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A Stop at the Northern Rhône Pop & Son

Philippe Guigal shows off his family's 2012 and 2011 reds and whites
Photo by: James Molesworth
Marcel and Philippe Guigal are in lock step at the family's domaine.

Posted: Nov 15, 2013 12:20pm ET

Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France, visiting select domaines of the Northern Rhône Valley, tasting the 2012 vintage and more in Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Hermitage and Cornas.

E. Guigal

After my visit to Jean-Michel Gerin this morning, I headed over to the other Pop-and-Son business in town—a little place called E. Guigal, where Marcel Guigal and his son manage the property. And of course, Mom is still very active here too.

This is the estate by which most Americans are introduced to the Northern Rhône, and many stay faithful to it thereafter, with good reason. It's not only the biggest player in Côte-Rôtie, but among the biggest in the Rhône, as well as being among the best. This is a regular stop on my visits through the region, so you can reference numerous past blogs, starting with my notes from my 2011 visit here.

"In 2013 we never stopped the harvest," said Philippe Guigal, Marcel's son. "We were always picking something, because you had to move fast at the end. Usually you pick some whites, stop, pick some reds and so on, but not in 2013. We went fast, got everything in before the second rain in October, and we're very happy."

A tasting here of current releases typically spans several vintages, as the Guigals employ long élevages on their reds as they ascend the quality ladder in the portfolio, reaching as much as 42 months for the famed "La La" wines.

Starting with the 2012 Côtes du Rhône White (a blend of 65 percent Viognier, 15 Roussanne with the rest Marsanne, Clairette and Bourboulenc), Philippe noted, "We haven't given up on our idea of Viognier. This is the highest percentage yet in the Côtes du Rhône white. Our philosophy has become to look for Viognier in the south and Marsanne primarily in the north." The Viognier component gives it a bold profile, with unctuous peach, apricot and anise and a showy streak of toasty almond on the finish.

"I know the fashion on white wine these days is acidity," said Philippe. "But we focus on balance. This is not an acidic wine, but it's not flabby. It's balanced. People enjoy the richness without the heaviness and we see it in the sales, which go up every year."

The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage White (95/5 Marsanne and Roussanne) has juicy nectarine, peach and singed almond notes with obvious weight but lively feel through the finish.

"2012 is definitely a warm vintage, so the acidity is not high," said Philippe. "But it's not only richness and power. It was easy to get maturity in 2012, but the minerality is there. And we often harvested early for the whites. The warmth was in the second half of the vintage, so we saw vineyards jumping 1.7 percent potential alcohol in just a week at the end. So picking earlier was important for us."

The 2012 St.-Joseph White has a lush core of nectarine tangerine and peach offset nicely by bitter almond and singed brioche notes. The plump texture yet energetic feel is typical of the whites here. The 2012 St.-Joseph White Lieu-Dit St.-Joseph is just now being released from the domaine. Bottled at the end of September, it shows an open feel now, with lush macadamia nut, creamed melon and white peach notes lined with lots of toasted almond and brioche. It gains weight steadily through the finish, which is long and creamy. There's still some toast to be absorbed, but a year or two of bottle age should pull it together nicely.

"Because it's pure granite, this cuvée has an incredible ability to suck up the oak. So yes, you see the wine and the oak, but in a short time, six months or so, you won't notice it. For example, the '10 now, you wouldn't guess was oaked," said Philippe.

The 2012 Condrieu (the lone Viognier appellation in the north) is a richly detailed white, with deliciously bitter almond and anise notes that course along, with green plum, almond and apricot flavors at the core. This is really packed.

"For me, Viognier is better young. The Condrieu for example, peaks at six months after bottling and holds for two to three years. After that it becomes another wine, which is not our philosophy. It's different from Marsanne, which needs time," said Philippe.

The 2012 Condrieu La Doriane is a selection of the estate's better parcels that was first bottled in 1994. It combines both schist- and granite soil-based parcels, which is relatively rare in Condrieu. This vintage also marks the first with fruit from a 1-acre parcel in Coteau de Vernon, which Guigal feels will bring additional minerality to the wine. The wine is powerful but defined, with a blaze of bitter almond and bitter orange along the edges while the core of apricot, white peach and creamed melon waits in reserve. The echo of brioche and anise wafts beautifully through the finish and this seems like it will need a year or two to stretch out fully.

"The original parcels used for the wine are schist and the wine was often big and smiley. But now as we have added granite parcels and the wine has a different balance and will age. It's very different from the regular Condrieu," said Philippe.

Back to the Marsanne bottlings, the 2010 Hermitage White is relatively restrained in style, with toasted almond and hazelnut notes nicely embedded in the core of creamed peach and apricot fruit. There's a long, creamy finish and good stuffing in reserve and this should develop nicely within its first few years of bottle age. The 2010 Ermitage White Ex Voto is a towering wine, combing 93 percent Marsanne with the rest Roussanne, sourced from the L'Ermite and Les Murets parcels. Large-scaled yet beautifully poised, it offers layer upon layer of fresh butter, creamed white peach, anise and Cavaillon melon flavors that keep cascading through a long, lush yet refined finish. It looks to be the best vintage yet for this wine, which already has a stellar track record since debuting in 2001, following the purchase of the J.L. Grippat estate, whose vineyards form the majority of the cuvée.

In contrast, the 2011 Hermitage White contains fruit that normally goes into the Ex Voto cuvée, and it shows, as it sports obvious power, with lots of toasted macadamia nut and crème fraîche notes out front and a corpulent melon, yellow apple and pear core. There are floral notes in reserve along with a salted butter note, but this will need some cellaring to stretch out fully. It's very impressive. As to the decision to not keep the Ex Voto lots seperate in 2011, Philippe explained, "If the difference between the Ex Voto and regular lots is not big enough, we don't make the Ex Voto. The decision is made at the end of the élevage, based on taste. It's that simple."

But does he ever disagree with his father on these types of decisions, and if so, how do they work it out?

"Never. We are always in agreement and it's often after just a sip. We are in lock step. Which is good, because he has a strong personality and so do I and if we did not agree we would spend time trying to convince the other of our position, and this would waste time," said Philippe.

Back to the south, the 2012 Tavel is a plump, ripe-styled rosé with friendly Bing cherry and strawberry notes offset nicely with a hint of bergamot on the finish. It's round, full and juicy, but there's just enough of a bitter watermelon pit note for balance.

Transitioning to the reds, we start with the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage. The wine is a ripe, succulent young wine, loaded with raspberry compote and and Bing cherry preserve and laced judiciously with singed mesquite and iron notes. It's a crowd-pleaser in style but still has an honest tug of terroir.

"It's not our way, but we gambled a little bit," said Philippe a little sheepishly. "We always wait until after winter to start buying lots, while there are more and more buyers purchasing early in Crozes, even before malo is done. But in '09 the grapes we got from our growers were so good, we took a risk. And so in November after the harvest, we went on the hunt early and bought additional lots. So we usually make 18,000 cases or so of red Crozes, but in 2009 we took the risk, bought early and pulled together a little over 43,400 cases."

The first sample in the tasting not yet bottled is the 2010 Crozes-Hermitage. It was literally just blended—an hour prior to my visit—prompting a chuckle from Philippe. "Discretion please, we don't usually show them so soon after blending," he said. The just-racked wine now sits in tank and is set to be bottled in about a week's time. It delivers a lovely savory edge, along with charcoal, black currant and fig notes that are backed by briary but integrated structure. I love the grippy, more terroir-driven feel and darker fruit profile, which is a strong contrast to the more opulent red fruit-filled 2009. Both wines offer excellent quality but different styles, a wonderful lesson in vintage variation.

The 2011 St.-Joseph has not yet been blended so it was not shown. The 2011 St.-Joseph Lieu-Dit St.-Joseph is bottled and it shows the house style aromatics of fruitcake, mesquite and warm figs, while the core of dark currant paste and plum sauce has nice muscle, backed by a long, graphite spine on the finish. It's dense for an '11, with a long, grippy finish that will be tough to distinguish from the 2010 version. The 2011 St.-Joseph Vignes de l'Hospice remains in barrel still. It's remarkably lush despite not being racking since last February, offering warm fruitcake, licorice, fig compote and toasted spice notes backed by a long, charcoal-studded finish. It's more in the mold of the opulent '09 than the very grippy '10, but nearly equal in quality to both of those classic-quality bottlings.

Another quick detour to the south takes us to the 2010 Gigondas. It comes in a tough spot after the powerful '11 Vignes de l'Hospice but it shows charming raspberry and cherry fruit, with a hint of shiso leaf and a perfumy, sandalwood-infused finish.

Jumping back to the north, we move to the Hermitage 2007 which shows mature alder and mesquite notes, along with lightly mulled currant and blackberry fruit and a long, slightly loamy edge on the finish. It has a rich feel but stays focused, with the mature notes emerging steadily as it airs in the glass.

"I admit I sell Hermitage, but it does sell slowly. I think that's a function of Hermitage though, not the image of Guigal being Côte-Rôtie," said Philippe with a slight air of resignation.

The Hermitage 2008 contains the Ex Voto lots (and savvy consumers should note it is priced at the same level as the Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde, making it a relative value in Hermitage). It's sleek and taut in feel, with mouthwatering olive and bay notes liberally lining the core of damson plum and red currant fruit. There's less of a charcoal note and more iron here than in the '07, with a more sinewy feel overall as well.

The Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde 2010 is finally set to be bottled. It's a textbook display of the appellation, with dark olive, bay and alder notes perfectly melded with a core of steeped fig and blackberry fruit. Notes of leather and charcoal line the finish, along with ample fruit. It's an impressive feat that, as competition in the appellation has increased and more domaines have sprung up (while the amount of available fruit has leveled off), E. Guigal manages to continue to produce this workhorse bottling, one that is imminently ageable and true to its terroir while maintaining a relatively fair price and ample production. It's the label the house is known for and rightly so.

A blend of seven parcels divided nearly equally between the Blonde and Brune portions of the appellation form the Côte-Rôtie Château d'Ampuis 2010. It is a stunning display of power and precision, rippling with briary tannins, sporting a large core of blackberry paste and roasted fig all backed by a broad swath of smoldering charcoal that extends on for a while. It should cellar beautifully.

From there we move from the large round tasting table in the cellar to the labyrinth of barrel rows to taste the "La La" cuvées. You need to look both ways before walking anywhere, as speedy mini-forklifts buzz around constantly amidst a blur of activity.

"Look closely and you'll see the same faces over and over," said Philippe with a wry smile. "The cellar team is just six people."

The 2012 Côte-Rôtie La Mouline was last racked in November 2012 and it is showing a little reduction today. With coaxing it slowly reveals its typical raspberry pâté de fruit core and sultry mesquite notes, but it remain a little sullen over all. In contrast, the 2012 Côte-Rôtie La Turque is an about face and could almost be mistaken for the typically fruit-forward La Mouline, as it shows very expressive raspberry and blackberry preserve notes, mixed with a hint of Turkish coffee and floral lift on the finish.

"That is a surprise," said Philippe about how the two wines are showing. "But we taste at least every two months and we are often amazed by how Mouline and La Turque can shift back and forth. In the end though, they always show their form. As for La Landonne, it is always La Landonne. It's the one of the three that you can always pick out blind."

Also racked last in November 2012 is the 2012 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne which delivers a very typical performance today—chock full of apple wood and mesquite notes, a huge core of raspberry and black currant fruit and a nearly rigid finish with a bolt of iron.

The trio of 2011 "La Las" was last racked in March 2013. The 2011 Côte-Rôtie La Mouline is well-formed now, with a gorgeous red velvet cake feel, as raspberry ganache, fruitcake and licorice notes stream out. The grip is there, but latent, as this is in a very showy phase today. The 2011 Côte-Rôtie La Turque is surprisingly high-pitched today, with a floral and red currant lead in. Very silky as well (typical of the vintage's relatively lighter structure), there's grip buried on the finish but overall it's rather stylish today instead of its usual muscular self. Once again though, the 2011 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne is clearly La Landonne as Philippe noted. Dark and brooding, with baker's chocolate, espresso and charcoal notes leading the way, the core of black currant fruit is large but in reserve. This has loads of grip, especially for the vintage and is by far the largest scaled and most backward of the three.

We finish with the 2011 Ermitage Ex Voto which, as with the white, has not yet been deemed for a separate bottling just yet and may be blended in with the regular Hermitage bottling. The wine, which draws 40 percent each from the Bessards and Greffieux lieux-dits, and the rest split between Les Murets and L'Ermite, is remarkably open and inciting, with bright cherry paste and red currant fruit, lots of floral notes and just a hint of loamy grip emerging steadily through the finish. It's not in-your-face, but rather sneaky long.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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