There is much more to the Southern Rhône than just Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and with that in mind, I spent the day focusing on domaines in Gigondas and Vacqueyras.
Gigondas is often thought of as a small Châteauneuf, but in reality its terroir and wines are quite different. Though just 9 miles from Châteauneuf as the crow flies, Gigondas is defined by the Dentelles de Montmirail (literally, “lace of the Montmirail”), which are the jagged, tooth-like limestone formations that jut up above the small town, reaching almost 800 meters in elevation.
The slopes of the Dentelles have crumbled down over millions of years, creating pockets of limestone-rich soil that mix in with the alluvial fans on the plateau below. This terroir, combined with its elevation and various north-northwest exposures, means that this pocket of predominantly Grenache vineyards winds up producing wines that have more finesse and perfume than their cousins from Châteauneuf. As Louis Barruol, owner of Château St.-Cosme points out, “Gigondas has more in common with Burgundy than it does with Châteauneuf.” In contrast to Gigondas the clay soils of neighboring Vacqueyras tend to produce richer, more up-front, fruit-driven wines.
There is a tendency in both the Gigondas and Vacqueyras appellations to aim for extracted wines (often made with minimal destemming), which typically results in rugged tannins. These are the wines that give the two areas their rustic reputation. The best examples, however, which aim to marry a ripe, black-fruit profile with fine-grained tannins and perfumed, minerally finishes, are among the Rhône’s best and most idiosyncratic wines. They also age well, delivering notes of mesquite, iron and black tea after five to eight years in the cellar. This is particularly true for Gigondas, whose wines have the better structure of the two.
Things are done simply at Montirius, where owners Christine and Eric Saurel farm biodynamically and use no oak in aging their red wines.
My first stop was at Domaine Montirius, owned by Christine and Eric Saurel and located at the southern end of Vacqueyras, which borders Gigondas to the north. Christine and Eric, both 44, work their vineyards biodynamically and practice an oak-free élevage on their reds. The domaine comprises 60 hectares spread over 38 parcels, with 16 hectares in Gigondas and twice that in Vacqueyras.
The domaine was born out of the local co-op, of which Eric’s family's vineyards had been a part---his grandfather helped found the co-op. Their epiphany came in the mid-1990s, when their daughter, suffering from illness, was cured with homeopathic methods rather than standard medicine. This led Christine and Eric to consider working their vineyards in the same way.
“When Eric’s father sprayed herbicides or pesticides in the fields, he would warn us to close the windows to the house,” says Christine. “When I asked if he gave his neighbors the same warning, his answer was no, and his embarrassment at that helped push us to change.”
In researching more organic farming methods, the Saurels read about the work being done at Domaine de Marcoux, a biodynamically farmed property in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and they figured it was essentially a homeopathic way to work the land.
The Saurels quickly went to work converting their property, and they were fully biodynamic by 1996. Their wines were vinified separately at the co-op for a few years, apart from the other members’ grapes. Eventually their membership contract ended and they were able to work on their own, completing a gravity-flow winery facility with cement vats in time for the 2002 vintage. As mentioned, they use no oak whatsoever on the red wines, which results in very elegantly styled wines, with fresh, minerally finishes. The Saurels also typically harvest one week earlier than their neighbors, to maintain fresher acidity in their wines.
“Nothing is done with a mind to fashion,” says the mild-mannered but serious Christine. “We just want to keep the heritage of the region. It’s a country way of thinking.”
Production stands at 12,500 cases annually, with 15 percent coming to the United States. The wines are typically released about six months after most of the wines from the appellation. Not only is there no oak for aging the wines, there is no wood anywhere in the cellar. Storage bins and palettes are metal or plastic, in an effort to avoid TCA contamination, a forward-looking approach for such a “country way of thinking.”
The wines are going through some label changes here, with the straight Vacqueyras now called the 2006 Vacqueyras Guarrigues, named for the plateau on which the bulk of the parcels sit. The grapes are sourced from 55-year-old vines planted on a level of blue clay that sits atop a separate, denser layer of clayey mineral called mormorillonite. A blend of 70 percent Grenache and 30 percent Syrah, it’s silky but backed by a taut minerality, with lots of iron, incense and macerated cherry fruit. In contrast, the 2006 Vacqueyras Clos (formerly called Clos Montirius) is sourced from 20-year-old vines which are planted on a mix of the two clay types (rather than separate, distinct layers). This combination of clays makes for a dense soil that restricts root growth and keep yields naturally low, despite young vines' propensity to overproduce. Equal parts Grenache and Syrah, it offers red and black fruits, with notes of plum cake and incense and a more solid grip than the Guarrigues.
Both Gigondas cuvées are made from blends of 80 percent Grenache and 20 percent Mourvèdre. The 2006 Gigondas is very perfumed and elegant, with black tea, cinnamon stick and mulled raspberry notes. The 2006 Gigondas Confidentiel is produced from a parcel within their Gigondas vines that, despite being planted on the same soil, always seems to behave a little bit differently from the rest of the vineyard. It’s darker in profile, with more tar and licorice notes, and a sappy, kirsch-dominated finish.
The quartet of 2007 cuvées, still very early into their 14-to-18 month élevage, show lusher textures and an even wider range of red, black and blue fruits. Both vintages are potentially outstanding across the range, with the edge to the ”07s. Montirius brings boutique-like attention to detail and a sense of personality to a medium-size operation.
“We don’t want to produce a vin de garage,” says Christine. “We want to prove that if you work the vineyards well, you can have 60 hectares and you can make a good wine. That’s it.”
I then headed into Gigondas itself, where Louis Barruol’s Château St.-Cosme sits just off the center of town.
“So, do you like flying animals?” asked Barruol with a mischievous grin as we jumped in his car for what I thought would be the usual ground-based tour of the vineyards.
Flying animals? I thought to myself. Are we going to try falconry today?
The 12th-century chapel of St. Cosme, which sits on a hill above the domaine owned by the dynamic Louis Barruol.
No. It turned out that Barruol had a helicopter waiting for us, and within minutes we were flying along the dramatic Dentelles de Montmirail, which take on an entirely new dimension when seen from the air. You can see how the vines really struggle in the acidic limestone soils. Vineyard parcels have bare spots scattered within them, vigor is low and there’s myriad different soils as the bright white limestone melds with the various yellow, orange, blue and gray clays down along the plateau west of town. Barruol, 39, is arguably the appellation’s driving force for quality. He took over his family’s estate in 1990 – his father had been selling the grapes off in bulk – and while getting his own domaine’s operation up and running, he also renovated the estate’s cellar and buildings, some of which date to Roman times. Then, after getting his own property on solid footing, Barruol broke out and began a négociant business in 1997 that spread into the Northern Rhône appellations of St.-Joseph, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu.
“I wasn’t bored,” says Barruol of his decision to expand. “But I did want to work with other terroir. I needed to explore.”
Production here totals 100,000 bottles annually from the estate’s 25 hectares in Gigondas and an additional 113,000 bottles of the négociant wines (the majority of which is the workhorse Côtes du Rhône bottling). Barruol could expand further, but is staying put for now.
“I am focusing now. I don’t want to just grow and grow, and then lose myself,” he says.
Barruol produces a non-vintage Vin de Table called James’ Basket Press (named for his son, not me). It includes declassified Gigondas juice blended with old-vine Grenache sourced from the Roussillon (the cross-appellation blending results in the technicality of the lowly Vin de Table designation). The wine is also produced through a solera system, so each bottling contains 50 percent of the newest vintage, plus a blend in decreasing percentages of previous vintages, dating back to the initial 1999. It’s soft and full of pepper and garrigue notes, delivering a textbook Rhône flavor profile for just $12.
Among the négociant wines (which are all labeled St.-Cosme, in contrast to the estate wines, which are called Château St.-Cosme), the 2007 St.-Cosme Côtes du Rhône is 100 percent Syrah, half of it sourced from cru-level vineyards in Vinsobres. The grapes are destemmed and fermented in concrete vats before aging in stainless-steel tanks. It’s very toasty, but pure, with black currant, violet and graphite notes. The 2006 St.-Cosme Côtes du Rhône Les Deux Albion is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane and Clairette that offers a smokier, meatier profile, with plum, mesquite and warm fig notes. The 2006 St.-Cosme St.-Joseph gets a touch of new oak (15 percent) and shows a silky texture and lilting violet and cherry fruit notes. The 2006 St.-Cosme Côte-Rôtie, which includes fruit from the La Viaillère and Côte Rozier parcels, sees aging in two-thirds new oak. Sourced only from Serrine vines (as opposed to the clonal selections of Syrah that currently dominate the appellation), the wine displays mouthwatering olive and iron notes with succulent cherry fruit.
For the estate production, both the 2006 and 2007 Gigondas vintages here are very exciting wines. Barruol likens 2006 to the pure, driven fruit of 2004, but with a slightly bigger structure. 2007, on the other hand, has caught him by surprise.
“Six months ago I said it was a very nice vintage. Then three months ago I said, 'Oh, it’s pretty serious.' And now, I don’t know what to think,” he says, indicating that it just gets better and better as it ages.
The 2006 Gigondas bottling represents more than two-thirds of the estate’s production, and the grapes are not destemmed. The varieties (70 percent Grenache with 20 percent Syrah, 9 percent Mourvèdre and 1 percent Cinsault ) are co-fermented, however, as Barruol’s harvest typically runs late, and so the ripening times between the early Syrah and later Grenache and Mourvèdre is reduced. The resulting wine is dark and beefy with roasted plum and Christmas pudding notes up front, but it has a remarkably silky and perfumy finish.
Running through Barruol’s Gigondas cuvées is an intense roasted quality, but it doesn’t come from new oak, as the Gigondas are aged in a mix of used barrels for just 12 months after their fermentation in cement or wooden vat.
“I don’t like to dry the wine too much," says Barruol.
Instead, their character comes from the deeper flavors brought on by the late-harvested grapes and the addition of the leesy sediment that precipitates to the bottom of each barrel before racking. Barruol sterile-filters this part to remove any spoilage yeasts, and then adds it back in.
Barruol’s 2006 Gigondas Valbelle (first produced in ’93) is a blend of five parcels, with vines that are, on average, 80 years old. The 90 percent Grenache, 10 percent Syrah bottling is superrich and racy, with intense plum sauce, Kenya AA coffee and mesquite notes followed by terrific focus on the finish. The 2006 Gigondas Hominis Fides (first produced in 2003) is sourced from a single parcel of 105-year-old vines planted on very sandy soils. It’s typically the most elegant of the single-vineyard cuvées, showing dark and exotic fig and boysenberry fruit but amazing finesse, with Lapsang souchong tea and espresso notes on the long, lingering finish.
Barruol is expanding his portfolio of single-vineyard Gigondas in 2006, starting with the single-parcel 2006 Gigondas Le Claux. The wine comes from a vineyard that his grandfather was planning to pull out, until World War I interrupted that plan. The 1.8-hectare parcel of vines on yellow clay-limestone soils used to span into the Valbelle. The wine is richer and rounder than the Hominis Fides, with lots of spice and black fruit followed by a creamy-yet-driven finish. Barruol describes it as the most outright powerful of the new single-vineyard wines. Barruol also points out that as he pulls parcels out of the Valbelle bottling, the production of Valbelle will drop, rather than be replaced by younger vines, to ensure it maintains its quality level.
Filling out the new portfolio, the 2006 Gigondas Le Poste is sourced from a 1-hectare parcel planted in 1963 on limestone-marl soils in which large, jagged chunks of limestone are mixed with a white, powdery soil that hardens as it dries. It’s the boldest of the cuvées, with captivating sage and tarragon aromas, blackberry, plum and mulled spice flavors, and a long bittersweet cocoa finish that shows a touch of torrefaction but stays pure and minerally. Along with the Homines Fides, both the new Le Claux and Le Poste bottlings offer potentially classic quality, which would be a rarity for the Gigondas appellation.
As we taste through the 2007s, which show even more dynamic personalities thanks to the vintage’s vivid, pure fruit, Barruol moves from small room to small room in the cramped cellars, drawing barrel samples and fashioning approximate blends of the final wines. And then it dawns on me that I’m standing in front of the Michel Chapoutier of Gigondas: A super energetic, highly committed vigneron who’s obsessed with breaking down his home appellation to its barest parts, all in the pursuit of quality. The single-vineyard Gigondas bottlings are not gimmicks, but rather the distilled essence of an appellation that has long needed a shot in the arm. And by doing so, Barruol will draw new attention to Gigondas and spur the rest of its vignerons to new heights – he’s that contagious. You can watch him in this video:
Pierre Amadieu is a close friend of Barruol, and the current head of Gigondas’ largest vineyard holder, with 130 hectares of vines (a total that represents 11 percent of the appellation). Pierre’s grandfather started the company in 1929 with just 9 hectares of vines. As the business grew, the elder Amadieu bought a 128-hectare parcel of land, mostly wooded hillsides and olive groves, which he eventually converted to vineyards.
Quietly serious, the younger Amadieu, 41, joined the family-run company in 1990, after a stage at Château La Nerthe with Alain Dugas. There is both estate and négociant production here, and as with the St.-Cosme operation, the Gigondas cuvées all are estate wines. Production totals 40,000 cases of Gigondas and 10,000 cases of the négociant line.
The 2006 Gigondas Romane Machotte represents the bulk of the production, aged half in foudres and half in barrels, some of which are new. The grapes are destemmed and fermented in cement vats. The blend of 85 percent Grenache and 15 percent Syrah shows firm cherry, spice and cocoa notes. A step up is the 2006 Gigondas Domaine Grand Romane, sourced from older vine parcels that surround that estate’s old manor house, tucked up in the northeast corner of the appellation. Made from 65 percent Grenache blended with 20 percent Mourvèdre and 15 percent Syrah, the wine is darker in profile, with an animal hint weaving through the black cherry and currant fruit. It’s grippy, but not severe, and shows potential to be outstanding. The top cuvée, the 2006 Gigondas Grande Réserve, is a vineyard selection of old-vine lots that can change from year to year. Made from three-quarters Grenache with the rest Syrah, it’s the blackest of the three cuvées, with juicy structure and a solid, slightly tarry finish. The 2007 selections represent another step up, with all three showing bigger cores of kirsch fruit and solid, grippy finishes that are very much in the house style.
With their large production volume but consistent quality, the wines of Pierre Amadieu offer an excellent introduction to the appellation. Prices for the wines are also very modest for their respective quality, typically in the $25 to $35 range.
I ended the day at Domaine St.-Damien, one of the Gigondas estates that draws more of its fruit from the vineyards on the plateau than from the chalky hillsides. Here, owners Amie and Joël Saurel have been working with the consultant Philippe Cambie since 1998; indeed, they were among his first clients.
Joël, 52, and Amie, 55, represent the fourth generation of Saurels (they're cousins to Christine and Eric of Montirius) to farm vineyards, with previous generations selling the fruit off to négociants. In 1978, they bottled their estate’s own production for the first time, but in 1987 Joel had a split with his brother, who at the time was making the wines. The grapes went back to négociants until 1996, when the Saurels decided to make a go of it on their own.
As for connecting with Cambie, “We were experienced with the vineyards,” says the forthright and proud Amie, “but not the vinification. We needed some help.”
The house style is one of rich black fruits, exotic smoke and black tea notes, derived from the richer clay and limestone soils on the plateau. There are 17 hectares of vines here, 12 in Gigondas, and nearly one-third of the 55,000-bottle production comes to the United States.
In 2000, Cambie and the Saurels began vinifying the domaine’s various terroirs separately, and thus were born the La Louisiane and Les Souteyrades cuvées to augment the Vieilles Vignes bottling. The Gigondas cuvées are destemmed 70 percent and fermented in cement vats. The 2006 Gigondas Vieilles Vignes is sourced from the estate’s ‘young’ vines – they're 50 years old – in the Souteyrades parcel, which features clay and limestone soils. It’s a touch sauvage, with inviting Kenya AA coffee, bittersweet cocoa, crushed plum fruit and an exotic, terroir-driven finish. The 2006 Gigondas La Louisiane (80 percent Grenache, 15 percent Mourvèdre and 5 percent Cinsault and Clairette) comes from the estate’s oldest vines, 65 to 80 years old, planted on stony alluvial soils. It’s plush and inviting with a creamy texture, black fruits, and a deep, earth-driven finish. My favorite of the three is the 2006 Gigondas Les Souteyrades, a blend of 80 percent Grenache with Mourvèdre. Sourced from 70-year-old vines, it’s really dark and muscular, with a beefy backdrop to the ganache and fig flavors.
Not to be overlooked here is the domaine's excellent 2007 Côtes du Rhône Vieilles Vignes, sourced from 60-year-old vines in the village of Plan de Dieu. Made from 100 percent destemmed grapes (90 percent Grenache with Mourvèdre and Carignane), it's dark and serious for the appellation, with currant paste and coffee notes followed by a polished finish. A new cuvée in 2007, the Côtes du Rhône La Bouveau, made from 80 percent Syrah and the rest Cinsault, is juicy and round with an open texture to the spice cake and plum flavors.
Amie and Joël exude country hospitality and share an obvious love of their vineyards. With the assistance of the dynamic Cambie, those vineyards are being highlighted in some of the appellation’s more distinctive and age-worthy wines.
Michael J Long — Fl?rsheim, Germany — July 20, 2008 4:20am ET
James Molesworth — July 20, 2008 8:22am ET
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