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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The Rhône, Day 7: Gigondas and Vacqueyras

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 9, 2009 10:48am ET

Insiders know that these two Southern Rhône appellations, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, located about a 30 minutes' drive northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, are home to gutsy, mouthfilling reds at often attractive prices. In recent years, the appellations have seen an increasing number of fresher styled wines with more refined structures, though they haven't given up their sense of distinction. The best Gigondas and Vacqueyras wines aren't simply a poor man's Châteauneuf, but rather wines that stand on their own, with their own personalities and solid, mid-term aging potential (generally five to eight years). Savvy Rhône lovers should be plumbing these areas for their value. You can reference some background on the Gigondas appellation in my recent feature, which also includes background on a few domaines, including Château St.-Cosme.

Céline Chauvet, 37, is following in her father Bernard’s footsteps at Domaine du Grapillon d'Or, located in a lovely farmhouse on the main road up to the village of Gigondas. She took over in the 2000 and 2001 vintages after working alongside her father for several years before that.

The domaine traces its history back to 1806, the date carved in the arch above the doorway of the house/winery. A row of bottles charts the domaine’s history as well, lined up on the mantel in the small, charming, exposed-beam tasting room on the ground floor.

Domaine de Grapillon d’Or totals 20 hectares of vines, 14.5 of which are in Gigondas and primarily along the Les Garrigues plateau. The domaine produces about 80,000 bottles annually and has scattered distribution in the U.S.

The wines are traditionally made, fermented in cement vat and then partially aged in foudre—no barrel aging.

“Everyone says wood, wood, wood. But we want precision instead,” said Chauvet.

The lone concession here to modernity is destemming.

“We harvest so late in Gigondas, the leaves sometimes fall before we pick. So the fruit is fully ripe, but the stems never are,” she said.

The Gigondas 2007 is made from the appellation’s typical blend of 80 percent Grenache and 20 percent Syrah, aged in foudre for 12 months before bottling. It’s racy, with ripe blackberry fruit, but very fresh, with a long, minerally finish that echoes a perfumy note, a hallmark of the top wines in the appellation.

A row of bottles tells the history at Domaine du Grapillon d’Or.

The top cuvée is the Gigondas Excellence 2007, a 60/40 Grenache/Syrah blend that is unusual for its high percentage of Syrah. Sourced from the domaine’s older vines (40- and 60-year-old parcels), it’s fermented and then aged in cement vats, resulting in a superfresh, minerally driven red that lets cherry, blueberry and floral notes ripple through the long finish.

***

Just a few minutes up the road into the town of Gigondas sits Château St.-Cosme, arguably the appellation’s qualitative leader. Owner Louis Barruol, the Chapoutier of Gigondas, had wowed me last summer with his '05s and '06s, and following my visit just last June, I was anxious to see if the 2007 reds could fulfill their promise. They appear to have done just that.

From the négociant arm (labeled just St.-Cosme), the Côtes du Rhône Les Deux Albion 2007 is set to be bottled in the coming weeks. The blend of co-fermented Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, Mourvèdre and Clairette delivers the house style in spades—exotic smoked wood, roasted sage, truffle and licorice root notes with fleshy blackberry and fig fruit. It offers impressive grip too and should age nicely over a few years.

The estate wines, labeled Château St.-Cosme, are very impressive, following on the heels of the breakthrough 2006 vintage here. The Gigondas 2007 includes nearly two-thirds Grenache, along with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault, and delivers an intense, smoky mesquite aromatic profile with notes of charcoal and macerated currant. It’s big and fleshy on the finish, and just ever so tight right now from the mis just a week ago, but it’s still approachable.

“My Gigondas never really shut down,” said Barruol. “Too young, yes, but never totally closed. I don’t know why though.”

The Gigondas Valbelle 2007 was also just bottled; it’s even plusher and deeper than the regular bottling, with additional blueberry, blackberry and tobacco notes and a long finish filled with sweet tapenade and minerality. The Gigondas Le Claux 2007, one of the new single-vineyard bottlings, is a potential classic, roiling with roasted sage and garrigue aromas and coursing with crushed plum and currant fruit, all backed by an iron-willed finish that is loaded with grip. The Gigondas Hominis Fides 2007 is the darkest and most muscular off the wines, showing more Turkish coffee, bittersweet ganache, mulled spice and braised fig notes with a long, tarry, grip-filled finish. I find it just a half-step behind the Le Claux and the Gigondas Le Poste 2007, which is probably the best young Gigondas I’ve ever had. It offers layer upon layer of macerated fig, currant and blackberry fruit laced with sage, juniper, tobacco and mulled spice notes, all held together by a superminerally spine. It’s very, very long on the finish and it should be among the rare Gigondas to crack the classic quality barrier (up to now).

Barruol’s négociant arm is also set to release the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006, which received two years of élevage before bottling.

“After 12 months, I had no resolution with the wine, so I just kept going [with the aging]. Now, it tastes like Châteauneuf,” he said.

Made from 100 percent Grenache vines located in the La Crau parcel, it’s a monster of a wine, and drinks more like a 2005, with intense, tannic grip framing the braised fig, coffee, briar, tapenade and licorice root notes. It’s a large-scaled wine that will need a decade of cellaring to fully open. Barruol is equally adept at producing wines from the Northern Rhône as well: Both his St.-Joseph 2007 and Côte-Rôtie 2007 are produced from the ancient Serine clone of Syrah, and they display the grape’s typical olive- and garrigue-laced aromas, along with finely grained tannins supporting acid- and mineral-driven finishes. The St.-Joseph is more floral, the Côte-Rôtie a bit more vibrant and larger in scope. Both are easily outstanding.

This is among the elite domaines currently working in the entire Rhône Valley.

***

Cécile Dusserre, 38, is the fourth generation to run Domaine de Montvac, a 23-hectare estate that has been bottling its own wine since 1972. Dusserre helped take over the domaine starting in ‘92, learning from her father along the way. The domaine has been farming organically for seven years now, but has done so without much fanfare.

“Working organically is a way to farm vineyards, not market wine,” Dusserre said seriously.

The majority of the domaine’s holdings, 20 hectares, are in Vacqueyras, with more than 40 parcels spread over both the Les Garrigues plateau that runs along the Ouvèze river, between Vacqueyras and Gigondas, as well as in the mid-slopes above the village, where clay-limestone soils dominate. Dusserre produces 70,000 bottles annually and sends a hefty 25 percent to the U.S. The mother of three, she also happens to be married to Philippe Cartoux, who owns and runs his own Domaine Espiers in Gigondas.

Old, head-pruned Grenache vines go into the Cuvée Vincila of Domaine de Montvac.

The Vacqueyras White 2007 is made from a blend of Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Viognier, fermented and aged in 450-liter barrels, 20 percent of which are new. It’s full-bodied, with peach pit and blanched almond notes and a firm but racy finish that begs for food. The Vacqueyras 2007 (a 70/25/5 mix of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) is fermented in stainless steel and then moved to cement vat for one year. It provides very tangy red cherry and currant fruit with laserlike focus on the finish. The Vacqueyras Cuvée Vincila 2005 is set to be the current release of this old-vine selection, made from a 60/40 blend of Grenache and Syrah vinified in cement vat—natural cement, without epoxy or tile. It offers mouthwatering Damson plum, mulled currant, spice, fruitcake and mineral notes with a finish that really stretches out as it airs in the glass.

The reds here are destemmed from 80 percent to entirely, depending on the vintage, as Dusserre looks for elegance in her wines without sacrificing power.

“Elegance and finesse is the hardest thing to achieve in a wine. To get the balance of tannins and fruit but without making a ‘light’ wine. That’s what I’m looking for,” she said.

***

There’s good news at the nearby Domaine La Monardière. Young vigneron Damien Vache became a father just two days ago. Vache, 27, began working at the estate in the 2007 vintage alongside his father, Christian, 57. As at Montvac, this is another domaine that really popped, qualitatively, in the strong '05/'06 vintages and now seems to be rolling, thanks to some superlative '07s.

The estate is comprised of 20 hectares of vines, 17 of which are in Vacqueyras. The domaine’s parcels are located primarily on sandy soils on the mid-slopes of the appellation, a bit uncommon there.

“It’s more work to grow vines in these kinds of soils, but the wines are more elegant,” said Vache.

While the house and vineyards have been in the family for several generations, the domaine was started in just 1987. The grapes had been going to the local co-op previously. There are 80,000 bottles produced here annually, with about 5,000 sent to the U.S. Vache has expanded the winery facility since joining the estate, including a new naturally humid barrel cellar.

“Before the barrel cellar was not humid enough, but now we can really do some barrel aging,” he said proudly. “The lights are not done yet though,” he added as he plugged in an extension cord to illuminate the room.

The Vacqueyras Rosé 2008 is made from a mix of saignée (bleeding off juice from tanks of red wine) and direct press from a 70/30 Grenache/Cinsault mix. It’s tender and pure, with a pale salmon color and elegant cherry and floral notes.

The 2007 vintage here is strong, but like a number of vignerons I spoke with on this trip, Vache does not believe it is the best vintage in 30 years.

“It’s a delicious vintage to drink before 2005 or 2006,” he said. “But the mistral really forced us to pick before the grapes were perfectly ripe, as acids were dropping fast.”

Grapes for the two reds are destemmed and then fermented in cement vat, with the Grenache then aged in foudre and the Syrah in barrel. Blending takes place about four or five months after the harvest, and the wines are then racked back into foudre and barrel.

The Vacqueyras Les 2 Monardes 2007 is a blend of parcels, including 40-year-old Grenache vines. The 70/30 Grenache/Syrah mix is very spicy, with lots of fresh raspberry fruit and piercing minerality on the finish. It should be noted that there are three bottlings of the wine, in December after the vintage, then March and again in April, due to both space constraints and financial realities, a practice Vache hopes to eliminate going forward.

Typically a step up in quality, and among the best wines in the appellation, is the Vacqueyras Vieilles Vignes 2007, made from the estate’s 60-year-old vines. A blend of 60 percent Grenache with 20 percent each of Syrah and Mourvèdre, the wine is aged entirely in demi-muid and has been made in every vintage since ’92 except for ’93 and ’02. It’s full of beef, garrigue, tapenade and animal notes along with a dense core of black currant, fig and coffee. A tangy, charred mesquite note checks in on the finish. This cuvée ages well—a bottle of the ’04 tasted earlier on this trip was full of vigor and character.

There’s also an intriguing white here, the Vacqueyras White 2007 is fermented entirely in demi-muid, half new, and the blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier offers very plump, rounded peach, melon and marzipan notes, with the peach aspect of the Viognier dominating now.

“After two or three years the oak and the Viognier settles in,” said Vache. “I like it after four or five years, though it’s too big for an aperitif. It’s best with cheese.” As at Montvac, Vache and his father have been working organically for a while—10 years. But it’s not a point they publicize much. “I want people to buy my wines because of the quality, not just because it says organic on the label,” he said.

***

While my visits in Vacqueyras focused on small, family-run domaines, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is one village where the local co-op is not an overly dominant player that tends to average down quality, as is the case in many villages around the Southern Rhône. Formerly Les Vins du Troubadour, and now called Vignerons de Caractère, the Vacqueyras co-op produces a number of single-domaine wines from its members, many of which offer very good to outstanding value.

At the end of the day, it was time to head north. It's a fairly nondescript 90-minute drive to Tain l'Hermitage. My favorite little dining spot in Tain, Le Mangevins, is closed on Mondays, so I'll have to come up with something else for dinner. Starting tomorrow, it's Cornas.

 

William Keene
North Carolina —  March 9, 2009 4:44pm ET
Good stuff James. I am a big fan of St. Cosme. Did you taste or ever you ever tasted their "Basket Press" wine? It is a NV wine and the most recent release is pretty tasty for $11. Check it out if you get a chance. Thanks again for the updates.
James Molesworth
March 9, 2009 4:55pm ET
William: Yes, I have. You can check out the previous entry on St.-Cosme for background on the Little James' Basket Press red, which combines Gigondas and Roussillon Grenache juice made using a solera system.

There is a white version as well, made from 60 percent Viognier (cuttings from Condrieu planted in Minervois) blended with Sauvignon Blanc. It hasn't been in the U.S. market before, but the '08 version, which carries a Vin de Pays d'Oc designation, should be.
Theodore Mukamal
NY, NY —  March 11, 2009 3:50am ET
Hi James, Good luck on your trip! I just had to let you know about this wine I'm drinking right now: Canepa 1990 Sauvignon Blanc Maipo Valley ¿best enjoyed whilst young¿ on the bottle.

This is a cheap, forgotten bottle I found in my dad's cellar. The bottle looks like a nightmare, but the wine is great, so fresh, still crisp and lively! It's unexpected longevity is a wonder to behold!

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