The big Rhône producer E. Guigal makes three single-vineyard Côte-Rôtie reds that consistently rank among the region's best; they are also the most collectible Syrah-based wines in the world. Collectors know them as the "La-La" wines because of their names: La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque. In a good vintage, just 400 or 500 cases of each is made, and they disappear into collectors' cellars in a blink.
Fans of these wines, and a number of skeptical but curious wine aficionados who focus on other parts of the world, gathered on a pleasant November weekend in Los Angeles to sample near-complete verticals of these wines. Organized by Bipin Desai, the Riverside, Calif., physicist and wine collector, the tastings were held in four different restaurants and included 30 vintages of La Mouline, 24 of La Landonne and 17 of La Turque.
The four tastings totaled 123 wines in all, including current and selected older vintages of Guigal's better négociant bottlings. But the focus was clearly on the La-La wines.
"The only vintages I left out are some of the older ones that I know are past it," said Frederick Ek, who provided most of the wines from his Cambridge, Mass., cellar. Ek is the importer who first brought Guigal's wines into the United States in the 1970s. The bottles had remained in his cellar since their arrival, so there was no question about the provenance, which may be one reason that the incidence of off bottles was lower than usual. Fewer than a half-dozen seemed to be affected by cork taint or oxidation, and those were mostly the older wines from the 1960s and 1970s.
Although there were some dazzlers among the La Turques and La Landonnes, the standouts by acclamation were from La Mouline, which occupied most of the final afternoon's tasting at Spago Beverly Hills.
"La Mouline saved the weekend," whispered Steve Pinsky, a San Francisco Bay-area collector. "Until we got to them, I was wondering where the magic was."
Pinsky attended the tasting out of curiosity, being a collector more of Bordeaux and Burgundy than of Rhône wines. Sacramento-based Michael LaTondre, however, is an avid fan of Guigal. He says his tastes run to big reds from California, the Rhône and Australia. "These wines evolve over an evening," he says. "Tasting one ounce is like taking a photograph of a marathon runner, but it's an exciting moment for me."
Desai has been buying Guigal wines since he encountered them on a visit to France in the early 1980s. "I bought three cases each of La Mouline and La Landonne 1978 and 1976, and a few bottles of every vintage since," he said. "I usually have to buy them in Europe because they are so hard to find here. Guigal has the touch. Whatever he does, he does absolutely marvelously."
The auction performance of these wines has been nothing less than spectacular, a testament to their worldwide popularity. The most sought-after vintages include 1985 and 1988 to 1991. For example, La Mouline 1985 sold at a release price of $85; the Wine Spectator Auction Index places its average at $983 per bottle, a 1,150 percent increase in 20 years. La Turque and La Landonne show similar performance records; indeed, the '85 La Landonne has skyrocketed from $85 on release to $1,062 today, a 1,250 percent rise.
Tasting the nearly full range of these wines brings into focus the distinctions among them. As young wines, they all show heady aromas and rich textures. La Mouline may have softer tannins, La Turque more exotic spices and La Landonne more density, but it's not until they have reached 10 to 15 years of age that the best vintages show their full personalities.
Older vintages revealed La Mouline as the most elegant and graceful of the trio, delivering layers of spicy red fruit flavors without assailing the palate. The 1978 (which, in the non-blind setting, I thought merited 99 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) builds a cathedral of rich red cherry and mineral flavors on a spacious texture that never feels heavy or overpowering, just grand. The 1990 (98 points) is equally majestic, dense, focused and gorgeously balanced, so that the white pepper and touches of game bob and weave through the impeccably stated fruit.
La Mouline's longevity may be because it is Guigal's oldest vineyard, planted in the 1920s. Guigal acquired it in time for the 1966 vintage. La Landonne tends to be more rustic, with gritty tannins and a beguiling blackberry and plum fruit profile. This shows through the smoky, spicy 1985 (96), at its apex now, and the 1978 (95), which also showed great minerality in the tasting, held at Sona.
La Turque's first vintage was 1985. It is the most exotic, with a nose of Oriental spices and a seductive texture, most telling in a young vintage such as the sensational 1999 (98), which keeps drawing you in for another sip and another facet of its endless dimensions. However, the older vintages in the tasting, held at Valentino, seemed to be fading earlier than those of the other wines, possibly because it's the youngest vineyard.
These wines are several notches up from Guigal's basic Côte-Rôtie, known as "Brune et Blonde," after the predominant soil colors in two of the appellation's best-known parcels. In the tasting at Chinois-on-Main, recent vintages such as 1999 (91) showed lovely fruit character, adding charm to the solidly built wines. After that, only the best vintages retained enough fruit to make something special. The 1969 (91) was an exception, still finishing with a haunting core of meaty plum character that gives it real depth.
Smaller flights of other Guigal wines—including the St.-Joseph domaines, the négociant bottlings from Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and 14 whites—filled out the dance cards at the weekend's tastings.
Give the last word to LaTondre, who earns his living making computer chips for Intel. "What I know about chip design is that the more times you do it, the better you get at it, the faster you can do the turns, the more accurate you are. Guigal's like that: They make so many wines, and do it so well. That's why I am a big fan."