced from Austria and coopered in that country as well.
"They really respect the fruit," said Gras of the new foudres. "Barrels make the wine a little more severe."
Gras ferments in cement vats and uses varying amounts of stems depending on the year (just 30 percent in '08 to protect the lighter-bodied fruit, none in '03 when the fruit was bordering on overripe). There is minimal sulphur used here and Gras also prefers to maintain some CO2 through the vinification process to "maintain freshness," while fermenting at cooler temperatures and for shorter periods.
"I'm not looking for alcohol or rustic tannins," he said. "Fruit. Freshness of fruit."
Gras has 26 hectares of vines, 12 in Gigondas, though he seems especially proud of the single hectare he just purchased in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
We tasted through the 2008s first, many of which have just been released (and official reviews will appear shortly, based as always on formal tastings of the wines in blind flights in my New York office), followed by the '09s, which are in various stages of their élevage. There are two sides of the operation here: Négociant wines are labeled simply Santa Duc, while the estate wines are labeled as Domaine Santa Duc.
"In two years I made more off the négoce wines than the estate did after four generations," said Gras incredulously, who produces 40,000 cases annually under the négoce label as compared to 10,000 for the estate. "But it's still the same responsibility, when your name is on the label. The négoce isn't treated any differently than the estate when it come to making the wine."
The Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône Les Quatre Terres 2008 is actually made from cru and village-level fruit in Vacqueyras, Séguret, Roaix and Rasteau, from 65 percent Grenache, 25 Syrah and the rest Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignane. It's got a slightly chewy edge, with lots of aromatic apple wood and cedar notes and a solid core of mulled plum and cherry fruit.
"I adore the '08s, they are so fresh. '07 was like an Australian-styled vintage," he said.
The Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône-Villages Roaix Les Crottes 2008 is an 80/20 blend of Grenache and Syrah.
"I love Roaix for its slightly northeast exposure, which really delivers a lot of freshness," said Gras. The wine, aged for just a year in used oak, is racy, with lots of sanguine and mesquite notes holding the upper hand on the crushed red cherry fruit and spice notes.
The Domaine Santa Duc Vacqueyras Les Aubes 2008 is another 80/20 blend of Grenache and Syrah, that has lots of black tea and mesquite notes, with deliciously juicy crushed cherry fruit. It has weight but isn't overripe or tiring at all, with a lively finish. The Domaine Santa Duc Gigondas 2008 (there is no Hautes Garrigues bottling in '08) is really solid for the vintage, with deliciously succulent red and black cherry and currant fruit laced with apple wood and fruitcake hints. The blend is slightly different in '08, made up of 75 Grenache, 10 Syrah, 10 Mourvèdre and 5 Cinsault as the older vine parcels were blended in. Part of the wine was aged in a new foudre (representing about 30 percent of the blend) as Gras switches over, yet there's no lingering oak feel.
"See, I told you," said Gras with his eyes opening wide and a dramatic finger point. "The foudres are great—they respect the fruit. They make a wine of fruit, not of oak."
Gras also partners with Rémy Pédréno of Roc l'Anglade in the Languedoc, to produce the Santa Roc Gigondas 2008. The wine is aged in a new foudre, with the fruit sourced from Gras' own estate.
This column marks the way to Yves Gras' cellar at Domaine Santa Duc.
"It's just an idea we had, to make a different wine, with a little less alcohol, more acidity. We wanted to make a DRC of Gigondas," he said laughing. "And the new foudre is to pull the acidity into the wine and give it a different structure than other Gigondas."
The Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône-Villages White Sablet Le Fournas 2009 is made from a 35/35/15/15 blend of Viognier, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc and Clairette.
"The Bourboulenc is really interesting to balance the Viognier," said Gras. Made entirely in stainless steel, the wine is still round and flattering nonetheless, with creamed melon and green almond notes. The finish is pure and floral.
The Santa Duc Vin de Pay de Vaucluse Les Plans 2009 is a juicy, round, open-knit wine, with bitter cherry, herb and light spice notes, made from a 50/25/15/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
"Suddenly this is the wine everyone wants, said Gras. "The [economic] crisis has made it hard to sell Gigondas."
The Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône Les Vieilles Vignes 2009 is sourced from vines in Plan de Dieu, Rasteau and elsewhere. The 70/25 blend of Grenache and Syrah with drops of Cinsault and Mourvèdre delivers a rounded, juicy core of red cherry and currant fruit, with slightly compact tannins on the finish that should stretch out soon enough. The Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône Les Quatre Terres 2009 will be bottled in the spring. It's mouthfilling, with bouncy black currant fig and cherry notes and a nice streak of licorice that enlivens the finish even more. It shows the grippy edge of the vintage but stays fresh and driven and should be a superb value when released. The Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône-Villages Roaix Les Crottes 2009 also still in barrel, shows super racy red licorice, violet and mineral notes that blaze through the mouthwatering finish. It has a firm feel, but stays friendly at the same time.
"Roaix is always a little severe, because it ripens late. But in '09 it is 16 degrees [alcohol], so you know it's ripe," said Gras. "As opposed to Vacqueyras which is more difficult. It delivers 16 degrees too, but early on and the phenolic isn't there. This is the problem in the region not only in 2009 but also in general now. The alcoholic [ripeness] comes earlier and earlier but the phenolic [ripeness] is a struggle. In the future, appellations like Roaix, at altitude, will become more and more important, along with grapes like Clairette and Mourvèdre that can provide acidity and structure for freshness and balance. The one difference is '10, when the vines had a chance to breathe at night and the alcoholic and phenolic ripeness came together."
The Domaine Santa Duc Vacqueyras Les Aubes 2009 is meaty and mouthfillng, with mesquite and roasted cherry pit notes and a long, fleshy, smoky finish. It delivers lots of up-front appeal, if perhaps lacking in some definition on the finish. The Domaine Santa Duc Gigondas 2009, sourced from the estate's young vines (40 years old) is a laser of red currant paste, with melted red licorice and sweet spice notes that ripple through the finish. It's flattering but has drive and length. It sports 16.4 alcohol—Gras winces as he gives the number—but it doesn't show any heat. The wine is back to its normal blend of 75/15/5/5 Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. The Gigondas Prestige des Hautes Garrigues 2009 is 80 percent Grenache and the rest Mourvèdre (13 percent) with small amounts of Syrah and Cinsault. It's dark and brawny now, with lots of tarry grip framing the blackberry, loganberry and raspberry ganache notes. There's mesquite and iron underneath though and this should stretch out. The fermentation here didn't go dry though, leaving the wine with 5 grams of residual sugar to digest.
"That's what happens with 16.5 alcohol. But the Australians get away with 10 grams [of residual sugar] and 17 alcohol," said Gras, stone-faced at first, before breaking into a wry grin.
With Dominique Ay, the day's transition from young to mid- to older generation runs full circle. Ay, 63, has white hair, a more weathered look and thick glasses. He's helped run the Gigondas grower syndicate for 11 years, so he's seen his share of disputes, but seems even-keeled, patient and calmly secure in his ways—little to nothing has changed here in 20 years.
Raspail-Ay is a small estate, with 18 hectares in Gigondas only, planted 80 percent to Grenache, 15 to Syrah and 5 to Mourvèdre, a blend that is then mirrored in the wine. The domaine, which came out of the Château Raspail holdings when the family split, is located on the main road next to Céline Chauvet's Domaine du Grapillon d'Or, just before you turn up the hill into Gigondas.
Ay destems entirely, ferments in cement vat, filling each vat with a mix of the three varieties as they ripen during the harvest. He keeps track of what parcels and varieties wind up in each vat with a small chalkboard on the wall. There's a modest single pump-over per day, some pigéage before he slowly lets the vats settle on their own. The assemblage is done soon after the malo, and the wine is then racked off into a range of very large foudres and some demi-muid, as well as a portion that remain in cement.
Dominique Ay keeps track of his wines the old-fashioned way.
"Each part is the same wine, because the assemblage is done beforehand, so there is consistency that way," said Ay. "But each part develops slightly different structure. I want a supple wine though, not hard and no taste of new oak."
After an 18- to 24-month élevage, Ay does the mis for his 60,000-bottle annual production.
There is a rosé here, a saignée of young-vine Grenache "to avoid high alcohol," said Ay.
The Gigondas Rosé 2010 is still clarifying naturally and shows fresh strawberry notes. The bottled Gigondas Rosé 2009 is ripe, round and flattering, with cherry, cherry pit and orange peel notes and a nice lingering saline note. It's a big rosé with distinctive character.
Ay drew a sample of the Gigondas 2010, where the malo has not started yet. It's a bold streak of blueberry pie right now, with gorgeous color. It's just a primal blast of fruit for now though. The Gigondas 2009 is starting to take shape though. The sample drawn from foudre, which represents the majority of the wine as it ages (just 30 percent sees demi-muid) is very racy, with graphite grip and lots of snappy licorice and blueberry fruit and a nice flash of iron on the polished finish. It could be up to another six months before Ay bottles, a decision that he does by feel.
"I decide on the mis by taste. I don't want the élevage to dry out the wine, so you have to be careful that doesn't happen."
The Gigondas 2008 was bottled last month and it will get a few months of bottle age before it is released—palettes of '07 are waiting by the door to be shipped to the U.S. The wine shows the slightly raisiny edge of the vintage, but with lively acidity and good spice, crushed plum and fig fruit.
"It was a difficult vintage, but we still wound up with 14 alcohol, good color and good acidity," said Ay, who seemed unphased by something as simple as a "difficult vintage."
When I press Ay if anything has changed over the years—the destemmer in the corner looks somewhat new—he just laughed and lined up bottles of '05, '00, '95, '94 and '90. "The label has changed," he said (they are of course all identical). "I've even had a destemmer for 20 years, though I've upgraded it over time."
He then opens the vertical, with the Gigondas 2005 a tight, grippy, backward wine with a core of dark fig and coffee that has yet to unwind fully. It should do just that over the next decade. The Gigondas 2000 is fully mature, with alluring cedar and mulled plum aromas and flavors. The Gigondas 1995 is younger in profile than the '00, with a taut, minerally feel and layers of dark fruit. It reminds Ay of '10—a wine with "lots of terroir and structure," he said. The Gigondas 1994 is fully mature, with brick color and softening cedar, mushroom and tea notes. The Gigondas 1990 is perhaps a bit past peak though, with coffee, earth and a hint of warm balsamic, as the fruit has now faded.
Nonplussed, Ay said, "The '90 is pas formidable. But I think these wines give you a good idea of my production over 20 years."
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Chris Rauber — San Jose, CA — November 24, 2010 12:46pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 24, 2010 3:52pm ET
Susan Sevig — lakeland, fl usa — November 26, 2010 12:10pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 27, 2010 8:23am ET
Susan Sevig — lakeland, fl usa — November 27, 2010 8:41am ET
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