On my last visit to Domaine Font de Michelle, Guillaume Gonnet was just settling in, taking over from his father, Michel, at this domaine in Bedarrides. Guillaume has fully taken the reins now, farming about 67 acres (making around 6,000 cases annually). In addition, he has recently purchased just over 5 acres in the Croix de Bois lieu-dit that he had been farming for another owner, which will now go to a new Guillaume Gonnet line that starts with the 2015 vintage (2,300 cases annually, with some purchased fruit augmenting production).
Gonnet, just 36, is among Châteauneuf-du-Pape's young generation of leading vignerons, which includes Julien Barrot, Claire Fabre and François Michel, Marie and François Giraud, a group that now has enough experience of their own to lean on, with plenty of time ahead to apply lessons learned, while also learning new ones. And as with his fellow young vignerons, Gonnet counts the 2007 vintage as a tipping point not only for himself, but the appellation in general.
The 2007 season produced a wildly ripe set of wines, some superb, others going a bit off-kilter as time progressed. Vintages with spine, such as 2005 and 2010, and even those built on racy acidity such as 2001, have surged ahead. At Font de Michelle, the house style set by Michel had been one of silky elegance and persistent perfume. But Guillaume saw an opportunity in 2007 and ventured off that path.
With 17 acres of old vines in the prime La Crau parcel, Guillaume had the raw material to push for concentration and ripeness in that year.
"It was my first big vintage and everybody was trying to make the big, sexy wine. I tried, too. But by 2009 I realized I had failed at it. I didn't like the wine. I just can't do that style. So, I went back to the family style," he says. "When I started [in 2006], I had changed everything dramatically in how I divided the vineyards and thought about the wine from the way my father did. Then just a few years later, I went back to the way he was doing it."
"The difficulty with Châteauneuf, and with vines in a parcel like this, with warm terroir and old vines that give low yields, is to find the freshness and balance in the wine," Guillaume explains. In order to find that balance and freshness, he had to switch his thinking.
"I don't think in terms of grapes anymore. I think in terms of the vineyard block, such as with La Crau. To get the old-vine Grenache to be fresh in a big year is difficult, so now I co-ferment almost everything from a block. It's so much more interesting," he says. "You pick at the same time, but there are no underripe grapes—there are ripe grapes and maybe some just overripe. But then the grapes are working against each other in the vat. There's so much going on. When you pull the juice out makes a big difference, because one variety can be winning. And it's different every time. It's fascinating."
Back in the cellar we taste through some vats from 2016, starting with the one that forms the base of the regular Châteauneuf-du-Pape cuvée. A blend of mostly Grenache with Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Counoise and white varieties, it has the Gonnet style of silky tannins, perfumy fruit and a pleasantly dusty echo through the finish. A sample of Grenache with Mourvèdre and Cinsault from wood vats shows a richer feel, bolstered by the latter two grapes, brimming with dark plum and warm currant preserve flavors. A vat with equal parts Grenache and Syrah sports a kirsch core, a bright anise streak and racy, almost crisp acidity.
Along with a range of wood, stainless and concrete vats, Guillaume also uses demi-muids, both 600-liter and 800-liter, but no barrels. A sample of Grenache done with partial whole clusters drawn from a demi-muid is suave and restrained, with red currant and bergamot notes and a sneaky long finish, while Mourvèdre from another demi-muid, sourced from the sandier Croix de Bois parcel, is lush, cascading with currant paste and dense, loamy structure.
I ask if any one variety stands out in 2016 and Guillaume pauses. "Hmm, maybe Syrah and Mourvèdre … but then again, the Grenache is really good too. You know, it's going to be super fun to blend."
Looking back on his younger days, Guillaume thinks about his early method of upheaval before settling back into a program similar to his father. "I must say I am blessed that he let me do what I did, while staying around to give advice when I asked. I am very lucky to have that."