Having nearly tripled his vineyard holdings with two acquisitions last year, Marcel Guigal is now set to complete a hat trick that should result in more top-notch estate wines from this well-known Rhône vintner.
The core business of his firm, E. Guigal, is that of a shipper, or négociant; it buys grapes and wine from other growers to produce 416,000 cases a year under its name. But some of its best bottlings come from its own vineyards.
Less than two years ago, Guigal's vineyard holdings amounted to a mere 34.5 acres in the Northern Rhône. This included the sites of La Landonne, La Turque and La Mouline (totaling only 9.5 acres), from which he makes his famous single-vineyard bottlings. It also encompassed Château d'Ampuis, whose 17 acres of vineyards are the base of a cuvée named after the landmark.
However, a multimillion-dollar buying spree nearly tripled the Guigal family's vineyards to 94 acres. In January 2001, Guigal bought Domaine Jean-Louis Grippat's 23.5 acres in the Hermitage and St.-Joseph appellations. In June 2001, the vintner bought a portion of Domaine de Vallouit; he paid $3.3 million for stocks of recent vintages and 41 acres of vineyards -- including 21 acres in Côte-Rôtie, 7.4 in Crozes-Hermitage, 3.7 in St.-Joseph and 5 in Hermitage (the most expensive worth $110,000 an acre).
Less publicized was a small but important expansion in La Landonne, where Guigal acquired one-third of an acre -- the last fallow plot in this vineyard, of which Guigal already owns 5 acres. He planted it to Syrah earlier this year. In four years, the grapes will be blended into Guigal's Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde, a wine that is partially made with purchased fruit. But after the vineyard matures, the grapes will go into Guigal's collectible La Landonne cuvée.
Before his acquisitions, Guigal made about 5,600 cases from his own vineyards. But his expanded domaine will make an estimated annual average of 15,200 cases of estate wines, from Côte-Rôtie (50 acres now, 30 acres before), Hermitage (10 acres now, none before), St.-Joseph (22 acres now, none before), Crozes-Hermitage (7.5 acres, none before) and Condrieu (5 acres, same as before).
But that's not the end of expansion for the indefatigable Guigal, 59, who is now playing an ace he has quietly held for about 20 years.
In the early 1980s, Guigal bought 25 acres of fallow hillside land spread out over several plots in Côte-Rôtie, hoping that one day he would find a way to plant vineyards there. In the past year, he and his son Philippe, 27, have finally begun to clear some of the steep land, which is covered in dense woods and bushes.
It is very difficult for French winemakers to expand their estates because the European Community is trying to reduce vineyard acreage, in part to deal with a wine surplus. Even though just 70 percent of the 741 acres earmarked for appellation d'origine contrôlée vineyards in Côte-Rôtie have been planted, the waiting list to obtain planting rights for new vineyards there is long, perhaps 45 to 50 growers a year. Only about a half-dozen are granted their wishes each year, and the rights are often for small parcels.
Initially, Guigal was blocked from planting his fallow land. However, the purchase of Domaine de Vallouit allowed the Guigals to be creative, and they are now capitalizing on, said Philippe, "the latest novelties in viticulture law."
Authorities granted them planting rights as long as they uproot an equal amount of vineyards. The Guigals have already identified lesser Vallouits vineyards to pull out once their new vines come into production, about four years after planting.
The exchange amounts to an upgrade of Guigal's estate. The vintner is trading poor vineyards on a wind-swept plateau, where clay and heavy soil produce rustic Syrahs, for prime hillside terroirs near La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne. "We will uproot vineyards that we believe should never have qualified as part of the Côte-Rôtie appellation," said Philippe. (Uprooting Vallouit vineyards won't be enough to allow the planting of all the fallow land, so Guigal will have to find another way to finish.)
Once he plants all his fallow land, which may take many years, Guigal's production of hillside Côte-Rôtie should more than double, to 8,000 cases. (Currently, he makes 1,200 cases from the famous single vineyards and 2,800 cases of Château d'Ampuis.) Total production could be even larger since some of Vallouit's parcels are well-situated hillside vineyards that could complement Guigal's current output.
In a first phase, the Guigals have decided to clear 8.3 acres of land. A 3.7-acre vineyard was planted this year in La Viria, located just above La Landonne on a 45 percent to 50 percent slope that overlooks the Rhône River. It will take 30 years before the fruit from La Viria produces its "quintessence," said Philippe, but eventually the grapes will go into the Château d'Ampuis bottling.
"It is a titanic job," said Philippe of the work involved in clearing the steep slopes. "It's for the long-term. Today we prepare the future."
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