E. Guigal doesn’t need an introduction—anyone who follows wines even casually knows that this is the dominant négociant house in the France's Northern Rhône Valley. In particular, E. Guigal’s Côte-Rôtie bottlings, led by it’s famed "La La" trio, have brought the house its greatest recognition.
But while Guigal stands among the wine world's leaders, it didn’t get there overnight. Guigal's distinctive house style, brought about by long aging in barrel, is something that has evolved over time. That evolution was demonstrated in a tasting of five different vintages of the winery’s workhorse Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde bottling.
Guigal began to age its red wines in barrels, as opposed to foudres, beginning with the 1976 La Mouline (La Mouline itself was created in the 1966 vintage). The move to barrels continued with the creation of the La Landonne cuvée in 1978 and then La Turque in 1985. During this time, Guigal began to experiment with aging the Brune et Blonde in barrel as well—it was partially done so through the early 1980s, and then began 100 percent with the 1988 vintage.
Other aspects of the evolution at Guigal include the use of temperature-controlled fermentation in 1982 (shifting away from fermentation in enamel-lined metal vats) and an upgrade of facilities in 1993 (one of the vintages included in the tasting below), which included Brix measurement for arriving grapes, more stringent selection processes and modernized press and bottling equipment.
All of these changes were carried out behind the scenes, so to speak: The regular consumer never saw them firsthand. Furthermore, the results of any changes a winery makes in its vineyard management or vinification practices typically don’t make it into the bottle for a few years. That makes a critical mass of vintages (and each vintage is different) necessary before evaluating such changes. Now you probably see why running a winery is a lifelong endeavor, and family-run wineries, where one generation learns from another, can be crucial for quality.
In addition, while better technology helps to make better wines, it’s also important to consider that today’s vintages, from warmer conditions due to global warming and using grapes harvested later than a generation ago (which results in darker flavors but less acidity), wind up producing wines that are richer and fleshier, but also evolve faster than their older counterparts.
Following are my notes on the wines I tasted this morning. The older vintages showed a more acid-driven profile, with tauter structures, but still had good life to their fruit and aromas. The '85 and '89 on the other hand, showed darker notes and more forward personalities. This isn't to say that Guigal's's older wines were better, not by any stretch. This is only a very small sampling, and the quality of the '69 and '78 vintages is far superior to '85 and '89, so it's not a perfect cross section. But it does show the evolution of both nature and house style.
Samples were provided by Guigal’s U.S. importer, ensuring good provenance. The wines were not tasted blind.
1993 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde: Mature garnet/brick color. Subtle sandalwood and tea aromas. Light, dried cherry and cedar notes. A touch trim, but still hanging on. From a less than stellar vintage, this proves how technology can help make a better wine in a difficult year. 87 points, non-blind.
1989 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde: Deeper garnet color with more dried cherry and cocoa powder notes. Mature and supple, with currant and spice notes lingering on the elegant finish. Still has life, with a note of coffee at the very end, but clearly time to drink. 89 points, non-blind.
1985 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde: Mature but ripe, with plum, dried currant and coffee aromas followed by a supple, medium-weight palate that shows black tea, shaved vanilla, dried fruit and date hints and a still-juicy finish. The core is dark and still plump too. 90 points, non-blind.
1978 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde: Brick/rust color, with lovely aromas of fresh mushroom, cedar and tea. Very mature but still balanced and refined, with dried cherry and currant fruit, date, incense and mineral notes. Long, elegant finish lets a hint of musk linger. 92 points, non-blind.
1969 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde: Brick/garnet color is mature, but belies this wine’s 39 years of age. Still taut, with dried currant and fig notes stretched over mineral, cedar and coffee hints. Lovely sandalwood and roasted vanilla notes chime in on the tangy finish. Clearly mature but still quite lively. Delicious. 93 points, non-blind.